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From UXR to Futures Research

Updated: May 10

I’ve conducted research for…decades. Starting as an anthropologist, then applying that to organization effectiveness, market, and competitive intelligence for healthcare delivery, and then to generative and formative user experience research in emerging technologies.

Field research has always been primary. I gravitate toward Big Picture implications and what it all means, and then what THAT means.

Aerial photo of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog with the city clear in the background.
San Francisco, clear and unclear

Futures work, also known as Stategic Foresight, has been around for a century. I’ve been aware of it since before college. I once hired a futures institute for work at my company. Still, there seemed to be no visible ramp into conducting futures research myself, and no discernable there there. The fundamentals seem rather obscure.

I was in Silicon Valley showing science and engineering innovators how to see and feel what the world would be like with their physics-breaking thing in it. I offered maps of product constraints and opportunities in a wide landscape of possibilities. The very essence of futuring.

Then there’s the rest of it: truly diving into an array of futures and understanding the morphing conditions that might create them. Creating material artifacts that illustrate implications of those imaginary worlds using speculative design and design fiction. Then deriving strategies when one or more of these futures begin to dominate into a singular, real future.

Taking a socio-cultural anthropological approach, I set out to understand the nature of futuring. To wit:

  • How this tribe self-identifies, and what the subcultures are

  • The historical contexts of this field

  • Language and terminologies, and the histories/reasonings behind them

  • The maturity level of the field – whether there is a cohesive tribe yet or whether it is a set of lightly connected practice groups in different registers

  • The player ecosystem

    • Who they are, where they are, what their backgrounds are, and what they practice exactly

    • What the tenor of their workday is

    • The internal political regions: the alliances and divisions, the social postures of each

    • Do they know each other, how do they talk to/about each other, where do they huddle and what do they do there

  • What the types of purposes and practices are, and for which kinds of stakeholders

  • How futuring is perceived by non-practitioners

  • The seminal writings, frameworks, and theories – the syllabi

  • What is considered rigorous and what is considered lightweight

  • And my big question: what has prevented futuring from becoming its own fully-formed and recognized academic and commercial field – or maybe it operates on some other plane

Intro to Futuring Concepts and Practices

I realized early on that I needed to track what I was learning. I was effectively running myself through a self-guided master’s program without the resulting degree, and I needed to gather data. In what form, with what categories – I was starting from scratch.

So I created an Aboard to collect links to global organizations, institutions, and agencies. I also started a spreadsheet to track categories. As of this writing, that spreadsheet documents 50 (and counting) working entities in 13 categories, and 14 (and counting) strictly educational entities. If I were going for an MBA these data would inform a final project.

I’ll publicly share this trove later when I can offer useful analyses.

Squirrel on a tree branch with a nut in its mouth, looking directly at us.
Fellow artifact collector

This effort feels like an archaeology of a forest floor – eventually one needs pockets in one’s sack for the artifacts like nuts, twigs, leaves, mushrooms, mosses, and small rocks as well as charts of where all that stuff was found + tree clusters, waterways, animal tracks, insects, squirrels/rabbits, birds, and the random candy wrapper.

First, one must find data-rich landscapes to explore. I'm not concerned at this stage about what seems appealing – it’s all data. There's time to be discerning later. Here are the things you can do, too.

  • Stumble around for magazine/journal articles, books, videos of talks, podcasts – learn which keywords get you which results. Interlibrary Loan is your friend.

  • Subscribe to academic journals or read them at a library

  • Follow authors/practitioners online for current commentary

    • LinkedIn

    • Medium

    • Substack

    • Newsletters

  • Join online communities on Slack and Discord. These futures communities usually work on projects that can be helpful in getting your feet wet in their subcultures. A lot of signals collection happens here.

    • Participate in conversations online

    • Attend virtual community events e.g., seminars, workshops

    • Meet 1 to 1 with other community members

  • Join IRL communities (e.g., Speculative Design) in larger cities (or start one yourself!)

  • Collect tools and start playing with them. I currently have four card decks/kits and an online file of methods and tools in PDF form. I'm also taking an online course to learn a futuring sensemaking tool

Mastering Futuring Practices

As a researcher with considerable methods experience and knowledge, I needed to figure out where my planet is in this galaxy. Mostly, I needed to figure out how I could intensively practice this kind of research. So I needed to collect intensive practice options, and when certain people choose which options.

  • Formal education: an extension to a bachelor's, a certificate, a master’s, or doctorate

    • Learn processes, overall and for specific purposes

    • Learn tools for specific purposes

    • Get career connections via faculty

  • Informal education

    • Get a certificate or method/tools instruction offered by a few non-academic organizations – these can be noted on your LinkedIn profile and resume

    • Run workshop sessions with local friends/communities – practice collaborating

    • They’re less intensive than the other options, but one can participate in virtual community projects like the ones stated above, or run internally by an organization

      • Tip: Internal communities seem far less active than the public ones

Employment as a Futurist

Beyond mastering the craft is earning income from this labor-intensive work.

  • Become an independent contractor to an established Futures organization

    • In the US this is called being a 1099 contractor for tax purposes

    • I’m tracking organizations that seem to especially welcome contact with potential researchers or partners

  • Gain full-time employment as a Futurist

    • Making Futures part of your current job seems to be a common track. Many formal and informal education programs assume this situation.

    • Get a Futures/Strategy job (this is where that M.A. or Ph.D. comes in)

a red leaf closeup, showing veins - the idea of systems
An emergent complex system - in red
  • Start up your own Futures organization

    • This is the most challenging scenario. And yet such consultancies are popping up worldwide, perhaps because there aren’t enough organizations to take in these individuals and small teams

    • How rigorous are these organizations and can they pay their bills? I can only guess by how they present themselves.

    • Funding seems to rely on bootstrapping while getting up to speed

    • I wonder how these organizations also run the business side of things; these are coded in my data as profit or non-profit + some variations

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. Watch this space for more findings.


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