Futures thinking is a way of thinking about the many possible alternative futures that could arise, based on historical evidence, trends, and present possibilities for change. This past year, the Government Office for Science’s (GOS) Futures team supported numerous departments in using Futures thinking and Futures tools to ensure that policy made today, works in the future.
Through the increasing use of futures, many teams have found challenges with communicating their Futures outputs to their intended audience. Recognising this challenge, we asked our network of over 300 Futures practitioners from across central government departments, public bodies and the wider public sector, to share their experiences of creating and communicating futures outputs.
As a result, with help from Martha Eckersley, Projects Futures Team, Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), we created a bank of top tips based on the network's experiences.
- Help audiences understand that futures thinking is not a perfect science. The purpose is to explore and anticipate the possible futures in which policy could operate, as opposed to predicting specifics.
- Ensure that the research question behind your futures project is firmly decided at the outset. Ask the question “what is happening in [subject], and what are the potential implications for our [policy area/department/goal]”.
- Draw out where your thinking is grounded in empirical data and trends, whilst recognising the value of weak signals/ creative thinking. Distinguish between objective facts and imaginative visions.
- Ask so what? What does this future mean for our organisation? What are the implications for our policy area over different measures of time?
- Use narratives to explain to and engage policy makers. The use of storytelling can help with visualisation of desired futures and bring decision-makers along in that journey.
- Think about who owns the output, and who needs to act on the findings. Is it the person who asked you to run the exercise? Or is it the client? Ask decision makers and stakeholders how they want to be communicated with. The language, content and format(s) should be audience specific and understood from the outset.
- Recognise uncertainty in a policy area by highlighting the evidence gaps that need to be filled in advance to a tipping point. Note how long before the tipping point is likely, compared to how long it will take to fill the evidence gaps. Including counter-factuals in your evidence base can help challenge assumptions of the audience and spark debate.
- What? So what? Now what? Include next steps or a resulting action. Include time-frames, impact severity, and the interconnection of actions with other trends and drivers. Actions need to be viewed in relation to delivery and context to understand the potential impact of acting or not acting.
What do these outputs look like?
We have created a repository of varying Futures outputs which have been shared with us by our network.
Members of our HOHS Network can access the example-templates via the HOHS Knowledge Hub.
To request to join our HOHS community, please contact email@example.com from your gov.uk email address.