What kind of future are you creating your product for?
Possible, imaginary, or plausible futures all define different sets of hypotheses.
Dr. Norman Henchey, a McGill University’s Faculty of Education professor, was the first to categorize the Possible, the Plausible, and the Probable Future, later added by fellow futurists as the “Preferable Future.” The tricky part is that any type is created using our present knowledge, imagination, and logic.
We have our present “knowns,” “unknowns,” and “known knowns.” Still, we also sometimes talk about the “known unknown” realities, where we recognize that we are missing something, though we don’t know what. However, our reflection doesn’t stop here. Following this reasoning, there are also the “unknown unknowns” parts of the future, which we can’t comprehend that we don’t know.[i] This part is just out of our reach in the present.
Mind-boggling? Yes, because we only understand part of tomorrow; the rest will become clear only with time. That is why we cannot predict but only consider the different future types to prepare and adjust and enrich our perspective.
Let us take a closer look at the four types of futures:
Possible Futures describe future realities we can imagine today. They inspire us to work toward their existence. Star Trek Warp Drive, Holodecks, or their utopian societal structure may sound futuristic. But futures can mobilize the present to transform the as-yet impossible into reality. The challenge lies in not knowing how to get there and when it might turn into reality. Each vision is universally possible[i] and atemporal. In the words of Arthur C. Clarke, “Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties are, if it is desired greatly enough.”[ii] The question is… when?
Described by arguments and hypotheses, Plausible Futures are those that logically make sense. They describe logical, coherent, and understandable realities that could happen. Plausible Futures are part of the Possible Futures. Yet not every Possible state is Plausible. Plausibility describes a constant iteration between the current thinking and external changes that will shape our worldview. This future type searches for logical, coherent patterns in the possibility space. It is vital to ratify the arguments and hypothesis over time.
Probable Futures are those that are highly likely to happen. They connect with the Plausible and Preferable. Probable Futures are the most likely to occur. So they cannot share the same space in time as the other future types. That is why I prefer to refer to them not as a “future space” in the same sense as the others. Practically, they describe the trails, Probable Future Trails. We create higher probability levels through constant validation, adding new variables, and updating the shifts’ speed of change, viral factor, and maturity.
Preferred Futures describe our “desired outcome,” which exists for any organization and individual. They help to mobilize and prepare a strategic north around the desire and the purpose, and with it create the connection with the present, allowing it to take action in creating the future. Preferred Futures are essential to inspiring the proactive attitude of the organization toward the future. They are, in essence, about sense-making.
Unknown Unimaginables represent, as we described before, the elements that we couldn’t possibly even know that we don’t know. Uncertainties always will prevail, which makes future debate.
Each future type—Possible, Plausible, Probable, and Preferred—has benefits. We use the Possible to inspire, the Plausible, and the Preferred to set a strategic north. The Probable is part of the continuous process of execution and adaptation to keep the implementation on track. We use each type to our benefit based on organizational challenges.
New realities are in formation, and we should envision, invent, implement, continuously test, revise, and re-envision[iii] their existence. The future is more than a single “one.” It determines itself by the plurality of realities and opportunities, the futures.
Question: Who first categorized the types of future, and what are they?
Answer: Dr. Norman Henchey, a professor at McGill University’s Faculty of Education, first categorized the types of futures into Possible, Plausible, and Probable Futures. Futurists later added the "Preferable Future."
Question: What are Possible Futures, and why are they important?
Answer: Possible Futures describe future realities we can imagine today. They inspire us to work toward their existence by transforming the as-yet impossible into reality, although it's unknown how and when these may become reality.
Question: How are Plausible Futures characterized and validated?
Answer: Plausible Futures are future realities that logically make sense and are described by arguments and hypotheses. They're a part of Possible Futures but are distinct as they require constant iteration between current thinking and external changes to validate their likelihood.
Question: What are Probable Futures, and how do they connect with other future types?
Answer: Probable Futures are highly likely to happen, connecting with both Plausible and Preferable Futures. They differ from other futures in that they exist as Probable Future Trails, created through constant validation, new variables, and updating shifts’ speed of change.
Question: What role do Preferred Futures play in an organization's strategy?
Answer: Preferred Futures describe an organization's or individual's "desired outcome," helping to set a strategic north and inspiring a proactive attitude toward the future. They play a crucial role in bridging the connection between the present and the future, enabling action to create the future.
[i] Björn, Franke. 2010 p.84
[ii] Arthur C., Clarke. 1962. Kindle Locations 303-304
[iii] Jim, Dator. 2005. p.XIX