Futures consciousness is a concept that is often mentioned in the futures field, and the importance of forward-looking perspectives is widely acknowledged (for an overview, see Ahvenharju, Minkkinen, & Lalot, 2018). However, focused conceptual development and empirical work on the concept have been scarce until recently. Empirical research is important because by studying how futures consciousness is manifested in individuals, we can learn more about how future consciousness can be developed and enhanced amongst individuals and societies. In recent contributions, futures consciousness has been defined either very briefly (Sharpe, Hodgson, Leicester, Lyon, & Fazey, 2016) or extremely holistically (Lombardo, 2017). This has served to promote the concept but empirical operationalization has remained challenging. In addition, there is a complex web of interlinked concepts in futures studies, foresight, psychology and sociology. The concepts of future orientation, prospection, projectivity, anticipation and futures literacy all touch on similar topics from different disciplinary origins (Ahvenharju, Minkkinen, & Lalot, 2018; Miller, 2018; Mische, 2009; Poli, 2017; Seginer, 2009).

In order to develop a concept that is sufficiently simple and usable for empirical research, the authors made an extensive review of futures studies and foresight work on concepts related to futures consciousness. The review revealed a long list of characteristics that have been or could be used to describe ‘future-conscious’ persons (Ahvenharju et al., 2018). These characteristics were categorized into five dimensions: time perspective, agency beliefs, openness to alternatives, systems perception and concern for others.

Futures studies

The 20-item futures consciousness scale is rooted in the tradition of futures studies. Futures studies is an interdisciplinary field that includes academic work as well as practical foresight activities in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Modern systematic futures studies emerged after the Second World War, building on long roots in utopian thinking and human future orientation. Futures studies seeks to “invent, examine and evaluate, and propose possible, probable and preferable futures” (Bell 1997, p. 73). Over the years, a multitude of methods has been developed for practical foresight work, for mapping futures of specific issues or entire global systems, and for proactively promoting preferred future outcomes (e.g. Glenn & Gordon, 2009).

What is futures consciousness?

Futures consciousness is the human capacity to understand, anticipate, prepare for and embrace the future.

According to our definition, futures consciousness is the human capacity to understand, anticipate, prepare for and embrace the future. It is an interindividual difference which is linked to variations in cognition, motivation and values (Lalot et al., 2019), and which can be developed over time. Our model of futures consciousness consists of five dimensions: 1) time perspective, 2) agency beliefs, 3) openness to alternatives, 4) systems perceptions and 5) concern for others. The 20-item futures consciousness scale is an operationalization of the construct for measuring interindividual differences in futures consciousness (Lalot, Ahvenharju, Minkkinen, & Wensing, 2019). Measuring these individual differences and abilities through a psychometric scale provides a baseline for further developing forward-looking skills and abilities.

Each of the five dimensions contributes in a different way to an individual’s futures consciousness. Time perspective and agency beliefs constitute the cognitive base for an individual’s futures consciousness, because understanding of time is required for the concept of future, and a sense of personal agency is required for the motivation to consider future possibilities. Systems perception and concern for others, in turn, broaden the conception of future from a narrow personal future to include positioning oneself within relationships, social groups and natural systems. Openness to alternatives bridges these personal and relational aspects of futures consciousness by bringing the understanding that there are options and alternative future possibilities beyond current trends (Ahvenharju et al., manuscript under review).

According to our empirical data, futures consciousness is positively related to several future-oriented behaviors such as pro-environmental and altruistic behavior and engaged citizenship (Lalot et al., 2019).

The five dimensions of futures consciousness explained

Each of the five dimensions can be described using existing psychological constructs. Altogether 13 different constructs have been included in the model of futures consciousness (see fig./table). Time perspective represents the way people tend to perceive and interact with time. It relates to personal differences in our tendency to consider the future and future consequences of events and actions. Drawing on psychological research, time perspective includes the constructs of future orientation and consideration of future consequences. Future orientation represents an individual’s general preoccupation with the future in contrast or in addition to the past and present. Consideration of future consequences reflects a more specific concern for future consequences in current potential behaviour. Time perspective is related to lesser adoption of risky behaviour and commitment to pro-social action such as environmentalism (Ahvenharju et al. 2021).

Agency beliefs reflect an individual’s beliefs in their own capacity for intentional social action. This means believing in one’s ability to plan and execute appropriate courses of action to pursue one’s goals. Agency beliefs include the stable characteristics of locus of control, general self-efficacy and optimism (Ahvenharju et al. 2021). Locus of control distinguishes between those who believe that they are in control of their lives and those who attribute control to external forces. General self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief that they can execute courses of action, and optimism can increase perceived sense of agency.

