Glossary - Definitions of Selected Futures Terms
-- a university of arizona course on methods and approaches for studying the future

Counter-intuitive. Counter to normal expectations. Varies as person's field, but issues that are out of the range of "normal" assumptions and behavior may not gain as much evaluation as those activities that are "expected"

Cross impact analysis. Identification of effects on various events on each other. Increasing one variable might decrease another, or have no effect. By placing a summary of these effects on a single chart, an overall perspective can be gained quickly.

Discontinuity. A major shift in a trend, that is so drastic that it cannot be accounted for by normal variation. An example might be the population shifts due to the baby boom. A larger scale example would be change from the industrial revolution to the information revolution.

Driving Forces. Driving forces are clusters of individual tends on the same general subject. There are many trends or events that shape the future, but some are more important and evident than others. Driving forces highlight these major future shapers by organizing them under a few terms, normally 5-6. Examples of driving forces categories are: demographic, economic, science and technology, or social/political.

Extrapolation. Extending a curve into the future by assuming the variables will continue to behave as they have in the past.

Forecast. An estimate of what might happen in the future. It is not absolute and often has probabilities attached. It is a "best guess".

Futurist. There is no good definition. Basically, it is a person interested in futures-related work. A small number work full time on the topic, many more are part time futurists and full time doing something else. They range from popular writers to highly technical experts in selected areas. Their views are in agreement on some things and vary widely on others.

Gaussian distribution. The distribution of events in a bell shaped curve. This is similar to the sigmoid curve and is derived mathematically but applies to many situations. It indicates there is generally a majority in the middle with extremes at either end. Here the actual number of events is used, where in the sigmoid curve it is the rate of change. A common example is the distribution of grades in a class.

Group-intelligence. This is where each member of the group contributes to the whole. The result is a synergistic effect where the group is more than just a sum of the parts. Groups or teams that operate this way function well. See group-think for the opposite effect of a group.

Group-think. This is the effect when a group works together and is sufficiently similar either by group membership or by training that they "think as one". This frequently results in narrow perspectives, avoidance of debating key assumptions or trends, and detracts from what can be positive benefits of a group. See group- intelligence (opposite) and mindset (similar).

Holistic. Looking at the whole system rather than just concentrating on individual components. The overall sum can be greater than a simple totaling of the individual parts, because the "system" adds something in addition. Another term is "systems thinking".

Leading indicators. Certain indicators that reflect early warnings of change. They vary by field (e.g., economic, social, environmental) and are the important trends as identified by practitioners in the field. They are useful because they take the very large number of relevant variables and reduce them to the important few (which may also include combinations of the individual variables) which signal changes coming in the relevant subject areas

Mindset. A person's frame of reference that is fixed. A person can have a particular "mindset" that is so strong in a specific outlook that they do not see other perspectives, even though they might hear them and believe they have been given consideration. This prevents looking at new options in a realistic sense.

Model. A prototype or surrogate of a complex situation. It can be a physical model, such as an architectural model of urban design, or a mathematical model of interactions of many variables. It is used in simulations for relating various components together or can be a stand alone tool to evaluate different approaches using different assumptions. Recent use of personal computer tools allows many types of software to effectively answer questions such as "what if I increase the growth rate"; these too are models.

Paradigm or paradigm shift. A paradigm is a pattern/mode/description of a given situation. It can be thought of as the force behind the unwritten rules of society or a particular discipline. A paradigm shift is a movement from the accepted paradigm, to a new one. It applies to subject matter fields, where the prevailing thought can be described by a brief statement. When shifts occur it calls the prevailing wisdom into question, and when there is sufficient evidence to have wide debate on a topic, a paradigm shift is likely underway.

Prediction. A specific statement about a future condition. Usually made by non-experts (who would like to add qualifications or ranges). An example would be "who is going to win the football game this week".

Scenario. A description of several (usually 3-5) possible descriptions of a situation. Hypothetical situations are interspersed with expected extrapolations of trends to list a combination of events that describes how a situation might occur. They are more useful for understanding the options and dealing with uncertainty than in predicting specific events.

Sigmoid curve (S curve). A curve that the rate of growth is rapid and then the growth rate declines. This produces a curve that appears as an S, due to a slow start, rapid growth, then leveling. Many biological systems follow this structure (e.g., population growth, carrying capacity), as well as product life cycles and societal fads. The same information is presented in the Gaussian distribution bell shaped curve; it different ways of looking at the same thing.

Simulation. Imitating or estimating how events might occur in a real situation. It can involve complex mathematical modeling, role playing without the aid of technology, or combinations. The value lies in the placing you under realistic conditions, that change as a result of behavior of others involved so you cannot anticipate the sequence of events or the final outcome.

Sustainability. The term originally applied to natural resource situations, where the long term was the focus. Today, it applies to many disciplines, including economic development, environment, food production, energy, and lifestyle. Basically, sustainability refers to doing something with the long term in mind, (several hundred years is sufficient). Today's decisions are made with a consideration of sustaining our activities into the long term future.

Trend. A pattern that is evident from past events. Sufficient data area required to see if there is a relationship of one (usually) or more variables (infrequent) over time. It is useful to better understand the subject under review as well as to estimate near- term future events.

Vision or Image. A picture or perspective of how you think something might be or should be sometime in the future. It is useful for developing a possible target(s) and explaining it to others. Image is more useful for futures studies, as it suggest s there are several "images" where vision to some suggests only one.

Wildcards. These are events that are rare or uncertain but if occurred they would have a major impact. Increasingly we realize the future is more uncertain and there are more possible wildcard events than in the past. Therefore it is becoming useful to incorporate “representative wildcard” events into futures analyses. The important thing is not to address a specific wildcard but represent a situation that could be caused by different types of wildcards. The purpose is to understand how to react when wildcard-like events happen (rather than taking time to make a long list of the many possible wildcards).

These definitions should be enough to get you started, if you have any questions see me in class or give me a call.

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Prepared by Roger L. Caldwell
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