Futures thinking — What do we mean by ‘futures thinking’?

A futures workshop is, effectively, a laboratory where policy makers can experiment with ideas, ask ‘what if?’ (Photo: Sunset over Assynt/BGS/P515159)

The great strength of futures work is that it can help us look at today’s challenges from a different perspective. Identifying and examining current factors and trends, and how they might play out in the future, which can then inform the decision-makers and policy-makers and give them a sense of what impacts a given course of action may have, and then allows them to test various responses to minimise costs or maximise benefits.

‘What if?’

A futures workshop is, effectively, a laboratory where participants can experiment with ideas, ask ‘what if?’ questions and test the impact and consequences of different assumptions.

‘Futures’ themselves are never designed to be predictions, but to stimulate thought and to spell out the opportunities and threats we — and society as a whole — might face. They allow the decision-makers to judge the risks of acting — and not acting — and to rehearse the decisions they might need to take to maximise potential opportunities, or mitigate threats. They can even be used to test, or ‘wind tunnel‘, existing approaches to see if they would benefit from modifications. An example of a scenario-analysis approach to futures thinking has been carried out by the BGS Science Futures Team.

Often the futures process will uncover unexpected results. Some trends may have a greater, or lesser, impact than expected; others may impact sooner than expected. Interventions designed to tackle a policy issues in one part of the system may have unintended consequences — perhaps far-reaching — in other parts of the system.

One particularly useful aspect of futures is to use gaming approaches that invites policy makers to look at a policy issue through the eyes of different stakeholders and to see it, consequently, in a fresh light.


  • Foresight‘s Horizon Scanning Centre toolkit: Exploring the future: Tools for strategic thinking
  • Scenario Analysis by the BGS Science Futures Team