Openness to alternatives is the ability to critically evaluate prevailing ideas and imagine alternative and unconventional solutions. It is closely related to tolerating the inescapable uncertainty connected to the future. Humans are prone to ‘existence bias’ which means that they tend to prefer the current situation with all its problems rather than considering other options. Openness to alternatives consists of three elements. Openness to experience is a personality trait that is associated with creativity. Critical thinking is both a disposition and a skill that enables one to critically evaluate and reflect on ideas and evidence. Tolerance of uncertainty is the capability for tolerating uncertain future situations and an acceptance of ambiguity (Ahvenharju et al. 2021).

Systems perception is the individual’s understanding and appreciation of the complex societal and natural systems in which they live (Ahvenharju et al. 2021). Firstly, it includes systems thinking which means the ability to consider complex interconnections, processes and chains of causality. Holistic thinking is a closely related ability that is connected to seeing relationships, perceiving systemic changes and reconciling contradictions. Finally, ecopsychological self means the inclusion of nature as part of one’s self-concept, thus seeing oneself as a part of nature.

Concern for others means concern for and pursuit of a good future for others in addition to oneself. In addition, it includes seeing connections between one’s own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Concern for others includes self-transcendence values, that is, motivation by the enhancement of others and transcendence of selfish interests, and the moral self, that is, moral values as central to one’s self-identity and behaving in accordance to one’s values. It also entails identification with all humanity, which means an active orientation to taking care of other humans and seeing humanity as members of the same group (Ahvenharju et al. 2021).

The development of the 20-item futures consciousness scale

The futures consciousness scale is a 20-item composite scale that measures futures consciousness as an interindividual difference. The psychometric properties of the scale have been examined through exploratory and confirmatory factorial analyses with 1,301 participants in three language groups (English, French and Finnish). The scale has been proven as a reliable tool that can be used by scholars, educators and practitioners in futures studies, psychology and broadly across many fields (Lalot et al., 2019).

The 20 items of the scale were selected from 13 validated scales from the field of psychology. The timeline of scale development is indicated in the timeline figure below. In the first development phase, 539 respondents recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk responded to a 160-item questionnaire which included 15 existing psychological scales. The scales were chosen on the basis that they measured constructs that were hypothesized to correspond to the futures consciousness dimensions (e.g. future orientation for the dimension of time perspective; see the figure above). Then we ran principal components analyses and confirmatory factorial analyses, followed by a separate analysis for each theoretical dimension. Scales and items which were only weakly related to the futures consciousness dimension were discarded. In the second development phase, 594 respondents completed a 30-item futures consciousness scale as well as other measures assessing convergent and concurrent validity (Lalot et al., 2019). For convergent validity, relations between the futures consciousness score and related personality and motivation constructs were tested (e.g. the Big Five Inventory and Mindful Attention Awareness Scale). For concurrent validity, we considered behaviours that can be deemed future-oriented, such as active and engaged citizenship (Lalot et al., 2019). A further exploratory factor analysis led to a reduction of 10 items. In light of the findings on internal, convergent and concurrent validity, the final 20-item futures consciousness scale can be considered reliable. Individuals’ futures consciousness scores also show acceptable test-retest reliability. The scale was finally translated to French and Finnish, and the translated scales were found to be psychometrically valid (Lalot et al., 2019).

In 2021, the scale was revised to improve it’s coverage of different aspects of Systems Perception and Time Perspective (Lalot et al. 2021). The revised scale has been validated in English, German and Finnish.

In 2023, a version suitable for measuring futures consciousness among teenagers aged 12 to 17 years was developed and validated.

All 20 items of the futures consciousness scale use a 5-point Likert scale, (1 = “not at all like me”, and 5 = “very much like me”). It measures the futures consciousness of individuals rather than groups or organisations.

Timeline of scale development
Figure 2: Timeline of scale development

Conclusion: the relevance of measuring and developing futures consciousness

Measuring futures consciousness at an individual level is only the first step. Having a psychometrically valid measurement tool makes it possible to design educational tools and societal interventions to improve futures consciousness. Because futures consciousness has been initially shown to relate to a range of pro-social behaviours (Lalot et al., 2019), developing this set of dispositions and abilities can have broad societal implications. A more developed understanding of alternative futures and one’s own position in building the future can contribute to social inclusion and wellbeing as well as ameliorating pressing environmental problems.

For the research team, the futures consciousness scale is also only the first step. We intend to work on understanding, measuring and improving futures consciousness in the years and decades to come. Exciting future directions include investigation of the relations between futures consciousness and future-oriented cognition, the role of futures consciousness in foresight processes and measuring futures consciousness at the organizational level. If you wish to participate in the ongoing process of understanding futures consciousness and developing tools to work with it, please contact the research team!