Futures Research Methodologies: Linking Today’s Decisions With Tomorrow’s Possibilities di Darlene E. Weingand
ABSTRACT - The intent of this paper is to suggest that the use of futures research methodologies can inform today’s decision-making. While not claiming to be predictive, futures research can develop intelligent forecasts concerning what is possible while indicating strategies for working toward desired goals. In a time of accelerating change, these methodologies can help library managers to cope successfully with uncertainty and move confidently into tomorrow.
The future is an abstract concept through which human beings bring symbolic order to the present and meaning to past endeavors. Speculative pondering of what “might be” appears to be a key attribute of what it means to be human. Human coping strategies are often centered on the organization of present activities in the context of both past experiences and future goals. Yet, it is not until the last part of the twentieth century that research in the academic sense has been formalized, moving this intense interest in the future beyond the role of the Delphic oracle or the religious prophet.
Today’s speculations on the future have moved from the realm of fantasy or literary allusion into the pragmatic world of societal and institutional need to explore tomorrow in order to more fully understand the demands of today and the critical decisions that must be made. It is no longer enough to wonder what the future might bring; it is necessary to critically assess potential future scenarios and incorporate well-considered forecasts into today’s planning.
The intent of this paper is to examine the evolution of futures research over time, with special attention to its emergence as a serious research approach. Specific methodologies are targeted which, while not an inclusive list of techniques, do represent a variety of approaches. Finally, the benefits of incorporating futures research into library long-range planning are explored in an attempt to provide an additional managerial tool that will enabling libraries to more effectively serve their communities.
The path between the past and the future has historically been perceived as a linear progression; in many cultures, the possibility of human intervention was not acknowledged and the path was viewed as cyclical, recurrent, and pre-destined. For example, the Greek and Middle Eastern prophetic traditions set the stage for a vision of an unfolding future in which human actions became a significant factor in social improvement. Individual ethical responsibility displaced magic as dominant in the dynamic of change. 
Two key historical periods proved to be pivotal in the development of Western futures tradition: the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance produced the idea of scientific control over the environment through logic derived from observation and measurement of natural processes [e.g., experimental evidence]. In the Reformation, the idea of redemptive moral and social progress was organized in terms of materially evident grace and the deferment of more immediate gratifications for long-term future gains. These shifts were most clearly observable during the Enlightenment when rational speculation upon the future of the human condition became the prime vocation of the eighteenth-century philosophers. Utopian writers such as Mercier, Condorcet, Turgot, and others mark th e beginning of “futures research.” 
The growth of industrial society produced a new generation of “futures” prophets--such as Saint Simon, Fourier, Comte and Marx  --who commented on both social disruption and its potential for reordering society. However, although the nineteen century can be described by a sense of material optimism regarding the future, it also became the beginning of a process of disenchantment -- a perception that society might be approaching the boundaries of human capacity for change. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century also heralded the emergence of the utopian novel, notably in the work of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. 
An example of large-scale direct linkage of futures thinking to long-range planning can be found in the Soviet Five and Ten Year Plans of the 1920s and 1930s. In addition, between the world wars, several new names [e.g. Arthur C. Clarke, Buckminster Fuller, et al] took center stage. Additional impetus occurred through social shocks such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Concern with the future turned quickly into an attitude of social imperative. The launching of Sputnik in 1957 sent futures thinking beyond the scope of this planet and a new reality was born. 
The roots of the modern “futures movement” can be traced to Europe in the 1950s where Bertrand de Jouvenel and Dennis Gabor emerged as early futurists. De Jouvenel was a well-known writer in the fields of economics and political science; his 1967 book The Art of Conjecture  is regarded as a classic in the field. In the 1960s, de Jouvenel gathered together an informal group of scholars, known as “Futuribles,” which met occasionally and published numerous articles on future political, social and economic developments. Gabor received the Nobel prize for his invention of holography and first examined the subject of the future in his 1963 book, Inventing the Future.  Some of Gabor’s early writings were intended as warning of possible catastrophes that might occur unless timely intervention occurred. In the early 1970s, the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth , which followed in this line of reasoning.
What Is Futures Research? Who Does It?
The simplistic answer to this question might be: Research done by futures researchers. However, such researchers do not fall into neat categories and, indeed, the question is further complicated by the following five statements:
Therefore, if futures research is difficult to label with a definition, perhaps a taxonomy of types of futurists can shed some light upon this complex question. Marien divides futurists into two main categories: Mainstream Futurists and Marginal Futurists, with a third category of Non-Futurist Futurists that encompasses pseudo-futurists and mythical futurists (confusing the public understanding of futures research).  For the purposes of this paper, only brief descriptions are reported.
