Elon University


This site is all about the contemplation of the future; on this page, we share a collection of useful general information and exercises that stimulate thinking about the future.

Inspiring “futures thinking”

“The purpose of futures studies is to maintain or improve human well-being and life-sustaining capacities of the Earth… We seek to know what causes change, the dynamic processes underlying technological developments on the one hand and changes in the political, economic, social, and cultural orders on the other. We seek theories to explain such changes and to help people to recognize and understand them… We also seek to determine what can be changed by human actions, what trends can be accelerated or prevented, what phenomena are amenable to individual or collective human action.” – Wendell Bell, Yale

We hinge everything we do today on contemplating, pondering, planning and anticipating the future. We apply the lessons of the past and the present to try to project the futures we might face. We assume that speculative projection is usually rewarded with a positive outcome, from looking both ways before crossing the street to planning how best to deal with the potential threat of an asteroid set on a collision course with Earth.

PDFs to stimulate futures thinking:

“Workshop – Exercises to Stimulate Futures Thinking,” a set of individual/group exercises focused on engaging people to address personal and global futures possibilities (3-page PDF).

“Exercise – Imagining Likely Unlikely Possibilities and Their Effects,” a reading/exercise that introduces some fun into futures thinking – inspired by futurist Kevin Kelly (3-page PDF).

“Exercise – The GET ANGRY Assignment,” the outline of a writing/presentation assignment in which a person is asked to find a troubling issue to explain and argue about (1-page PDF).

“Futures Studies Timeline,” a chronological outline of some of the key points for futures thinking from the development of human intelligence to the 2000s (14-page PDF).

“The 17 Great Challenges of the Twenty-First Century,” a reading by James Martin of Oxford University, author of “The Wired Society” and founder of the 21st Century Institute (3- page PDF file).

Video resources: You can find superb materials online at specific groups’ sites – for instance wonderful video presentations from TED conferences  or you can type a futurist’s or scientist’s name into a video search engine and get marvelous results with recent talks that have been posted online. Names of interest: Ray Kurzweil, Rodney Brooks, Craig Venter, Nick Bostrom, Aubrey de Grey, Larry Brilliant, Christine Peterson, K. Eric Drexler, Freeman Dyson, Kevin Kelly, Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, E.O. Wilson.

Special project: “Pre-Acting Before the Future” – Another way to inspire multi-layered projective thinking is to apply the concepts behind the popular “Reacting to the Past” pedagogy while applying a forward twist, encouraging the study and adoption of futures characters and performing role-playing exercises set in the context of the future. To read more about Reacting to the Past, see here.

Other resources: Generally, Wikipedia and the World Future Society have regularly-updated lists of links to new sources of valuable information. You can sign up for excellent news-aggregator e-mail lists at Edge.org and Kurzweil.ai – these two resources can provide in-depth, well-considered expert content from the cutting edge. RAND offers a site with a downloadable PDF list of 50 great books for futures thinking. A great overview can be found in Joel Garreau’s book “Radical Evolution,” and his website provides updates to the book. Georgia Tech grad students prepared a list called the “Detailed Roadmap to the 21st Century” that includes many of the technological developments likely to be developed in coming decades. It includes a video made by Karsten Staack that is also viewable on YouTube.

The Imagining the Internet site is all about the future. Some useful sections for those with a general interest are Forward 150 and Teachers’ Tips.

Futures thinking makes a difference! Over the past 100 years, humans have developed new tools for quantitative and qualitative forecasting – among them, operations research, systems analysis, cybernetics, and many processes inspired in the “cold war” years after the invention of nuclear weapons by Herman Kahn of RAND, including interactive speculation, scenario planning, computer modeling and the Delphi Method. We can consciously work toward creating positive outcomes by contemplating possible futures, assessing probable futures, and working toward best practices.

As economist Kenneth Boulding wrote: “The human condition can almost be summed up by the observation that, whereas all experiences are of the past, all decisions are about the future. The image of the future, therefore, is the key to all choice-oriented behavior. The character and quality of the images of the future which prevail in a society are therefore the most important clue to its overall dynamics.”

Every individual should cultivate the characteristics of a futurist: multidisciplinary interests, a willingness to adopt different ways of knowing, a global orientation, a toleration for complexity and ambiguity, a long-term perspective, a view of the future as plural and alternative rather than as singular and predictive, and the ability to imagine many alternative futures and to envision preferred futures.