This framework by James Dator, one of the fathers of futures studies, is founded on two fundamental truths about our relationship to the future. First, we can never know for sure what lies ahead. That means we should think in terms of various possible futures, rather than attempt to make predictions with high degrees of certainty. Second, humans make sense of the future in the same way we make sense of the past: by telling ourselves stories about it. As a result, it pays to examine the stories to see our current situation more clearly while thinking about possible futures from different perspectives.
When so much feels uncertain, the Four Futures framework is a powerful tool to reignite thinking on where you’re at now and what comes next. It’s not as much about trying to predict the future as it is a framework to facilitate the building of useful models of potential options for consideration.
Dator’s model observes that all our narratives (stories, scenarios) on social change issues can be classified into four recurring groups of images, stories, or policies regarding effects of that change, as follows:
- GROWTH: continued economic growth, widening prosperity, and ongoing technological advance; business as usual; more of the status quo growth
- DECLINE & COLLAPSE: a catastrophe that is the result of global warming or a financial disaster that topples life as we know it.
- DISCIPLINE: the future most people mean when they describe the actions and behaviours they see as being necessary
for reducing the impact of internal or external forces. New ways of working; adaptation to growing internal or environmental limits
- TRANSFORMATION: a utopia that some say is possible, but no one can fully articulate right now. However, ideally it would address individual, social, economic, and environmental well-being. Trajectory transcended; game changed; shift toward something transformational