Top books and courses to help you better perceive and understand the future

We heard you like book recommendations, so here's some more!

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August 11, 2022

Foresight - the ability to sense what might happen or what will be needed in the future - is one of the most coveted skills in this pretty unstable era of accelerating change and disruption. It’s also one of the hardest arts to master. Many are the futurists out there, but few the predictions that turn out to be valuable in one way or other.

So I drew up this list to provide inspiration and insights into the models, mind-sets and tools that are needed to be able to extract probabilities and potential from what has yet to arrive. These books and courses are not about which trends are around the corner, but about how you could become better at recognizing or even creating them.

Some of the suggestions are derived from my own research. Others were recommended by foresight professionals like Martine Delannoy (imec), Reon Brand (Philips Design), Jerry Michalski (Curator of The World’s Largest Mind Map) and Thomas D'hooge (VIVES) whom I sincerely thank for their wonderful input.

Make sure to combine these corporate methodologies with other voices

An important caveat to add here is that some of the sources below are specialized in corporate foresight with an emphasis in technology forecasting and/or scenario planning. Their methodology can influence our future perspective in ways that might underestimate the forces of (and impact on) society and the environment, whilst favoring business and technology. I did include them in the list anyway, because they have their value, but just be aware of their biases.

And also be sure to combine their insights with thinkers on a more philosophical and/or techno-ecological level like Neri Oxman (Material Ecology), Kate Franklin and Caroline Till (Radical Matter) or William Myers (Bio Design). I have Reon Brand of Philips to thank for that insight. He believes that if the era of futures will only be driven by human needs and aspirations and/or technological possibilities, this will only accelerate the demise for the planet. And I do agree that we should think beyond “the human” and focus on “humanity”, which includes all layers of society, its environment (the planet) and every zone that has a (direct or indirect) relationship with us as a species. Jerry Michalski also suggested looking into indigenous thinkers that fuse modernity with indigenous ways of knowing: like Melanie Goodchild, Tyson Yunkaporta and Robin Wall Kimmerer.

So keep in mind that looking at the future is never a neutral exercise. The experts and their methodologies will always steer you in a certain direction. Which is why it’s necessary to complement the insights from more “hard core” foresight thinkers and experts below with other voices, from other backgrounds and cultures with different perspectives and methodologies.

Part 1: The books: from the classics to new material

Imaginable, by Jane McGonigal

In Imaginable, future forecaster and game designer Jane McGonigal draws on the latest scientific research in psychology and neuroscience to show how to train your mind to think the unthinkable and imagine the unimaginable. She invites to play with the provocative thought experiments and future simulations she’s designed exclusively for this book, with the goal to:

  • Build our collective imagination so that we can dive into the future and envision, in surprising detail, what our lives will look like ten years from now
  • Develop the courage and vision to solve problems creatively
  • Take actions and make decisions that will help shape the future we desire
  • Access “urgent optimism,” an unstoppable force within each of us that activates our sense of agency

From What Is to What if, by Rob Hopkins

In these times of deep division and deeper despair, if there is a consensus about anything in the world, it is that the future is going to be awful. There is an epidemic of loneliness, an epidemic of anxiety, a mental health crisis of vast proportions, especially among young people. There's a rise in extremist movements and governments. Catastrophic climate change. Biodiversity loss. Food insecurity. The fracturing of ecosystems and communities beyond, it seems, repair. The future--to say nothing of the present--looks grim.

But as Transition movement cofounder Rob Hopkins tells us, there is plenty of evidence that things can change, and cultures can change, rapidly, dramatically, and unexpectedly--for the better. We do have the capability to effect dramatic change, Hopkins argues, but we're failing because we've largely allowed our most critical tool to languish: human imagination. And if there was ever a time when we needed that ability, it is now.

From What Is to What If is a call to action to reclaim and unleash our collective imagination, told through the stories of individuals and communities around the world who are doing it now, as we speak, and witnessing often rapid and dramatic change for the better.

Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Everyone would benefit from seeing further into the future, whether buying stocks, crafting policy, launching a new product, or simply planning the week’s meals. Unfortunately, people tend to be terrible forecasters. As Wharton professor Philip Tetlock showed in a landmark 2005 study, even experts’ predictions are only slightly better than chance. However, an important and underreported conclusion of that study was that some experts do have real foresight, and Tetlock has spent the past decade trying to figure out why. What makes some people so good? And can this talent be taught?

In Superforecasting, Tetlock and coauthor Dan Gardner offer a masterwork on prediction, drawing on decades of research and the results of a massive, government-funded forecasting tournament. The Good Judgment Project involves tens of thousands of ordinary people—including a Brooklyn filmmaker, a retired pipe installer, and a former ballroom dancer—who set out to forecast global events. Some of the volunteers have turned out to be astonishingly good. They’ve beaten other benchmarks, competitors, and prediction markets. They’ve even beaten the collective judgment of intelligence analysts with access to classified information. They are "superforecasters."

In this groundbreaking and accessible book, Tetlock and Gardner show us how we can learn from this elite group. Weaving together stories of forecasting successes (the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound) and failures (the Bay of Pigs) and interviews with a range of high-level decision makers, from David Petraeus to Robert Rubin, they show that good forecasting doesn’t require powerful computers or arcane methods. It involves gathering evidence from a variety of sources, thinking probabilistically, working in teams, keeping score, and being willing to admit error and change course.

