Multiple Futures

Last Update: 22 Feb 2019





In this two-part video series, we are going to explore the purpose of Futures Studies in detail, but we aren’t really going to cover its methodologies and ways of doing research, rather we are going to first examine at the process of looking at and thinking about the future.

[Futures Studies: Ziauddin Sardar]

Futures Studies has had a number of names and several of them have been placed under examination by [Ziauddin Sardar], a scholar and public intellectual, who brings a framework for understanding the future that pushes our thinking beyond the typical boundaries of Westernised thinking. Sardar specialises in Muslim thought and was the editor of the Futures journal from 1999 to 2012. He is the author and editor of a number of important books on Futures Studies and in this video want to take a closer look at one of Sardar’s most cited articles on Futures Studies, his piece, titled [‘The Namesake: Futures, Futures Studies, Futurology, Futuristic, Foresight – What’s in a name?’] published in the Futures journal in 2010.


Sardar begins with an analysis of the word ‘Future’ derived from the Latin ‘Futura/Futurus’ – which means ‘going to be’. One of the problems of the term ‘future’ is that it suggests that we are only concerned with looking ahead to a singular point. It creates the notion that there is only one future possible. The reason why I sign off these videos with the phrase, ‘The future is now’ is to return our gaze from the horizon to where we are currently. To focus on the time and space that we are occupying, and to understand it is the now which brings the many possible futures into being.  Sardar is highly critical of the concept of the future and the way it is often employed by futurists and futures studies. He argues that the future has been colonised and that futures studies have become an instrument in that colonisation.

[“Anticipating the future nowadays … means little more than forecasting the future… and the future is little more than the transformation of society by new Western technologies.”  Sardar 2010. ]

[“The future is thus locked into a single, dominant but myopic projection.”]

Sardar is not alone in his critique of Futures Studies and the Westernised focus on a singular horizon.


Elenora Massini, writes [‘there is not just one future, there are many futures…’]She argues that the process of ‘visioning’ should be central to the study of possible futures. But we have to recognise that the visions of a desirable future are embedded in the social structures from which they emerge. Masini suggests the seeds of real change are almost always to be found on there periphery: in the non-Western cultures, among women and children, and ‘outsiders’ such as poets, artists and philosophers’.

Masini, Elenora (1982) Reconceptualising Futures: A Need and a Hope, World Future Society Bulletin, November/December 1982: 1-8.

“Futures thinking, argues Masini’ must be linked to social responsibility and to ethical values that are clearly expressed and defined, and it should be a continuous learning process.”

This is a complicated issue, and about criticising Western civilisation as the dominant mode of being and thinking, but about being open, inclusive, diverse and creative in the ways we imagine and represent the future.

“We, in the present time, need to look at the future in ways that go beyond the creation of beautifully conceived but ultimately illusive Utopias. Our future must not only be foreseen and dreamt of, but also chosen and built.” Masini 2006 Rethinking Futures Studies.


There is also a danger to the inverse of the argument that the West ignores perspectives that it consider ‘foreign, which is the fetishisation of the foreign as somehow being magical. This can be observed in the way the West has represented the [Asianness] of the future in movies like Bladerunner. David Morely and Kevin Robins (1995), use the term [Techno-orientalism], to refer to the way that Japan is represented in science fiction, particularly in the cyberpunk subgenre with regards to new technologies, such as Robotics and Cyborg enhancements, which presents Japan, as a technological utopia, that is ultimately another a form of discrimination known as ‘Othering’.  [Othering] is reductive, it reduces the differences between people and cultures to a category or stereotype, in which one way of being is considered to be greater or lesser than another, despite the anthropological sameness between people. Othering can be a particularly pernicious form of colonialism, in which the colonisers dominate by reducing the native civilisation to an inferior status, through the false binary relations of social class, race, gender, sexuality, religion or culture and so on..  


Another name for Future Studies is Futurology, a term proposed by the German Professor Ossip K. Fletchheim in the 1940s to describe a new type of science that would bring together the science of mathematics and probability, with the physical and the social sciences, and creative and critical thinking to predict and plan for the future. Jenny Andersson writes: “To Flechtheim, the future was not a science of prediction, but a new and more systematic utopian reflection on the present. Moreover, futurology was a veritable battleground for different future visions.” Andersson 2016. Fletchheim, though it was the job of universities to teach about the future, and imagined a New Democratic alternative for the future that would take humanity beyond simplistic notions such capitalism and communism, and other political-economic systems that had dominated in the 20th century.

