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FIVE KEY PRINCIPLES FOR CRAFTING ENGAGING AND EFFECTIVE FORECASTS


Image by Mark Frauenfelder using Midjourney


Computer scientist Alan Kay is often credited for saying, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” 

In truth, no one really knows who said it first. But the quote fits Kay. He helped invent the future of computing 50 years ago by leading the development of the graphic user interface at Xerox PARC.

I keep Kay’s quote in mind when developing forecasts because it reminds me that IFTF’s definition of “forecast” is different from the dictionary’s: “to calculate or predict (some future event or condition) usually as a result of study and analysis of available pertinent data.”


Here’s IFTF’s Distinguished Fellow Bob Johansen’s definition of a forecast:

“A forecast is a plausible, internally consistent view of what might happen. It is designed to be provocative. At Institute for the Future, we don’t use the word prediction. A prediction is a statement that something will happen. A prediction is almost always wrong. Journalists and others love to highlight predictions that didn’t come true, but why are they surprised? If we have learned anything from forecasting, it is that nobody can predict the future. Some people who call themselves futurists are trying to predict the future, but that is more entertainment than research. Fortune-tellers predict the future; forecasters don’t.” (From his book, Get There Early)


This leads to our first principle for crafting engaging and effective forecasts: 


PRINCIPLE #1: DON’T TRY TO PREDICT THE FUTURE

Not only will you get it wrong, you won’t have as much fun. As quantum physicist Niels Bohr said (or didn’t say), “Prediction is hard, especially about the future.” Instead of predictions, think of forecasts as prompts to nudge the universe in a desired direction.

Now, let’s dive right in and look at the other key principles for writing effective forecasts.


PRINCIPLE #2: GROUND FORECASTS IN SIGNALS

Signals help us see the future as less of a static destination and more of a dynamic, evolving spectrum of possibilities.

In this article, IFTF’s Kathi Vian described the role of signals in developing forecasts:

“Don’t look for the biggest, most obvious signals. We look for small signals with potentially big impacts as they scale. We don’t look for representative samples of people to interview. Instead, we talk to the lead actors who are inventing new solutions, joining new movements, or suffering disproportionately. These signals and actors help us understand the underlying drivers, the deeply personal desires, and the unanticipated ways people are inventing their own futures. This understanding, in turn, helps us form broad hypotheses about the future.”

Grounding your forecasts in signals allows you to envision the future not as a distant event disconnected from the present but as the combined result of numerous interconnected micro-changes.


PRINCIPLE #3: CUT OUT EVERYTHING THAT’S NOT SURPRISING

This is a direct quote from musician, writer, and entrepreneur, Derek Sivers. In a now-famous essay, Sivers shared a surprising insight:

“People only really learn when they’re surprised. If they’re not surprised, then what you told them just fits in with what they already know. No minds were changed. No new perspective. Just more information. So, my main advice to anyone preparing to give a talk on stage is to cut out everything from your talk that’s not surprising. (Nobody has ever complained that a talk was too short.) Use this rule in all your public writing.”

Surprising elements make forecasts more engaging and memorable. They spark curiosity, invite exploration, and encourage deeper engagement with the ideas presented.


PRINCIPLE #4: SET AUDACIOUS VISIONS

Bold forecasts compel readers to take steps to realize or avert future possibilities. Being “right” or “wrong” is irrelevant. As IFTF Distinguished Fellow Jamais Cascio wrote in his excellent essay, “Foresight Forensics: How to Learn From Your Previous Scenarios”:

“But being wildly wrong about everything in a forecast isn’t always a bad thing; something I say in many of my talks is that it’s okay to be wrong  —  the goal with scenarios and forecasts is to be usefully wrong. If the off-target speculation still ends up triggering for the reader a new set of insights about what could happen going forward, the foresight work has done its job. We’re not here to inform people of the inevitable. We’re here to alert people to the possible, and to get people to look at a changing world through new lenses.”

So, when crafting your forecasts, dare to dream big. Remember, a forecast’s true power lies in its ability to open our minds to new possibilities and to inspire us to shape the future actively.


PRINCIPLE #5: ANCHOR FORECASTS IN PLAUSIBILITY

While forecasts should be bold and audacious (and at times even ridiculous), it’s equally critical to anchor them in plausibility. This balance between the audacious and the plausible is what makes a forecast effective and compelling. The importance of plausibility lies in its power to engage. Plausible scenarios, even if they are wildly innovative or unprecedented, invite us into the narrative, asking us to consider how we might react or adapt in such a future. 


For instance, consider a forecast about a “telepathic communication network that reads your neural activity, allowing you to send a text just by thinking about it.” This scenario, while extraordinary, is plausible. It builds upon existing technologies and trends in neuroscience and machine learning. It’s audacious, but it’s also something we can wrap our minds around, envisioning its potential implications and challenges. Contrast this with a scenario where “kittens become the best chess players in the world.” While it’s certainly audacious, it’s neither plausible nor useful in a forecasting context. It’s hard to imagine a pathway from our current reality to this future, which makes it less engaging and less effective as a prompt for thinking about potential futures. (It does make for a fun Midjourney prompt, however.)


NAVIGATING THE FUTURE LANDSCAPE

The purpose of a forecast  —  whether it’s a one-sentence provocation or a 10-page scenario  —  is to stimulate discussion, decision-making, and action towards desired outcomes. The five principles  —  avoiding prediction, grounding forecasts in signals, focusing on the surprising, setting audacious visions, and mapping plausible scenarios  —  acknowledge that the future isn’t set in stone; it’s a dynamic landscape of possibilities. With these principles in hand, you’ll be well-equipped to create forecasts that are not only insightful and provocative but allow you to navigate that landscape and help others do the same.


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Mark Frauenfelder is a Research Director and Editorial Director at IFTF, where he studies the future impacts of emerging technologies. With a background in mechanical engineering, illustration, and journalism, he was the founding editor-in-chief of Wired.com, Make magazine, and Boing Boing. He’s written for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Popular Science, Business Week, The Hollywood Reporter, Wired, and other national publications. He has written nine books, including The Computer: An Illustrated History. In addition to illustrating books and magazines, he designed Billy Idol's Cyberpunk album cover. He’s also produced over 500 podcast episodes. Mark has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Colorado State University and worked for five years in the disk drive industry.

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is the world’s leading futures organization. Its training program, IFTF Foresight Essentials, is a comprehensive portfolio of strategic foresight training tools based upon over 50 years of IFTF methodologies. IFTF Foresight Essentials cultivates a foresight mindset and skillset that enable individuals and organizations to foresee future forces, identify emerging imperatives, and develop world-ready strategies. To learn more about how IFTF Foresight Essentials is uniquely customizable for businesses, government agencies, and social impact organizations, visit iftf.org/foresightessentials or subscribe to the IFTF Foresight Essentials newsletter.

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