The Future Thinker’s Dilemma

When It Comes to Thinking About the Future, Should We Push or Pull? Prop-Up or Provoke? Conserve or Challenge? Futurists, Foresighters, and Future Thinkers Need to Continually Assess What (and Whose) Future They Are Helping to Create.

13 min readAug 18, 2023

We Need to Acknowledge that the Practice of Futures Thinking and Foresight Has Problems

I recently shared a post on social media around a few overlooked observations concerning the field of foresight & futures thinking that received a fair amount of attention (in the form of likes and comments). For the sake of brevity, the post said something like this:

The field of foresight and futures thinking has three big problems:

  1. Foresight has a trend problem — today’s trend hunting is largely a by-product of a linear, mechanistic, and extractive system that hopes to profit off of the “next big thing,” and is also mired in a hyper-masculine perspective of what’s important or what should be examined.
  2. Foresight has a time problem — “This or that will happen in the next 1, 3, 5, 10+ years” is a predictive mechanism that shackles and impoverishes humanity’s need to cultivate imagination-empowered and experiential consciousness that transcends the boundaries of time and space.
  3. Foresight has a measurement problem — “Data, data, everywhere, but we never stop to think” or the idea that we are attempting to measure the future when a.) you can’t measure the future any more than you can capture your shadow, and b.) if the nature of the future is shifting and changing, then why do we think that the metrics that drive our present-day systems will do us any good when it comes to understanding what’s emerging and unfolding? (Hopefully you caught the Alice In Wonderland reference I included.)

There were many great comments on the post, with several people adding additional “problems” facing the current common practice of foresight and futures thinking:

  • Foresight has an action problem (too quick to action before considering alternatives, possibilities and consequences due to our preference for short-termism, quick wins, productivity, efficiency, etc.)
  • Foresight has a “past”problem (assuming that the future will always mirror the past and present, when both the nature of the future is changing and our stories about the past/present aren’t even good reflections of what actually happened in the first place due to the clearing scythe of settler colonialism)
  • Foresight has a jargon problem (too academic? I’ll get to this in a minute)
  • Foresight has an ageism problem (it certainly has, as many disciplines tend to do, but the answer to this lies in the biological, psychological, and sacred dimensions of foresight — it’s a natural, evolutionary trait that belongs to ALL living systems. To read more on this, see my article on Holoptic Foresight Dynamics here.)
  • Foresight has a male problem (I already mentioned this above, and this one speaks for itself. Hopefully, that’s shifting.)

In Reality, the Focus on “Problem” is Foresight’s Biggest Problem

I’m sure this list could be expanded, but maybe it’s best summed up by stating that foresight has a “problem” problem. (Say what?)

Whether it’s trends, prediction, time, hard/cold data, or one of the other problems shared in my social media post, they all revolve around the fact that foresight has (generally) been looking to solve present-day problems that exist as a direct result of the life-draining systems that we presently inhabit.

“Of course it has,” you might say, “that’s the entire point of applying foresight to our organizations, governments, and social entities.” However, as Albert Einstein was famous for saying, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” Put another way, you can’t solve a problem within the context of that problem. As a matter of fact, let’s take it one step further:

Our present-day solutions are born from the present-day problems of our present-day systems that are fueled by our present-day perspectives, and foresight/futures thinking should be offering us an entirely different way of perceiving the world that supersedes our limited assumptions, our system-defined problems and our context-limited solutions.

Let’s try that one more time:

Why are we futuring to find solutions to the problems created by extrapolative, exponential, and extractive systems, when we should be futuring to imagine emerging novelty and construct transformative realities that would allow us to elevate our human, planetary, and universal experience above and beyond those systems?

Our practice of “futuring to the problem” (a phrase that mirrors the idea of “teaching to the test” — a colloquial term for any method of education whose curriculum is heavily focused on preparing students for a standardized test), has resulted in the development of a plethora of tools and methods in the field of foresight that are meant to help us to avoid threats to our current systems (extrapolative), leverage change to massively benefit our present-day models (exponential), and maintain our seemingly inescapable and inevitable march forward (extractive). When I think about this approach to futuring, I’m reminded of the words of sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” Of course, it was also noted by philosophers Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek that “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Such a statement displays the narrative weight under which our future visions struggle, and why we must cultivate imagination, opportunity, and transformation that transcends our present systems.

