The Greatest Mystery in Futures Research

Futures research, despite being a dedicated field with unique goals, methods, and assumptions, carries a mystery. This specialized discipline delves into potential scenarios across all domains of life, every single one of which is also studied by another research field. Hence, the existence of futures research as an independent field poses a significant mystery:

Why do we need futures research as an independent field?

This post discusses the mystery and analyses the need for futures research and the unique contributions it makes to our understanding of various domains of life.

Each domain of life, from the natural to the human sciences, is extensively explored by dedicated fields of research. These disciplines delve into both the past and present states of their subject matter, building comprehensive bodies of knowledge. Hence, the question arises: if all aspects of life are already being examined by different research fields, what unique role does futures research play? What untouched facets of life’s domains does it explore, or what novel perspectives does it bring to bear, that explains its existence as an independent discipline?

Perhaps futures research could be making explicit the implicit aspects of other fields. This is exemplified by techniques such as the Delphi method, which draws heavily on expert opinions to extricate insights. This process of extracting could be perceived as “squeezing out” insights from the contributing experts’ respective fields, thus introducing a unique vantage point. Yet, this explanation does not entirely demystify the exclusive role of futures research. Why don’t other fields already do the this “squeezing” if it is of any value?

If we position futures research as a discipline dedicated to exploring the future of these domains, while other fields are engaged with their past and present, we encounter another mystery. All knowledge about the future is essentially extrapolated from what we understand about the past and the present. The future, in itself, is an unknown territory. This observation further deepens the mystery surrounding futures research.

Suppose futures research offers a unique way of studying domains of life. How could it be possible that other fields overlook these approaches when producing content about the domains? Could it be that futures research has distinct methods of collating and interpreting data that lead to different insights? However, acknowledging this would imply accepting that all other disciplines somehow miss out on a crucial perspective. Considering the vast depth and breadth of knowledge other fields have accumulated over centuries, it is difficult to conceive that they have missed out on something so fundamental.

Perhaps we already touched upon the answer to our mystery. Perhaps futures research is a field that, in essence, generates understanding how current knowledge can be projected into the future in various ways? The belief that futures research’s essence lies in generating an understanding of how knowledge projection should be done could be a plausible stance. This viewpoint could lend itself to solving part of the mystery by suggesting that the role of futures research is less about estimating specific future events and more about constructing the conceptual and methodological frameworks for how future projections are created and evaluated. However, this stance leaves unanswered questions as futures research often does generate novel content about future scenarios rather than solely assessing projections. This observation once again drowns us into the depths of the mystery. If the core purpose of futures research is not necessarily to estimate the content of the possible futures but the nature of projections, how does it manage to consistently produce innovative and insightful content about the future?

An alternative perspective would be to argue that futures research integrates not just the knowledge generated by other research fields but also the perceptions and expectations of people in their diversity about the future. This view suggests that futures research derives its novelty from its inclusivity of public sentiment and opinion. However, this perspective raises further difficult questions. Do laypeople possess insights about the future that elude seasoned researchers? And if they do, why should these insights be confined to futures research instead of being integrated into other relevant fields that study the same domains?

Moreover, the role of people’s perceptions and expectations in predicting the future is rather unclear. Converting people’s beliefs into credible future scenarios involves a significant amount of interpretation and assumptions, adding another layer of complexity. Maybe these assumptions are the true focus of futures research? If we consider the existing body of work in the field, this proposition does not seem to be entirely accurate. Futures research creates contents and does not focus merely on theoretical assumptions that are needed to derive scenarios from beliefs. Far from it.

The very existence of futures research as a distinct field poses a considerable mystery within the academic landscape, given that every domain of life is comprehensively studied by other established fields. While the exploration of future scenarios might imply a unique focus or methodology, all knowledge of the future is essentially an extrapolation from past and present understandings, making the novelty of futures research perplexing. The field’s uniqueness may lie in its expert-heavy methods like the Delphi technique, which could reveal previously implicit knowledge, or its approach to incorporating people’s ideas about the future. However, these unique aspects do not fully explain its distinct role, especially considering the field’s ability to generate novel insights about the future. In conclusion, the true essence of futures research remains a persistent mystery, underscoring the need for further investigation into its unique existence and contributions.

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