Studying the future to help organisations and the planet

As Study Advisory’s vision lies in helping future and current students to craft their own future, we decided to write a piece on future studies, which is, actually, a field in its own right.

Ever considered studying the future?

Future studies seek to explore potential options for the future, and also likely scenarios. Sometimes a normative method is also used: which scenario is to be chosen or favoured, and why? The Finland Futures research centre is one of the few of its kind in the world. Others like-minded centres include the research centre for future studies at the University (of Hawaii) at Manoa and the more recent Taiwanese Graduate Institute of Future Studies, at Tamkang university (where the whole university has “futurizing” as an essential part of its mission statement).

stuyding the future
Planning and creating the future is all about solid scenarios and picking the preferred outcomes among various future options

But back to Finland. The Finnish futures research centre boasts a long tradition for the field, with research on the future happening in Finland from the 1960s. The centre itself was founded in 1992 in a forward-looking moment for the world and for Finland. The Finnish futures research centres organises and a yearly conference that attracts specialists from around the globe. The 2017 conference will be about complexity with a focus on globalisation. Also, interestingly, the UN organisation Study Advisory gives money to thanks to students’ reviews, UNESCO, is the same one Finnish futures research Markku Wilenius was recently appointed to. Wilenius’s UNESCO professorship’s aim is to support futures studies in developing countries.

A unique doctoral programme in Turku

According to Dr Jari Kaivo-oja, research director at the Finland Futures Research Centre (FFRC), the number of foreign students in both the master and PhD programme has risen in recent years, showing the global impact of a forerunner in this original, multidisciplinary subject. In Turku (the centre is hosted by the University’s School of Economics), the doctoral programme in futures studies is unique in Europe.

Master and PhD students of futures studies in Turku come from all walks of life: engineering, economics, business research, natural sciences… They have started a blog, Black Swans, inspired by a 2011 book by Nassim Taleb on highly improbable events.

studying the future
Highly improbable events can shake countries, organisations, individuals or even academic subjects.

Upon graduation, these Turku trained students set up their own companies, or work in bigger organisations, while some join family businesses. Often, fresh graduates find themselves using the skill set of future studies tools they have been trained in. Futures methods are valued by research centres across Finland, in particular, including for internships and research positions, and are of course valuable for PhD candidates.

The Finnish Futures research centre also has offices in Tampere and Helsinki.

A universal field with a wide range of potential implications

Future studies are increasingly attractive to Latin American and Chinese universities and research centre, though China has its own tradition that dates back to about 100 years ago. And the Finnish parliament has its own committee for the future, science and technology policy with 17 members of parliament advising the government on the foresight using a long view.

Many management methods can be used to conduct future studies. Foresight, network and decision-making analysis are usually steps that ensure all aspects are taken into account by the organisation seeking to get insight into its futures. As a holistic field, futures studies can encompass topics such as food, sustainability, or security.

studying the future
Sustainability in particular is at the core of the Finnish Futures Research centre’s values and projects. The creation of Sustainable Development Goals has led to a pioneering exercise in integrating strategic foresight to sustainability.

Futures studies and higher education

Asked what trends are the most disturbing in higher education at this point in time, Dr Kaivo-oja answered that students will need to learn to use big data in the coming years, and the upcoming generation of youngsters is already being redefined as ‘artificial intelligence natives’ (with the Internet of things) rather than ‘digital natives’. And it is true that many classrooms already use tablets, interactive polls and games (Kahoot, which Study Advisory uses too during high school visits). But currently, most university students might still be “good old” digital natives, so what is at stake?

For Dr Kaivo-oja, a future studies perspective on higher education also unravels two trends: which proportion of private vs public education do societies want for the next generations? (an open question which is central to many reforms in education these days), and a fact: more and more people need tertiary education. This is particularly true of ‘developing nations’, while some free, efficient university systems like Finland are at a crossroads, with the introduction of fees for international students next year.

Another take-home point from Study Advisory’s meeting with the Finnish Future research centre lies in the ‘weak signal’ (first sign of a trend) that cultural interaction is being transformed by artificial intelligence and that more and more people can, through the Internet, engage with others while using their own language. This hints at a post-globalised world in which (native and non native) English ‘was’ the common language.

studying the future
Has the Internet already caused a revolution in universities? Digital natives are co-creating their learning environment, and as digitalization has already reached a point of no return, languages can be seen as a factor in improved digitalization and online communication across cultures.

Trends and scenario analysis might not help us determine what tomorrow’s university will look like (will more students use MOOCs for their whole degrees, will we speak Mandarin instead of Chinese in international MBAs? Or even will future studies still attract master and PhD students?). But, in a world that seems to be changing at a faster pace than before, the long view of the discipline might be valuable to take hindsight and ponder what to keep and what to change from a current society or organisation. In this respect, making sense of the future proves crucial to predict – and then decide – what emerging needs a country or company ought to be prepared for.

-Pauline Trabuc

Why studying the future may be valuable

  • You can work in many organizations, public or private, large and small
  • Your degree will be original yet traditional (research methods can be applied in other contexts), and you will have been taught original ways of thinking
  • A small but close-knit community of specialists around the world
  • A door to sustainability careers
  • A multidisciplinary cohort and impact, with a unique understanding of scenarios, including improbable futures.

More information

Finland Futures Research Centre

Note that future students at Turku also take part in an intensive short summer school in June, where they will hone their thinking about complexity and discuss the upcoming future studies conference.

Master’s degree in future studies and doctoral programme in future studies

University of Turku on Study Advisory (148 reviews, you can also rate)

University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, on Study Advisory (5 student reviews, you can also rate)

University of Tamkang on Study Advisory (be among the first ones to rate)

Strategic foresight and sustainability on Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund’s website

2 thoughts on “Studying the future to help organisations and the planet

  1. Hello

    Indeed great information on how to study and why we study. Study is the biggest invest for future so people understood that concept. Also keep sharing this type of inspirational information.

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