The Mainstream Futurist typically tends to be a generalist and is identified as a futures researcher or professional futurist, attends futures conferences, and/or contributes to futures journals. Six types can be listed:
It is easy to appreciate the confusion that surrounds futures research and researchers. Yet, in a world trying to maintain balance in a time of out-of-control change, the importance of creating order in the midst of definitional chaos is critical. Through sifting and winnowing, much of the chaff can be eliminated. What remains is the core kernel of need--and a mandate to develop useful strategies that will inform today’s decision-making.
Futures Research As a Strategy for Understanding Change
On a global scale, there appears to be a shared agreement that society is experiencing a period of unprecedented change. Both the substance and pace of change are fundamentally different from what has occurred in past decades and centuries. No longer are sequences of events occurring in relative isolation, occurring over longer spans of time. No longer are discrete groups of people affected by each change; rather, there is greater simultaneity of occurrence, swifter interpenetration, and increased feedback of one set of changes upon another. 
Although the origins of many changes have roots in the past, there are two critical aspects that have become dramatically visible within this century: 
What are some characteristics of change? Joseph argues that change:
The conceptual scope of change is difficult to grasp. While these characteristics seem to define what change is and what it can affect, the reality is that the change facing society today is beyond the set of skills most people have learned to use. The rate of change, formerly slow and sporadic, has never been so constant and overwhelming. Reactive coping can no longer suffice; anticipating change has become critical to human survival. This is true not only for individuals, but also for institutions. Traditions, standard operating procedures, and goals and objectives of every institution have been subjected to great stress as the result of accelerated and uncertain change. Modern managers must prepare their organizations for the trauma of unprecedented change; libraries are no exception. In order to effectively anticipate what is to come, we need to develop knowledge of futures research. By adopting a futurist perspective, library managers can, at best, be prepared for a variety of alternative futures and be better able to adapt to rapid and unpredictable changes in their environments, markets, and constituencies. 
What is a futurist perspective? Brodzinski identifies five principles, within the caveats that futures research techniques are no better than the data they use and that the futurist perspective must not be constrained by institutional traditions, values and taboos. 
However, forecasts of possible futures are not always correct. Futurist John B. Mahaffie explains that forecasts fail when they overestimate the speed at which a development will become important to [and therefore accepted by] society, and when they underestimate the wider implications and secondary effects of a technological innovation. He suggests that the basic structure of any forecast should include: clear statements of the forecast’s purpose, of the technological and social assumptions on which it is based, the time horizon in which the events should happen, and examinations of the possibilities of environmental, social or technological surprises that could speed up, slow down, or derail the plan. 
With this caution in mind, it is still essential to face change with a futures orientation. Once a futurist perspective, or mindset, is adopted, then futures research can be employed in order to gather necessary data.
The Case for Using Futures Methodologies
The way people think about the future has changed dramatically in recent years. A new attitude has emerged in public and private planning agencies as well as in the research community. The effect has been to extend former planning horizons into a more distant future and to replace haphazard intuitive gambles, as a basis for planning, by systematic analysis of the opportunities the future has to offer. Societies and journals that focus on the future have emerged worldwide, as well as conferences that are attended by thousands of people. 
This change in attitude toward the future is becoming evident in three areas: 
Futures research can be viewed as a family of analytic methods largely devoted to forecasting or projecting what the future might be, including implications of potential policies and actions. The strengths and weaknesses of each method must be assessed and skill in application learned if the outcome is to be successful. In addition, the techniques must be appropriate to the situation or problem involved and also be meaningful and intellectually acceptable to those individuals who will ultimately have to make policy decisions. 
However, some caveats about forecasting should be acknowledged: 
Applying assumptions to libraries, Shuman proposes the following condensed list : 
With full knowledge of both the potential and limitations of futures research, the next step is to consider some of the many methods that have been developed to connect with the future. Only a few can be summarized in this paper.
An Overview of Specific Methodologies
Trend Extrapolation. The analysis of trends is based on empirical examination of a phenomenon with repeated measurements taken across time.  One of the simplest, most popular, methods of exploratory forecasting, trend extrapolation has as its underlying assumption that the present conditions will not change substantially and that it is reasonable to project the behavior of the recent past into the near future. However, this basic model makes no provisions for changes or reversals in the trend or for major shifts in the environment affecting the trend.