[Ziauddin Sardar] identifies a couple of problems with the term [‘Futurology’]. First is the implication of crystal gazing and fortune telling, ‘like astrology’, that it was not grounded in the empirical sciences. Second, is the inverse problem that the term ‘ology’ has imperialistic connotations and Sardar sees “… a deliberate association with biology, entomology, palaeontology, and other ‘eulogies’ of science suggesting scientific neutrality and certitude.” He argues that “The pretension that exploration of the future is, or can be, an exact field of inquiry is both naive and dangerous.” (Sardar 2010, p.178-179)


There are also problems with the term ‘Futurism’, argues Wendell Bell, whose work on Futures Studies we have examined in previous videos and will return to in part two of this video. The term ‘Futurism’ argues Bell should be avoided at all cost because it is a label associated with the far right radical art movement that flourished in Italy during the early twentieth century.” Ziauddin Sardar also highlights a couple of interesting points to note about the fascist Italian ‘futurists’, as they called themselves.

[Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944)], was the patriarch of futurism, and his followers, replaced religious belief, with absolute certainty in the benefits of scientific process.

They believed that science would discover a way of knowing the future. Their vision of the future was totally technocratic and based on speed, technology, and fusion of man and machine. The Futurism movement wanted to destroy the past in every way: they wanted to get rid of, quote, the ‘…smell of gangrenous professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquarians…’, and ‘…to destroy old cities and museums, and set fire to the library shelves…’, as Marinetti declared in his Manifesto of Futurism. Not only was the future, monolithic under Futurism, but it could also only be realised by delinking the future from all human history. So for the Italian futurists, the future was not simply a domain of time but an ideology, Hence, it was an ‘ism’ like capitalism, socialism, communism, with a specific social and political worldview’ P.179The Futurists of Futures Studies – as we will explore later in this video and part two, are very different to the futurists under Marinetti’s model of Futurism.


Prediction is a major component of Future Studies, in fact, as Wendell Bell argues, Prediction is part of being human: [Children] learn to anticipate the future, as soon as they realise that crying results in reactions from others… As children learn a language, they begin by talking about the present, about objects and events in the here and now, and slowly begin to anticipate things not yet experienced … confusing words like yesterday and tomorrow. (Bell 1997 p4). A [prediction] is also a statement about the expected occurrence of some future event or outcome, and there are many subtypes of prediction, including forecasts, projections, prophecy, prognostication, anticipation, and expectation. Predictions are a necessary part of decision making and planning, which becomes routine to the human experience of social behaviour. Most people are moderately good at basic prediction, or existing would be difficult – as we predict the consequences of our action all the time, but that kind of prediction is usually about a time in the future that is very close to us. Distant prediction is something else entirely


If distant future prediction was possible it would be the end of humanity as well know it. This is one of the messages of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which is being remade by Denis Villeneuve for release in 2020. The protagonist in Dune, [Paul Atreides], and in later books, his son Leto, both gain the power of prescience, in which they can literally ‘see’ the future, and each immediately becomes slaves to it. By being able to predict the future, they become unable to alter it, locked forever in what Paul calls ‘The Golden Path’.This is also one of the paradoxes of time travel. That by travelling to the future and observing it we lock it into place. In the book ‘God Emperor of Dune’, Leto Atreides is attempting to breed a type of human that is immune from the power of prescience, and no longer able to predict the future and thus freeing humanity from enslavement by the future. By not knowing the future we are not tied to it, and events can occur that are not preordained.

[Laws of Future Studies]

Professor Jim Dator, somewhat jokingly proposed Dator’s Laws of Futures Studies.

  1. The future cannot be predicted because the future does not exist.
  2. Any useful idea about the futures should appear to be ridiculous
  3. We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

Predictions, forecasts, future scenarios, etc, do not provide us with knowledge of the future but they do suggest certain, limited possibilities.

Some predictions, for example, have a high degree of certainty – celestial mechanics, for example, can predict the movement of planetary bodies in the solar system with very reliable mathematical systems. But -“Nothing in society beyond the most trivial can be precisely predicted. “ argues Jim Dator. The future cannot be “predicted” but alternative futures can be “forecasted” and preferred futures “envisioned” and “invented” – continuously’. We can have knowledge of forecasts and visions, scenarios and expert opinions, concepts and methodologies of futures studies, but this is, of course, not the same things as knowing the future.” argues Dator. Moreover, argues Ziauddin Sardar, even if this knowledge of the future was possible we would not be able to recognise it, which is Dator’s Second Law of Futures: ‘any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous’, and it would be dismissed as such.

