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Futures thinking

Futures Thinking

Futures thinking is also known as foresight, strategic foresight and futures studies.

On this page:

About futures thinking
Futures thinking and the policy process
Why you should use it
What it involves
What you'll get out of it
Ideal circumstances for use
Tools or concepts
References and guides 
Case studies
Communities of Practice

About futures thinking

  • Futures thinking provides a range of techniques to help you think about the drivers of change that are shaping the future and explore the implications of these for making decisions today – not only about what to do, but how and when to do it.
  • Futures thinking does not attempt to predict the future, nor does it purport that there is only one correct future or that the future is pre-determined. There are a range of possible futures and the future can be actively shaped by the decisions we take today.
  • Futures thinking is a creative and exploratory process that uses divergent thinking, seeking many possible answers and acknowledging uncertainty. It's a different mind-set to analytical thinking which uses convergent thinking to seek the right answer and reduce uncertainty.
  • Futures thinking is a discipline in its own right. It's used in strategy development and in design and planning, as well as to inform policy development.

Futures thinking and the policy process

  • The insights from futures thinking can be used as an input into the policy process. Futures thinking is most powerful when combined with other inputs (e.g. data and evidence, design thinking, and evaluative thinking) to inform policy analysis and advice. Sometimes futures thinking will produce specific policy recommendations. Other times the insights will mean the policy team is in a better position to design the policy recommendations with consideration for the long-term, or with more knowledge of potential impacts.
  • Futures thinking can be used at different stages of policy development. Most commonly it's used when conducting policy stewardship to help identify the strategic priorities for the policy agenda. When working on an individual policy, it's commonly used to understand and frame an issue at the beginning of the process, and later on to identify and test different policy options against the range of possible futures.
  • Futures work is highly flexible with different ways to apply futures thinking in the policy process including:
    • using the outputs of a futures exercise conducted by someone else (e.g. scenarios exploring possible futures) and applying it to your policy.
    • applying some of the futures thinking tools and techniques to your policy.
    • conducting an in-depth futures exercise. This will require the support of someone with expertise in futures thinking to help design and conduct the exercise.   

Why you should use it

Futures thinking helps you to make better policy through understanding the long-term issues or challenges shaping the future development of a policy area. By using futures thinking as part of your policy process it helps you to:

  • identify and test the assumptions (individual, team, agency, and system) that are influencing how the policy issue is being considered and allows you to update those assumptions as the world changes.
  • explore beyond the assumed future to consider a much wider range of possible contexts in which your policy may be operating. 
  • generate new insights into possible future developments so you can take account of them in the way you frame your policy.
  • think through future intended and unintended consequences of your policy in different contexts.
  • reduce risk by developing policy that is more resilient to changing conditions and takes advantage of new opportunities.

What it involves

Futures thinking involves:

  • looking for signs of change that may shape the range of possible futures. This includes change that is considered highly likely, as well as events considered highly unlikely but that would have great impact and events that are unexpected.
  • using diverse data sources such as quantitative trends (e.g. populations), qualitative trends (e.g social values), online literature reviews (e.g. news articles and blogs) and stakeholder insights.
  • engaging with diverse stakeholders. A diverse group of people can contribute their varied experiences to create more robust views about the future and its implications for your policy.
  • applying a systems lens to consider not only the factors immediately relevant to your policy, but also linking to the greater macro factors that may shape the international, domestic and organisational context in the coming years.

What you'll get out of it

  • Innovative proposals that challenge existing assumptions and are informed by a range of information sources and ideas not typically explored.
  • Policy that is aligned with a range of possible futures to take advantage of opportunities, mitigate risks and reduce unintended consequences.
  • Policy that helps shape the future to promote your desired outcomes and prevent undesirable events.
  • If you use futures approaches that involve high levels of stakeholder engagement, these can build collective support for a desired policy outcome and align stakeholder actions to achieving that outcome – increasing the chances of success of your policy.

Ideal circumstances for use

  • You are working on complex issues with high levels of ambiguity and uncertain outcomes. This may be because you have incomplete information or data to guide you, or the issue sits within a complex and changing system.
  • Issues where future interests are at risk of being overtaken by bias towards the present. This includes creeping problems that develop gradually and sometimes imperceptibly over time which means they can attract little attention, or issues where the benefits of intervention accrue much later than the costs.
  • You are conducting policy stewardship and providing strategic advice on medium to longer term issues facing New Zealand.
  • You have active sponsors and champions willing to challenge deeply held assumptions and mental models that may influence how people think about your policy area.


  • There is potential for futures work to create tensions if factors are identified that under current settings are not being addressed. If conducting an in-depth futures exercise in a controversial area, seek appropriate authorisation before proceeding.
  • There can be a great deal of overlap in futures work in terms of the broad themes. Drivers of change are generally multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral which means they are likely to have been covered in some way before. Be careful not to reinvent the wheel and instead build on available results and previous knowledge.
  • In areas where there is relative certainty about the direction, nature and speed of change, futures thinking may be of limited value. Futures tools and techniques have been developed to test assumptions and broaden the scope of thinking in relation to critical uncertainties.
  • The insights generated in futures work may not be well received if there isn't a willingness to reconsider assumptions and mental models. You're more likely to be successful if you conduct targeted futures exercises with decision-makers in order to open their minds to new possibilities.
  • There is a learning curve to doing futures work. It will take time to become familiar with the different futures tools and techniques, as well as the more creative and exploratory way of thinking. 

