New to foresight? Start here.

The most common question I’m asked is, “You’re a futurist? What is that?” Here’s my attempt to break it down in everyday terms. If you still have questions, contact us!

What do futurists do?

Professional futurists think deeply about what’s coming to help clients prepare for multiple, plausible futures. Ultimately, we help clients shape the future they want.

Wait, you said futures with an ‘s’ as the end, plural?

Yes, professional futurists speak in terms of futures. There is no one single future, not for you and not for me. No one can predict the future. Anyone who tells you that is not, IMHO, a professional futurist.

Okay, so how does a futurist do what they do?

Many futurists use a set of tried-and-true tools (like sensemaking and scenarios). Some futurists specialize in one sector (my firm has a niche in the public sector), and some develop deep expertise in one or two foresight techniques.

An image of the four phases of the Foresight Process, laid out in a circle. Copyright Rebecca Ryan 2020
An image of the four phases of the Foresight Process, laid out in a circle. Copyright Rebecca Ryan 2020

My organization does strategic planning. Is this the same thing?

Not quite. Strategic planning and strategic foresight are different in several important ways:

  • Strategic planning focuses on near term plans of three or five years. Foresight looks at 10-year and 20-year horizons (sometimes longer!) before developing plans. (Sensing, Imagining)
  • Strategic planning focuses on one hoped-for future. Foresight considers several plausible futures ranging from challenging to surprisingly successful. (Imagining)
  • Those in the C-suite generally do strategic planning with a trained facilitator. My team recommends using a blend of leaders plus Red Teams who respectfully ask tough questions.

How do organizations use strategic foresight?

In my experience:

  • Communities use strategic foresight as a community-wide visioning process.
  • Cities use foresight before they start their 10-year comprehensive planning process.
  • Organizations use the foresight process to develop their 10-year or 20-year vision and then build their five-year plan based on the vision.
  • Organizations use strategic foresight and include different voices (or all employees) instead of traditional strategic planning to change things up.

This sounds kind of exciting. How should I get started?

Woohoo! I’m glad you’re intrigued. Below are some of my favorite resources. I also recommend practicing some techniques to soften your mind and begin thinking like a futurist, by practicing noticing and setting up a signals and sensemaking practice.

Resources for the Foresight-Curious

  • Futures Friday: a free, live, one-hour webinar about futures. No prior experience is needed (usually). Check out the schedule and watch past recordings here.
  • Futurist Camp: Our signature event, designed to help you hone your futurist skills. Learn more or register here.
  • Institute for the Future’s “Ready, Set, Future” online course via Coursera. Learn more here.
  • Speaking of IFTF, their Executive Director (and my spirit animal), Marina Gorbis, wrote a great article, Five Principles for Thinking Like a Futurist here.
  • If you are serious about using foresight with your team or organization, let’s find a time to talk.
  • To find a professional futurist near you, check out the APF Directory.
  • My newsletter is for those in the trenches trying to make the world better for future generations. Sign up or read one of the most popular recent issues.

Passionate about better futures. Futurist, economist, Zen priest. This is where I workshop my ideas. Also: and

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