[Moore’s Law]

Some predictions, are actually observations, like Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore, was the co-founder of Intel, the American technology company, which invented the X86 series of microprocessors that are found in the majority of personal computers. Moore [observed] that the number of components on an integrated circuit doubled roughly every year in 1965 and revised that to two years in 1975. He predicted that this rate of growth would continue for at least a decade and was proven correct until around 2012 when chip manufacturers began to run into atomic physical limitations with the process for shrinking microchip technology.


Arthur C Clarke was a British science fiction author and futurist, who was famous for co-writing the 1968 film by Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey and proposing a communication satellite system using geostationary orbits in 1945. Clarke made a number of predictions about the future of communication technologies like email and video phones (now Skype and FaceTime), computers and the internet and search engines, mobile phones and smartwatches and other devices, that proved to be remarkably accurate and there a links to other videos on Clarke on the subject Moodle site. Clarke was simultaneously applauded and ridiculed for his ideas about the future. He said: “Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation.” He thought that a prediction would inevitably become caught between two boundaries.  One the one hand a prediction that is considered reasonable in the present would be regarded as conservative in the future. On the other hand, a prediction that is considered absurd or far-fetched might actually have a chance of imagining a real possible future. Similar to Dator’s second law, Clarke said: “If what I say now seems to be very reasonable, then I will have failed completely. Only if what I say appears absolutely unreasonable have we any chance of visualising the future as it really will happen.”


Rather than an accurate prediction or prophecy, we say that Futurists like Clarke have an aptitude for foresight.  Foresight, argues Sardar, implies action in the present responding to an anticipated future state of affairs. “When managers ask for foresight they are actually asking: how can I do this in the most prudent – that is careful and cautious – way to achieve the results that I want… What managers and bureaucrats want is a product… This is why foresight is most commonly associated with business and bureaucracies… And it has the added advantage of the illusion that the product comes wrapped with wisdom — with foresight!” (Sardar 2010 P. 180)


One of the early futurists was the writer H.G. Wells, perhaps most well known for his science fiction books, like [The Time Machine (1895)], [The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)] and [The War of the Worlds (1898)]. In 1932, Wells wrote a treatise, calling for Professors of Foresight, that would help the world cope with the increased pace of technological change. H.G. Wells wanted the world to be better prepared for the things to come and was concerned with our lack of foresight. For example, he saw that we did nothing to our roads until they were choked. In 1932 he thought it ridiculous that time had to be spent bringing the police force up to date with the new concept of the ‘motor bandit’. He thought the lack of foresight lead inevitably to war and violence. Wells said in a famous broadcast, we will be ‘brought together into one closely-knit freely communicating citizenship’. But Sardar warns that Well’s vision was myopic, he thought that through foresight we could become a single world state, with one money, one system and one united vision of the future that did not allow for multiple possibilities. “…Foresight is intrinsically singular in nature.” Argues Sardar. The term suggests a monochromatic vision, a solitary way of ‘foreseeing’ with a sole outcome. Indeed, there is no plural in the English language for foresight. Foresights does not really exist. P

[End of Part One]

There we are going to leave part one of this video, In the next video, we are going to look at the work of Wendell Bell, Futurist and Professor of Futures Studies and examine the nine majors purposes he proposes the future of futures studies.


Multiple Futures – Part Two [Intro]

Welcome back to this two-part video on the multiple futures of futures studies. In the following, we are going to focus on the nine major purposes that [Wendell Bell] outlines for the future of Futures Studies.

[Possible Futures]

The First purpose of Futures Studies is the study of Possible Futures. This often means defying orthodox and traditional thinking and even thinking unusual thoughts and taking on unpopular perspectives. This is very easy to say, and extremely difficult to do. It requires thinking about problems as opportunities and presenting obstacles and limitations as challenges that can be overcome. One of the great contributions of [Star Trek] to science fiction, is the representation of a diverse group of characters, sitting around a table, discussing a problem and deciding on way to solve the problem. To tackle possible futures it is important to present possibilities for the future as real and remembering that even if a thing isn’t happening, it could be. English philosopher and mathematician [Alfred North Whitehead] said: “Almost all new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when they are first produced.” We must be careful not to reject ideas because they seem impossible at the time, while we also must recognise the limitations of human and technical capacities for the time. When we try the impossible and fail, we learn. At one time, powered flight seemed like science fiction, a crazy dream. At another time going into space was thought impossible. To go back to Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry’s [original Star Trek series], which debuted in 1966, was thought ridiculous, not because of its technological predictions of matter teleportation or space warp travel, but because it showed a Black Woman and a Russian on the command crew.

