Innovation of technology and scientific understanding has increased hugely over the last 50 years. Microwave ovens, superglue, vaccines, aeroplanes, nuclear power, MRI machines, internet, cell phones, LED, cordless tools, digital music, in vitro fertilisation, GPS, genetic engineering, DNA fingerprinting – all have impacted our everyday lives in some way.
What might society look like in the future? Who decides? What if different people choose differently? How much control do we really have, as individuals and as communities?
Futures thinking is used to explore how our society and environment may be shaped in the future.
Futures thinking is based on the following ideas:
- The future world will likely differ in many respects from the present world.
- The future is not fixed but consists of a variety of alternatives.
- People are responsible for choosing between alternatives.
- Small changes can become major changes over time.
Reasons for incorporating futures thinking in science and/or technology education include:
- Scientific and technological advances are likely to significantly impact the future. They are also fundamental to most people’s perceptions of the future.
- Futures studies can be used to address the myth that science is neutral, value free and objective and that technology can solve every problem.
- Futures thinking provides opportunities for students to identify, articulate and reflect on their own and others’ values, developing students’ values discourse.
- Providing opportunities for students to consider multiple influences on decision making from a critical perspective can help prepare students to confront the complexity and ambiguity of real-world decision making, empowering individuals and communities to envisage, value and work towards alternative futures.
Typically, futurists develop scenarios that take into account the following:
- Existing situation – what happens now and why?
- Trends – how does the existing situation differ from the past and why? Are the changes desirable? Who benefits? Who loses?
- Drivers – what is causing the changes and why? Drivers can include demographic changes, globalisation, environmental damage, developments in science and technology, increasing poverty, religious revival, priorities in national and international governance and changes in community perceptions, beliefs, values and attitudes.
- Possible futures – what might happen in the future?
- Probable futures – what is most likely to happen in the future? Which trends and drivers are likely to persist? What might change them?
- Wild cards – what unlikely events might occur that would have a big impact on the future?
- Preferable futures – what do you want to happen in the future and why?
Each of these aspects can be explored from personal, local, national and global perspectives. This encourages students to think beyond how the issue affects them personally, emphasising the critical role of the social context in futures thinking as well as the existence of multiple perspectives.
Examples of student activities
- Futures thinking toolkit – supports students to develop future thinking capabilities.
- Mapping the future – students use the Ake Ake model (pictorial mapping) to explore changes that have taken place in their local environment in the last 50–100 years and to plan for the next 50 years.
- Future flight – students explore how flight has developed over time with discussion about trends and future possibilities.
- Futures thinking about obesity – students use the Futures thinking toolkit to investigate obesity and the impact it has on the health system
- Vitamin C and the future – students use the Futures thinking toolkit to investigate vitamin C and new fruit varieties.
- Exploring medical research – students explore trends in medical care of infectious diseases.
- Social issues and nanotechnology – students explore possible impacts of nanotechnology and some of the potential social issues that need to be considered.
Examples of teacher resources
- Teacher resource Managing classroom discussions – futures thinking requires students to recognise and consider some of the values that they hold, resulting in conversations about the future.
- Developing students’ futures thinking in science education – Authors: Alister Jones, Cathy Buntting, Rose Hipkins, Anne McKim, Lindsey Conner and Kathy Saunders.
A 'periodic table' of innovations, ordered by potential for change and time to development.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has released a report identifying global mega trends likely to affect the future of food and farming. Read the 2019 news release and access the full report here.