biomatrix systems theory blog

the case of futures research

Futures research concerns itself with how systems change and develop in the course of time. I would therefore argue that it represents the temporal perspective of systems theory and that the underlying worldview of futures research is systems thinking.

Moreover, it concerns itself with systems from all spheres of life (i.e. the socio-, techno- and naturosphere). It should therefore be part of any transdisciplinary inquiry. (See also blog entry on Reflections on transversal issues.)

Some futurists (e.g. Linstone) distinguish between two types of forecasting, exploratory and normative. This is analogous to the distinction of the current and ideal futures in systems thinking.

Exploratory forecasting involves extrapolating the current structure or behaviour of a system into the future and exploring the outcomes of this. Since the environment will also change, the future outcomes will differ from the current ones. Alternative assumptions about environmental changes and the system’s response to them give rise to alternative future scenarios.

Normative forecasting explores the desirable future of a system and how the system can attain it. The latter exploration involves backcasting.

Systems thinking provides useful insights and tools for the exploration of the current future (e.g. systems dynamics models, strategic assumption surfacing) and ideal future (e.g. theoretical insights on the difference between problem solving and dissolving through ideal system redesign). It also provides insights of how systems change (e.g. co-production across three levels), types of change within and between systems (e.g. clockwise and counter-clockwise flow of change) and the outcomes of change (e.g. Type I versus Type II or emergent properties). Systems thinking also contributes methods of change management (i.e. how to analyse a system and its possible futures and how to create a more ideal future). (See for our approaches to the management of organisational and societal development and change.)

As a note of concern: I recently attended a presentation of the 2012 State of the Future report by the Millennium Project. In my interactions with attending futurists, I noted a lack of systemic understanding around the difference between

  • alternative scenarios (i.e. current future scenarios) and an ideal design (i.e. an ideal future scenario) and
  • the nature of change in systems with relatively fixed functioning (i.e. nature’s systems) and in those with a greater freedom of choice (i.e. human social systems).

This reflects a current future mindset.

Futurists have an important role to play in (dis)solving humanity’s perplexing problems which we know cannot be achieved without a paradigm shift towards systems thinking. They therefore need to be systems thinkers and systemic change facilitators.
Since I had some input to the education of futurists (through a lecture on systems thinking to the students of the M.Phil. programme of the Institute for Futures Research), I blame myself for obviously having failed to get this message across. I have since made suggestions for the redesign of the curriculum of that programme based on systems thinking.

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