Issue #1: Imagining Futures

For many of you, the future may be on your minds as of late — what it will bring, what it won’t — and how our lives will change for better and for worse. We believe that future thinking is something indispensable at any time in our lives, crisis or not. So for our first issue of our “experiment,” we wanted to bring you into the world of imagining futures.


Imagining Futures


“Future shock is the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.”
– Alvin Toffler

When American futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term future shock in his 1965 article, “The Future as a Way of Life” – his proposed remedy was simple: for society to form a “better, clearer, stronger conception of what lies ahead.” Toffler was part of a rising movement of social scientists dedicating themselves to long-term thinking practices in an effort to combat the phenomenon of future shock. As societies and economies across the world continue to reel from the effect of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, it could be said that we are currently experiencing future shock on a global scale.

Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute of the Future (IFTF), argues that future shocks are highly unevenly distributed. In a 2016 essay, Gorbis points out that while pockets of our society are well prepared for the future, large and growing swaths of the population feel like they are powerless victims of the future. For years now, this divide has been deepening and — according to Gorbis — we need to ensure that more people across all segments of society have the right tools to imagine and shape their own futures.

So who imagines and invents our future? What methodologies do visionaries and futurists use to elaborate plausible futures? Below, we’ve highlighted four of the most interesting methodologies that have been on our minds at swissnex Boston for thinking about the future. We’re also curious to see what methodologies/concepts you’ve got on your minds, so let us know here!


#1: Learn how to Think Like a Futurist

In Five Principles for Thinking Like a Futurist, Marina Gorbis lays out five actions one can take to better prepare for the time ahead:

1) Forget about predictions: If we are getting better at making point predictions, nobody can predict big, complex transformations. We can “narrow the cone of uncertainty” though, by paying attention to the interconnection between technologies, society, economics and organizations.

2) Focus on signals: There is no data about the future although signals of it are all around us: things or developments on the margins, which may look weird or strange or question us. It takes curiosity and the ability to connect the dots to sense them.

3) Look back to see forward: While we cannot fully rely on past data to help us see the future, there are larger patterns in history that we tend to repeat over and over again. Be a historian as much as a futurist.

4) Uncover patterns: Asking what the larger story is, what the tides of change are helps understanding patterns, and how they evolve during periods of large transformation. Moving from the old to the new requires us to behave like immigrants, immigrants to the future.

5) Create a community: Thinking about the future is a collaborative and highly communal affair. It requires a diversity of views, involving experts from many different domains: it is a product of collective intelligence.


#2: Counterfactual Thinking

photo by H. Heyerlein on Unsplash

This methodology is the attempt to vividly imagine and simulate in our minds realities that run counter to the “facts” of our present, explains Jane McGonigal, a Stanford professor and leading future forecaster. She thinks that this type of thinking is the key to creativity – and a vaccine against future shock. For her students, she devised three exercises which together form what she calls the “magic triangle of what if:”

1) Predict the Past: Look back at something you’ve actually done in your life, a decision you made or an action you took. And then, imagine that instead of making that choice, you made another one.

2) Remember the Future: Take activities and people and places that you already have some real-life experience with, and then combine them in ways that are unfamiliar, unexperienced. And then try to picture yourself, as vividly as you can, doing this thing you’ve never done before.

3) Hard Empathy: It’s what we have to conjure up when we don’t have any personal experience with what someone else is going through. When we can make the leap to deeply understand how someone else’s life is different from ours, we get unstuck, and we get better at thinking about change.


#3: Coping with Deep Uncertainty About the Future

Photo by Gabriel Bnoh on Unsplash

According to Amy Webb, founder and CEO of the Future Today Institute in New York, we tend to under-predict or over-predict change because imagining plausible outcomes forces us to confront our expectations and cherished beliefs. If we were to jot down descriptions of the future, we would quickly find that they mirrored our own cognitive biases.

In times of deep uncertainty it is even more complicated: one cannot make accurate predictions of what the reality will look like even in the next 3, 6, or 12 months. The goal therefore shouldn’t be predictions. It’s preparation for what comes next. For that she uses a simple tool called the Axes of Uncertainty. It produces scenarios: short but detailed narratives describing plausible outcomes and impacts.


#4: Backcasting

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

Backcasting is a planning method that starts with defining a desirable future and then works backwards to identify steps that will connect that specified future to the present. Gerd Leonhard, CEO of The Futures Agency in Zurich uses this method extensively in his latest analysis of the current crisis.

Imagining Futures — the swissnex way

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

At swissnex, much of our work exists “outside of the box”, with an intentionally wide range of disciplines, an insatiable curiosity and a unique ability to connect the dots between unlikely fields. This innovative approach, as well as our fundamental belief in the value of connecting our communities on both sides of the ocean have been hallmarks of swissnex since it was created in 2000.

We see our mission as exploring emerging futures to help our partners and clients to anticipate change, adapt, and create meaningful impact in society. In 2020, as we reflect on 20 years of swissnex Boston, we want to think collaboratively with you, our network, to examine our collective assumptions and challenge our perceived legacies. In the subsequent issues of “experiment_” you can expect to take a deeper dive into a range of topics as we tinker, adapt, and learn with you. Let’s experiment!

What do you think?

We would love to hear what concepts and approaches you use to think about the future. Do you have other methods of imagining futures? Let us know here.

Some additional references:

Future Shock, the best-known book of Alvin Toffler
After Shock, a compendium of essays with surprising and compelling views of the future
• Check out some other future-thinkers in Switzerland, like GDI, W.I.R.E. and Kühne Wicki