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The Wayfinder’s Approach to Futures

Returning to Saudi Arabia this summer after a decade abroad, I was confronted with the rapid urban growth that had transformed the once-familiar landscape.

Frustrated by the limitations of technology, I found myself relying on my innate intuition and wayfinding skills to navigate the ever-changing roads of my hometown. This experience taught me a profound lesson about human instinct in the face of a complex and evolving environment.

A similar lesson can be applied to futures and the ability to wayfind in unknown territories.

In thinking about this topic, I drew upon the findings from an upcoming book chapter I had the honor of co-authoring with Mushfiqa Jamaluddin and Abdulrahman Alsulaimi. This work also was presented during the recent World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF XXV World Conference) in Paris.

What is Wayfinding? And what does it mean in futures?

Source: WikiArt

Origins of Wayfinding

According to urban planner Kevin Lynch in his book Images of The City, wayfinding is the ease with which people can identify and navigate complex environments such as cities and towns. Researchers then built on Lynch’s seminal work uncovering the behavioral and cognitive aspects related to how individuals navigate and reach their destination. Wayfinding is not exclusive to urban planning since indigenous groups and animals use it to travel through unknown paths and territories.

Understanding wayfinding involves considering spatial orientation as a crucial element. It refers to the ability to understand and interpret one’s position and relationship to the surrounding environment using multi-sensory directional cues. The environment could be the same but each person's mental map of it is unique.

Wayfinding in Futures

Applying this concept to a practitioner's journey in futures, spatial orientation becomes a key factor in the wayfinding approach. Essentially, how practitioners approach futures influences their experience and shapes their thinking and engagement with the field. For instance, my background in architecture and design inherently influences the cognitive map I have of the field. I tend to rely on patterns rooted in my training, such as the human-centered approach, which places the human experience at the core of my futures exploration.

Source: Schultz

Historically, futures studies naturally draws from various domains of knowledge, as Wendy Schultz outlines in her paper The History of Futures. These waves, beginning with shamans and mystics evolved into the study of complex adaptive systems today. Each wave carries distinct functions and traditions that do not seamlessly integrate into a single paradigm. As the field advances, not only is there a need to transcend rote instructions and cultivate wayfinding proficiencies, but an introspection into the cognitive aspects adopted by individual futurists and the broader community is critical for effective practice. Evaluating the relevance and adaptability of these heuristics across various futures contexts, projects, and situations becomes necessary.

Cognitive Processes in Futures

The concept of heuristics is often associated with bias, but unlike bias, heuristics are not errors that require mitigation or correction. Instead, the ancient Greek 'heurisko,' meaning "to find" or "to discover," captures its experimental essence. In simpler terms, heuristics are mental "rules of thumb" — efficient shortcuts that our energy-conserving bodies use for decision-making — while bias represents a systematic deviation from rational judgment.

Viewing situations through the lens of bias can induce feelings of shame, hindering learning and reflection — two essential factors in an effective futures practice. Futures thinking isn't about finding the optimal solution, a characteristic of economic rationality; rather, it closely aligns with ecological rationality by considering environmental context and complexity. Dealing with complex systems involves a continuous process of sensing and responding to unfolding moments. It's not about knowing before we go, but rather knowing as we go, as British anthropologist Tim Ingold, puts it.

"We are not self-contained individuals confronting a world out there, but developing organisms in an environment, enmeshed in tangled relationships. As we move through space, our knowledge undergoes continuous formulation. Wayfinding isn’t knowing before we go, but, as he [Tim Ingold] put it, ‘knowing as we go.’
M.R. O’Connor

In today's information-overloaded world, where decision-making involves countless variables, futurists face the challenging responsibility of not only maintaining their orientation but also assisting clients and stakeholders in doing the same. The concept of wayfinding has proven invaluable in this regard. Its nonprescriptive and highly individualized nature, coupled with a non-judgmental stance, demands contextualization. This approach acknowledges the dynamic, interactive relationship between futurists (inhabitants of the field) and the ever-evolving landscape they navigate (the field itself).

As we construct a toolkit for wayfinding in futures, I leave you with this question: “How did you arrive at the field of futures and how did you wayfind to where you are today?”


Heba Al-Hadyian, an APF Emerging Fellow 2023-2025, partners with international public and private organizations to identify opportunities, solve problems, and co-create new ideas. She leverages an integrated approach of foresight and design to contextualize emergent issues, spark conversations, and harness participatory decision-making.

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