Being futures fluent
means being actively interested in change. Most people are merely
aware of change -- and often disgruntled about it. Futures fluency
requires a perspective which celebrates change. Not uncritically;
change can erect barricades to opportunities and often destroys
much of what we value in our traditions. But it also creates wholly
new opportunities and new networks of social relations. Whether
negative or positive, change challenges us to learn, adapt, create,
grow, and reconsider and redefine ourselves. Recognizing and reflecting
on change and its implications allows us to critique not only external
realities but also our own internal landscapes.
The rhythms and paces
of reality are many. Braudel began his history of the Mediterranean
by looking at the rhythms of events in geological time. Slightly
faster paced are climatological cycles like the ice age-and-interval
cycle: we are now close to the end of an interval -- "close" being
"within a thousand years."
Rhythms in the planet
are also linked to rhythms in the solar system. A prime example
is the eleven-year sunspot cycle, critical to humanity ever since
we domesticated food crops, as it disrupts accustomed weather patterns.
The sunspot cycle is even more critical to the information age,
as heightened sunspot activity interferes with broadcast transmissions.
from massive systems with monumental inertia to smaller, more reactive
systems like single separate species, the pace of the rhythms we
observe quickens. The shorter cycles and more frenetic rhythms of
systems such as plant and animal populations, the economy, women's
fashions, and our individual bodies produce a greater amount of
observable data in smaller time intervals. This aids analysis, although
it does not necessarily improve our ability to forecast events along
these cycles with precision.
All of these ongoing
rhythms are the baseline data for the first element of futures fluency:
identifying and monitoring change. In order to notice changes
occurring, you must first know how things used to be. Thus the beginning
of futures fluency is a wide-ranging interest in historical patterns.
Identifying change requires monitoring four forms of change: cycles,
trends, emerging issues, and wild card events. Each varies in shape,
pace, and magnitude of change. Examples are presented in Table 1.
Table 1. Identifying
and Monitoring Different Types of Change
The American Heritage
Dictionary defines a cycle as "1. A time interval in which
a characteristic, esp. a regularly repeated, event or sequence of
events occurs." One of the earliest understandings of the future
emerges from seasonal cycles. But data exist now on a wide variety
of cycles: astronomic, climatic, political, social, and economic.
Cycles have unique signatures in terms of shape (wave pattern),
pace at which they complete (periodicity), and magnitude of effects.
Perturbations in these characteristics hallmark change occurring
in a cycle. If winter in the temperate zone is longer, that is a
perturbation in the seasonal cycle which might cause a perturbation
in the ice age-and-interval cycle.
El Nino/La Nino events
(a cycle often referred to as the "El Nino-Southern Oscillation")
occur about twice a decade, and their strongest immediate effects
are hemispheric in magnitude: the Pacific Basin and Rim. We have
been intensively gathering data on this cycle since the 1960's.
In the decades to come new high-technology observation systems will
supply real-time oceanographic and atmospheric data to monitor its
pattern. In an intensified effort to understand this cycle, researchers
are backtracking to interpret ever-earlier anecdotal and historical
data. The more we hone our understanding of this cycle, the better
we will be at identifying changes to it. These changes could in
turn identify other perturbations among the world's systems.
generally as "general inclinations or tendencies," are in analytical
usage directions of change in one variable over time. Trend analysis
monitors changes in chosen variables from the past into the present,
focussing on the cumulative tendency of the change over and above
any seasonal cycles or statistical "noise" generated by unique events.
In addition, trend extrapolation -- mathematically modelling the
continuation of a trend past our last current data point out into
the future -- allows us to speculate on the extremes of change possible
for the variable in question. Observing trends requires collecting
quantifiable data: it must be possible to operationalize a phenomenon
before monitoring its trend. Trend analysis is the foundation for
baseline information on change.
