Here are a few of the most common techniques for anticipating, forecasting, and assessing future events.
These methods are rational, empirical, and scientific. They are mostly refinements of the commonsense techniques that people use in everyday life. But they are completely different in character from arcane, other-worldly, supernatural practices such as crystal-ball gazing and astrology.
Brainstorming: The generation of new ideas by means of a small group assembled to think creatively about a topic. Group members are encouraged to build on each other’s ideas and withhold criticism. Brainstorming is useful in identifying possibilities, opportunities, and risks. Other idea-generating or problem-solving methods are also common, such as idea mapping, impact analysis, and the systematic identification of all possible variables.
Gaming: The simulation of a real-world situation by means of humans playing different roles. In war games, real soldiers may become actors in a mock battle, which helps them to understand what actual combat is like and helps generals to test out alternative strategies and tactics they may later use.
Historical Analysis: The use of historical events to anticipate the outcome of current developments. Often a current situation can be compared to one or more situations in history that seem to be similar. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was compared by some commentators to the Vietnam War, with the implication that the Iraq War would also prove disastrous.
Modeling: The use of one thing (the model) in place of something else that is more difficult or impossible to experiment with. In addition to real-world models, such as miniature airplanes and houses, a set of mathematical equations can be used to represent a complex system. The model can then be put into a computer and used to simulate the behavior of the system under a variety of conditions. For example, a model of the U.S. economy might show the possible effects of a 10 percent increase in taxes.
Polling: Collecting people’s views on the future and other topics. Data may be collected through face-to-face conversation, telephone interviews, and questionnaires sent by electronic or ordinary mail. Delphi polling, popular among futurists, uses a carefully structured procedure to generate more-accurate forecasts.
Scanning: An ongoing effort to identify significant changes in the world beyond the organization or group doing the scanning. Typically, scanning is based on a systematic survey of current newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and other media for indications of changes likely to have future importance. Scanning focuses mainly on trends—changes that occur through time— rather than events, changes that occur very quickly and generally are less significant for understanding the future.
Scenarios: The future development of a trend, a strategy, or a wild-card event may be described in story or outline form. Typically, several scenarios will be developed so that decision makers are aware that future events may invalidate whatever scenario they use for planning purposes.
Trend Analysis: The examination of a trend to identify its nature, causes, speed of development, and potential impacts. Careful analysis may be needed because a trend can have many different impacts on different aspects of human life, and many of these may not be apparent at first. Longer life spans, for example, increase the number of people for whom resources must be provided but also increase the number of people who can contribute to the economy and society through paid and unpaid labor.
Trend Monitoring: Trends viewed as particularly important may be carefully monitored—watched and reported regularly to key decision makers. For example, a rapidly rising unemployment rate or the appearance of a deadly new disease may have significant impacts on many different organizations and communities.
Trend Projection: When numerical data are available, a trend can be plotted on graph paper to show changes through time. If desired, the trend line can then be extended or "projected" into the future on the basis of the recent rate of change. Such a projection shows where the trend should be at some point in the future assuming there is no shift in the rate of change. Example: A population with a steady 2 percent rate of annual growth will double in about thirty-five years.
Visioning: The systematic creation of visions of a desirable future for an organization or an individual. Typically, this procedure starts with a review of past events and the current situation, moves on to envision desirable futures, and concludes with the identification of specific ways to move toward the desired future. A visioning procedure often prepares the way for more-formal goal setting and planning.