“One Weird Trick” for Foresight

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By David Bengston

Do you remember all the “one weird trick” ads we used to see on the internet? “One weird trick to eliminate belly fat!” “One weird trick to boost your credit score!” They were everywhere a few years ago and they still show up occasionally. I never clicked on any of those ads – they’re clickbait! And it turns out – prepare to be shocked! – they were schemes to defraud gullible people (Kaufman 2013).

But I wonder if, just maybe, there actually is “one weird trick” for foresight: One thing we could do to improve our futures thinking. Like the clickbait ads, it seems too good to be true. Or is it?

A few years ago I wrote a paper titled “Ten Principles for Thinking about the Future” (Bengston 2017). In this paper I identified a set of core principles and related strategies for improving foresight that professional futurists have developed, based on a review of more than 50 years of published futures research. The principles include: “The future is plural” (rather than a single future, there are countless possible alternative futures), “the future is open” (it’s not fixed and therefore we have opportunities and freedom to influence the future in a positive direction), and “the future is surprising” (change is sometimes sudden, discontinuous, and surprising, and even expected futures tend to arrive in unexpected ways and with surprising consequences). These aren’t “tricks,” they’re first principles: Core unifying and ordering concepts that have emerged over decades of scholarly and applied foresight work.

But in thinking about what futurists have learned, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is one weird trick or one principle to rule them all (pardon the Lord of the Rings reference). A characteristic that distinguishes futurists from most others is their willingness to seriously consider a much wider range of possibilities about the future. That’s one of the things I used to love about the World Future Society annual conferences I attended beginning around 2010. I’ve been to scores of scientific, technical, and professional conferences in my career as a USDA Forest Service social scientist, but I had never attended a gathering where everyone was so open to possibilities. It was energizing and eye-opening.

The real “trick,” of course, is to get other people (our non-futurist clients) to consider a broader range of possibilities, and to see the possible, plausible, and preferable futures that exist beyond business as usual thinking. Jonathan Peck, now retired President and Senior Futurist at the Institute for Alternative Futures, once told me that getting people to seriously consider a broader range of futures was the most difficult part of being a futurist. Since Jonathan told me that, I’m always looking for creative ways to do that with the diverse audiences I work with. What might work for social scientists might not work for a group of silviculturalists, or recreation planners, or Tribal members, or the general public. We have to tailor our messages as futurists to effectively communicate with a diversity of people and help them see the many possibilities the future holds, from the unthinkable (Kahn 1962) to the aspirational (Bezold 2009).

About the Author
David Bengston
is an Environmental Futurist with the Strategic Foresight Group, Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, St. Paul, MN USA. david.bengston@usda.gov


Bengston, D.N. 2017. Ten principles for thinking about the future: A primer for environmental professionals. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-175. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 28 p. https://doi.org/10.2737/NRS-GTR-175. https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/55548

Bezold, C. 2009. Aspirational futures. Journal of Futures Research 13(4):81–90. URL: http://www.jfs.tku.edu.tw/13-4/AE06.pdf

Kahn, H. 1962. Thinking About the Unthinkable. New York, NY: Horizon Press.

Kaufman, A. 2013. Prepare to Be Shocked! What happens when you actually click on one of those “One Weird Trick” ads? SLATE July 30, 2013. https://slate.com/business/2013/07/how-one-weird-trick-conquered-the-int...

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay