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ask about the future

Steve Steele

Question:"What are some ways to view the future?"
Response by -
Steve Steele, Director, Institute for the Future, Anne Arundel Community College

I don’t like to be labeled as a “futurist,” if by that you mean that I’m someone whose job title or career path is exclusively the study of the future.  Rather, I’m probably more a person who tries to integrate the future into the way I see the world, personally and professionally.  With that in mind I’d like to look at some basic ways to view the future.

To catalog future views would require a lengthy list, so I like to start with what I view as an oldie, but goodie: the work of Russell A. Ackoff.  Ackoff got us started thinking about the future in his book Creating the Corporate Future (Wiley,1981). Fundamentally, he looked at four ways to address the future: inactive, reactive, preactive, and proactive.  With due respect to Ackoff, I’m going to take some liberty interpreting these approaches.

* Inactive.  Basically, this is a “don’t mess with it” the future will get you there whether you do anything or not.  Just go with the flow.  You’ll end up somewhere.
* Reactive.  The future is pretty much like the past.  If you know about the past then, just project it forward and you’ll tend to know about the future.
* Preactive.  Here you’re scanning the social and physical environment, looking for trends.  When you see one, you ride it.  An age wave comes along and you build senior centers, for example.
* Proactive. You see the wave coming and you get creative with it.  You open a seniors’ “club med” or construct some other new reality that is the synergy of the trend and creative thinking.

The futurists I’ve met and know rarely “predict” the future.  They are more likely to think in terms of “P’s and a W.”  The “P’s” are  possible, plausible, positive, preferred, and preventable futures.  The “W” is a “Wildcard” future. Let’s take these in turn.

Possible futures set the range. This may be as broad as we are culturally bound to think. While a great mental exercise, many of these futures are just not practical. So we limit the range my casting domain limits on what seems “plausible.”  Here one uses a reality test to see what makes sense. Of course, within this group are futures we’d rather like to have: “positive” and/or “preferred” futures.  Those with a potentially negative consequence that we’d like to avoid may be seen as “preventable.”  Circling around the outside are the “W’s”… the “wildcards.” These are unexpected, often unlikely futures, which if occur would produce profound outcomes.

We’ve just scratched the surface,  but it’s a start in visioning your future.

Comments may be made directly to Dr. Steele at