This is Part 2 of a two part post. Part 1 is here.

Quantitative and Qualitative

trends downI have to admit up front that I prefer qualitative methodology. My brain can’t cope with quantitative methods beyond the basic. I’ve tried. It’s not me. But I do understand their value, I do get others to help me incorporate them in my work when I need them. The one thing I don’t do is dismiss their validity because I prefer qualitative approaches. There’s  no point. Jayar comments:

When unmoored from quantitative methods, investigations of the future come to reflect the personal sensibilities and political sympathies of futurists rather than the comparatively drab facts of the matter that actually shape the future. A futurist’s secret wish is that the world comes to resemble the one in their imaginations rather than, as the historian Arthur Toynbee characterized everyday life, the march of “just one damned thing after another.” Unfortunately for them, the future doesn’t care what we think or want.

This quote is a good description of what amateur futurists want and how they operate – they bring in a view of the future, they impose it on the organisation with no real discussion allowed and they leave the organisation to wonder why they spent all that money because nothing much changes. Good futures work starts from where their clients are; they know that what they think is irrelevant unless it can help the client. In using the future today, everyone brings to the table their secret wishes about the future, and what matters is how we help people surface their secret wishes, compare them with the wishes others bring to the table, and prepare for their future that matters.

I think perhaps we have a fundamental ontological difference at play here. Some futurists believe that the future is something out there, disconnected from today. It’s not real yet. They talk about it, reify it, predict it and really believe “the future doesn’t care what we think”. Professional futurists believe the future is with us today, it’s real because we create it through our interactions, conversations and decisions every day. We believe we can influence it, and that our inaction matters as much as our action. It’s not that the future doesn’t care what we think because THE future doesn’t exist. It’s more about how we use our understanding of the future today to create sustainable futures.

Back to quantitative methods. As I said in my comments to Jayar’s post:

 The value, the impact of thinking the future is only measurable in hindsight but our data/measurement/certainty driven culture doesn’t like that – so we try to explain away uncertainty instead of engaging with it. And I think you forget there is an ideology behind quantitative forecasting too, a worldview and assumptions that underpin it that are generally not questioned. For me, we need both the quantitative and the qualitative to be ready for the future, neither privileged over the other, both respected for what they bring to the conversation.

Thinking about the future needs data, and it also needs our ideas, beliefs and images of the future if we are to make futures ready decisions today and create sustainable futures. No method to interrogate the future, no belief about why it’s valuable and others not valuable is ever value free. Not recognising that is one of the reasons we have misunderstandings and misinterpretations about what’s going on in the field.

Starting from Within

Futures work starts from within – from understanding how we see the future, what our thinking limitations are, what our cognitive biases are, what ideologies we hold. It’s about helping others start from within. It’s about looking for diversity not typing or isolating some anonymous people called professional futurists.

It’s about recognising that choice of method depends on context, it depends on how open to the future your clients are, it depends on what they need from the process. There’s no one size fits all approach – no one way to do futures. Anyone who thinks about the future for a living knows there are multiple possible futures out there and that what emerges depends on our ability to make good decisions today. There’s no single future, so our continuing desired to know THE future is wasting our time and energy.

The seeds of the future are present today. We can use the future as an asset, we can see it as being present today, we can anticipate it – something to be considered, challenged and used to create strategy and our responses to the future. It is about how we come together collectively to use the future today, surface and explore the meanings we make from our understandings of the future, and work together to make decisions to create the future we want, not end up in one decided for us by others.

Finally

We need to have this conversation because we need clarity around the work of professional futurists, what we do and how we do it. We need to accept that prediction for long term purposes is passe, unhelpful and a waste of time. We need to work together to create a foundation that welcome all thinkers, that seeks to integrate methods and approaches to provide a more inclusive toolbox to choose from –  because the very fundamental point is we need to incorporate as many views about the future as we can if we are to create sustainable futures for us, our organisations, our countries and the planet.

If we try to divide and conquer, we will dissipate the potential strength there is in our numbers. Thinking about the future is about saying, ‘hey, you made some interesting points and here’s what I think. Let’s talk and see how we can learn from each other’.

I’d really like for this conversation to continue. I hope we can collectively make that happen.