> Essays > Futures Fluency > Chapter Five: Defining Futures Fluency:
| Overview | Change | Critique | Scenarios | Visions | Planning | Summary


Imagining Difference


Imagining a world, a reality, a version of ourselves radically different from what we experience now, and now, and now, and now, is the heart of futures fluency. Difference provides vivid details which are words and exclamations in the language of alternative futures; our knowledge and understanding of the structures and process of reality, and the social construction of reality, are the grammar of that language. Entre's abound for those interested in learning the language of futures: the great works of anthropology; of social change; and of utopian and science fiction. All these open our eyes to alternatives, and teach the skill of consciously skewing our perceptions of reality.

Reading a wide variety of science fiction/fantasy short stories and novels helps jumpstart the ability to play constructively with alternative scenarios of the future. Familiarity with science fiction also helps sharpen one's skill at spotting emerging issues, possible impacts of innovations, and patterns in trends of change. A gifted writer can make an alternative future and its inhabitants live for us. In conversations with those characters we can experience meaningful insights into our construction of the present and our thoughts about the future.

To explore images of possible alternative futures, we may choose among three basic methods which require successively greater investments of imagination on the part of the futures thinker. First, we can search for and document images of alternative futures existing and being created in culture; second, we can take images of the future sketched by someone else and elaborate on them; and third, we can create images of alternative futures from scratch. Table 3 summarizes these methods, suggesting possible uses of each, examples of the kind of images that result, and the basic research approach. For comparative purposes, the table also lists the two discriminatory activities of estimating probable scenarios and generating preferable scenarios (visioning).


Table 3. Modes of Imagining Difference






(how long?)
map cultural topography of futures images; inventory images people are using to make current decisions Second Coming
Second Global Depression
Second Balkan War
Star Trek
content analysis of media and speech



forecast alternative futures for specific items, groups, structures, etc. alternative futures for:
the Girl Scouts
the health industry
(deduction from broadly drawn scenarios)


widen our sense of the possible; identify range of threats and opportunities worldwide sea level rise creates under-, over-sea culture;
direct human-computer neural link engenders global cybernetic mind
plausibly combine possible effects of trends and emerging issues day
(given database of trends and emerging issues)
contingency planning:
encourage opportunities,
mitigate threats
monitor ocean temperatures, ice shelf calving, coastal inundation;
monitor advances in neurophysi-ology, biochemistry, electronics
monitor trends supporting possible scenario; analyze statistical probabilities
motivate people
U.S. Constitution
"I had a dream..."
Landing a man on the moon
MacIntosh, the people's computer
assess trade-offs and values across possible scenarios, or envision ideals



The first paragraph of this chapter asserted that "there are no future facts." That is true, and thus futures research often seems a sadly constrained field to database aficionados. But we can gather data regarding the images of the future people hold in the present. A large sub-section of futures research pursues just this end. African villagers,4 Columbian housewives,5 Italian children,6 Jamaican leaders7 -- empirical studies surveying and collecting individuals' images of the future abound in the futures field. Another approach collects and analyzes forecasts of alternative futures developed by social change analysts, world process modellers, economists, political and cultural critiques, and the like. Analysts then cluster the scenarios into groups of similar stories, developing "families" of prospective futures.

Such scenario identification begins to map the topography of human thinking about the possible futures, and blaze some trails for others to follow. These approaches require logic, meticulous organization, an affinity for detail, and skill in pattern identification. The resulting scenarios provide data for more interpretive work on the role of images of the future in the economy or in politics, or the emergence of images of the future in culture or mass media. Comparisons among scenarios found in different age groups, gender roles, or cultures also yield interesting results. Yet another use for "found images" is incasting.

Incasting takes people on a comparative journey across several possible futures. It requires moderate and equal amounts of logic, imagination, and intuition, and is hampered by the idealistic and the normative. Incasting begins with the choice of four to six candidate scenarios describing possible alternative futures. These scenarios are the results either of identifying images of the future extant in a culture, as described above, or of intermixing the logical extensions of impacts and cross-impacts from specific emerging issues, described below.

From these general descriptions of a future, futures researchers may then logically deduce particulars, specific details: given a future in which nanotechnologies and bioengineering allow corporations to produce infinitely malleable mass-market consumer goods, what would chairs look like? What would 21st century chairs look like across an array of very different futures? How would educational systems differ between a high-technology corporate future and a future characterized by increased spirituality and a focus on environmental stewardship? How would the concept of "tourism" differ across a green future, a corporate future, and a post-environmental disaster, post-global depression future? What familiar social institutions would cease to exist? What social institutions would people invent to suit the new context?

Incasting can also be structured to elicit a useful political critique: incasting possibilities for specific marginalized subpopulations -- women, children, the physically or mentally handicapped, the unemployed. At a more general level, merely identifying who in each scenario will find themselves economically or politically advantaged, and who disadvantaged, critiques the assumptions and structures of those scenarios.

Incasting directs the imagination to add details and enrich an already sketched image of an alternative future. Incasting is a good entre to scenario construction, as it is basically scenario construction with training wheels. Scenario construction may be as unstructured as a child's daydreaming, or as formally codified as the algorithms which comprise one of Forrester's global models. As used throughout this work, scenario construction refers to the systematic use of logic and imagination to create a plausible, internally consistent story that describes a possible alternative future, and offers some information as to its genesis.

Other essays review the details of the scenario construction process designed for this research. In brief, the basic ingredients are a handful of emerging events, a list of general societal characteristics, and a timeline. The emerging issues are used as engines of difference; the list of societal characteristics evoke a broad impact pattern; and the timeline places the pattern of the effects in relation to the present.

The effects and impacts of the emerging trends are elaborated via futures wheels and cross-impact matrices: imagine writing a narrative in which the contents of the futures wheels above might plausibly be embedded. With this "seed narrative" available, the next step is incasting the future of the rest of reality: will the mundane remain the same, or will the emerging trends change it? In order to heighten the level of detail generated, it helps to have a components checklist. In this scenario of the future, what will be the form and function of government? the economy? the family? personal transport? goods distribution systems? educational and training systems? housing? myths and religions? vices? This components list ensures breadth of imagination.

The resulting impacts, changes, conditions, and characteristics are then positioned a plausible distance away from the present on a timeline. The resulting narrative focusses on describing this alternative future as if it were the narrator's present. The narrator may choose to explain in detail what events brought this future present about, or may simply point to the supporting historical trends and leave the rest to the reader's imagination. This exercise is tantamount to creating a new culture from scratch, and as such challenges even the most accomplished synthesist: it requires wide-ranging familiarity with arts, humanities, and the natural and social sciences.

Once we have imagined difference, and stretched our abilities to limn the possible, we can start estimating the probable and evaluating the preferable. Sorting through widely divergent possibilities helps people identify what attracts them and what repels them in the arenas of change. Estimating probabilities lets them consider how likely they are to end up in a repellant future. Both serve as good warm-ups for visioning. Without this initial adventuring in the fields of the infinitely possible, people are likely to let the mundane constrain their visions.

> Essays > Futures Fluency > Chapter Five: Defining Futures Fluency:
| Overview | Change | Critique | Scenarios | Visions | Planning | Summary

15 February 2003. Email IF.
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