The Three Evil Es

As I’ve already alluded to, it’s no easy task to escape from what I call the “Three Evil Es.” Our present systems — based on linearity, short-termism, hyper-productivity, and hyper-efficiency for maximum monetization — benefit most when they are supported by three insidious components that work in tandem: extrapolation, exponentiality, and extraction. These three “dominant narratives” not only drive our technological, economic, and political outcomes, but define how we approach and use innovation, strategy, design, organizational development, social construction, and — yes — even foresight to reinforce their. Certainly, the practice would be increasingly working to distance itself from such an association in order to aid in the creation and design of more generative models for organizations, governments, economies and societies.

Nevertheless, nary a month passes by that we don’t get yet another bright and shiny foresight methodology that promises to granularize information and atomize data so that we can finally solve the pesky problems plaguing the planet that were caused by — you guessed it — our extrapolative, exponential, and extractive practices of granularizing and atomizing. (By the way, the granularizing and atomizing is exactly how complication works, not complexity; we keep adding another step to our processes in hopes that it will be the last step that finally does the trick… but it never is. If you want to read more about the unnatural attribute of complication vs. the organic and life-giving nature of complexity, check out my article entitled A Superhero Named Complexity.)

These bedazzled methods fall under the category that Futurist Ilkka Tuomi labels as Epistemic Uncertainty, and the argument goes something like this:

“I’m unsure about the answer to this problem, but I can solve it by gathering more data. Once I gather more data related to the problem, I will be able to devise a solution.”

However, as Tuomi astutely observes, such a deterministic view fails to take into account the changing NATURE of the future (i.e. the shifting variables, expansive knowledge creation, constant contextual change, evolutionary novelties, etc.), and he calls this approach to futuring Ontological Unpredictability. For Tuomi — and I certainly agree with this — our traditional “impact analysis” models cannot aid us in living transformatively when we exist in a world of vast complexity and emerging realities. A world that’s upside down cannot and should not be treated and measured as if it holds the key to creating a world that’s right side up. A new vision and world requires a new way of thinking, measuring, acting, and being. For a profession that works so hard to get individuals and communities to see the distinction between “what is” and “what’s yet to come”— and to rethink, reframe, and redefine our present reality — it’s a consummate struggle. Unless… challenging our world toward growth and development was never really the goal in the first place? (See Tuomi’s paper Foresight In An Unpredictable World.)

Design professor and philosopher Cameron Tonkinwise echoed this idea in a recent social media post when he noted,

“We think creatively (not predictively) about the future in order to decide what to do now in order to make possible different futures. There is no reason to be ‘future-oriented’ other than to try to change things, from now on. This means that you must be very careful when trying to ‘future’ to ensure that you are not unwittingly reproducing implicit past patterns. When doing futures thinking, you can, and to some extent must, explicitly choose aspects of the past that you believe will extend, or should be extended, into the future. But futuring is of little value, perhaps even dangerous, if it extrapolates into the future things that will not and should not be there, but which are because those doing the ‘futures thinking’ did not adequately think about them.” (Emphasis mine)

“The Official Future” tells us to “think exponentially, act incrementally,” beckoning us to utilize foresight in service of the ever-expanding present systems of quantifying, micro-analyzing, extracting, consuming, and automating. This way of futuring is at the heart of Epistemic Uncertainty. “The Emergent Future” instead challenges us to “think transformationally, act transitionally” to manifest futures-empowered landscapes of care, empathy, reconciliation, and love in our organizations, governments, and social entities, allowing us to align with much healthier expressions of our biological, psychological, and sacred experiences. Of course, this is not in line with the value proposition of our present systems, and most would deem such futures improbable at best and frivolous at worst. Nevertheless, challenges to long-held assumptions take place when individuals dive deeper and deeper into anticipatory imagination and provocation, and this opens the door to transformative realities that profoundly change the perspective of the foresight practitioner. Consequently, the possibility of these new worlds become an internal experience that can no longer be ignored. This is the future thinker’s dilemma.