[Probable Futures]

The Second Purpose of Futures Studies, is the account of probable futures. [Futurists ask what would the future be like if we continue to behave as we do right now?] This requires having excellent data about the present and the past, in order to model and forecast what the future will be like. This is a very important part of being a futurist – what will the future of Australia be like if we continue to rely on [coal power and fossil fuels]? Bell argues that Futurists are interested in the study of cause- and- effect relationships, and develop explanatory theories for the phenomena under consideration. Some futurists do direct research and others are “consumers” and “synthesisers” of knowledge created by other scientists and scholars.

[Images of the Future]

One of the reasons we are examining science fictions texts in the seminars for this subject is because images of the future work to shape the historical actions that people take. This is the third purpose of Futures Studies, according to Wendell Bell, which is to take seriously the idea that images of the future are among the causes of present behaviour. As potential contributors to the creative industries, and workers in the field of media and communication, I want you to be aware of the conditioning that images of the future have on the way we consider political, economic, social, cultural and technical potential and potential problems. Images of the Future aren’t just science fiction though, and they can be personal philosophies and understanding of the idea of the future.

[James A Mau’s] 1967’s Study of Images of the Future in Jamaica examined attitudes toward a time of immense change, as the first independent Jamaican government, was formed in 1962, leaving British imperialism. Mau used questionnaires and examined the responses of 53 Jamaican leaders, and found that those who expressed optimism about the nation’s future tended to be more knowledgeable, more egalitarian and more powerful than those who expressed more pessimistic ideas. By building a conception of progress into their “image of the future” the optimistic leaders contributed heavily to the ensuring that it would become a reality.”

Social Change and Images of the Future: A Study of the Pursuit of Progress in Jamaica. JAMES A. MAU. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1968. xiv + 146 pp., map, illustrations, tables, index. Reviewed by ROBIN MACKENZIE University of the West Indies

By examining the images of the future, their content, causes, and consequences, futurists can get a sense of an important factor guiding human behaviour and its expression of it.


Another example of Images of the Future is Soviet Retrofuturism – While America might have nominally ‘won’ the Space Race by landing astronauts on the moon in 1969, the Soviets were the first to launch a successful satellite, Sputnik 1 in 1957 and the first to put a human in earth orbit, when Yuri Gagarin journeyed into space and completely circled the Earth in 1961. By 1965 [Soviet Artists] were imagining what it would be like to live on the Moon, and were contributing images that would influence [a generation of children].

[Knowledge Foundations of Futures Studies]

The fourth purpose of Future Studies, according to Wendell Bell, is the study of the knowledge foundations of Futures Studies. This refers to both the philosophical grounds for the production of knowledge about the future and the intellectual and methodological procedures that produce it. One of the origins for Future Studies is known as operations research or operational research, which was developed during the cold war. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic ‘Dr Strangelove is an ‘image of the future’ dictated by the logic of Cold War era operations research. We will come back to this topic in a later video.

[Ethical Foundations of Futures Studies]

The fifth purpose of Future Studies is the study, evaluation and application of human goals and concerns that are guided by principles of the ‘good’ society’, and examination of the standards for judgement and evaluation of human nature and the world. Bell argues that Futures Studies should be concerned with care and concern for the well being of future generations. Futures Studies asks questions about the ethical foundations of its research: “Why, for example, is a sustainable society better than an unsustainable one? Why should present generations care for the well-being of future generations? Why should people want to cooperate with others, work toward a just society, desire peace and harmony, tell the truth, work hard, be loyal to others, respect authority, be generous, and so on?” (Bell 1999, p. 88)These questions are directed at leaders and experts, but also ordinary citizens.

