October 15th 2021

What do you think the future would look like if everything would be possible?

Futures Literacy: The ability to imagine the future and drive profound change

Four times a year, the Department of Business Administration Online holds the so-called "Coffee, Cake & Research" meeting. As the name suggests, the team gets together over coffee and cake and exchanges ideas about exciting research projects. In the last meeting, Antje Bierwisch, a lecturer in Innovation Management, presented one of her research focuses: Futures Literacy. We would like to briefly outline what this research field is all about in this article.

Organizations, as well as policymakers, deal with uncertainty and complex societal change factors on a daily basis: climate change, pandemics, economic crises, consequences of globalization to name just a few. These factors change our conventional perceptions of the future by limiting our ability to think outside of predefined paradigms or to recognize and understand new phenomena. Futures Literacy is therefore one of the essential competencies of the 21st century according to UNESCO.

We are all born with the ability to imagine the future. Nevertheless, most of us have a rather limited imagination, because we are used to rely on facts and figures. However, UNESCO is sure that it is possible to become "future literate" again. They give two reasons why: first, the future does not yet exist, and second, everyone has the ability to imagine the future. In short, futures literacy is about why and how the future can be used. A possible starting question for this would be, for example: What do you think the future would look like if everything would be possible?

Why companies should foster this skill among their employees can be demonstrated with the following benefits of Futures Literacy:

  • Innovations are developed and used
  • Through futures literacy, new and unexpected aspects are recognized
  • Futures Literacy strengthens initiative and the willingness to experiment
  • Different strategic alternatives are visible
  • Futures Literacy increases agility
  • Futures literacy makes change easier
  • Diversification approaches with risk and uncertainty are better accepted

As these advantages recognize and create innovation and transformation, it is very important to develop and strengthen this capability. If you wonder if you are "future literate" or if a necessary foundation is already in place, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you think long-term? Are you able to shift perspective effortlessly from the urgent problems of the present to the longer-term consequences and opportunities?
  • Do you have strong confidence in your abilities and recognize when and where you can act to influence the future?
  • Are you open to new ideas and able to imagine different alternatives?
  • Are you able to recognize the larger systems of social, cultural, and natural contexts that influence the development of the future?
  • Do you generally want the future to be better for everyone?

If you would like to learn more about this competency, feel free to check out the book "Transforming the future: anticipation in the 21st century", which is available for free on the UNESCO homepage.