Put Another Way, Should We “Push” or “Pull?”

To better illustrate the future thinker’s dilemma, let’s imagine for a moment that “the future” exists along a spectrum (Of course, there’s no one future — there are multiple possible futures — and, in reality, those futures more likely play out in a circle, not a straight line. For the sake of the illustration, try to play along!)

On one end of this spectrum is the “Push of the Future.” This is where trends, issues, and events are driving us to react, pushing us into the future, many times kicking and screaming. Most of our organizations are familiar with the dynamics of this end of the spectrum, applying practices such as consumer insights, competitive intelligence, business intelligence, and other data analysis functions in order to make sense of their surroundings and extrapolate “what’s next.” It’s this end of the spectrum of the future where individuals and organizations are really dealing in “forecasting” (a method of making informed predictions by using historical data as the main input for determining the course of future trends) and viewing futures thinking through the aforementioned lens of “Epistemic Uncertainty.”

On the other end of the spectrum is where we experience the “Pull of the Future,” or the intentional thinking and acting around aspirational and transformational futures. As you might have imagined, this part of the spectrum aligns with the emerging novelty and anticipatory imagination of “Ontological Unpredictability.” Here — where the very nature of the future is distinct from the landscape that spawned our present-day problems — the leveraging of trends for success based on our dominant metrics, value propositions, and reward systems will not aid us in the necessary transitions to health, prosperity, and thrivability for people, planet, and purpose, and perception.

I could say much more about the future thinker’s dilemma, but let me finish this article by pointing to a couple of quotes that were recently brought to my attention that embody this idea. The first is from my friend Sabrina Meherally, the Founder of the inclusive design and imagination firm Pause and Effect:

Complex and non-prescriptive approaches to change, innovation, or design can often be invalidated through the assertion that they “sound nice” in theory, but “lack practicality”. In these cases, I am inclined to draw awareness towards the colonial assumptions that underlie our common understanding of “practicality”. In my view, when we consider something to be “practical” in today’s society, we actually mean that:

There is substantial, quantitative or qualitative evidence for its success.

That it can be useful and put into practice in real life situations, through a clear set of instructions.

Here is how intellectualism and linearity of time underlie this logic:

1️. It prioritizes western “scientific” knowledge as a means of determining validity. Only that which can be proven through quantitative and qualitative data is considered practical. Embodied and lived experience, which can only be felt, is considered impractical.

2️. It assumes that theoretical and practical are on two sides of a binary spectrum. Theory being knowledge based on hypotheses, and not being grounded in fact.

3️. It expects clear and actionable steps. This emphasizes linearity of thinking, and leaves little to no room for complexity, ambiguity and emergence.

The second quote comes from the Founder of The Art of Emergence, Schuyler Brown:

