This article was co-written with Travis Kupp
When people discuss the future, they often have many ideas and perspectives that inform their vision of what it will be. Futurism is a field of study that brings various methodologies and practices to exploring and imagining the future in a structured and disciplined fashion. The field has evolved significantly since its inception over half a century ago, when it began as a project of the RAND Corporation in the 1940s. They were attempting to anticipate the development of nuclear war, particularly in the geopolitical context of the looming Cold War with Russia. In more recent decades, as technology has become omnipresent, envisioning the future has become more centered around technological development, and many in the field now examine the future from this angle – this was the impetus that drew us both to the practice, and to our involvement in the World Future Society.
But futurism is, and has always been, about more than technology. By its very nature, futurism deals with the complexity of systems, and is therefore an interdisciplinary field that intersects with sociology, ecology, policy, philosophy, design, organizational strategy, science fiction and more. As a result, the field can seem somewhat loosely defined, and is open to all sorts of people who want to take part in contemplating what the future might look like. Though futurists need not possess any specific training, they are generally expected to support their ideas about the future with evidence and some kind of artifact to which an audience may react, like a written narrative or designed object. They need to know how to accept constructive criticism, and to look at relevant issues from a variety of perspectives.
There are a number of longstanding futurist organizations that exist to support this broad community, such as the World Future Society, the Association of Professional Futurists, the World Future Studies Federation, Millennium Project the , and the Long Now Foundation. However, these groups were largely founded with the intent of catering to those already familiar with futurism and with targeted interests in topics such as public policy, technology forecasting, or corporate consulting. It can therefore be difficult for the curious – but uninitiated – to integrate into one of these communities, whether financially, logistically, or simply because of a lack of domain knowledge.
In recent years, a new, rapidly-growing community has emerged that is starting to fill this gap: Speculative Futures, an international network of meetups about the future. The nucleus of the movement originated in San Francisco in 2015 and now includes over 42 chapters worldwide. It began as a gathering of designers largely interested in speculative and critical design, a subfield of design that explicitly focuses on challenging the values and norms embedded in products and systems, often through speculations about the future. However, like many future-oriented organizations, it welcomes participants from a variety of backgrounds, perspectives and interests. The Design Futures Initiative – the nonprofit that emerged from this movement – plans an annual conference called PRIMER in the US and Europe, which is likewise focused on a variety of future-oriented topics. It also seeks new ways of empowering the masses with tools to think about and co-create futures.
This aim was clearly reflected in the theme of the PRIMER19 conference from this past summer: Futures for All. The US conference, held in June 2019 at Parsons School of Design in New York City, deliberately included diverse perspectives that spanned race, gender, and cultural background, with the goal of elevating more voices to the conversation about what comes next. The conference covered topics like collaborative story creation, decolonizing our futures, and queer and Afrofuturist perspectives. It closed with an admonition from design strategist Matthew Manos for social entrepreneurship to shift from a reactionary to preemptive exercise. In his words, “the next wave of social entrepreneurs must include a community of those who choose to focus on the future. These are innovators who refuse to wait for the bomb to explode. […] They imagine implications. They author scenarios. They plan strategically.” PRIMER 2020, co-chaired by Travis, will take place in Atlanta next June with a new theme—Activating Futures—that builds on the ideas of radical inclusion and challenging dominant narratives, with an emphasis on how we can apply speculative practices in order to manifest futures for all.
Futurism as a practice has come a long way, but it is often very technology-focus and imagined by, created for, and made accessible to a privileged few. We believe that the path forward is radically open, and that together as artists, policymakers, technologists, academics, and even “card-carrying” futurists we are capable of imagining and creating more equitable futures. We invite all who are interested in how we can collectively define the next decade to learn and create with us.
To learn more about futurism, you can watch Jeremy’s TEDx talk How to Predict the Future(s) to learn how to conduct a futures analysis, and get more information on PRIMER and your local chapter of Speculative Futures here. We look forward to seeing you in the futures!