April 13, 2024

New qualification responds to rising demand for specialists in futures thinking

4 min read

Postgraduate students in South Africa will, as of next year, be able to pursue an innovative new study path with the launch of a Postgraduate Diploma in Futures Thinking by South Africa’s leading private education provider. Currently, there are very limited options for specialisation in this field locally, despite the sharply rising demand for suitably qualified professionals both here and abroad.

Simply put, futures thinking is a discipline that aims to explore and critically consider different possible scenarios of the future to inform and shape present actions and decisions. Futures thinking is not about ‘predicting’ the future, but about anticipating and preparing for the changes and uncertainties that the future may bring.

“Futures thinking is designed for brand and business strategists who need to, as a result of our rapidly changing environment, develop stronger analytical, creative and futurist thinking to find potential solutions to unknown future challenges,” says Michele O’Hara, programme manager at The Independent Institute of Education’s Vega School.

Unesco has named futures thinking as one of the 21st century’s most important leadership skills – from a risk management, strategy development, innovation management and change management perspective. Globally, organisations have started creating a new role in their C-Suite, that of chief futures officer.

“The consultancies of the future will need strong futures thinking capabilities to meet the needs of clients in an increasingly complex world. And brand strategists qualified to do this will be in high demand. We are therefore very excited about being able to offer postgraduate students with work experience an avenue for specialisation in this field, given the rising recognition of the importance of this discipline,” says O’Hara.

Inherent to the strategic management of brands and business is the constant analysis and evaluation of environmental variables. A simple example is the ongoing consideration of the Brent crude oil price, which may result in escalating transport costs, indirectly raising raw material costs, and ultimately increasing the price of a humble jar of peanut butter for consumers already suffering the rising cost of living. The daily management and monitoring of fluctuations of this nature provide both challenges and opportunities to brand and business managers.

When this scenario is extended to an analysis of the situation likely to be encountered in future, the complexity multiplies as various factors become more difficult to predict and assess. When operating within a world dominated by the Fifth Industrial Revolution; the increasing acceleration of artificial intelligence and its unpredictable outcomes; Marketing 5.0; and other multipliers, the development of foresight becomes a strategic imperative for managing brand and business intelligence, minimising risk and maximising competitive differentiation and longevity.

“The IIE’s Postgraduate Diploma in Futures Thinking in context of the management of brands and business aims to develop insight into the core principles underlying the construction and building of purposeful brands, by utilising systemic design thinking to seek innovative solutions,” says O’Hara.

Caroline Halton, CEO of FuturesPositive, says managers have to become better equipped to examine past trends and patterns in order to consider potential risks and better prepare for anticipated challenges and opportunities.  

Explaining the significance of Futures Studies, she says businesses need to help clients make sense of uncertainty and imagine and craft their futures for competitive advantage. “We need to be able to think about the future in a structured and intentional way. Our traditional approach to developing strategy does not equip us to do that. Why? It focuses on what current trends are telling us; assuming the future will be the same as the present. It fails to consider all the possibilities of what might take place. It results in missed opportunities and leaves us vulnerable to future shocks.”

But foresight competency in context of interdisciplinary and complex world systems is currently a rare skill, with few training programmes in this area of specialisation – yet it is increasingly in demand as organisations and entities strive to develop preferred futures for their brands and stakeholders.

Michelle van Rooyen, a research analyst specialising in futures thinking and strategic foresight methodologies, says that during her studies at University of Stellenbosch Business School – the only other institution in South Africa offering degrees in Futures Studies – she had the opportunity to engage with a diverse cohort of forward-thinking individuals and leaders ranging from business executives, consultants and strategists, public sector decision-makers, educators, mine operation managers, and doctors. “This transdisciplinary field provides a platform for exploring multiple perspectives, identifying systemic influences, collaborating and co-designing better futures,” she adds.

O’Hara says the demand for futurists, future-focused brand and business strategists and creative thinkers is increasing exponentially as the pace of technological development accelerates, with wide-ranging and significant impacts on business. 

“It is therefore incumbent on business leaders to manage uncertainty and build resilience. What has been a relatively ‘unknown’ skill is rapidly becoming in high demand as strategic foresight and the ability to synthesise cultural, organisational, and diverse disciplines for creative strategic solution-seeking becomes a critical competency in developing foresight and robust brand and business solutions,” she concludes.

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