Teach the Future

Dr. Peter Bishop is the Founder and the Executive Director of Teach the Future, a non-profit corporation whose mission is to introduce futures thinking in classes and schools at all levels around the world. Peter  retired as an Associate Professor and Director of the Foresight program at the University of Houston in 2013.


The School of International Futures (SOIF) will hold its sixth annual week of learning about the future this August.  The School is dedicated to teaching “the science and art of Strategic Foresight, the skills you need to understand change and disruption and how to create future-ready organizations in an uncertain and increasingly volatile world.”  That is a great mission, and one that is sorely needed in the VUCA world we have today.

The profound changes we are experiencing in the economy, such as the loss of jobs to automation, the reach and influence of global corporations, and advances in biotechnology that hold both promise and peril, are accompanied by equally profound changes in governance.  The rise of more authoritarian regimes, the increasing influence of elites, and violence by both state and non-state actors all threaten the democratic core of many societies.

The reasons for and causes of these shifts are many, but let me point to one that has received little attention—that is, how citizens think about and influence the future.

Learning about change and the future

Despite the fact that the world is awash in change, we all had few if any classes about the future in school.  Nevertheless, we did pick up assumptions about the future implicitly from other classes.  In science class, we learned that future is quantitative and predictable.  In history class, events and conditions seemed to proceed inexorably from previous events and conditions in a pre-determined chain.

In literature class, we distinguished facts that can be supported with evidence from fiction and fantasy which are products of imagination.  In social studies, we learned that the powerful forces shaping the future left little room for individuals like us to influence them.

Those are exaggerations, of course, but aren’t they true nevertheless?  No wonder that most people see the future as one long road leading to a pre-determined future, where they get the future “right” by being accurate, where their visions of a better future are fantasy, and where they feel powerless to participate, much less to influence what is going on.

The overall effect, unfortunately, is to disempower citizens from participating in the democratic system.  What’s the point?  Professional forecasters and political leaders tell us what is going to happen and that we have little choice but to accept it.  “You need to work hard to improve your own future, but leave the bigger future to us,” they say.

Futures studies and strategic foresight

There is a better way, one that is provided by the emerging field of futures studies and strategic foresight, exactly what the School of International Futures is teaching its participants in August.  We do the same in a Certificate program at the University of Houston, as do many other universities and companies.  Foresight professionals do not hide the uncertainties involved in describing the future.  For them, change and its outcomes in the future are multiple, not singular, as they actually also were in the past.  They tell us that we can influence those futures, not only for ourselves, but also for everyone we come in contact with.

Most people’s sphere of influence is small, but not negligible.  Governance in a democracy is not just the actions of a few, but the actions (or the inaction) of the many.  Understanding the contingency and complexity of the future, having a vision, establishing ambitious goals, working toward those goals throughout life is the stuff of legacy–positive and lasting change that we bequeath to future generations.

No one needs to be an accountant to know about compound interest and retirement savings.  In the same way, citizens do not need to be foresight professionals to use this approach in civic life.  In fact, its application is quite simple.  Karl Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society

So most people who speak in the public sphere have an agenda, a goal they are trying to achieve.  (Shocking, I know!)  They are almost always giving a simple and highly selective version of the past, the present and the future.

As a result, we citizens need to fill in the gaps on our own.

George Orwell said, “He who controls the past controls the future.”  But the ruling idea of the official past controls the future only if we assume that the past will be repeated in that future.  He went on to say, “He who controls the present controls the past.”  But control is not absolute.  In a democracy, we are not only allowed, but we are required to think for ourselves.

Strategic foresight gives us the perspective and the tools to challenge that control.

When confronted by the “official” past, present or future, we can always ask, “Is there another perspective?”  More specifically, in the case of the official future, we can always ask, “What might happen instead?”  Finally, “Do we prefer the official future?  If not, which of the many alternative futures do we prefer and are prepared to work toward?”  Those are the questions that citizens need to be asking themselves, their friends and their colleagues, and their political leaders.  Those are the questions that will surface the inherent uncertainties and complexities of the past, present and future.

Those who speak in the public sphere do not want us to ask those questions, but our democracy is doomed if we don’t.

Examples of people asking and sometimes answering these questions abound.

Socrates, Jesus, Descartes, Spinoza, Anthony, King – the list goes on.  But it is easy to excuse ourselves from doing the same because, after all, these were famous people.  “We’re not famous so I don’t think we can do the same.”

First of all, none of these people were famous before they were famous, and sometimes not until after they died.  But are there cases of “ordinary” people using futures thinking in the real world?  Here is one that I know.

Parents were attending a meeting at their daughter’s school which was part of a large urban school district in the United States.  The Chair of the District’s Board of Education was running the meeting.  At one point, she said, “We can give you permission to participate in the decisions of this school.”  One parent stood up and said, quite respectively, “You cannot give us something that we already have.  We are the citizens and taxpayers of this District, and we are not only allowed, but we are required to participate in the decisions of this District.”  That’s an example of critical thinking and foresight at work in a democracy.

The audience

But I have a question:  Why do we teach only adults about how to deal with the future?  Granted adults are in a position to use these skills immediately in their careers and organizations.  They also have the money to attend the School and hire foresight professionals to teach them about the future.

Yet why might they not use the skills they learn?  The answer is that the culture in general has not adopted foresight as the default approach to the future.  So are foresight professionals condemned to the Sisyphean task of educating current populations only to have them die before they are successful?  When and how can foresight become the obvious and routine approach to the future?  Continuing to teach adults is probably not the most effective strategy, but is there an alternative?

Yes, but you probably will not like the answer.  We need to teach people early when they are still forming their views of how to approach the future.  Where are they?  In school, of course!  That is where the citizens of the global culture learn how to approach the future, as we saw above.

We didn’t know how to teach about the future many years ago, but now we do teach it in the degree programs, week-long seminars and private engagements by hundreds of foresight professionals.Shouldn’t we share that information with young people?

Shouldn’t we help them learn an approach to the future that includes uncertainty, contingency and agency?  Shouldn’t we do that soon enough so they are not trapped in the traditional ways of approaching the future, a way that we only have to undo when they are adults?

The future of the future

Democracy was built on the outrageous claim that people could govern themselves, that they did not need a divinely ordained sovereign to run their society. It took centuries for that idea to become commonplace, and we are still working on exactly how to do it well.

Changing how the global culture approaches the future is also a most radical idea.

Our traditional approach to the future is rooted in the ideas of the Enlightenment where Newton’s laws were the basis of rational thought – clean, simple, linear, logical and mathematical.  It will take generations to change that, to adopt an approach to the future that is more suited to the 21st century than to the 18th, an approach that gives due consideration to uncertainty, contingency, complexity, creativity and agency.

We are the generation that invented futures studies and strategic foresight.

Shouldn’t we begin the task of bringing it to young people?  In the long run, foresight needs to become the default and the obvious approach to the future, but it will never happen unless a generation like our own takes the first step with young people today.