What is the practical relation between Futures Thinking and Zeitgeist?
Futures Thinking and Zeitgeist are different concepts with distinct understandings and applications, but they can be closely intertwined when it comes to their practical influence on building desirable futures. In this article, we'll examine how these two approaches relate to organizational practice and how they can be used together to create desirable futures. Want to learn more about this powerful relationship?
What are they?
Futures Thinking is the study and practice of anticipating signs of future trends, movements, and developments with the aim of better understanding and influencing that future. Zeitgeist, on the other hand, is the famous "spirit of the times," a kind of representation of the dominant cultural beliefs, values, interests, and trends in a given era or society, considered, in short, as "the sociocultural climate" of a time and place.
How do they relate?
The relationship between them is that Futures Thinking can be seen as using an understanding of the current Zeitgeist to compose scenarios about how it might change in the future. In other words, Futures Thinking relies on an understanding of Zeitgeist to make predictions about what might happen in the future and how we can connect with and commit to desirable futures.
What do they solve for organizations?
One of the biggest challenges I encounter in applying Futures Thinking projects to organizations in general is the initial inadequacy, or in other words, on what assumptions should I base my conclusions about the guidelines I will use in my composition of possible scenarios?
Of course, in many organizations, studies focus on backcasting, contextualization, and referencing from within the organization itself, but still, how can we compose complex scenarios without analyzing larger scenarios? It's necessary to contextualize the organization, not just its challenges, within open scenarios, where the actions of various stakeholders outside the organization can significantly alter its direction and possibilities.
So what should we evaluate? Which signals should be taken into account? One of them, of immense value, is Zeitgeist.
The term "Zeitgeist" comes from German and means "spirit of the times." It refers to the cultural, intellectual, and moral climate of a specific era and the set of ideas, values, and beliefs that pervade the society in question. The word is used to describe the "spirit" or "soul" of an era and is often used to refer to social and cultural changes that are happening in society, in short, Zeitgeist refers to the "sociocultural climate" of a place/time.
Many variables, few convergences, some paths
Now, you see, sociocultural climate is a broad concept that refers to the set of values, beliefs, norms, attitudes, and behaviors that characterize society at a certain moment. It includes culture, traditions, social expectations, political and economic structures, technologies, and other aspects of social life. It is immense and therefore can vary widely from one time to another and from one place to another, and can be influenced by many factors and variables, including historical events, technological developments, art, economic trends, and political changes.
The word "climate" in "sociocultural climate" is quite fitting. When we talk about weather forecasting, for example, referring to the news segment that informs us whether it will rain tomorrow or not, we are actually talking about a huge number of elements analyzed for a single purpose: temperature, time of year, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, ocean currents, local geography, wind speed, and so on.
All of these elements have specialists who study them and are complex variables that, for the most part, can undergo significant changes in the very short, short, medium, and long term. Evaluating each of these variables creates a sequence of conclusions that allow for the composition of possible future scenarios, although we generally cannot link ourselves to desirable scenarios with the weather/climate.
The future of Futures Thinking is not predictable. And it is not just one.
But in analogy, the same applies to Futures Thinking: thinking about futures without a reference base is to IMAGINE futures, SUPPOSE futures, FICTIONAL futures; equally important, but absolutely different from the methodological and objectified system that is Futures Thinking.
Imagining has no purpose or objective, imagining is not part of the organizational field, it is part of the artistic, philosophical, and other fields, equally important but with different intentions.
Possible, probable, and preferable (desirable)
Thus, the greater the understanding and contextual vision of an organization or team, the greater the precision of understanding the zeitgeist, the sociocultural climate. This understanding is what will provide the Futures Thinking process with greater complexity, value, and fidelity in developing possible scenarios.
The Zeitgeist is the source of Futures Thinking, it is its library, it is from there that an analysis and a Futures Thinking process as a whole, in the methodological and instrumental sense of the term, is extracted.
Sequentially, it is only with a good spectrum of possible scenarios outlined that we can begin to analyze the spectrum of probable scenarios - these, on the local scale, that is, analyzing the organization in question, thus: "within this possible scenario, if we continue to do things this way, we will have this probable scenario."
Preferred scenarios must therefore reject the probable context and operate within the possible contexts. The mapping becomes increasingly clear.
Preferred futures are part of a methodological tool that aims to bias an organization's actions so that it commits to its optimization and improvement goals for the future, it is a kind of "chosen possibility" to help inspire positive changes and build a better future, but this is a purpose of the Futures Thinking process. Thus, the backward path would be as follows:
Preferred future > analysis of probable futures (backcasting) > analysis of possible futures > scenario analysis > scenario composition > analysis of zeitgeist (sociocultural climate).
In summary, without understanding the Zeitgeist, there's no good Futures Thinking work. It's like not knowing whether to bring an umbrella tomorrow if you have no idea how the weather variables have been behaving lately. In other words, having a deep understanding of the sociocultural climate is crucial for developing accurate and useful scenarios through Futures Thinking.