Futures studies may have existed before at the fringes of the scientific world, but it has since evolved into an influential societal force. SixDegrees looks into how the mysterious-sounding study came to have its own research centre in Finland – and parliamentary committee.

If you ever meet a futurist, make sure not to ask him or her about “predicting the future”. You’ll be swiftly and determinedly corrected. “We don’t predict the future – that’s for a wholly different type of professionals,” Anita Rubin, adjunct professor at the Finland Futures Research Centre, instructs. “What we work on is foresight of the future.”

It turns out that the difference is more than semantical. Futures studies is not concerned with trying to anticipate one certain kind of future, Rubin says, but uses a set of methodologies and tools with the intention of mapping out the different kinds of potential futures that lie ahead – hence the plural in the name. It acknowledges that our actions in the present determine which of the envisaged scenarios will eventually play out.

This may still sound suspicious to the uninitiated, but in fact, Finland has been in the forefront of the field: the Finnish Society for Future Studies was founded already in 1980, and the Finland Futures Research Centre, Rubin’s workplace, was established in 1992 at the Turku School of Economics. But perhaps the most striking fact is that since 1993 – when no comparable bodies existed in other countries – Finnish Parliament has had the Committee for the Future as one of its committees.

But to go back to the Futures Research Centre, what do Rubin and her colleagues actually do there? In short: futures researchers examine contemporary trends, events and phenomena, and try to deduce from them the major future trends that will affect our society. One of the central concepts in this is what futurists call “weak signals”. These are seemingly minor occurrences, ideas and developments that, when observed carefully, turn out to have a different, more significant meaning than what was commonly presumed. They can also be signs that something unprecedented and unpredictable will take place.

A parallel term to weak signals is the “wild card” – a massive, unforeseen event with major consequences. As a concrete example of one, Rubin mentions what is perhaps the single most momentous event of the previous decade: the attacks of 11 September 2001. “I remember that reporters were completely baffled by the strikes initially, struggling to make sense of them.” But soon after it was discovered that some of the hijackers had taken flying lessons in the US – and that US intelligence services had had knowledge of this. So there had been weak signals that had preceded the events, Rubin says, but no one had joined the dots to discover their real significance.

As for the major consequences of this “wild card” event, the two wars in the Middle East that have started since are rather obvious. But Rubin points out that the effects have also been felt far more widely: after the strikes, seeking security has become a central, possibly the most important factor driving today’s political, international and economical interactions.

However, it is rare that such exact historical moments are anticipated as a result of futurists’ work. More commonly, the benefits that come through futures studies are indirect, Rubin says, and sometimes they can be hard to discern. The main advantage of foresight activities is that they highlight possibilities: there are always alternative ways of doing things, but if they’re not brought out, usually the most obvious, and not necessarily the best option is chosen.

Olli Hietanen, Head of Development at the Finland Futures Research Centre, compares futures studies to philosophy: both help us in understanding the world in a more profound and multifaceted way, helping us live our lives, on a small and big scale, better. “Futures studies is not essentially about speculating about the future, but about creating that future. It helps to envision the kind of future we want to strive towards, and gives tools for that purpose.”

Foresight in Finland

The fact that futures studies gained a significant foothold in Finland in the early ‘90s, as evidenced by the founding of the Futures Research Centre and the parliamentary committee, is partly explained by the historical context. Rubin explains that during the economic boom of the ‘80s, even some authoritative economic experts claimed that there would never be another slump. When the crisis did arrive, a lot of people and companies faced it unprepared. Disillusioned with the old ways of planning for the future, the general mood was ripe for a new approach.

Benefiting from that momentum, Finnish futures studies made progress quickly, and it is nowadays advanced also from an international point of view. “It often happens that at international seminars, we discover that we have already worked on topics that others are beginning to think about,” Rubin says. “There’s always room for improvement of course, but Finnish futures studies is valued internationally.”

What is particular about the work done in the field in Finland is that it has a particularly scientific approach. “We abide by the requirements for research quality developed within the sciences in general. Finland is well known for this abroad,” says Sari Söderlund, coordinator at the Finland Futures Academy, a network of nine universities that functions as a platform for futures studies education and research programmes.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, that futures studies is not an officially recognised scientific discipline – not in Finland, or apparently anywhere else in the world. Söderlund sees the paradox, and says that futures studies in Finland is as academic as a scientific field can be without being a recognised discipline. She also gives examples of futures studies being discussed in the same context as “official” disciplines, showing that it is not far from the mainstream these days. “I think we have done all we can in this respect. If futures studies were to become an official discipline, I’d say that the next step would have to be taken by the scientific community in general.”

Together with the scientific circles, an increasing number of businesses have warmed to the kind of long-term view that futures studies represents. Many people working in the field are not only academics but work also as consultants for companies and organisations. However, when I bring up the close ties with the commercial world, Rubin points out that futures studies is a cross-disciplinary subject, business being only one of many areas. Moreover, researchers come to futures studies from various academic fields (Rubin’s background is in sociology). She says that is largely because the Futures Studies Research Centre was founded at the Turku School of Economics, for practical reasons, that the field still carries business connotations. But it is true that more and more companies invest in future analysis services – partly because of the legacy of the ‘90s crisis.

