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.

  • Futuring2004

    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.

  • Macrohistory and Macrohistorians: Perspectives on Individual, Social, and Civilizational Change1997

    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.

  • Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis2003

    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.

  • Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis2003

    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.

  • Who Will Pay? Coping with Aging Societies, Climate Change, and Other Long-Term Fiscal Challenges2003

    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.

  • Who Will Pay? Coping with Aging Societies, Climate Change, and Other Long-Term Fiscal Challenges2003

    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 Solutions2004

    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.

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