The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, by Amy Webb

The Signals Are Talking reveals a systemic way of evaluating new ideas bubbling up on the horizon-distinguishing what is a real trend from the merely trendy. This book helps hear which signals are talking sense, and which are simply nonsense. The idea is to know today what developments -especially those seemingly random ideas at the fringe as they converge and begin to move toward the mainstream - have long-term consequence for tomorrow.

With the methodology developed in The Signals Are Talking, readers learn how to think like a futurist and answer vitally important questions: How will a technology-like artificial intelligence, machine learning, self-driving cars, biohacking, bots, and the Internet of Things-affect us personally? How will it impact businesses and workplaces? How will it eventually change the way we live, work, play, and think-and how should we prepare for it now?

Most importantly, Webb shows that the future isn't something that happens to us passively. Instead, she allows us to see ahead so that we may forecast what's to come-challenging us to create our own preferred futures.

The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz

What increasingly affects all of us, whether professional planners or individuals preparing for a better future, is not the tangibles of life - bottom-line numbers, for instance - but the intangibles: our hopes and fears, our beliefs and dreams. Only stories – scenarios - and our ability to visualize different kinds of futures adequately capture these intangibles.

In The Art of the Long View, Peter Schwartz outlines the "scenaric" approach, giving you the tools for developing a strategic vision within your business. Schwartz describes the new techniques, originally developed within Royal/Dutch Shell, based on many of his firsthand scenario exercises with the world's leading institutions and companies, including the White House, EPA, BellSouth, PG&E, and the International Stock Exchange.

The Trend Forecaster's Handbook, by Martin Raymond

This 'how to' book provides the skills to understand and track trends and use them to inform research, design and product development. Highly visual, the book introduces the world of trend forecasting and consumer insight in a step–by–step way, with quotes from, interviews with and case studies of key players. Each chapter provides practical exercises and examples that allow to experience the techniques or methodologies explored.

Trends are a fundamental part of our emotional, physical and psychological landscape, and by forecasting trends we can begin to understand what drives and motivates consumers. This in turn can help to make the difference between a design that sells and one that languishes on the shelf.

The Future, by Nick Montfort

In this volume of the MIT Press's Essential Knowledge series, Nick Montfort argues that the future is something to be made, not predicted. Montfort offers what he considers essential knowledge about the future, as seen in the work of writers, artists, inventors, and designers (mainly in Western culture) who developed and described the core components of the futures they envisioned.

Montfort's approach is not that of futurology or scenario planning; instead, he reports on the work of making the future—the thinkers who devoted themselves to writing pages in the unwritten book. Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Ted Nelson didn't predict the future of computing, for instance. They were three of the people who made it.

How to research trends, Els Dragt

Understanding trends, the emerging values and needs of groups in society provides you with a foundation to innovate and create change. This book gives you a candid and unbiased overview of the trend research process. lt brings a structured, research-based approach to the table instead of a crystal ball.

This book is written for everyone interested in human-centred innovation and for everyone interested in learning more about trend research. Trend research includes so much more than just hypes, styles and the latest gadgets. It studies change and provides an analysis of emerging shifts in people’s needs and wants. These trend insights are essential during any innovation process as a foundation to create future proof concepts that improve people’s quality of life.

Based on a 3 step method, you will learn in a hands-on way to scan your environment for signs of change, analyse your trend spots and apply your trend insights to kick start innovation. This book synthesises existing theories, concepts and ideas on trend research. The interviews with experts and students will guide you on your trend journey. This will help you to innovate and create change in the short and long term and execute your own trend research.

Rethinking strategy, by Steve Tighe

Author and strategist Steve Tighe helps you use scenarios to envisage what your industry and organisation could look like in the future and prepare for what’s to come. Through detailed case studies and practical tools, this guide reveals how to make strategy development your organisation’s principal creative and learning activity.

With Rethinking Strategy, you’ll learn how to make better decisions and thrive alongside increasing competition and uncertainty:

  • Anticipate impending market shifts before they emerge
  • Slow down change by making the future familiar
  • Unlock the entrepreneurial talentthat lies within your organisation
  • Mobilise an army of internaladvocates to drive strategy execution
  • Embed foresight intoyour planning and innovation processes

Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World, by Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian & John Seely Brown

Design Unbound presents a new tool set for having agency in the twenty-first century, in what the authors characterize as a white water world—rapidly changing, hyperconnected, and radically contingent. These are the tools of a new kind of practice that is the offspring of complexity science, which gives us a new lens through which to view the world as entangled and emerging, and architecture, which is about designing contexts. In such a practice, design, unbound from its material thingness, is set free to design contexts as complex systems.

In a world where causality is systemic, entangled, in flux, and often elusive, we cannot design for absolute outcomes. Instead, we need to design for emergence. Design Unbound not only makes this case through theory but also presents a set of tools to do so. With case studies that range from a new kind of university to organizational, and even societal, transformation, Design Unbound draws from a vast array of domains: architecture, science and technology, philosophy, cinema, music, etc.

Part 2: the courses

Become a Futurist: Futures Studies course with Sohail inayatullah

This course offered by the educational think tank METAFUTURE is focused on teaching the knowledge, the methods and the tools needed to master the Six Pillars approach to Futures Studies. Lecturer Sohail inayatullah has 40 years of experience as a futurist and came highly recommended by several foresight professionals in my network.

More information here.

Futures Thinking Specialization, by Jane McGonigal

This course, offered by the Institute for the Future, was also suggested by several foresight professionals in my network. It teaches the skills and mindsets of the world’s top futurists, so you can forecast what’s coming, imagine new possibilities, and seize control of your own future.

More information here.  

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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August 11, 2022