Future studies, University of Turku, masters degree programme,

Why Futures Studies?

18 March 2019 by Jonathon Murphy

One of the main questions I have had to answer ever since I started my degree programme is “why Futures Studies?” Closely followed by “what is Futures Studies?” and, if the other person is feeling particularly clever, “do you use a crystal ball?” (everyone thinks they are the first person to make this joke…) However, it is true that Futures Studies as an academic discipline is not as well-established as other, more traditional subjects. With this in mind, I thought I would offer a brief overview of the programme here at UTU, as well as outlining my own motivations for applying.

At its core, Futures Studies is an interdisciplinary perspective exploring possible, probable and preferable futures. Note the use of the plural here – rather than attempting to predict what will definitely happen, Futures Studies creates and examines different alternatives. In order to do this, Futures researchers use a variety of methods, from building different future scenarios based on key socioeconomic variables, to conducting interviews and workshops with experts in a particular field. The impact of unlikely or unpredictable events (so-called ‘Black Swans’) are also considered.

The programme at UTU provides a solid foundation in Futures Studies through its core modules, which are taken in the first year. You can then choose optional modules depending on what interests you (so far I have taken additional courses in sustainability and strategic foresight). The current degree outline can be found in the online university guide here.

During my classes so far I can broadly group our discussions into two distinct categories:

  • Philosophical issues, for example: ‘Does the future exist?’ ‘Can we ever possess knowledge about the future?’ ‘What ethical responsibility do we have to future generations?’ (Basically the type of deep questions that will keep you up at night if you’re not careful)
  • Practical concerns, for example: ‘What will happen to the population of city X by 2050, in light of variables a, b and c?’ ‘How should company Y develop, bearing in mind factors 1 and 2?’ (Questions that should be considered by those working in strategy or policy units)

On a personal level, my background is in philosophy so I am always happy to engage with the big, often unanswerable questions. However, I also feel that the act of planning for the future is incredibly important. During my career in the Education sector so far, I have often found that ‘long-term strategy’ rarely extends beyond 3-5 years. The methods offered within Futures Studies typically have a minimum time span of 10 years, meaning that you have to look beyond short-term goals. Of course, this is by no means easy! But global issues such as climate change, overpopulation and the influence of new technologies are not going to go away, so the quicker we can engage with them, the better.

My aim for the course is to gain a stronger awareness of these issues, along with the necessary tools to apply them to my own field. I am also inspired by the work going on in other areas. One of the advantages of Futures Studies is that its methods can be applied to almost any other discipline. This means that the course at UTU is made up of participants from a variety of different backgrounds, including business, international relations and city planning. This leads to some fascinating seminar discussions as we approach global issues from different perspectives.

If this sounds interesting and you would like to know more, the Finland Futures Research Centre has a solid online presence. Their YouTube channel is a good place to start, as you can watch some introductory lectures and get a feel for the programme. In the video below, Professor Petri Tapio discusses some of the main methods used in Futures research (I am currently writing an essay for this class, so perhaps I should rewatch this video as well..!).

The department also has a research blog, with posts written in English and Finnish (the blogs on climate change are a nice illustration of how futures work links to real-life issues). For super keen readers, Why Futures Studies? by Eleanor Masini is a classic introductory text, although it may be difficult to find outside of a university library.

To anyone thinking of applying to Futures Studies at UTU – I hope that helps! You are of course welcome to contact me using the comment section below if you have any questions 🙂

Until next time!