There are variations of trend extrapolation, such as the S-curve [to represent future developments] or the envelope curve [to extrapolate broad tren ds from smaller, contributory trends].  Both of these variations have the advantage of acknowledging other factors such as leveling-off periods, limits, and periods of rapid growth. Strengths of both the basic and varietal models include low cost, ease of interpretation, simplicity of construction, and a high level of reliability.  The major limitation is that cited above, where changes in the trend and/or the effects of other trends are not recognized.
Cross-Impact Analysis. More sophisticated than trend extrapolation, this method attempts to analyze one trend or event in the light of the occurrence or nonoccurrence of a series of related events. A matrix is often used to facilitate this comparison.  Cross-impact analysis enables the researcher to systematically examine the interactions among events, to organize the data descriptively, to use only a small number of input events, and to test the outcomes against a variety of occurrences.  In terms of limitations, the cross-impact model is able to consider only pairs of events, does not consider the effects of non-occurrence within the model, lacks specific definitions of the cros s-impact factors, and cannot directly assess the likelihood of specific events.  However, when cross-impact analysis is used in conjunction with another methodology [such as the Delphi Method], the power of the forecast is considerably enhanced.
Delphi Method. Developed at the RAND Corporation by Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey, the Delphi Method is based on an anonymous series of iterations and feedback which solicit and report expert opinion until general consensus is reached. In brief, the following steps are followed:
The process usually results in a convergence of opinion; occasionally there is a definite divergence that must also be reported.
Scenarios. Envisioning positive [and negative] images of the future has long been recognized as a necessary precondition for creating desirable futures.  Wilson outlines necessary criteria for scenarios: they are hypothetical, provide an outline of a possible future, and are multifaceted and holistic in their approach to the future.  Neither a prediction nor a forecast, scenarios assist the analyst to deal with events and interactions among events that might otherwise be ignored. A well-constructed scenario may be a direct extrapolation or may suggest events and conditions not presently being considered from the environment that is being studied. 
Three major approaches can be used in the construction of a scenario:
Scenarios can highlight a range of alternatives and view possible outcomes of events. The library manager developing one or more scenarios for the next decade must be conscious of both plausibility and reality. A scenario needs to be complete, internally consistent, and free of personal bias. Elements in the scenario must not be contradictory or improbable.
Simulations and Models. Dictionary definitions of the word “model” include three discrete forms: as a noun implying representation; as an adjective implying a degree of idealization; and as a verb to show what something is like. A simulation model imitates and represents the system under study in the form of a set of mathematical variables and a number of explicit relationships between them; the process is usually performed with the help of a computer. The computer simulation model can be a device for prediction, a method for deriving the future consequences of assumptions made a bout the present; a tool for learning how a system works; and a means of improving communication. The central utility of computer modelling is that large-scale interactions can be simulated in small-scale analogues; processes and events which might take weeks, months or years to occur in real time may be run through in a few hours or days. Experimentation with various effects and hazards can take place with no “real life” costs.
A variation of the basic simulation model, simulation gaming presents a dynamic model that is an abstraction of complex reality. Within the context of a game, the conceptual map serves as a mental blueprint to help convey complex systems. Learning occurs through simulation games because they represent abstract symbolic maps of multidimensional phenomena that serve as basic reference systems for data that are transmitted. Simulation gaming is a mechanism for assisting with the articulation of various possibilities before they occur. A game can provide an overview and a level of detail within mechanisms that illustrate the major dynamics of the linkages among system components. Since it is possible to experiment within the safe environment of the game, the individual has the opportunity to learn how the system responds to various stimuli. 
Environmental Scanning. Beginning with collecting information about the external environment, scanning examines multiple areas: political, economic, social, technological, psychographic and demographic. Data can be gathered from both secondary and primary sources which are both external and internal to the organization. In marketing terms, this process is known as the marketing audit. The scan can include, at its most basic, the gathering of data; a more complex scan will insert the retrieved data into one or more of the methods described above.
Environmental scanning is an imperative for all types of libraries, as effective long-range and strategic planning require a knowledge of anticipated trends and events. The following diagram illustrates the type of data that must gathered. This diagram highlights three aspects of the total library environment (diagram unavailable; please contact author for a copy): the External Environment, including both the macro environment [aspects of the outside world which influence the library, but over which the library has no control] and the micro environment [aspects of the region and community in which the library is situated, and where influence can be exerted]; the Information Environment , including all participants, such as vendors, other libraries and information agencies, media organizations, and so forth; and the Library Environment itself, an internal look at resources and operations. Environmental scanning must examine each of these environments both individually and collectively in order to present a complete picture.
What is learned needs to be folded into an overall marketing plan through the design of strategies for action. The following questions can prove helpful: