How Futurology Works

The Histor(olog)y of Futurology

Although hints of futurology cropped up in early science fiction and utopian literature, the field didn't solidify until the closing days of World War II, when the U.S. military developed technological forecasting. The technology of warfare was changing faster than ever before, demanding new strategies, but which ones were the best? This was uncharted territory, and any approach officials chose would require a large investment of time and money. They couldn't afford to be wrong.

Technological forecasting achieved its initial successes in 1945, when aeronautical engineer Theodore von Kármán led a team of scientists that predicted supersonic aircraft, unmanned aerial devices, target-seeking missiles and advanced airborne communications. The team also projected that long-distance atomic weapons would profoundly alter aerial warfare [sources: Bradfield et al.; O'Toole; Shor].

Futurology's roots also reach back to the RAND Corp., which grew out of a joint venture between the U.S. Air Force and Douglas Aircraft in 1946. Among other contributions, RAND improved consensus-building by inventing the Delphi technique (see sidebar) and developed systems analysis to generate better scenarios (imagined sequences of events). The number-crunching capacity of computers and the development of game theory raised these two approaches to new levels [sources: Bradfield et al.; O'Toole; Powell].

As the Cold War wore on, nuclear strategists like RAND's Herman Kahn even gained a level of celebrity. In 1961, after publishing his seminal book, "On Thermonuclear War", Kahn left RAND to form the Hudson Institute, where he tackled social forecasting and public policy. His work culminated in a 1967 book, "The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years," which sparked great controversy and inspired such influential (and controversial) futurologist works as "The Limits to Growth" and "Mankind at the Turning Point," both commissioned by nonprofit global think tank, the Club of Rome [source: Bradfield et al.; Kahn].

"Limits to Growth," published in 1972 by environmental scientist Donella H. Meadows and her colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, catapulted scenarios and futurology into the public consciousness. Based on computer models describing the interplay of global socioeconomic trends, the book painted an apocalyptic picture of global collapse brought about by population growth, industrial expansion, pollution increases, food production shortfalls and natural resource depletion [sources: Meadows; O'Toole].

Meanwhile, two of Kahn's RAND colleagues, Olaf Helmer and T. J. Gordon, had established the Institute for the Future. Urged on by the furor over Kahn's books, they -- along with members of the Stanford Research Institute Futures Group and the California Institute of Technology -- pioneered the use of scenarios in future studies.

Businesses, beginning with Royal Dutch Shell, soon saw the value of scenarios. Just like that, futurology moved out of the military think tanks and into the marketplace of ideas [source: Bradfield et al.].