What good is scientific rigor when nobody gives a shit?

This note is based on a Twitter thread I wrote while attending a futures studies conference.

My eternal question to academic futures studies: What good is scientific rigor when nobody gives a shit? I’m not asking you to give it up but rather that you put as much effort into having an actual impact.

Futures play too much of a central role in society to leave the public discourse around them to the trend gurus, tech evangelists, and advertising agencies.

At the moment, there seem to be two poles in futures work: on the one end, you have the academic futures studies focused on scientific rigor. On the other end, you have the design-thinking-ish workshop-driven futuring approaches (lots of canvases). Both have little impact for opposing reasons.

I’m interested in the space in between. I want to do deep work routed in theory and proper methods, combining it with participatory and critical approaches while minding the politics from the beginning with the goal of as much impact as possible.

One exemplary expression of that: Can we teach students foresight methods and, simultaneously, prepare them for the backlash and politics they will experience once they try to apply future thinking in their future work contexts?

This text is a seedling, which means it is an unpolished thought or idea that will grow and mature over time. For this purpose, it has been planted in the garden. Let me know your questions and thoughts via email.

Present futures plus agency

James Bridle writes:

Optimism and pessimism, in particular, are conditions of foresight, they are predictions about the future, not guides to living in the present moment. I don’t care about the future, as I don’t care about predictions. Means not ends, as Huxley endlessly reminds us. We make the future, moment by moment, by our actions in the present, which is the place in which we have agency.

It seems to me that he’s playing the present against the future here. And I’ve heard that argument before. Screw the future! What matters is only the present. That’s where we can act. That’s where we have agency.

When he’s talking about the future, I think he’s referring to future presents – future points in time. From my perspective, it gets interesting when changing the perspective to present futures when referring to the future. In this context, it means that there is only the present. It’s where we imagine the future and act to make it more likely or avoid it.

Hope needs a place to perch. To have any meaning, any validity, any use or power, it must be founded upon agency, upon the deep-seated capacity to change.

Change towards what? Maybe if we take Polak’s pull of the future—our image of the future pulling us towards itself—and combine it with agency as in our ability to act towards that image of a specific future – is that producing hope in us?

Just capturing my thoughts here while reading James’.

Sorry, but this is not a trend report

A trend report provides a hypothesis of a change around a topic in the future (“a combination of factors like virtual reality, token-based technologies, and many more might lead to a new paradigm of digital infrastructure, currently labeled Metaverse”). The hypothesis is based on patterns emerging from signals in the present (“many start-ups around this topic are getting funding, virtual worlds are used for much more than gaming, etc.”). And it’s presented with different trajectories where it might go (“It will replace the internet as we know it. It will mostly be a relabeling of virtual reality and go the way of Second Life. It’s a brute-force attempt by Silicon Valley, which will lead to an even more Cyberpunk world.”).

Most so-called “trend reports” out there already fail at this basic premise. The reports present their trend hypothesis as a prediction (“this is the future!”). They cherry-pick the cases (signals) to prove their predictions without questioning them. And they don’t offer any alternative trajectories to make the trend seem inevitable.

These trend reports are often a collection of press releases about example cases that don’t provide any actionable insight. They are there to position the agency or consultancy, which put them out, as a guide for the future. But you have to wonder: how helpful is a guide that is just repeating the talking points of the tech companies?

These trend reports are not briefings on THE future but invocations of ONE particular future. Their role is to make this certain future more likely. As Jens Beckert has shown, they are part of a sophisticated way for the economy to deal with an open future. The more actors adopt a specific image of the future, and the more they base their decisions on it, the greater their influence on the development in the direction of this future. They rely on the performativity of a collective expectation of the future, which ensures that they can make decisions today from which the anticipated future will emerge tomorrow. The collective image of the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, to put it bluntly: If everyone expects the same future, the future is less open.
But when everybody is doing the same, innovative spaces are opening up off the beaten track where true breakthroughs are possible that can change the whole direction.

A good trend report investigates a trend by looking at counter-signals and -trends, digging into the underlying drivers, contextualizing its history, and revealing the power structures profiting from the “inevitability” of the trend. This approach will help the report’s audience understand the depths of a trend and gain agency to chart their ways.

This text is a seedling, which means it is an unpolished thought or idea that will grow and mature over time. For this purpose, it has been planted in the garden. Let me know your questions and thoughts via email.

The Difference between Present Futures and Future Presents

There is a significant difference between “present futures” and “future presents.”

A “future present” refers to a certain point in time in the future. This point will become the present at some time. When we imagine being somewhere in two weeks, we think about a future present. But that image in our head of that future point in time is a “present future.” It is being felt in our heads right now in the present.

