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Course: Introduction to future thinking

This introductory course offers the basic principles of foresight and reflects on western concepts and myths of the future. It invites us to (re)think the future beyond Western habits of thought and canons.

Duration: 3 parts, each 1.30 hour.


Versions specific to each context given at: 23.10.18 at Ponderosa, Brandenburg (DE)| 10.03.19 Virtual Viewpoints – 12-week on-line course with Deborah Black | 5-6.04.19 Human Living Center#2 at Inkonst, Malmö (SE) | 26 & 29.05.19 at Festival Butterflies & Camels at Communitism, Athens (GR) | Competence Centre in Sustainability, University of Lausanne (CH), 28.04.21


The course is organised in three parts (each 1.30 hour), each of which can be booked separately:

The first part invites us to develop a critical sense about popular Western imaginaries of the future.

The second part provides us with an understanding of the main concepts (paradigms) of the future in modern foresight, their strengths and weaknesses.

The last part invites us to consider another understanding of the future envisioned as open processes 'in the making', in line with a recent orientation of contemporary foresight.

1. Developing a critical sense about popular futures

The first part invites the participants to take a step back and analyse their own images

of the future.

To begin with, I ask the participants to write down where they see themselves in 10 or 20 years from now (depending on the audience). The question is addressed again at the very end, so as for participants to measure the understanding won during the workshop and take a new perspective on their own envisioned future.

After this introductory step, the course opens on a brief history of the idea of the future in Western thought. I introduce Lucien Hölscher’s Discovery of the Future (1999, 2016) which contends that the concept of the future as we know it was born with The Enlightenment and its technical breakthroughs.

Follows a survey taken together (24 to 42 questions, 15 to 25 min including results and discussion) based on Boschetti’s “Myths of the future“, which helps uncover the cultural narratives with which we make sense of the future. More details on this method here.

Future-modern phenomenon John Gast 1872.001

Slide to Lucien Hölscher’s Discovery of the Future

Work by John Gast, “American Progress”, c. 1872


2. Modern futures studies

The second part provides a historical overview of futures studies as a scientific discipline.

We become familiar with the distinction between probable and plausible futures, that is, in foresight terms, between forecasting based on probabilities and fed by data on the one hand and foresight typically based on plausible scenarios (ex.: 3 to 6 different stories of the futures) on the other hand.

This overview of modern foresight helps uncover the issues raised by the Western conception of the future, such as determinism, rationalism, linearity, progress – which I illustrate with a few foresight notions (wild-card, weak signals, self-fulfilling prophecy, etc.)

The conventional representation of the future as a cone of possibilities.

Illustration from the UNDP Foresight Manual (2018)


3. Futures "in the making"

Building on this introduction of modern future studies, the third part introduces a fundamental distinction between the future envisioned as a goal or target to reach on the one hand and the future, or rather futures, as processes “in the making” on the other hand.

In the first paradigm, it is about envisioning a future in the explorative (plausible, probable futures) or normative modes (preferred futures), and devise of ways to reach one's vision. This represents the conventional Western conception of the future, exemplified by modern foresight, which essentially seeks to predict and anticipate the future.

In the second paradigm, it is about using the openess of the future (possible futures) to discover alternative ways of thinking and acting in the here and now. The question to ask is: What should the present hold in potentia so that it would generate that speculative future?

Here the speculative nature of the future, without ambition of rationalism or plausibility, supports an in-depth analysis of the potential of the present. On that basis, we can start to act differently on the present which can bring us to truly alternative futures.

This last option characterises a new direction taken by foresight under the name of the Discipline of Anticipation, of which one of the most well-known methods is UNESCO's Futures Literacy by Riel Miller. More details on this method below and here.


Futures Literacy

Riel Miller, Head of Foresight at UNESCO and a future practitioner, has developed a line of thinking around this last strand, whose originality lies in overcoming the “limitations imposed by values and expectations when thinking about the future”. To that aim, the method focuses first on the task of “rigorous imagination” so that values (preferred futures) and predictability (probable, plausible futures) don’t a priori enclose futures – as is most often the case in foresight and beyond. This approach in turn helps uncover other ways of knowing and acting in the present.

For Miller, this method can build into an embodied capacity, a “futures literacy” as he coins it, a way of making decisions in the present informed by its many unknown possibilities for the future, or in Miller’s words: “Dancing on the unknown”.

"Futures literacy" has developed into a method promoted by UNESCO to enhance our capability to think in plural futures and consider processes rather than end goals (more details on the method here). "Futures literacy" can be linked to the notion of intensive learning societies (Riel Miller) and to what has been coined by social theory as “practice movements” (The Commons, Buen Vivir, Ubuntu, Degrowth,…).


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