Amid a storm of seemingly unimaginable events—from a once-in-a-century pandemic to wars breaking out in different parts of the world—futures thinking is experiencing a revival. The word “future” is popping up in conference titles and think pieces. New futures-oriented organizations and associations, along with future-focused production studios, are emerging almost daily, and some foundations are hiring futurists in residence to inform their work. This is not surprising. The tools for futures thinking were created precisely to help people cope with uncertainty—to make sense of the changes in the external environment, examine their potential implications, and develop portfolios of actions in response.

Although thinking about the future is an inherent part of being human, something people have been doing since time immemorial, contemporary organizational foresight and futures tools, not surprisingly, evolved into a discipline in the 1960s, a period of great social turmoil and technological change, similar in many ways to what we are experiencing today. In 1967, Alvin Toffler published his famous book Future Shock in which he issued a warning: In the face of vast technological and social changes, humanity is likely to collectively experience a condition not unlike the culture shock suffered by travelers to foreign countries, where they are surrounded by strange languages and customs. Similarly, people are likely to experience shock as things around them change so much that they feel like strangers in what used to be familiar environments. The result will be mass disorientation, irrationality, and widespread malaise. Sound familiar?

The cure Toffler advocated was universal literacy in futures thinking, something to be taught in schools and practiced widely within organizations, communities, and by governments. In that atmosphere, several research organizations, mostly funded by the Department of Defense, including RAND and SRI International, developed tools for strategic planning. Alongside these efforts and sometimes as their spinoff, research organizations, like the Hudson Institute and the Institute for the Future (IFTF), where I serve as executive director, emerged to help people think systematically about the future under conditions of extreme uncertainty. This remains the main purpose of foresight or futures thinking—providing people with tools and literacy to help them think longer-term (five, 10, and more years down the road) and to make better decisions today.

Foresight tools include horizon scanning to spot signals of change around us today. For example, early indicators of shifts in norms, behaviors, and technologies that are likely to grow in scale and importance over the next decade and beyond; trend analysis to identify large underlying patterns that will be shaping a particular domain of industry or society; scenarios to synthesize trends and signals together and create plausible, internally consistent stories of life in the future; backcasting or future-back thinking to connect scenarios with actions we can take today and tomorrow in order to avoid certain scenarios or achieve desired ones.

Read the full article about futures thinking for nonprofits by Marina Gorbis at Stanford Social Innovation Review.