I'm mapping out an essay comparing professional futurists' ideas about what constitutes good futures practice, what makes it valuable, and how accuracy does or doesn't plays a role in the importance and utility of our work, and our clients' ideas. I think that futurists could benefit from having a more nuanced understanding of how users view the future, how they construct ideas about uncertainty and risk, and to what degree they think the future is contingent or determined. We know what we think about all these issues, but I suspect that there are very big differences– differences we should better understand– between how government policymakers, corporate strategists, product developers, and people in different industries think about all these issues.

A great model of how to do this is a 2008 dissertation I just discovered, Marjanke Alberttine Hoogstra's "Coping with the Long Term: An Empirical Analysis of Time Perspectives, Time Orientations, and Temporal Uncertainty in Forestry" [PDF]. From the abstract:

Uncertainty is an unavoidable fact of every decision and forms a problem for all decision- makers. In forestry, the problem of uncertainty is, however, exacerbated by the long time horizons involved. Rotation periods for oak and beech, for example, are up to 150-200 years. And even spruce, which is considered to be a fast-growing tree species, has rotation periods of 40-80 years before it is sufficiently mature for harvesting. No other industrial or land- based process encounters horizons spanning these time frames. Such far-off horizons make it, however, extremely difficult to rely on estimates about future values as a guide to current actions, because the further one projects into the future, the more variables interact and the more uncertainties arise.

The literature presents a peculiar contradiction when discussing the way foresters cope with the uncertain future. One the one hand, the forester is portrayed as a “visionary futurist”: someone who can overcome the barriers of the uncertain future, who looks ahead and plans for long-range goals. This is the so-called “doctrine of the long run”. On the other hand, foresters are seen as “stuck in the present”, with the far-off future considered too far away to guide meaningful action. Surprisingly however, this debate has only scarcely been touched upon in the forestry community. That is not to say that time is not talked about: however, mostly the discussion has been limited to a description of the subject either as a problem or as a peculiarity. Empirical evidence of how foresters cope with the far-off future has been missing. The research described in this thesis fills this gap by exploring the legitimacy of the doctrine of the long run, which is a long-standing hypothesis in forestry, and one of the premises on which the strong professional ethos in forestry culture still relies.

The study takes a different approach than previous research: it takes an actor-oriented perspective and focuses on the question of how foresters actually cope with the uncertain future in their actions. This requires not only a shift in the understanding of time from a physical entity to that of a social realm but – even more importantly – a shift from interpreting uncertainty from some form of independent variable to viewing uncertainty as a cognitive and psychological state – a social construct about the availability and “makeability” of the future.

I found this observation very interesting, as it runs counter to what most futurists expect, and illustrates the kind of insight that an ethnographic approach might reveal in other industries:

Although the future is objectively seen as uncertain, this does not mean that foresters also experience the future as very uncertain. As perceptions determine actions, the third case study therefore explored how foresters from the USA and Germanic Central Europe (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) experience uncertainty. The findings show that the most certain time period in forestry is the future. In order to create a feeling of greater control, foresters try to seek certainty and enact a stable world, even when they know that it is not.

These findings show that the vision of the (Western) forester as a “visionary futurist” is an illusion. The futurity of actions taken is only limited, and foresters do not seem to differ substantially from other social groups. These findings also imply that the traditional rational approaches to action that forestry research in general has followed are unable to explain how foresters cope with uncertainty. Instead, the findings show that the essential processes used when foresters cope with uncertainty can be meaningfully described in terms of sensemaking.