Sunday, April 15, 2007

Futurism: A Tool for ED Leaders

Futurism can help economic development leaders ascertain the future they are working to lead toward. Like the idea? Here are a few of the most common techniques used in futuring.

* Scanning: An ongoing effort to identify significant changes in the world beyond the organization or group doing the scanning. Typically, scanning is based on a systematic survey of current newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and other media for indications of changes likely to have future importance. Scanning focuses mainly on trends--changes that occur through time--rather than events--changes that occur very quickly and generally are much less significant for understanding the future.

* Trend Analysis: The examination of a trend to identify its nature, causes, speed of development, and potential impacts. Careful analysis may be needed because a trend can have many different impacts on different aspects of human life, and many of these impacts may not be apparent at first. Longer life spans, for example, increase the number of people for whom resources must be provided, but also increase the number of people who can contribute to the economy and society through paid and unpaid labor.

* Trend Monitoring: Trends viewed as particularly important in a specific community, industry, or sector may be carefully monitored--watched and reported regularly to key decision makers. For example, a rapidly rising unemployment rate or the appearance of a deadly new disease may have significant impacts on many different organizations and communities. On the other hand, fashion trends may be of keen interest to such people as clothing manufacturers or fashion-forward consumers.

* Trend Projection: When numerical data are available, a trend can be plotted on graph paper to show changes through time. The futurist can then extend the trend line or "project" it into the future on the basis of the recent rate of change. Such a projection shows where the trend should be at some point in the future assuming there is no shift in the rate of change. Example: A population with a steady 2% rate of annual growth will double in about 35 years.

* Scenario Development and Analysis: We all explore future possibilities through our imagination. For instance, we try to imagine what would happen if we accepted a job at a certain company: What good things--and bad things--might happen to us as a result of taking the job? Scenarios are attempts to imagine future possibilities on the basis of what we know (or think we know). Scenarios are useful in helping us to understand what might happen as a result of a decision we may make.

The future development of a trend, a strategy, or a wild-card event may be described in story or outline form. Typically, a scenario seeks to show one plausible way that the future might unfold. Scenarios are particularly useful in futuring because of the general uncertainty of the future. Typically, several scenarios will be developed so that decision makers are aware that future events may invalidate whatever scenario they deem most likely and use for planning purposes.

* Consulting Others (Polling): Since "two heads are better than one," we may ask other people--often experts--for their opinions about the future. Other people can also advise us on whether we are likely to enjoy a trip to a certain city, for example. Business executives and government leaders constantly use consultation as a means of understanding the possibilities of the future and making better decisions. Data may be collected through face-to-face conversation, telephone interviews, and questionnaires sent by electronic or ordinary mail. Delphi polling, popular among futurists, uses a carefully structured procedure to generate more-accurate forecasts.

* Models: Events that occur in the real world can be imitated in ways that help us to understand them better. A model of a building can help people to understand what a future building may look like. A map is a two-dimensional model that enables us to tell which streets we will come to if we go in a certain direction.

* Simulations or Gaming: A model is a static representation of something, but it has a dynamic twin--the simulation. Generals and admirals simulate battles when they move their model ships and aircraft about, either on large maps or during "war games" that involve real troops, materiel, and even live ammunition. In war games, real soldiers may become actors in a mock battle, which helps them to understand what actual combat is like and helps generals to test out alternative strategies and tactics they may later use. The game Monopoly simulates the real estate market. Games can also be played with real people playing various roles: In the game SimCity, one person might be the mayor while others play the roles of urban planner, transportation manager, landlord, city council, and so on.

* Computer Simulations: Complex systems such as the U.S. economy can be modeled by means of mathematical equations, which can then be fed into a computer. Then data can be entered to express the situation in the economy at the present moment. After that, policy makers can ask various "What if" questions, such as "What if we increase the income tax rate by 20%?" This policy change probably will have numerous results, many of which might never have been anticipated, due to the complex interaction of the many variables. The computer might show, for instance, that a proposed increase in the income tax would reduce automobile sales by 30% and cut the GNP by 10%.

* Historical Analysis: Futurists may study historical events in order to anticipate the outcome of current developments. Often a current situation can be compared to one or more situations in history that seem to be similar. For example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was compared by some commentators to the Vietnam War, with the implication that the Iraq War would also prove disastrous. Many government leaders have relied heavily on what they learned from history to guide them in making key decisions.

* Brainstorming: The generation of new ideas by means of a small group assembled to think creatively about a topic, such as a problem to be solved, an opportunity to capture, or a direction to take an organization. Group members are encouraged to build on each other's ideas and withhold criticism. Brainstorming is useful in identifying possibilities, opportunities, and risks. Other idea-generating or problem-solving methods are also common, such as idea mapping, impact analysis, and the systematic identification of all possible variables. Professional futurists may use brainstorming with their clients to help stretch their minds beyond the present and to promote continuous innovation and long-term strategizing.

* Visioning: Since futuring is about more than predicting, many futurists engage in the systematic creation of visions of a desirable future for an organization or an individual. Typically, the futurist will start with a review of past events and the current situation, move on to envision desirable futures, and then identify specific ways to move toward the desired future. A visioning procedure often prepares the way for more-formal goal setting and planning.

Source: The Art of Foresight: Preparing for a Changing World Magazine article; The Futurist, Vol. 38, May-June 2004

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