[Interpreting the Past and Orienting the Present]

This leads directly into the sixth purpose of Futures Studies: the Interpretation of the Past and Orientation towards the Present. Bell returns to Maus study of the Images of the Future in Jamaica in the 1960s, arguing that before Jamaica began to form self-government, most of its history was written by Europeans, and focussed on events like naval battles in the Caribbean, ignoring the social and cultural histories of the people of African and East Indian descent. It wasn’t until these people began writing about the forced migration, the cruelties and injustices of the plantation slavery and indentured labour in the Caribbean that a new view of the past emerged. A new vision for Jamaican’s future emerged alongside a new view of the past that included the story of the long struggle for equality and social justice and independent statehood, through which, it was believed, that local freedom and equity would be achieved.

[“History is often the story we tell ourselves about the who we want to be.”] This is why the past is important to Futures Studies, as the past can help to shape our beliefs and aspirations about the future. Take for Example the Apology to The Stolen Generations, which Prime Minister Kevin Rudd presented to Indigenous Australians in 2008. Although the apology didn’t address compensation, it acknowledged the wrongs of the past and sought permission from those affected to begin to move forward based on that acknowledgement.  

[Integrating Knowledge and Values for Designing Social Action]

The seventh purpose of Futures Studies, according to Bell,  is the integration of knowledge and values for designing social action. This goes to Masini’s argument, which we talked about in part one of this video, and Sardar agrees, suggesting that we must treat the future as a learning process, one that involves: “Open-mindedness, diversity, flexibility, creativity,  and accepting that there will be few ultimate solutions, continually seeking information, giving up control to maintain influence, welcoming ideas invited elsewhere, accepting a participatory approach and regarding strategies as learning devices… Just as history teaches us about diversities about our different pasts, futures studies should emphasise our different futures.” (Sardar 1999). Designing social action requires us to be holistic and to be aware of our interconnections with other things in a complex set of interrelationships. This means that effective action and policy design must engage with the nature of the problem, the policy goals, the social context and the technological means that could be possibly used. Futures Studies is not always about dealing with crisis and it can involve asking what actions can be taken to change a stable and steady situation for the better? Bell describes the Futurist of  Futures Studies as a social systems designer – someone who uses images of possible futures as goals and motivation for positive social action

[Increasing Democratic Participation in Imagining and Designing the Future]

The eight purpose of Futures Studies, according to Wendell Bell, is the idea that futures studies must imagine and design a future that increases democratic participation. This might involve education, political activism, policy advocating, or engaging in research or participating in organisations like the World Futures Studies Federation, which aims to “encourage the democratisation of future-oriented thinking and acting”. Communications media of the past, including print, radio, television, and cinema have all played a role in providing audiences with information designed to encourage democratic participation and of course influence political decision making, but as we saw in previous videos these can also be tools for terrorism and fascism. New media and algorithmic media are similarly double-edged swords, in that they have the potential to be useful in advocating for direct democratic participation in thinking about and imagining the future, but they also have the potential to do great harm and channel public discussion and awareness about policy issues in detrimental ways. Bell argues that we must not give up on politics and politicians. “There is considerable evidence that such democracy, despite its sometimes frustrating slowness and occasionally paralysing public disagreements and debates, contributes toward human betterment more than authoritarianism.” (Bell 1999)

[Communicating and Advocating a Particular Image of the Future]

The final role of Futures Studies in Bell’s model is the communication and advocating of particular images of the futures. Futurists, he argues, engage with the transcendent elements of speculative and creative images, they contend with the contradictions of the present and imagine discontinuous futures that foretell the coming of new and different worlds. The challenge as Bell sees it, is not to be limited by the sterile faux utopianism of commercial design, not to be tricked or convinced by the better future promised by advertising the mundanity of commercialism embodied by better furniture, sportswear, devices, cars, real estate, beauty and fashion. Instead, we should be concerned with images that contribute to human betterment by translating knowledge and values into action. Proposing action, though, brings responsibilities. Action means that there may be consequences for people’s lives, making them better or worse than they are. Futurists, thus, must examine goals and values carefully. Future Studies to be purposeful can help develop capacities for logical analysis and creative imagination, promote critical judgement and caring, to strive for moral choices, and commit to the special job of envisioning and evaluating the consequences of an action for the future.

[The Future is now ]

That where we are going to finish this two-part video on Multiple Futures –  if there is anything you should take away from Bell nine purposes of Futures Studies is that Futures Studies is very much concerned with the now, because if you focus purely on prediction you are unlikely to have the right information to come up with a viable plan of action for the future.

So remember: the Future is Now.

%d bloggers like this: