I was skeptical the first time I heard the word futuring. Trained as a linguist, I am partial to natural, human language, and have an engrained distaste for jargon. But it’s not just the word that threw me—it was the whole concept. Up until that point, I had spent my career working in public health and education—two fields that revere empirical evidence and measurable results. So, when I joined IDEO.org and was invited to a futuring workshop by a colleague, it all sounded a bit lofty and unserious compared to what I was used to.
In the decade since, I’ve changed my tune. Now, I see futuring as an essential part of my toolkit as someone committed to designing a more just world.
Futuring is a systemic and creative process that helps us explore, analyze, and ultimately, design for—well—the future. Equal parts artistry and analysis, futuring helps us identify the societal and behavioral shifts that are likely to unfold over the coming years, and identify strategies we can adopt today to influence that future for good.
You might have heard people use other words to describe a similar process—words like speculative design, strategic foresight, or reverse innovation. Whatever you may call it, the unifying goal of these methodologies is to explore what lies ahead—the good, the bad, and even the catastrophic—so we can make informed choices about where to focus our efforts in the present.
If this description conjures images of sci-fi novels and movies, you’re not too far off. Although there is one major caveat. In design, we are not predicting the future, but rather illuminating a set of possible futures that can inspire a bold vision and action.
At IDEO.org, we use the tools of futuring to help our partner organizations conjure ambitious impact strategies, build effective coalitions for systems change, and confront an uncertain future with confidence. Here is what it looks like in practice.
Traditional strategy definition is often anchored in deductive reasoning. We assess the existing landscape and consider what we might do differently, reflecting on past successes and how they can be improved. This process can often yield sensible, yet incremental results.
Futuring, on the other hand, is instinctively divergent, creative, and radical. It inspires leaps in possibility, serving as a starting place for transformative change.
For many of the foundations, nonprofits, and governments we work with, integrating futuring into strategy work is an opportunity to consider and build towards bolder pathways for impact and bring a wider set of voices into the process—yielding a more ambitious and grounded set of strategic choices.
Most of our work focuses on systems change—working in partnership with others to make big, unwieldy systems work better for people and create more equitable outcomes. Making this type of collective action effective requires alignment around a shared vision, which is easier said than done in a world of deadlines and divergent priorities.
That’s why we often start in the future—gathering all our prospective collaborators together and asking, “What should this system look like in 15-20 years.” By stepping out of the present day and into a process rooted in generational timescales, we’re able to create space away from our individual organizational dynamics, politics, and constraints and make room for true co-creation. This allows each person to bring the wisdom from their daily work to the process, but also to step far enough out of it to dream together. To identify areas of alignment, grapple with points of disagreement, and chart a path forward together.
As my friend and colleague Mitch Carter Jafery puts it: “Futuring invites us to escape the gravity of the present in pursuit of the possible.”
An unclear or fractured vision for change is corrosive to collective progress, so we have to start there. Armed with a shared vision that bears their fingerprints, each individual and organization can identify and step into their own role in advancing towards that goal—with the confidence our individual actions will yield something greater than the sum of their parts. Whether developing a vision for equitable healthcare or a childcare system worthy of families, futuring helps diverse groups of people paint a shared and aspirational picture of what progress looks like—a blueprint for prototypes, pilots, and advocacy efforts that yield transformative change.
When applying the tools of futuring to the task of designing a more just and equitable world, it’s critical to engage a wide range of perspectives in the process. Our individual concepts of the future aren’t objective and are shaped by our individual perspectives and experiences.
Last year, we engaged over 50 people around the world in a futuring process to explore what the future might look like for gender equality. Throughout our research process, we made a concerted effort to engage diverse perspectives at every step of our process—interviewing gender experts with different lived experiences, countries of origin, and approach to gender equality work. Without this intentionality, the report’s findings would’ve been limited at best and potentially harmful at worst. Like any other methodology, the value of futuring is as much about how it’s practiced as by the tools themselves.
With the right conditions in place, the tools of futuring can help us explore new possibilities, embrace bolder strategies, and build blueprints for collective action.