The distinction between these two understandings of the future is essential for Future Studies because only one of those is “real” and thus scientifically investigable. As future presents haven’t happened yet, they haven’t become a reality and are not accessible. Present futures – the hopes, anticipations, expectations, and imaginations in our heads – on the other hand, can be examined with the help of social sciences.

How we imagine the future in the present has very little to do with how the future will turn out when it becomes the present. Instead, it’s a strong reflection of how we perceive the present: Tell me what you think about the future, and I will tell you how you feel about the present.

This text is a seedling, which means it is an unpolished thought or idea that will grow and mature over time. For this purpose, it has been planted in the garden. Let me know your questions and thoughts via email.

We can’t handle the future

IFTF’s Jane McGonigal is promoting her new book Imaginable. Her crucial talking points are the two foresight games she did in 2008 and 2010 involving more than 20,000 people and accurately predicting the Corona pandemic.

But as Tim Harford points out in his FT article (paywalled):

As a life-long gamer, I am easily persuaded of the benefits of games, but they are no panacea, even when they do predict the future. Superstruct and Evoke did not prevent pandemic policy missteps;

One could even ask if those games had any effect on the pandemic they predicted. And thus, they are an excellent example of what I deem to be the biggest challenge of foresight work: nobody listens.

In this interview with Stuart Candy, which is an excellent primer on futures studies btw., he also points toward this problem:

However, over some years of working with foresight in government, I found that policymakers had limited capacity to envision alternative futures, and even where the field had a certain currency, its legacy methods weren’t necessarily having great impact. […]

The field traditionally has been very strong on frameworks for organizing thought, but less so on converting those anticipations into embodied insights and making them stick.

I’ve spent some time studying the history of futures studies and foresight, and I think it’s rather bleak. I like to sum it up as “a history of being ignored.” So this is a general topic that has been on my mind for the last couple of years: how can our work in futures studies become more effective and lasting?

Sure, this isn’t just a problem with our work and methods. It’s also caused by the short-termism and focus on the now in business and politics. Nevertheless, it’s the biggest and most exciting challenge we’re facing as a field, and after sixty years, we should be able to find better answers.

My personal approach has been to look at imaginaries as collective expectations that have become so ingrained that they are taken for granted and impossible to challenge. Charles Taylor talks about them as a background understanding in society that guides all decisions and behaviors.

Foresight and even futures studies have always been primarily interested in creating new images of the futures/scenarios. But unless they feed into the status quo, they are usually dismissed. That’s why I’m so interested in critical futures studies work. It can help create awareness of current future imaginaries and thus open up receptiveness for new images of the future.

This seedling is based on a conversation with Patrick on the Sentiers discord.

A rough definition of Critical Futures Studies

The field of futures studies describes “the scientific concern with possible, desirable and probable future developments” (Kreibich 2006). While the majority of futures studies and foresight work focuses on creating new images of the future using scientific methods (e.g., scenarios), there have been repeated efforts since the late 1970s to examine existing images of the future as well.

Among the most influential pioneers of critical futures studies is Sohail Inayatullah. Influenced by poststructuralism, he pointed out in his seminal article on ‘Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Future’ that epistemological assumptions underlie all futures thinking: temporal, economic, political, ideological-cultural, and linguistic. However, these assumptions remain mostly unreflected even in most futures studies work. They are not questioned and thus influence the results unrecognized.

That is precisely where critical futures studies deconstruct images of the future as present futures, which provide less information about events in future presents. Instead, they are about wishes, interests, needs, and expectations prevalent in the present, expressed in stories about the future.

According to Inayatullah, the goal of critical futures studies is to create new epistemological spaces in which alternative futures can emerge by historicizing and deconstructing existing futures, or, as he puts it, “to undefine the future.”

In summary, the two goals of critical futures studies are:

  1. A better understanding of the present from the images of the future prevalent in society
  2. The “opening of the future” via broadening the space of plausible futures and the development of alternative futures

In their reconceptualization of critical futures studies, Goode and Godhe place the “futural public sphere”—the public debate about the future—at the center of consideration. In doing so, they shift the focus: away from individual images of the future in arbitrary contexts toward a more integral perception of the constituent ideas about the future in a societal context.

Based on this, they define critical futures studies as follows:

CFS investigates the scope and constraints within public culture for imagining and debating different potential futures. It interrogates imagined futures founded—often surreptitiously—upon values and assumptions from the past and present, as well as those representing a departure from current social trajectories.

Goode und Godhe

Like Inayatullah, however, they do not want to leave it at the mere deconstruction of futures but call for a “reconstructive turn” to enrich public discourse with alternative futures.

