We are living in a rapidly changing world, and the future holds more and more uncertainties, risks and surprises. In order to understand the complexity of the world and its futures, we need foresight at all levels of society – from basic education to universities, from businesses to whole industries, especially for decision-making, in public administration and government, as well as in the private sector. When considering, for example, the futures of education, it is necessary to evaluate how other sectors are changing and how the whole society will evolve.
The best thing about futures thinking is that anybody can develop his or her skills – anywhere and at any age! You can either explore the futures yourself or choose to study the field of Futures Studies. The foundation of the academic university-level Futures Studies lies in systematic thinking and complexity approach. Futures thinking, on the other hand, is a universal human attribute that has always existed in us. Only the time horizon, principles and methods of futures thinking have changed and developed over time. However, as an academic discipline, Futures Studies is based on completely different futures thinking than what was practiced in ancient times in Rome, Greece, and other civilizations such as Babylon, India and Mexico. Nevertheless, there are multiple commonalities between the two, such as the burning desire to learn more about the future and all information and insights related to it.
In fact, I wrote my licentiate thesis about time and future – in the light of the ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca’s production (Heinonen 1990). There were already over a hundred different specific techniques for exploring the future in ancient Rome – from bird watching to the observation of internals and the interpretation of futuristic signals and omens. The scientific study of the future is of more recent inception and originated in the United States and Europe in the 1940s. The most distinctive difference to the ancient futures thinking is that in contemporary futures studies the future is anticipated, not predicted. The future is no longer seen as a deterministic cloud that hovers over us, but rather as different development scenarios, stages of future drama, the plot and elements of which may be affected and adapted. Nowadays, more than thirty scientific methods are being used, of which there are methodological manuals published by both the international think tank, Millennium Project, (Glenn & Gordon 2009) and the Finnish Society for Futures Studies (Heinonen, Kuusi & Salminen 2017 ). The field of Futures Studies spread to Finland in the second half of the 1970s and the 1980s, and has since then developed into an active Society for Futures Studies with over 700 members, many of which work in the field of education.
The basic principles, approaches, tools and methods of futures thinking should be incorporated into our education system at all levels. This could be accomplished through combining futures thinking and learning into almost any subject. History, social studies, geography, biology and psychology are examples of subjects that fit particularly well for futures thinking. Brain researchers have interestingly indicated that the human brain uses the same part of the organ when remembering the past and when perceiving the future. In fact, my German Futures Research colleague Kerstin Cuhls uses mental time travel as a method to allow people to immerse themselves in the future by closing their eyes and observing the details and phenomena of the future through their thoughts and silence (Atance & Mahy 2016).
As stated, futures thinking can be incorporated into all school subjects, to varying degrees. In arts, portrayed themes may for example be about the future of housing, transportation or technologies. In music, students may learn about future-oriented productions or discuss the production and role of music in the future. In literature, the writing topics may be related to the future. In drama class, the students may write and perform a play or produce a short film about the future. Furthermore, it is possible to arrange Futures Study courses or a whole new subject on futures thinking itself, from primary school to high school. As has been done in some parts of Finland, it is particularly advisable to organize a future-oriented event on the International Future Day, which has been celebrated for several years, on the first day of March. The Finland Futures Research Centre has prepared educational materials to University, University of Applied Sciences, and High Schools levels. The materials include a lecture package with exercises for small groups (45 min + 45 min) as well as the main principles of future thinking and recommended reflections about scenarios on renewable energy and peer-to-peer society (Heinonen & Karjalainen 2018 ). The ultimate goal might be presenting scenarios as videos, which would require co-operation of futures researchers with video artists.
Future thinking can be systematically strengthened by everyone – resulting in futures literacy. Futures thinking empowers individuals, communities, as well as entire societies to steer the future, by creating desired futures through concrete action. UNESCO Foresight Expert Riel Miller often talks about futures literacy – the ability to use the future in the present. In other words, this means making use of future scenarios in decision-making. Furthermore, I have been recently developing the concept of futures resilience, which can be defined as the ability to cope with the uncertainties, challenges, threats, and surprises of the future. How important would it be to include such futures resilience as one of the comprehensive learning goals of our entire school system? This is an element that needs to be heavily featured in early childhood education. We have a longing for a wholesome human being – the fragmented present-day way of life must be replaced by a holistic approach and long-term thinking. Children should be educated in an environment that combines humans, nature, technology, physical and virtual worlds, learning from the past, as well as responsible, ubiquitous and proactive futures-oriented education. Especially in early childhood education, futures learning can and should take place in the form of play, exercise and enjoyment. On the other hand, it is never too late to start futures learning. Futures thinking is an age-neutral capacity and skill.
Finland Futures Research Centre, Helsinki Office
© Picture: Maria Heinonen
Atance, Cristina M. & Mahy, Caitlin E.V. (2016). Episodic Future Thinking in Children. Methodological and Theoretical Approaches. In: Michaelian, K., Klein, S.B. & Szpunar, K.K. (eds) Seeing the Future. Theoretical Perspectives on Future-Oriented Mental Time Travel. Oxford University Press, 449 p.
Cuhls, Kerstin (2017). Mental time travel in foresight processes – cases and applications. Futures 86 (2017), pp.118-135. DOI: 10.1016/j.futures.2016.05.008
Glenn, Jerome & Gordon, Theodore (2009). Futures Research Methodology Version 3.0, Millennium Project. Washington D.C., cd.
Heinonen, Sirkka (2018). Futures thinking empowers us towards making the futures (In Finnish, Tulevaisuusajattelu voimaistaa tulevaisuuksien tekemiseen). Rihveli 2/2018. Helsinki teachers’ association, 16-25.
Heinonen, Sirkka (1990). Time and Future in Seneca (In Finnish, Aika ja tulevaisuus Senecan tuotannossa). Acta Futura Fennica No 1. Finnish Society for Futures Studies. Valtion Painatuskeskus, 153 p.
Heinonen, Sirkka & Karjalainen, Joni (2018). Electrification in Peer-to-Peer Society – New Narrative for Finland’s Futures, (In Finnish, Sähköistyminen vertaisyhteiskunnassa – uusi tarina Suomen tulevaisuudelle). TUTU-Publications 1/2018, Finland Futures Research Centre, Turku. Forthcoming in English.
Heinonen, Sirkka & Ruotsalainen, Juho (2013). Futures Clinique – method for promoting futures learning and provoking radical futures. European Journal of Futures Research (2013) 15:7, DOI 10.1007/s40309-013-0007-4, 11 p.
Heinonen, Sirkka, Kuusi, Osmo & Salminen, Hazel (eds.) (2017). How Do We Explore Our Futures? Acta Futura Fennica no 10, Finland Futures Research Centre. Helsinki.
Kuusi, Osmo, Bergman, Timo & Salminen, Hazel (toim.) (2013). How Do We Explore Our Futures? (In Finnish, Miten tutkimme tulevaisuuksia? Acta Futura Fennica no 5, Finland Futures Research Centre. Helsinki.
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 The original methods book was published in Finnish (Kuusi, Bergman & Salminen 2013).
 This teaching material will be published in English as well.
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