Computer Aided Futuring

Futuring refers to the formal methods used to explore the future. The internet has offered several ways to increase the ability for humans to gain insight on the future. Shaping Tomorrow’s new Forecast system, offers new technology to further increase the human capacity for understanding the future in a convenient and accelerated manner.

Online research usually requires the researcher to search a keyword in a search engine that returns several thousand sources that require reading several hundred pages of data to get just the basic principles of a given topic. Futurists and other horizon scanners can use news services such as RSS and Google Alerts to follow daily publications from specific topics or sources that still require a great deal of time upon which to draw any conclusions.

Shaping Tomorrow offers a computer program capable of helping futurists and non-futurists alike to get the gist of the future. Shaping Tomorrow system takes care of the sourcing and even much of the reading for the user. A single keyword search provides the foresight researcher with future relevant statements culled from multiple sources all over the web which can be summarized to a top 20-30 list of Forecasts.

Shaping Tomorrow is a global consultancy specializing in holistic strategic planning and futures thinking. They began in 2002 out of London, and they now have more than 20,000 members from 150 plus countries and more than 7,000 organizations. In recent years, they have automated several aspects of their services. They can entirely automate the horizon scanning needs of any organization, and they can automatically extract future specific statements from the scanning hits. These statements, which they term Forecasts, can be searched by keyword and then summarized—using a partner’s program called WebSummarizer—into the top 20-30 most unique Indicators. I say unique because the algorithm does not recognize importance but it is able to recognize statements that repeat each other. So, it slims down the repetition to provide the most unique and contextually relevant Indicators.

The Indicators are most often forecasts developed by experts or curious amateurs. We can easily weed out the bloggers and journalists by searching only for Forecasts from pdf documents which are usually professional reports. Shaping Tomorrow is even able to read reports that have been uploaded to the system (e.g. your own reports, paid reports).

The ultimate point here is that the summary provides a list of Forecasts which can easily be organized into multiple scenarios, weak signals, trends, etc. Sometimes the summary provides conflicting statistics such as listing a commodity at two or even three different price points. These forecasts can then be set to high, medium, and low scenarios. The user can then evaluate the scenarios and explore different implications. In fact, implications are often explicit in the summary of Forecasts.

The Indicator summary sometimes spells out a baseline scenario with no outlying views or statistics upon which to easily base alternative scenarios. The future of energy is a prime example where the prevalence of renewables is expected to surpass fossil fuels by 2050 at the latest. The lack of forecasts however does not mean the future is linear even for fossil fuels. However, it is the future that some organizations most want evidence for, and they can easily find that if they do not want to pay extra for a foresight researcher to tease out plausible alternatives.

Why Gisting the Future? Well, the term Gisting comes from its use in machine translation. Once translation software reached a certain level of competence, researchers, whether they were publicly or privately funded, were able to read foreign language documents and get the gist of what the document said even if the computers were unable to properly translate the document. So, such researchers began using the term gist as a verb. They would even tell their colleagues that they are gisting when they were reading a foreign language document that had been translated by a computer. The legal profession sometimes uses the term in a similar manner to refer to the simplification of legalese to common speech.

So, strategic foresight and futures studies have their own jargon and mindsets that sometimes confuse the layperson. And computers can be a good way to help simplify the process of thinking about the future for non-futurists. However, futurists can also derive benefit from the same computer processes for quickly and conveniently teasing out the current issues that will affect the future of a particular domain. While some futurists will find the process insubstantial, I have found that computer aided futuring is a great tool for three specific things: beginning a foresight project, collaborating on a foresight project, and offering a less expensive yet broad report on the future of a topic.

Clearly a number of fallacies arise from relying on this type of research too heavily. However, foresight research in general is not a hard science. It relies on inferences, intuition, and speculation, but it can offer alternatives to baseline trends that often provoke innovation. If users take the research fallacies into account, the system can still be useful to provide a basic introduction to the future or futures of a topic.

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