Tools or concepts

A range of different tools and techniques have been developed to support futures thinking. There are more than 30 tools and techniques in use in the futures sector.

Commonly used futures tools

Some of the commonly used futures tools include:

Other futures tools

Some of the other futures tools include:

  • 7 Questions (pages 29-32) – interview technique for gathering strategic insights from stakeholders on the drivers of change using a series of strategic questions.
  • Delphi Study (pages 35-40) – a consultation process used to gather opinions about the future from a wide group of subject experts and to prioritise strategic issues.
  • Cross Impact Matrix (also known as cross impact analysis) – illuminates the interactions among a set of forces, trends or decisions.
  • Causal Layered Analysis – identifies the views underpinning diverse perspectives about the future by identifying the four levels of causality (visible, causes, worldview, and metaphors or myths).
  • Axes of Uncertainty (pages 46-49) – defines the change drivers that are more important for the policy area but which have an uncertain outcome.
  • 3 Horizons – applies three horizons simultaneously such as current state, transition state and future state, to connect the present with the desired future and identify the disruptions which might occur in moving towards the desired future.
  • Visioning (pages 57-60) – creates a set of common aims and objectives for a project and describes what the future will be like (the vision) if they are delivered.
  • Roadmapping (pages 73-76) – shows how a range of inputs such as research, trends or policy interventions, will combine over time to shape the future development of the policy area.

References and guides

The Futures Toolkit – Provides tools for futures thinking for policy professionals in government, produced by the UK Government Office for Science. Includes notes on the level of experience and facilitation skill required for each of the futures tools covered.

Foresight Training Modules – Provides materials to better understand foresight and incorporate it into the policy process, produced by Policy Horizons Canada. Their foresight method involves seven steps: framing, assumptions, scanning, systems mapping, change drivers, scenarios, and results.

Strategic Foresight – Discusses six different strategic foresight methods, often used when there is no or little quantitative information available, and how they align with the policy process. Produced by Kate Delaney for the Australian Government's Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

ForLearn Guide – Provides materials on why foresight is necessary and how it is done, produced by the European Commission. Designed for more experienced practitioners conducting in-depth futures exercises.

Futures Tools workshop – Summary of two-day training workshop on Futures Tools hosted by the NZ Ministry of Transport. Provides hints and tips for each of the futures tools covered.

Additional resources

Futures Thinking Mythbusters – Flips the myths about futures thinking to better understand what it is and what it's not.

A brief guide to futures thinking and foresight – Tips, advice and guidance to help policymakers embed long-term thinking and external insight into policy making. Produced by the UK Government Office for Science.

Initiating a futures exercise: from light touch (pages 6–7 in The Futures Toolkit) to more in-depth exercises in How to do Foresight which provides information on how to scope, scale and devise the methodology for a futures exercise.

Protecting the interests of future generations, and foresight – Summary of presentations on the Welsh approach to protecting the interests of future generations, and case studies from the NZ public service on the use of foresight.

Foresight for Governance in Singapore – Presentation by Aaron Maniam on how foresight is used in the government in Singapore, and video below of  him sharing lessons learned.

Case studies

Visions of Wellbeing for Aotearoa New Zealand 2050–2070 

Visions of Wellbeing for Aotearoa New Zealand 2050–2070 is a summary of two workshops facilitated by the UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies, Professor Sohail Inayatullah, with input from the Chief Science Advisors and some government officials. The workshops were hosted by the Infrastructure Commission and the Ministry of Transport. They were designed to test and apply horizon scanning, future scenarios and backcasting to explore alternative futures for Aotearoa New Zealand. This report does not represent government policy, advice, or the views of any government agencies mentioned in this document.

Futures thinking video series

This five-part video series explores how futures thinking has been applied in the policy process. It begins by explaining what futures thinking is and how you can apply it to support policy development. The video then presents four case studies from the New Zealand government on how different futures thinking techniques have been applied and some tips for those wanting to use futures thinking.

You can watch the full video which includes the introduction and four case studies, or watch each segment individually.

Full video

This includes the introduction and the four case studies.


Strategist and futurist Cathy Swanson introduces futures thinking and how it can be used in the policy process.

Case study: Developing scenarios

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment discusses developing future scenarios on the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Case study: Seven questions technique

Te Kawa Mataaho talks about applying the seven questions technique to inform a project on strategic workforce thinking in the New Zealand public service.

Case study: Delphi technique

The Ministry of Transport describes applying the Delphi technique on how to transition road freight in New Zealand to alternative green fuels.

Case study: Applying scenarios

Inland Revenue shares their experience of applying future scenarios to consider what changes may be needed to the settings for tax and social policy.

Communities of Practice

A forum for the public sector to practice foresighting, build capability and apply futures as a discipline into public sector activities.

Strategic Futures Group

Email to be included in the Strategic Futures Group emails and events.

Last updated: 
Wednesday, 3 November 2021

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