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A dictionary for the future

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A dictionary for the future

As we enter an era of increasing complexity, rapid change, and critical uncertainty, all organizations need to be prepared for the unexpected. Strategic foresight is required when there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding changes to the future context. Working with the future involves – first and foremost – understanding the key ingredients and their meanings. In this article, we focus on the critical definitions of forward-looking work.


The United States Army’s War College was one of its earliest adopters of the VUCA acronym. Military planners were concerned about the radically different and unusual international security environment that had developed, so they coined the term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) to describe it. VUCA stands for:

  • Volatility – change can be sudden and dramatic in its nature and extent; it is not predictable.
  • Uncertainty – the present is not clear, and the future is uncertain
  • Complexity – many different factors are involved, and they can be complicated.
  • Ambiguity – there is a lack of understanding or confusion about situations.


Foresight uses a variety of methodologies, including scanning the horizon for emerging trends, analyzing megatrends, and developing multiple scenarios to reveal and discuss valuable insights into the future.

Strategic foresight attempts to provide insight into how the future may unfold. Foresight understands that the future is an emergent entity that is only partially visible in the current moment, not a predetermined destiny that can be fully known. There may be some truth to this statement, but there is no hard fact about the future, and the available evidence base is always incomplete. Therefore it is not possible to make any predictions. The objective is not simply to get the future right but to expand and refocus the range of plausible developments which need to be considered.

Future Scenarios

Also Known as Scenarios Planning. Scenario planning helps managers identify potential outcomes and impacts of their decisions and actions, evaluate responses and manage against both positive and negative possibilities. Businesses can become proactive by visualizing potential risks and opportuni­ties instead of just reacting to them. Scenarios, ultimately, tell a narrative with many possible conclusions. Narrative crafting requires a clear understanding of potential business realities and ensuing consequences.

Future Cone

Future Cone

The futures cone is an exercise for exploring the future by asking questions. The activity involves sorting thoughts about the future by time (earliest to latest), likelihood (most likely to least likely), and desirability (best to worst).

It would be best if you described the context for the future that people will be able to explore. How long into the future? Do you think about a general future for education and research or something more specific and bound, such as the future of a particular field? Do you have a topic, technology, or question that you would like people to focus on?

The six types of alternative futures defined above are considered subjectively judged ideas about the future based on the present moment so that they can change over time. For instance, the category of “possible” could change into “plausible” and then into “probable.” In brief, these types of classes are:

  • Potential – everything beyond our present moment is a potential for the future. This comes from the premise that the future is open and not inevitable, which is perhaps the fundamental axiom of future studies.
  • Possible – It is possible that these are those futures that will happen, based on some present knowledge we do not yet possess but which we might one day develop (e.g., the ability to travel through time, intergalactic travel).
  • Plausible – those are the future scenarios that ‘could’ happen based on our current understanding of human and technical sciences (e.g., it is likely that some of our oldest democracies might turn into a tyrannic regimes soon).
  • Probable – those are the future scenarios that are “likely to” happen, usually based on (in many cases, quantitative) current trends.
  • Preferable – those are the future scenarios a company assumes that ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ happen: normative value judgments instead of the most cognitive (e.g., Tesla believes that ICU engines will disappear).
  • Projected – the baseline, ‘business as usual,’ extrapolation of the past through the current future. This single future could be considered “the most probable” of the Probable futures, but it is not the most likely one.

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Wild Cards

They are low-likelihood, high-impact events; Anticipatory decision-making can be used to increase the ability of an organization or government to adapt to unexpected events. Such sudden and unique circumstances may be considered turning points in the evolution or development of a specific trend or phenomenon. Wild cards may or not be announced by weak signals, which are incomplete and fragmentary data from which foresight inferences might be made.

Black Swan

A black swan is an ultimate wild card: an unpredictable event that we would typically not expect, and it deals with a situation with potentially severe consequences.

Black swan events are sporadic and have a severe impact, and widespread insistence they were apparent in hindsight.

A Black Swan example is the demise of Long-Term Capital Management. This hedge fund went bankrupt because its computer models could not predict the ripple effects of the Russian government’s debt crisis.

Grey Rhino

The Gray Rhino is an analogy for the threats that we see and acknowledge yet do not act upon the two-ton animal we should notice, but from which we avert our eyes even though it is in our best interest to avoid it. It may be paw­ing the ground, snort­ing, and get­ting ready to charge at you. Or it may still be a way up the road when you still have time to man­age things before they become urgent. Climate change is a clear example of a Gray Rhino.

One of the biggest lessons from the covi­d-19 pandemic has shown us the folly of ignoring warnings regarding highly likely, high-impact risks that matter when, not if. For years, many countries have ignored numerous credible warnings that the world is ill-prepared for a pandemic. Many countries were too slow to respond when the novel coronavirus first emerged in China.

The pandemic should prompt policymakers to pay more attention not just to COVID-19 but to other known but poorly-managed risks. These include rising inequality, climate change; financial imbalances such as dangerous corporate debt levels; and asset bubbles. Picture these dangers as a two-tonne grey rhino with its horn pointed in our direction and its massive weight-bearing it down on us: they’re evident, and their impact is foreseeable. The interactions between these rhinos heighten their danger. You could appropriately call these animals a crash of grey rhinos, the zoological term for a herd.

Weak Signals

An early warning sign is the first indication of a change or an issue that may become significant later. Weak signals are often considered a part of environmental scanning (trend analysis), which complements trend analysis and can help define wild cards. In such cases, they are a part of preparing for the future.

It is easy to miss valuable ‘weak signals’ often hidden amidst the noise. Social media sites represent snippets of information and can be used by companies to determine what their customers want and to spot impending industry and market disruptions before their competition does. Companies sometimes notice them during data-analytics number-crunching exercises. Employees who apply methods more akin to art than science might see them and then do some additional number crunching to test their observations or hypotheses. Companies are just beginning to recognize the value they can bring to the table.

Horizon scanning

A systematic examination of available information allows for better preparedness and incorporation of mitigation and exploitation of vulnerabilities into the policy-making process.

Horizon scanning is used to analyze the future: considering how new trends and developments may potentially affect current policy and implementation.

In contingency planning, planning for unlikely, high-impact events can help manage risk.

Trends Research

A trend assumes the future that has a long-term and enduring effect on and changes something. New developments are moving in a new direction or intensifying even further. Examples include nutritional trends. During the upswing in the sixties, fatty foods were considered part of the quality of living. In recent years, the trend has been toward healthy eating and vegan nutrition, so you need to know that trends in an industry often have far-reaching effects on the economy. Trends in food, such as vegan diets, affect the retail, catering, tourist, leisure, and agricultural industries.

If a company takes a proactive role, it may be able to shape the future, bring new products to market that meet current demands, and are not surprised when disruptive changes occur. We will likely need to recognize the potential for the future and develop solutions that will be needed tomorrow to meet that potential. The end is being molded rather than the future molding itself. You need to be able to make predictions about current trends, future developments, and how they will affect your business.



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