The Future Is Soon. A Manifesto for Micro-Futures

In this post, I claim that focusing on timespans shorter than the traditional ones sheds new light on the study of the future.

I argue that a microperspective on time can shed new light on issues related to future and futures research. Here is a summary of the differences between a microperspective and more common timeframes of futures research. Below, I run the arguments underlying the issues.

AspectTraditional Long-Term ApproachMicroperspective Short-Term Approach
TimeframeTypically 5-50 years into the futureFocuses on shorter timespans, even down to minutes
Patterns and insightsIdentifies long-term patterns and trendsReveals how patterns are constituted and disrupted in brief moments
Human behaviorOften aggregates individual actions into broader trendsHighlights the nuances and impacts of individual human actions and responses
Interaction with environmentEmphasizes macro-level drivers and constraintsEmphasizes dynamic micro-level interactions between actors and environment
Unintended consequencesSeen as emerging over long timescalesCan manifest even in short-term interactions and conflicts
Relationality to futuresFocused on long-term desirability and achievabilityShows how relatability depends on immediate experiences and processes
Methodological focusLooks for macro-level patterns and driversZooms in on micro-level interactions and moment-to-moment dynamics
LimitationsMay overlook short-term dynamics and granular human factorsMay not fully capture broader context and long-term evolution of systems
Key applicationsLong-range strategic planning and visioningIlluminating how short-term dynamics shape the future and providing analogies for understanding long-term patterns that are challenging to discern with conventional timeframes

Futures research has focused on relatively long timespans, ranging normally from 5-50 years (Nordlund 2012). However, it is unclear why this is so, or has to be so. Why is five years from now a future while five minutes is not? The possible answers reflect the history of futures research as well as the goals and nature of futures research. First, historical roots of futures research in national and military planning (Bell 2009, 19; 28-31) probably contributed to the adoption of specific timeframes that were seen as useful in the domains and that thereby shaped the methodological innovations (Bell 2009, 30). Secondly, futures research and futurist have been in the service of clients, and the effect of this is reported by Brier’s (2005, 843) survey. Thirdly, there has been a need for academic identity that separates futures research from mere client-oriented foresight (Brier 2005, 838-840), from those who discuss the near future in media (Brier 2005, 840, and from other fields of research. This final point, concerning the “scientific” identity, is related to the fourth answer: The basic tenet of futures research is to study possible, probable, and desirable futures are studied (Amara 1974; Bell 2009). An essential component in this mapping of futures is the critical study of our own conceptions that different views on the future (Bell 2009; Inayatullah 1998; Inayatullah & Milojevic 2015). Given this, there has to be room for change that could lead to alternative futures. As reported by Brier (2005, 841), it has been explicitly stated that, in short periods of time, not enough change can happen, and thus the focus is on longer timespans. The objects of futures research and what thereby separates it from other fields suggest certain timespan related to the notion of future.

While the long timescale is justified in futures research, it would be unfortunate to conclude that futures research is nothing more than the study of what could and should happen in a long timescale. This is not the case. Not everything that says things about possible futures is futures research even if timescales are shared. Rather, futures research focuses on processes and factors that potentially shape the future and on the methodology that tracks these processes and factors. It is far from obvious that the study of events, processes, and patterns of a long timespan is the only way to investigate how time shapes human lives and how people interact with the reality through time.

In order to see how futures research is connected to what we wish to know, it is insightful to start from the opposite direction and see why futures research does not usually engage with very long timeframes that go beyond 50 years or so. In Brier (2005), the following reasons are given. First, the longer timescales are beyond the needs of clients. Second, people cannot relate to futures further away. Third, forecasting becomes more difficult with longer timescales for many reasons. Fourth, the further we go, the more the futures sound like science-fiction to audiences. Fifth, accounts of the future affect the future, and the longer the timescale, the more intertwined these two become. Three of these issues hit the scientific core of futures studies: difficulties in estimating the future, the entanglement of the future with accounts of it, and the (in)ability to relate to certain futures.

First, difficulties in telling the future have been extensively discussed in futures research. Many reasons for these difficulties have been given. They range from metaphysical to methodological to conceptual. For example, Bell argues, following Amara (1981), that the future is open: “The future is a domain of liberty not simply because we cannot know the future in any certain sense. It is also because the future itself is contingent, not only of our knowing of it” (2009, 151). Methodological reasons are discussed, for example, by Gordon (1992). He concludes “Do the methods work? Certainly, under limited conditions and for limited intervals. Will they ever be perfect? Not as long as chance plays a role in determining the future and people can decide to take action” (1992, 35). Conceptual reasons are discussed, for example, by Virmajoki (2022) who argues that interesting futures can be beyond what can be conceived.