Hietanen points out that futures studies and active anticipation has become more common in general within Finnish society over the last 10 years: several public centres and agencies have their own experts, and some private businesses have ventured into the field. He wonders if it is possible anywhere abroad to study the subject as extensively as in Finland, thanks to the Futures Academy. “However, in the academic journals Finns are not strongly represented. I think it’s because the Academy of Finland has not officially recognised the discipline – which is why basic research in the field receives no funding.”

Roadmaps for steering the nation

The outstanding example of futures studies having a degree of authority within Finnish society must be the Committee for the Future. Upon its founding in 1993, it was the first parliamentary committee in the world dedicated to future-related issues. Back then, globalisation and its consequences began to enter public consciousness and discussion, fuelling the worry over the already dire economic situation. With such new challenges to tackle, futures studies offered a compelling alternative for making sense of a changing and ever more complex world.

The Committee started as a temporary one, but it was made permanent in 2000, when the new constitution came into force. This was not a smooth transition: the debate over the Committee’s fate was fierce, as some questioned the Parliament as the appropriate home for it. Such suspicions exist still today among some Members of Parliament and civil servants, says Osmo Kuusi, who is adjunct professor of futures studies at Aalto University, and who acted as the Committee’s expert between 1999 and 2011. Oras Tynkkynen, a Greens MP and the Vice Chair of the Committee for the Future, confirms that opinions over the Committee are still divided. “The way to get our colleagues’ and citizens’ appreciation is through high-quality work and effective results.”

What should we prepare for?

Futures studies anticipates several future trends with worldwide consequences. Here are some of the most significant ones.

Globalisation – Europe’s influence will be diminished by the growth of rising economies in Asia and elsewhere. This may have ramifications also for global food and water security.

Climate change – if its effects will be as wide as feared by some, climate change could stop or even undermine the human developments of the past decades.

Population ageing – the whole Europe will have to adapt to its changing demographics.

Network society – organisations and popular movements are becoming more complicated and more difficult to monitor and control.

As an example of the Committee’s work, Kuusi mentions an initiative that relates to a very topical issue: the Government’s plans to drastically reform municipalities. During Jyrki Katainen’s chairmanship, which Kuusi sees as a high point in the Committee’s history, it prepared a report on the future of healthcare. “In that 2006 report, the solutions suggested for regional healthcare were promising. If that model had been pursued, we could have avoided a lot of the on-going brouhaha that the proposed municipality reform has caused.”

Tynkkynen sees the Committee complimenting the Parliament’s work, thanks to its dedication to foresight and long-term planning. “The Parliament’s ability to take a long view is often limited, from a few years to maximum of ten, and only rarely up to a few decades. But tackling issues such as climate change requires a point of view that reaches much further into the future. That’s where the Committee can be helpful.”

And so, what are such potential issues that require futures perspective? Kuusi highlights the process of globalisation, which is linked to the shift in the centres of power as Asia and newly advanced economies become more influential. Both Kuusi and Tynkkynen also bring up climate change – Tynkkynen says that if climate change causes a vast environmental crisis, it could stop or even reverse the significant improvements in human development over the last decades. Kuusi says that in dealing with the issue, a lot will depend on how climate change eventually becomes a reality in people’s lives: if there are dramatic changes, the measures will be dramatic as well, otherwise the reaction will only be incremental.

As for Finland, the aging population will be a challenge, Kuusi says. This is one of the threats to maintaining and developing the Nordic welfare model, as are the rising economies around the world. On a national scale, Tynkkynen says that these challenges will require big and brave reforms. On a more hopeful note, technological advances offer “tremendous possibilities”, Tynkkynen believes, as new possibilities become reality, from nanomaterials and genome-based personalised healthcare to more effective energy storages and sustainable biofuel.

But if far-reaching thinking and planning is crucial in making decisions about our country’s future, is a single Committee enough to guarantee that such a point of view is included in decision-making processes? Kuusi, with over ten years of experience from the Committee’s work, is optimistic. “Together with other bodies that focus on foresight, I would say that there are enough institutions. But how they function and what kind of influence they have is another question. I think that in futures studies we should now concentrate on critical evaluation of our research and work to improve its quality. If futures studies wants to become an officially recognised science, as I think it should, it needs to clarify its own identity.”

Even if this doesn’t happen, the field and, more importantly, the long-term view it represents seem to be here to stay. And as the world becomes ever more global, and the issues we face on a national and international level become ever more complex, an approach that strives to help us navigate safely forward surely has an increasing appeal. In highlighting the fact that there are several possible futures, futures studies also brings forward an important message: it is up to us to make the desirable future the real one.

Teemu Henriksson