“𝘙𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘯𝘰𝘸, 𝘸𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘢 𝘤𝘳𝘪𝘴𝘪𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘱 𝘣𝘦𝘤𝘢𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘸𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘢 𝘭𝘰𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘶𝘯-𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘭𝘦 𝘳𝘶𝘯𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘸. 𝘞𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘯’𝘵 𝘧𝘢𝘶𝘭𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘭𝘦…𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘺𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘨𝘢𝘮𝘦 𝘢𝘴 𝘪𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘮𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘺𝘦𝘥. 𝘉𝘶𝘵, 𝘸𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘥𝘰 𝘣𝘦𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳. 𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘦 𝘮𝘶𝘴𝘵… 𝘞𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘢 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘣𝘶𝘪𝘭𝘵 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘢 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘥, 𝘧𝘳𝘢𝘨𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘱𝘴𝘺𝘤𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘳𝘦𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘥𝘴 𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘰𝘯𝘴𝘤𝘪𝘰𝘶𝘴, 𝘧𝘳𝘢𝘨𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴. 𝘐𝘵’𝘴 𝘸𝘪𝘯𝘯𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘢𝘭𝘭. 𝘈𝘴 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘭𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘶𝘱 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘥𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 𝘰𝘸𝘯 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘣𝘦𝘨𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘦𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘯𝘰 𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘳 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘱𝘢𝘵𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘴𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘢 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮. 𝘐𝘵’𝘴 𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘨𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘺, 𝘪𝘵’𝘴 𝘸𝘳𝘰𝘯𝘨. 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 𝘪𝘵𝘴𝘦𝘭𝘧, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘭𝘦 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘢𝘳𝘦. 𝘈𝘴 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘥𝘰, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘴𝘭𝘰𝘸𝘭𝘺 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘦. 𝘐 𝘶𝘴𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬 𝘪𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘧𝘵. 𝘈𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘱𝘰𝘪𝘯𝘵 𝘐 𝘣𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘦𝘷𝘦 𝘪𝘵 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘤𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘢𝘱𝘴𝘦. 𝘔𝘢𝘺𝘣𝘦 𝘪𝘵 𝘩𝘢𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘪𝘯 𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘢 𝘯𝘦𝘸 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘣𝘶𝘪𝘭𝘵 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘦𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 𝘤𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘱𝘴𝘺𝘤𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘺 𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘳𝘨𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘦𝘵. 𝘞𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘯 𝘣𝘶𝘪𝘭𝘥 𝘢 𝘯𝘦𝘸 𝘴𝘺𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘢 𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘱𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦. 𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 𝘱𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘭𝘦 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘰 𝘸𝘦 𝘯𝘦𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘥 𝘯𝘰𝘸… My motivation is not to climb the ladder or shatter any glass ceilings. It’s to shatter the illusion of “reality,” the norms, and the ideas of status quo that are inherently out of balance, extractive and harmful to all living beings and the planet. My work now is to find and collaborate with leaders and people in positions of power who are ready to fundamentally change the way we do business and the way we treat each other when we’re at work. I want work to be a place of healing for all people; a place where individuals can individuate, develop, mature and express their fullest version of self.”

Neither of these individuals are saying that we should not be working with organizations, businesses, governments, for-profits, non-profits, or any other entities where people work and live — and neither am I. What we are saying is that our thinking and acting toward the future must challenge the systems that would seek to short-circuit the very future in which we hope to prosper. As author and philosopher Bonnitta Roy would say, we must “dream ourselves awake.”


Speaking of dreaming ourselves awake…

TFSX is excited to announce our next Transformations of Natural Foresight® Retreat taking place September 16–19, 2024 at the beautiful Tops’l Farm in Waldoboro, Maine, USA.

This retreat is unlike any other foresight & futures thinking event you will attend! At Transformations, we promote an internal, personal transformation in each of us and an evolution of the field of foresight.

During these 3 days, participants will engage in collective and collaborative dialogues, spaces, and experiences that are meant to promote the cooperative evolutionary perception of emerging novelty that fosters the co-creation of transformational realities across cultures and society.

At Transformations, we are unlocking healthy individuated and collective “inner futures” — the future entering into us in order to transform itself in us long before it happens — as a means to address our global metacrisis through regenerative, broad-based, prosperous, liberatory, and consciousness elevating foresight.

To learn more, please visit the Transformations of Natural Foresight information and registration page at

About the author: In 2009, Frank Spencer founded Kedge — a foresight, innovation, and strategic design firm — and then launched The Futures School in 2014 as the firm’s foresight learning ecosystem. In 2023, those entities merged to become TFSX, one of the most prolific and far-reaching foresight & futures thinking advisory, development, and educational companies in the world. Throughout his career, Frank has worked as a with Fortune 100’s, non-profits, governments, entrepreneurs, social communities, networking initiatives, and SMEs, helping them in areas such as strategy, innovation, culture, change management, and competency building. With a strong background in both business and academic foresight, Frank created and led The Futures Institute: Shaping The Future Now at Duke University’s Talent identification Program Institute, and has worked on foresight & futures thinking projects for companies such as Kraft, Mars, Marriott, LEGO, General Mills, NASA, and The Walt Disney Company. He is a prolific speaker, having delivered presentations to groups and conferences around the globe for over the last 25 years. Frank holds a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight from Regent University, as well as memberships in the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF) and the Association for Professional Futurists (APF).




TFSX is a global foresight firm offering advisory services, developmental programs, professional certification, asynchronous courses, and dynamic networking.