The Future

While the section on “Thinking About the Future in the Past” was about past efforts to think about the future, this section is about methodologies for thinking about the future. Although there is no comprehensive compilation of futures research methodologies, the best compilation of major methodologies is by Jerome Glenn and Theodore Gordon of the AC/UNU Millennium Project. The books in this category are either collections of approaches that complement the Millennium Project’s list or are recent advances in thinking about the longer-range future.

Futuring— 2004

Edward Cornish

This is a nice, readable introduction to the general topic of futuring by the long-time president of the World Future Society. Particularly nice are the chapters on the history of futuring, a glossary and a robust bibliography with synopses. An up-to-date bibliography can also be found at http://www.wfs.org/futuringbib.htm.

Macrohistory and Macrohistorians: Perspectives on Individual, Social, and Civilizational Change — 1997

Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah

“Macrohistory is the study of the histories of social systems, along separate trajectories, in search of patterns.” “The macrohistorian will be looking for occurrences and recurrences of some well-defined theme” and macrohistory “traces a process through time… sufficiently to see the shape of the trajectories and to identify some underlying mechanisms”. It’s the underlying mechanisms that would be most useful to those who want to think about the longer-range future.

This is a unique and fascinating study of 20 macrohistorians ranging from the Chinese historian Ssu-Ma Ch’ien in the second century BCE, through more familiar names such as Augustine, Adam Smith, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Teilhard, and Toynbee, down to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Each macrohistorian is accorded his own section with a brief review of the context in which he lived and an equally brief description of his macrohistorical theory. (There is one woman – Riane Eisler – and she writes her own section). The macrohistorians are then compared across ten defining factors of macrohistory, including #9 – perspectives on the future. As one would expect, different macrohistorians have different perspectives on the future. Herbert Spencer, for example, used a biological metaphor and would predict a world government which would function as the brain of civilization. Pitirim Sorokin would say that the West stands in the middle of sensate civilization, awaiting the final two stages of charisma and resurrection – it awaits new leadership. And so forth.

Since the authors say that, among the macrohistorians studied, “no one is so central and covers so much of the discourses of the others as Toynbee,” their take on Toynbee’s perspective of the future is interesting. According to the authors, Toynbee sees the West as being in a disintegration phase in which “the Creative Minority becomes the Dominant Minority trying to control the Internal and External Proletariat by force.” This phase may last long, but in this phase, “there will almost certainly arise some kind of Universal Church, maybe built around what today is called ‘green values,’ essentially values of reproducibility [sustainability], against exploitation.”

The book also has diagrams of each of the theories that emphasize their linear or cyclic (or other) nature.

Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis— 2003

Robert J. Lempert Steven W. Popper, and Steven C. Bankes

This book describes a methodology developed in the RAND Pardee Center for handling uncertainty about the future in a way that combines the best qualities of computers and humans. The goals of the methodology are to produce policy decisions that are robust to uncertainty about the future and that preserve options for future decisionmakers to the extent possible. The centerpiece of the methodology is a computational environment into which computer models can be connected. These computer models are used as scenario generators and assemble the relevant, available information on a given problem in what is called XLRM form where X are the exogenous uncertainties that affect the future, L are the near-term policy levers, M are the measures for ranking modeled outcomes, and R are the relationships among the variables in the scenario generator. That is, the scenario generator contains the presumed behavior of the system under investigation (R), the policy levers that can affect the behavior of that system (L), measures to help decide the goodness of a policy lever’s effect (M), and the uncertainties inherent in the longer-range future (X). The computational environment can then run a wide variety of policy levers over a wide variety of possible futures and produce “landscapes” of goodness for the various policy levers. Humans can then modify the policy lever combinations to try to produce policies that are good across the uncertainties in the situation. After the humans are comfortable that a given policy regime is good enough, they can also try to develop other plausible futures with which to test the preferred policy. Even for somewhat complex scenario generators, modern computational power and the ability to spread the computations across a number of machines allow for dozens of policy options to be tested against hundreds, thousands, and in some cases, millions of futures.

