Interested in learning about strategic foresight, or building futures methods into your approach? As foresight methods have matured and become a more mainstream part of research and policy work, there has been an explosion in online toolkits and resources - but it can be hard to know which ones to use and when.
The Discovery Hub is Nesta’s in-house strategic foresight function. We support teams across Nesta to use futures tools and methods to explore emerging trends and technologies which will impact our work. That means we’re continuously scanning for new resources to add to our arsenal – alongside developing our own.
In recent years we've seen a shift in the focus of these guides, which now have new approaches, tools and a bigger focus on imagination, narratives and storytelling.
We’ve curated a list of some of the most useful resources and considered how or when you might be able to make the best use of them. As with any area, there is no singular resource that can teach you everything you need to know and having the right skills and mindset is vital. But we hope the toolkits below provide a starting point to a rich, rapidly growing field.
The UK Government Office for Science’s Futures Toolkit truly is the all-rounder of strategic foresight toolkits for policymakers. We think of it as the Volkswagen of toolkits: reliable, multi-functional and prioritising substance over style.
Aimed specifically at policymakers and government officials, this resource is accessible, comprehensive and well-structured. It covers the ‘traditional’ methods which are well established in the field (such as horizon scanning, scenarios, Delphi and backcasting) as well as a few more unusual ones like games.
This toolkit details the purpose of each method, the context in which to use it and handy logistical considerations, such as how much time it might take in practice. It also includes an introduction to the field of futures thinking and its importance to the public sector, alongside concise case studies on how government bodies use these tools.
The Futures Toolkit provides an excellent overview, albeit one which focuses more on established techniques that have already earned their stripes with public officials.
Policy Horizons Canada is a government organisation that uses strategic foresight to support the federal government to build better policies in the context of increasingly uncertain futures. Its Foresight Training Modules are a very pragmatic toolbox for any policymaker working on complex and unpredictable issues (and let’s face it, that’s most policymakers today).
The toolkit is broken down into digestible modules, which will help you gradually build a good understanding of foresight and its main methods. This comprehensive guide includes examples of workshop exercises, tips and tricks and lots of additional resources. It also covers really unusual methods such as visual imaging and relaxation, which help people enter into a more creative mindset.
The HTML format can make it a bit hard to read, although you can download each module separately as a PDF. Overall, this is a well thought out, step-by-step guide that will meet the needs of both novices and more advanced practitioners who are looking to refine their skills.
The European Political Strategy Centre’s Strategic Foresight Primer describes itself as ‘foresight for dummies’. It includes engaging explanations around what foresight is and what it is not, and an overview of some of the most common techniques. The overall aim is to make a wider community of policymakers aware of what foresight can do, while contributing to building a universal futures literacy, from public bodies all the way to citizens.
Relatively short and full of metaphors (who knew foresight practitioners were like midwives and window cleaners?), this guide is all about accessibility: it’s nicely designed and easy to navigate with clear descriptions and concrete examples.
Due to its brevity, this toolkit could fall short of expectations for someone who is already very knowledgeable about the field or keen to have detailed practical advice around how to use the tools in a workshop setting. But it makes for a strong introduction and a great gateway to some of the more advanced and applied toolkits.
Developed by Silicon Valley-based Institute for the Future, the Equitable Futures Toolkit aims to support people in imagining a fairer future. A great toolkit for groups, it is built around two alternative approaches to facilitating modular workshop sessions lasting from 1.5 hours up to a full day.
Following a very accessible introduction to scenarios, both facilitation approaches are detailed. The first is more suited to groups with a specific mission in mind who want to establish a clear path to action, while the second is more suited to fun, creative and playful exploration of different futures through a card game.
The tools are clearly explained and come with print-and-play worksheets and materials, though there is not much analysis of the field of strategic foresight more generally. However, the Institute for the Future does have a wealth of other resources serving that purpose, such as their Foresight Essentials training portfolio and Futures Thinking specialisation collaboration with Coursera.
Horizon scanning is perhaps the most widely known method in the foresight tool arsenal. The Horizon Scanning Toolkit was developed by UK postgraduate institute Cranfield University as part of the EU-funded LIFE SMART Waste project, identifying how environmental regulators can apply horizon scanning processes to the waste sector.
Despite its focus on waste, the guidance provided by this toolkit is transferable to any other field. It is a comprehensive, deep-dive into the horizon scanning method – and by definition, excludes other foresight methods.
