A History of Future Studies

The future has always been bound with anxiety and has therefore, from earliest antiquity, generated all kinds of anxiety-reducing practices. These have been identified and analysed particularly interestingly by Bernard Cazes in his Histoire des futurs (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008, new edition).

Future Studies, as we practice them today, have largely developed since the Second World War:

1) First in the USA where, during the inter-war years, William Ogburn indisputably performed pioneering work with his ‘President’s Research Committee on Social Trends’ (1933), followed by his report on ‘Technological Trends and National Policy’ commissioned by Franklin Roosevelt. The real take-off of modern foresight studies occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, with the American Air Force assuming a leading role.

That organization commissioned from Theodore von Karman a study of technical advances that might be of military interest (‘Towards New Horizons’, 1947) and, most importantly, entrusted Douglas Aircraft a few years later with a research and development project (the Rand Project) on the non-terrestrial aspects of international conflicts.

Out of this sprang the Rand Corporation (1948) where, at the behest of Olaf Helmer, Theodore J Gordon and Herman Kahn (author of a magisterial work, On Thermonuclear War), most of the ‘formalized’ foresight methods were later developed—particularly the Delphi method and, most importantly, the scenarios method. These three personalities went on to create the Institute for the Future, the Future Group and the Hudson Institute.

This was also the time when the first concerns around planetary resources emerged (Paley Report).

2) In France in the late 1950s Gaston Berger reinvented the term ‘Prospective’ in an article published in La Revue des Deux Mondes (n° 3, 1957) and Bertrand de Jouvenel coined the term ‘futuribles’, which he explained in 1972 in his book L’Art de la Conjecture [The Art of Conjecture], to refer to the group he created in 1960. Both were driven by concerns that were predominantly humanistic and societal. Similar groups would burgeon rapidly in France, at the instigation initially of the Groupe d’études prospectives, which had some thirty members (intellectuals, teachers, industrialists and senior civil servants), then of the Futuribles International Committee, itself comprising, from the beginning, intellectuals from some twenty different countries.
According to Edward Cornish, the author of a very comprehensive work on the movement, it arose in France in reaction to the defeat of 1940, building upon the inter-war ‘existentialist’ school of thought and closely associated with the post-war reconstruction effort under the influence of the State Planning Commission, under whose auspices the famous ‘Groupe 1985’ was founded by Pierre Massé in 1962. This group took as its aim ‘to study, on the basis of indicative facts, what it would be useful to know right now about the France of 1985.’
Foresight or Future Studies also developed elsewhere in Europe (the ‘Mankind 2000’ group, for example).

There would be many ‘futurists’ in the ‘Club of Rome’, created and chaired by Aurelio Peccei in the very early years of the 1970s, which became particularly famous through the report it commissioned from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( M.I.T.), published under the editorship of Dennis and Donella Meadows, William Behrens and Jorgen Ranger as The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972) shortly before the first oil shock.

The 1970s were years when a number of structures were created (the Club of Rome, the World Futures Studies Federation, the Club of Dakar etc.). They also saw some major international conferences, the establishment of government programmes (the Swedish Secretariat for Futures Studies, the SESAME group within the French National Agency for Spatial Planning etc.), the first private consultancies (Société d’économie et de mathématiques appliquées/SEMA), followed by international programmes within the UN (The Leontieff report on The Future of the World Economy, 1976), the OECD (the Interfutures Programme, headed by Jacques Lesourne, which produced a report in 1979) and the European Commission, where Jacques Delors created a ‘forecasting unit’.

The priority themes of studies have evolved over time, as have the methods and main actors (both those commissioning the studies and those producing them). Michel Godet, for example, first working for SEMA then at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, has contributed to the spread of formalized methods and tools through his Manuel de prospective stratégique [Strategic Foresight Handbook] (Paris: Dunod, 2007, 3rd edition). A sizeable production of foresight studies has developed in the UK at the behest of Sam Cole and Ian Miles, first within SPRU (which subsequently became PREST) and today at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Innovation Research. Large consulting firms would also engage in future studies, some of them doing such work as their main activity (such as the Global Business Network, created by Peter Schwartz or the Coates & Jarrat Institute).

However, despite the diversification of practices, the body of philosophical/political writings of the subject has generally remained true to the pioneers. On the other hand, the character of foresight exercises has changed, both as a function of the producers of the studies and also of the nature of the commissions and funding. Nowadays, national governments are less keen on large foresight studies of the kind carried out in the 1970s and 80s. By contrast, local and regional authorities have been engaging more in these, as—in a diffferent form—have companies, some of which have played a major role, such as Shell, EDF, General Electric, Nokia etc.

Moreover, new tendencies have appeared, such as ‘foresighting  the present’, which stresses the importance of actors’ participation in the definition of what is desirable, and a foresight approach based more on the horizon-scanning function, if not indeed on strategic or territorial intelligence.