> Resources > Glossary: a brief list of key futures concepts.

A brief list of key futures concepts
defined as they are used in my UHCL graduate seminars.

Identifying and Monitoring Change

Variable: a quantifiable subject of study, the value of which can change over time.

Trend: a pattern of change over time in some variable of interest. Having trend data for some variable implies multiple instances of that variable. For example, one revolution in Africa is an event; two or three revolutions would call for comparative case studies; fifteen revolutions in countries in Africa within five years would constitute a trend. One of the most obvious, and largest trends, is the increase in world population. A potentially even larger trend, but much less obvious -- or even agreed upon -- would be the gradual warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. Another is the continuing decline in the cost of microchips and consequently of computers.

"Megatrend:" commonly used to indicate a widespread (i.e., more than one country) trend of major impact, composed of subtrends which in themselves are capable of major impacts. For example, global climate change will have a major impact, on all the countries of the world, and can be disaggregated into global atmospheric warming, sea-level rise, decrease in stratospheric ozone, etc.

"Emerging issue" or "seed of change" or "weak signal:" these terms are used by different futurists, but all mean essentially the same thing: the sources of change -- the first case; the original idea or invention; the watershed event; the social outliers expressing a new value -- that is, a sign of change that exists presently in only a few scattered instances, which might multiply into enough data points to constitute a trend. You might say that an emerging issue is a trend with only one or two cases -- a trend only you have noticed!

"Wild cards:" low probability but high impact changes -- like a global plague, or the invention of table-top fusion --usually described as events rather than gradually unfolding changes.

For processes and additional information on line, see:


which is Trudi Lang's excellent article, "An Overview of Four Futures Methodologies: Delphi, Environmental Scanning, Issues Management and Emerging Issues Analysis." Do, however, note, that your faculty here at Clear Lake will often use the term "environmental scanning" as shorthand to refer to environmental scanning, emerging issues analysis, and issues management as inter-related processes.


Which is the Arlington Institute's special focus topic webpage on wild cards. The Arlington Institute was founded by John L. Petersen, who takes a rigorous approach to analyzing, indexing, and tracking potential wild cards.

Critiquing the Impacts and Implications of Change

Effects: this term loosely encompasses all the linked changes that change itself causes: mapping the effects of change in essence looks not just at the result of the cue ball striking the racked balls, but at the subsequent results of the balls in motion as they rebound off the table walls and each other.

Impacts: this term, on the other hand, loosely encompasses how all the players involved feel about the effects of the cue ball striking the racked balls. The "impacts" of change are our evaluations of all the effects of change -- and thus vary from person to person.

Primary/secondary/tertiary effects: imagine a change event or an emerging issue as a stone hitting the surface of the pond: the change itself causes additional changes, which themselves cause yet more change. For example, consider personal transportation. Increases in car ownership in the United States have outstripped increases in population. As a consequence, it takes longer to get to work, longer to find a place to park, and more money to pay for parking; air pollution has increased, car graveyards litter the land, and acres of discarded tires melt in perpetual smolder. These are all primary effects of the increase in the number of privately owned cars. Secondary effects include the creation of the fast-food/convenience store/gas station; gasoline credit cards; carphones, carfaxes, and trip computers; and "bedroom communities." To represent tertiary effects, I will offer only one example: the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Futures Wheels: "...a way of organizing thinking and questioning about the future; a kind of structured brainstorming. The name of a trend or event is written in the middle of a piece of paper, then small spokes are drawn wheel-like from the center. Primary impacts or consequences are written at the end of each spoke. Next, the secondary impacts of each primary impact form a second ring of the wheel. This ripple effect continues until a useful picture of the implications of the event or trend is clear." [quoted from Jerome C. Glenn, "The Futures Wheel," AC/UNU Millennium Project papers on Futures Research Methodology.

For processes and additional information on line, see:


where you will find pdf (Adobe Acrobat) versions of the AC/UNU Millennium Project papers on Futures Research Methodology, written in many cases by the original creator(s) of the tool in question.

Imagining Difference
(Identifying, Analyzing, Expanding, or Creating Scenarios of Possible Futures)

Image of the future: an imaginary description (in any format or media) of a possible future outcome for a given item of interest: a person, a community, an organization, nation, society, bioregion, planet, etc. An infinite number of possible images of the future exist. This futures concept is related to the notion in physics of alternate universes.

"Future present:" a clumsy term to describe the time described in images of the future: the present-day of the future any image describes, or the future considered as if we were living in it now, with our present its past.

Scenario: a technical term usually used to describe an image of the future deliberately crafted for planning or foresight purposes. It should be rooted in identifiable trends or emerging issues data which are extrapolated and organized using an explicit theory of social change. It should describe how changes created the particular future present out of the past, and offer a vivid, provocative, accessible picture of how the future present differs from today. Scenarios are often evaluated in terms of plausibility and probability; they should contain both opportunities and threats – they are statements of possible future outcomes.

Vision: within this curriculum, a technical term used to describe an image of the future which articulates an individual’s or group's most closely held values, most cherished ideals, and most preferred goals in a positive statement of a preferred future outcome.

Utopia: an imaginary and indefinitely remote place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions; an ideal and perfect place or state, where everyone lives in harmony and everything is for the best; or a description of such a place.

Nightmare: an image of the future which articulates an individual’s or group’s greatest concerns, worries, and fears, in a negative statement of a highly feared future outcome.

Dystopia: an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives; an imaginary place or state where everything is as bad as it possibly can be: or a description of such a place.

Wild Card: previously defined – NOTE: they may be very positive, very negative, or mixed in effects and impacts.

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15 February 2003. Email IF.
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