Dense, but well-structured and peppered with illuminating graphs and diagrams, the toolkit also compiles great examples of horizon scans that Cranfield produced for LIFE SMART Waste. This brings to life how horizon scanning can generate meaningful insights for policymakers and other decision-makers.
Developed in collaboration between Save the Children and the School of International Futures, The Future is Ours is a strategic foresight toolkit showing how foresight can enable better decision making. Designed specifically for third sector and aid organisations, it brings together 12 techniques to help teams navigate the present, shape the future and make the right decisions to prepare for it.
These tools can be used individually or in combination to accomplish a whole range of foresight activities, such as exploring the drivers of change, challenging assumptions or building scenarios for the future. Each section addresses a tool and very helpfully shows how to use it in a workshop (including how to structure and time a session), describes its aims, how to make the best use out of outputs and includes ready-to-use templates for exercises.
Though fairly long and not groundbreaking in terms of the approaches or tools it features, this is a comprehensive, well-designed and practical companion.
Futures Frequency is a three-hour workshop method that was developed and made available to all by Finland’s innovation fund Sitra. This train-the-trainer guide teaches you to run a down-to-earth workshop with participants without prior experiences of futures and foresight, to get them to develop visions for desirable alternative futures and think about the actions to take to realise these visions. It uses original tools and prompts, such as custom-made audio dramas.
Inclusivity and accessibility are central and, as such, the tools and approaches featured in a Futures Frequency workshop might not be as comprehensive as in some of the other toolkits mentioned in this article. But it has the advantage of being designed around a very flexible and tailorable format. You can also complement the workshop with other methods from Sitra’s very inventive Futuremaker’s toolbox.
Futures Frequency is a thoughtfully designed workshop – in terms of both content and style. Sitra also provides access to a suite of creative resources, including a beautiful Miro board and PowerPoint presentation and a facilitator’s handbook.
Forks in the Timeline is a card game that deals in fun hypotheticals designed to stimulate the imagination. Players must come up with the best possible answer to pairings of cards that pose questions such as: “In a timeline where coffee did not exist… would we live in a more or less futuristic society?”.
In keeping with other futures-oriented card games (think Situation Lab’s Thing from the Future), it won’t teach players everything they ever needed to know about foresight methods. But by getting them to challenge assumptions and think about alternative outcomes, it encourages them to flex their creative muscles and begin to think about the future in different ways.
Players might not learn more about futures thinking, but will be building scenarios and alternate timelines without even realising – all by embracing the silliness of some of the questions. Forks in the Timeline is a great tool to use to whet a group’s appetite for learning more the field and methods.
A collaboration between AWID and Fearless Collective, the Feminist Cartographer’s Toolkit is truly an object of beauty. It sets a foundation for surfacing unique feminist futures by focusing on key themes, such as the relationship to body or pleasure, the economy, justice, security, art and many others.
It offers highly artistic rendition of some classic foresight activities such as challenging assumptions, mapping systems and creating visions and roadmaps. This can make it a little harder to follow than more conventional resources.
This toolkit is divided into two sections: the Atlas, which is the workshop journey itself, and the Book of DIrections, which is essentially a facilitator’s guide to running the workshop with others and includes cue cards and worksheets.
This guide is as much about storytelling as it is about futures and definitely not the best place to get to grips with the origins of the field or applied examples. But it beautifully illustrates the wide range of routes in to start meaningful conversations about the future (and if you like it, make sure to also check out Superflux’s Instant Archetypes Tarot deck).
A little bit of self-promotion to finish, with one of Nesta’s own guides, written in collaboration with Jose Ramos and John A. Sweeney. Our Futures engages with an aspect of foresight practice which is often overlooked: the need for futures to be participatory and bring in a plurality of voices, not just select experts or policymakers.
Rather than being a practical guide, Our Futures sets an inspirational tone, foregrounding case studies and examples making the case for more participatory futures. This is the kind of guide that helps broaden the horizons of what is possible, but with its very particular emphasis on public engagement it does not make the best first point of entry into futures and foresight exercises.
We like to think of it as a resource to be used in combination with other resources such as Nesta’s Futures Explainer or more comprehensive ones such as the other toolkits described above.
We're curious to know how you have been learning about futures methods and how you apply them to your work. Contact us to share your favourite toolkits, guides and games, or to get in touch with ideas.