One of the most important aspects of this technique is its ability to test policy options against more than one scenario generator at a time. For example, if three people have different mental models of how, say, the earth’s climate works, each of those mental models can be captured in a separate scenario generator and policies can be tested against all three scenario generators simultaneously. This allows for a variety of stakeholders in a given situation to see how policies work out across each of their own mental models. This becomes a powerful tool for “leveling the playing field” for a given policy debate.

Who Will Pay? Coping with Aging Societies, Climate Change, and Other Long-Term Fiscal Challenges— 2003

Peter Heller

Heller’s argument rests on four carefully developed points: 1) certain important structural changes will occur, with high probability, including shifts in the age structure of populations, changes in climatic conditions, continued globalization, and ongoing dramatic technological progress; 2) these developments are likely to have significant fiscal consequences, primarily because explicit policy commitments already made by governments of the world’s industrial countries have predetermined, “to a historically unprecedented degree, much of the fiscal priorities of future generations”; 3) what may seem like far-distant concerns could easily affect both the current economic environment and short- to medium-term policy decisions; and 4) failure to address the implication of these long-term developments will affect the future human condition. In other words, future entitlements and short-horizon fiscal planning combined with foreseeable, significant longer-range structural changes presage a train wreck. Heller argues that the train wreck is avoidable – that “we have sufficient knowledge about some long-term developments for their plausible consequences to be taken into account in formulating fiscal policy frameworks today.” He offers not only technical solutions for longer-term fiscal planning, but, more importantly, also addresses how political impediments might be overcome.

Global Crises, Global Solutions— 2004

Bjorn Lomborg

This is an interesting approach to setting budgets aimed at longer-range issues. Lomborg led a group called the Copenhagen Consensus. They wanted to come up with a rank ordering, using cost-benefit analysis (CBA), of the major challenges facing humanity. The first task was the compilation of a list of 32 such major challenges. Experts were then polled to identify the 10 most promising challenges from a cost-benefit standpoint. The list of ten included climate change, communicable diseases, conflicts and arms proliferation, access to education, financial instability, governance and corruption, malnutrition and hunger, migration, sanitation and access to clean water, and subsidies and trade barriers. In each of these ten areas, a renowned economics specialist within the field was approached to write a ‘challenge paper’ that: 1) gave a brief overview of the dimensions of the challenge, 2) identified between one and five practicable opportunities to address the challenge, and 3) made an extensive overview of the cost-benefit analyses in the literature and applied them to the different opportunities. Two additional scholars were commissioned for each challenge paper to provide additional commentary. Penultimately, eight distinguished economists were convened for five days in Copenhagen to hear, half a day at a time, the 10 papers and commentaries and to ask questions of the challenge paper authors and commenters. Finally, the panel of eight economists rank ordered the entire list of opportunities across all ten major challenges by cost-benefit ratio. This is a process that will be repeated at least one more time – in 2008.

The book presents all of the challenge papers and comments as well as the rankings of each of the eight economists in the final panel and their comments. The final ranking of opportunities was achieved by taking the median of the eight individual rankings. The list of opportunities is interesting, but coming up with cost-benefit analyses for many was problematic. The panel gave weight to both the institutional preconditions for success and to the demands of ethical or humanitarian urgency. The panel also took the view that political costs should be excluded and that just economics costs of delivery should be considered. Even so, the panel found it impossible to rank all of the opportunities and wound up ranking only 17. This included none from the conflicts and arms proliferation, access to education, and financial instability and only one from governance and corruption, and from subsidies and trade. Nonetheless, the final rankings are interesting. The four ranked as very good from a CBA standpoint were control of HIV/AIDS, providing micronutrients to children, trade liberalization, and control of malaria. The four ranked as bad investments were guest worker programs for the unskilled, optimal carbon tax, the Kyoto Protocol, and value-at-risk carbon tax. Several of the experts argued that there were better climate change opportunities and had other suggestions for improvements in the process.

In all, its an interesting, but challenging, approach to ranking the best investments in improvements in the longer-range human condition. It is clearly dependent on very difficult CBAs and expert opinion, but it does cut across a wide range of major challenges facing humanity.


We welcome your input. Send suggestions for links and other ideas to lempert@rand.org.