I have taken the definition above from my master’s thesis on future imaginaries, which I submitted at the end of 2019. It should only be taken as a starting point, missing a host of other essential voices and approaches. This seedling has been planted in the garden.

No such thing as “future-proof”

That’s it. It’s relatively easy. There’s nothing that can be future-proof. No matter what some marketing material or keynote speaker wants to promise.

We can prepare for different futures. We can work on resilience or anti-fragility, or adaptability. But there is no way to ensure that anything from an organization to a building or a strategy is “future-proof.” The future doesn’t work that way.

Until the future becomes the present, it is open and uncertain. And as long as we can’t be certain about the future, we can’t be sure that our plans will work out until they have to prove themselves in the future present.

Sure, the term is often used when talking about preparing for the future in general. “Future-proofing” refers to keeping devices compatible and buildings adaptable to future use.

But I find using this specific term—which suggests certainty—fascinating, primarily when used in marketing. It’s a strong signal for the human yearning to know what’s ahead and to be prepared. And the more known unknowns we become aware of, the stronger the urge becomes to go for the solution that promises to be future-proof.
And thus, as usual, “future-proof” has nothing to do with the future presents and everything with present futures. The future is not real until it becomes the present. It only exists in our heads as images, hopes, dreams, fears, wishes, anticipations, and expectations.

“Future-proofing” means doing something in the present to keep the anxieties about the future at bay. And that’s completely fine and can be helpful. But we should not fool ourselves by thinking that because something is labeled as “future-proof,” it will be safe in the future.

This text is a seedling, which means it is an unpolished thought or idea that will grow and mature over time. For this purpose, it has been planted in the garden. Let me know your questions and thoughts via email.

Getting in front of the wave

I’ve listened to a politician recently detailing his morning media diet of newsletters, clippings, etc. It helps him feel prepared for the day (“getting in front of the wave”). 

It made me wonder: as a futurist/futures researcher, what could my morning routine be like to prepare me for the day?

  • Thinking through my meetings and working sessions and preparing whatever I can, which would mostly be writing notes?
  • Reading trend stuff on the topics, I’m currently working on?
  • Doing a theory session to advance the methods and approaches I plan to use throughout the day?
  • Doing a classic braindump/750 words kinda session to empty out my brain and make space for fresh thinking?
  • Go for a run or a workout because it helps most with energy and focus?

This train of thought connects to a similar one, which has been on my mind recently, prompted by this quote:

What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?

Tyler Cowen

The bigger question I feel lurking behind these Ferriss-esque questions about my morning routine is what I actually need to do my work and get better at it.

  • A broader horizon?
  • An excellent toolbox of methods?
  • A critical mindset?
  • A fine-tuned set of scanning sources?

Obviously, it’s all of the above, which triggers the idea to use different days of the week to focus on each aspect.

This text is a seedling, which means it is an unpolished thought or idea that will grow and mature over time. For this purpose, it has been planted in the garden. Let me know your questions and thoughts via email.


It is always the same pattern: hints, recommendations, and warnings – whether from climate research, feminist foreign policy, or even foresight – are ignored until it is too late. The consequences are then presented as inevitable and without alternatives.

“We have no other choice” actually means “We ignored all possible courses of action until only the drastic one remained.”

“No one could have known” actually means “We heard it loud and clear but didn’t want to make a decision for which we could have been held responsible.”

How do we get out of this pattern? How can we break it and replace it with better patterns? Asking for a planet…

Categorized as seedling

You’re sure you want to promote the singularity and longtermism?

I’ve started reading The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric and stumbled about him quoting Nick Bostrom on the first pages as if Bostrom is just a random risk researcher and not a transhumanism and longtermism evangelist with a specific and hazardous agenda.*

This keeps happening. For example, German corporations send their managers to Singularity University or let them organize the internal training days as if they are just another business school and not a semi-religious sect, having their concept of redemption right there in their name. 

From my interaction with German managers, I’m sure that most of them don’t fully buy into the singularity or transhumanism. So why does this keep happening? Ignorance? Naïveté? 

I wonder if this has to do with the lack of alternative narratives. When they book an event, they want “successful” speakers, and in their perception, those “Silicon Valley” guys are the prototype. It’s why Elon Musk is still hailed as the role model for young people in Germany by all kinds of magazines. 

I take two courses of action from this train of thought. First, I’ll keep putting my finger on the underlying ideas and world views of the likes of Bostrom to Musk so that lack of knowledge can no longer be an option. Second, and most importantly, we need to push for alternative narratives. We need to tell different stories about maintenance, care, and justice, not just innovation, risk, and exponential potential (for the few). 

* I put Krznaric on the spot here because The Good Ancestor is an otherwise excellent book so far.