Futurists or futurologists are scientists and social scientists whose specialty is futurology, or the attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present, whether that of human society in particular or of life on Earth in general.
The term "futurist" most commonly refers to authors, consultants, organizational leaders and others who engage in interdisciplinary and systems thinking to advise private and public organizations on such matters as diverse global trends, possible scenarios, emerging market opportunities and risk management. (Futurist is not in the sense of the art movement futurism.)
The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the earliest use of the term futurism in English as 1842, to refer, in a theological context, to the Christian eschatological tendency of that time. The next recorded use is the label adopted by the Italian and Russian futurists, the artistic, literary and political movements of the 1920s and 1930s which sought to reject the past and fervently embrace speed, technology and, often violent, change.
Visionary writers such as Jules Verne, Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells were not in their day characterized as futurists. The term futurology in its contemporary sense was first coined in the mid‑1940s by the German Professor Ossip K. Flechtheim, who proposed a new science of probability. Flechtheim argued that even if systematic forecasting did no more than unveil the subset of statistically highly probable processes of change and charted their advance, it would still be of crucial social value.
In the mid‑1940s the first professional "futurist" consulting institutions like RAND and SRI began to engage in long-range planning, systematic trend watching, scenario development, and visioning, at first under World War II military and government contract and, beginning in the 1950s, for private institutions and corporations. The period from the late 1940s to the mid‑1960s laid the conceptual and methodological foundations of the modern futures studies field. Bertrand de Jouvenel's The Art of Conjecture in 1963 and Dennis Gabor's Inventing the Future in 1964 are considered key early works, and the first U.S. university course devoted entirely to the future was taught by futurist Alvin Toffler at The New School in 1966.
More generally, the label includes such disparate lay, professional, and academic groups as visionaries, foresight consultants, corporate strategists, policy analysts, cultural critics, planners, marketers, forecasters, prediction market developers, roadmappers, operations researchers, investment managers, actuaries and other risk analyzers, and future-oriented individuals educated in every academic discipline, including anthropology, complexity studies, computer science, economics, engineering, Urban design, evolutionary biology, history, management, mathematics, philosophy, physical sciences, political science, psychology, sociology, systems theory, technology studies, and other disciplines.
"Futures studies"—sometimes referred to as futurology, futures research, and foresight—can be summarized as being concerned with "three P's and a W", i.e. "possible, probable, and preferable" futures, plus "wildcards", which are low-probability, high-impact events, should they occur. Even with high-profile, probable events, such as the fall of telecommunications costs, the growth of the internet, or the aging demographics of particular countries, there is often significant uncertainty in the rate or continuation of a trend. Thus a key part of futures analysis is the managing of uncertainty and risk.
Futurists and futurology
Not all futurists engage in the practice of futurology as generally defined. Pre-conventional futurists (see below) would generally not. And while religious futurists, astrologers, occultists, New Age divinists, etc. use methodologies that include study, none of their personal revelation or belief-based work would fall within a consensus definition of futurology as used in academics or by futures studies professionals.
- Flechtheim, O (1972). Futurology-The New Science of Probability? in Toffler, A (1972). The Futurists p. 264-276
- Bell, W. (1997). Foundations of Futures Studies: Volume 1 New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers., p. 60. ISBN 1-56000-271-9.
- The Future: An Owner's Manual, World Future Society
- Association of Professional Futurists
- Futurist (ASF definition) Twelve developmental types of futures thinking.