Trends occur in several
basic "families": 1) things stay the same; 2) things increase; 3)
things increase and then level out or decrease; 4) things decrease;
and 5) things decrease and then level out or increase. Economists
develop sophisticated, complex arrangements of algorithms which
direct computers to manipulate data such that charts portraying
one or another of these results emerge from printers. For the sake
of imaging alternative possible futures, magic markers and graph
paper work just as well.
Identifying and monitoring
trends of change requires us to investigate the current and past
states of any phenomenon whose possible futures we wish to consider.
Not forecast; none of the varieties of trend extrapolation can "predict
the future." But all of them can augment how well and widely we
question patterns of change:
What will be the consequences
if a given trend continues? if it plateaus or accelerates? What
forces contribute to the trend, and how might those forces change?
Can we influence this trend, and if so, how?
Trend analysis links
our ability to observe change with our ability to plan it.
In order to plan intended
change we must have room to respond to unintended change. The further
into the future we look, the greater the uncertainty -- but the
greater the possibilities for anticipatory action. Thus spotting
nascent forces of change when their effects are yet small is critical.
The technique which best enables a 50-year stare into the future
is emerging issues analysis.
are nascent trends: trends that very few people have yet recognized
as such. With each example of an emerging issue, Table 1 identifies
the decade in which the change was emerging, but had not yet attracted
widespread public attention. Rachel Carson and Lester Brown sounded
an academic alarm regarding the environment in the late fifties.
Environmentalism was a watchword on the pages of Ramparts
and Mother Jones in the sixties. But it did not reach the
pages of Time and Newsweek, and America's living rooms,
until the second anniversary of Earth Day in April 1989. In contrast,
personal computer use and virtual reality took only a decade each
to emerge onto newsprint.
Emerging issues analysis
assumes first of all that change is rooted in the innovative and
the extraordinary. Extraordinary in the statistical sense: outliers
produce change -- geniuses, visionaries, and lunatics in science,
engineering, the arts, politics, philosophy or religion. And outliers
are the first to spot change, to feel the shifts in the frequencies
with which society or the environment resonates. The precursors
of change may thus be searched out among fringe groups, in esoteric
literature, within marginalized populations. The process of reviewing
a wide variety of specialized or esoteric sources to sift out the
spores of change is also sometimes called environmental scanning.
The insight which identifies an emerging issue may come either at
the prompting of a single item, or as an intuitive recognition of
a pattern of events or references spread across many outlier groups.
Wild card events
are system breaks: sudden, disjunctive changes whose causes are
several interlinked variables which produce no obvious change until
a threshold of some kind is met. They are system watersheds, after
which disequilibrium reigns until the system reorganizes and establishes
a new equilibrium. Technically, futures researchers define a "wild
card" as an event with a low probability of occurrence, which if
it did occur, would produce high magnitude impacts. The fall of
the Berlin Wall is a perfect example of a wild card event; the economies
of the two Germanies are still in the throes of reorganizing to
establish equilibrium across the newly formed larger system.
Wild card events are
very easy to recognize after the fact: their pace, or speed of impact,
is usually immediate. Their magnitude usually depends on the reach
of the system in which they occur. Forecasting wildcard events is
a conjuring trick based on intuition and good imagination: all the
data is located within the forecaster's image of a possible future.
Computer models of interacting trend lines can suggest possible
wildcard events if the results are sufficiently counterintuitive.
However, computer models offer output in systemic terms, where wild
card events are characterized by specificity: a particular [person,
country, geological feature, microbe] does something unexpected.
Wild card events are useful in identifying change because they prompt
close observation of trends and cycles that might support their
Identifying and monitoring
change involves collecting and analyzing data related to cycles,
trends, emerging issues, and possible wild card events. Does anything
exist unchanging? No. Tectonic plates shift; mountains move; stone
erodes. Seasonal cycles may change, and with them the global climate:
El Nino events could perturb North American winters and accelerate
the onset of glaciation. Even cycles may not be classified as "unchanging
change," because they may alter in pace or magnitude: within a futures
fluent perspective, wild cards may crop up anywhere.