Secondly, that accounts of the future affect the future through human behavior has been pointed out already by Popper (1957, 13) and has been taken pretty much for granted. This entanglement is even built into the core of futures research when the field is related to the purposes of emancipation and planning (see Bell 1997; Marien 2002). Surely, there has been also a focus on unexpected and unintended consequences (e.g., McDermott 1993) but this focus is logical only if expected and intended consequences serve as the contrast.

Thirdly, people´s ability to relate to certain futures is studied when (i) desirable futures are studied, and also (ii) when the participation of different groups in futures research is discussed (Bell 1997, 93-95). For example, Sand (2019) discusses different senses in which people might “not have a future” and argues that we should be “aware that there are numerous people, who neither entertain their own vision of a desirable socio-technical future [–], nor do they have the means to strategically position them in the discourse and, thereby, contribute to their realization” (p. 99).

The three issues related to the choice of timescale discussed above are connected to time and temporality not only in their implications for how long timespans futures research focus on but also in terms of sources of insight in futures research. Inaytullah (2008) names timing the future as one of the six pillars of futures research. Timing “is the search for the grand patterns of history and the identification of each one of our models of change” (p. 10). In a similar spirit, Wright et al. argue that one of the main objectives of futures research is “enhancing understanding: of the causal processes, connections and logical sequences underlying events — thus uncovering how a future state of the world may unfold” (Wright et al. 2013, 631). Timescales are also discussed in Inayatullah (1998B) where it is argued that the “Macrohistory through its delineation of the structures of history [–] provides a structure from which to forecast and gain insight into the future. [– Macrohistory] allows us to distinguish between what are mere perturbations and what are genuine historical transformations” (p. 381-382). What can be asserted about the future depends on the type of patterns and structures that can be found in the past. Different types of patterns, for example those that describe perturbations or genuine change, are applicable in different timescales.

However, the type of patterns that are sought, how they are applied in futures research, and what difficulties the application faces depend on the timescale. Central and interesting questions are how patterns are constituted, why they sometimes collapse, and what this tells about people´s relation to the future. I argue that this is an issue on which insights can be provided on the basis of what we call microperspective on time. There appear to be important interrelated phenomena on which a microperspective can shed light:

First, a microperspective can illuminate how patterns are constituted and why they fail. It can do this in two ways, ontological and analogical. Ontologically speaking, the structure of long processes is constituted by parts and activities that are shorter processes and events. A focus on these shorter processes and events contributes to the understanding of the longer processes. Secondly, the insights that a microperspective provides can provide analogies that can be utilized in understanding longer patterns. In both ontological and analogical ways, a microperspective can tell why it is difficult to estimate the future. We saw above that these difficulties were a reason why timescales are often restricted to certain lengths in future research and that the analyses of the difficulties belong to the scientific core of futures research. A microperspective can strengthen the foundations of futures research.

Secondly, a microperspective can illuminate how human behavior can change in response to the patterns either consciously or without an explicit understanding of the rules. People constantly estimate the future and attempt to affect it for their own benefit. These actions shape the environment in a way that might be beneficial or harmful to how people estimated the future. A microperspective allows us to zoom in on the types of interactions between environment, future estimations, and future-oriented action. As we saw above, the entanglement of the future with accounts of it is at the core of futures research. A microperspective can shed light on this issue and, again, provide insight into the foundations of futures research.

Thirdly, a microperspective illuminates how there are conflicts between groups of actors that cause a lack of coordination in the behavior. Different actors wish to define and shape the reality in a way that leads to consequences that neither wish to have. This is interesting, as one respondent in Brier’s survey (2005, 841) suggested that the timescale of futures research depends on “the number of years it takes for unintended consequences of today’s dominant tendencies to become themselves the dominant tendencies”. This phenomenon does not require a years-long perspective to be seen. Moreover, we can see that there can be conflicts between groups even when they share the same overall goal. In general, microperspective on time can illuminate how conflicts and desires work in the constitution of the future and thus sheds light on how and why (and why not) people can relate to certain futures and find them valuable.

Future is all around us and it is very often soon. This omnipresence of the next moment is an interesting phenomenon.


Nordlund, G. (2012). Time-scales in futures research and forecasting. Futures

Brier, D. (2005). Marking the future: a review of time horizons. Futures

Bell, W. (2009). Foundations of Futures Studies. Part 1.

Gordon, T. (1992). The Methods of Futures Research. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

Inayatullah, S. (2008). Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming. Foresight

Inayatullah, S. and Milojevic, I. (Eds.) (2015). CLA 2.0.

Inayatullah, S. (1998). Causal layered analysis. Poststructuralism as method. Futures

Inayatullah, S. (1998B). Macrohistory and futures studies. Futures

Wright, G. & Bradfield, R. & Cairns, G. (2013). Does the intuitive logics method – and its recent enhancements – produce “effective” scenarios?. Technological Forecasting and Social Change

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