Tamkang University in Taipei,Taiwan is one of the few universities that offers courses in Futures Studies.

SOCIAL science has many purposes. An overriding objective is to improve human lives and humanity as a whole.

Like the hard sciences, such forms of knowledge also enable us to predict the future — possible, probable, preferable, or imagined. Governments, corporations, various industries and militaries apply and consume research on the social sciences.

One such formula is the Delphi Method, a forecasting technique devised by the Rand Corporation (an American non-profit global policy think tank created in 1948 by Douglas Aircraft Company to offer research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces), the social sciences arm of the US Air Force.

Developed by a group of forward-thinking RAND mathematicians in the early 1950s, the Delphi Method yielded a means of quantifying, analysing and understanding threats that the Americans feared most in the early years of the Cold War — the menace of Communism.

Ideology had become the cornerstone of a newly emerging field then. The height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s accelerated the redefinition of social sciences by quantifying, compiling and examining hypothetical data to make decisions based on desirable futures.

Cold War strategic thinking created a new social science over the last century. Apart from the field of communication and cybernetics, the Cold War also left a big imprint on studies of society and technology, and in particular on studying their futures — the future of society, and that of our extensions, i.e. technology.

In the 1990s, elements of futures studies — without describing it as such — were ingredients for my doctoral work at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, Universiti Malaya. In the early 2000, a group of us from University Technology Mara’s Institute of Knowledge Advancement began to pursue similar initiatives in research ideas. Overtaken by events, the outcome, however, was never realised.

But why Futures Studies, in the plural?

Many have asked and argued. The field involves discussions on multiple possible futures and the connections between the futures. In the 1960s and 1970s, the field of futures studies enjoyed so much popularity that commentators referred to as a “futures studies movement” or a “golden age” of futurology, not without critics who successfully ended the popularity of the field. That was the late 1970s.

In a paper published in Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy and Human Nature, Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens, editor (2012), social science historian Kaya Tolon examined pioneering futures studies organisations, their meetings and publications, as well as investigated their academic, political and ideological influences. He discovered that many futurists staunchly and optimistically foretold of a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Early Cold War futurists, however, operated within highly polarised world manifesting a black and white political and ideological climate, while the 1960s were painted with all colours of the rainbow. And through the 1970s, events, journals and conferences of futurists addressed a rich diversity of topics, most of it nonmilitary.

Futures Studies emerged as a distinctive field of social inquiry after World War II. Defined by a concern for the future of humanity, the field gained momentum in the mid-to-late 1960s. This was due to the many interweaving historical threads, and the diverse background of futurist groups involved. In the 1970s, their then construction of models and quantification of social issues led to criticisms of being reductionist and deterministic. Tolon argued that while RAND Corporation became the beneficiary in funding, centring on the military producing complex strategic methodologies, the field of Futures Studies embraced the transfer of ideas and technologies, such as modelling, game theory, the Delphi Method and cross-impact matrices, from the military to the social realm.

Tolon revealed that although futurists used many different methods from basic statistical tools such as trend extrapolation to more imaginative tools of scenario writing (or science fiction writing), one of the most emblematic futurist tools came from Cold War pressures. When US political and military authorities then needed to come to terms with the existence of Soviet nuclear bombs, RAND mathematician-philosophers produced the Delphi Method. It was a consensus-building method involving a panel of experts, who respond to iterations of a quantitative questionnaire. They do not directly interact with each other. This method remained a secret for a decade, and gained popularity after its partial declassification in 1963.

By the late 1960s, the consensus-building tool had become the signature forecasting method for futurists. Cold War anxieties, which dominated some American comparative government/international relations thinking right through the 1980s, inspired forecasting. This resonated in some International Relations courses while I was studying Political Science at the College of Liberal Arts, the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis in 1983-85.

The emergence of futures studies as an academic field in universities has been inconsistent. Malaysian universities do not have a well-defined theme on futures studies, although a few academics would claim to embrace the field in one form or another. Academic leaders, however, did emerge. One is the University of Hawaii. In 1969 it started offering courses in Futures Studies and later in 1978, started offering M.A. degrees. The University of Houston offered a Futures Studies in Commerce programme for an MS degree in 1975.

In the African context, the Institute for Futures Research was established in 1974 at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. In Asia, we have the Graduate Institute of Futures Studies established late in the 20th century at Tamkang University in Taipei, Taiwan. The institute also started the publication of the journal Futures Studies.

Many have debated on what constitutes Futures Studies. Tolon argued that what qualifies Futures Studies as a social science more than the involvement of political scientists, economists, sociologists and psychologists was the content of the field. An engineering report on technologies in the design of future airports, for example, would integrate discussions on possible future societies, their values, institutions and politics. A Futures Studies report could also be on the evolution of ethnic relations and nationhood in Malaysia and the region, where possible tensions would be in different possible scenarios.

The writer is a professor at ISTAC-IIUM and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at muradmerican@gmail.com