Futurology “We’re not fortune tellers”

Bernd Stegmann and Björn Helbig, research assistant at the Future Institute; © Ute Zauft
Bernd Stegmann and Björn Helbig, research assistant at the Future Institute | Photo (detail): © Ute Zauft

At the Free University of Berlin, a master’s program unique in Germany has been educating futurologists since 2010. Björn Helbig and Bernd Stegmann of the Future Institute explain how you can study, and shape, the future.

Mr. Helbig, the program admits about 30 students per year. Which disciplines are represented?

Björn Helbig: The program is interdisciplinary: our students include psychologists, sociologists and designers. One of our exotic birds is, for example, an animal manager.

Does this diversity present major challenges for the curriculum?

Björn Helbig: No, the program is so designed that it fits all these different fields. In four semesters the students learn the methods and tools that they can then apply to their special areas. They can, for example, look at the future in medicine or the future of social systems and politics or, yes, even the future of zoos.

Frederik Eichelbaum (27) previously studied psychology and economics, and is now close to completing his master’s degree in futurology. He is fascinated above all by the fact that futurology is not so much about predicting the future as shaping it. “Thinking ahead almost always means redefining and not merely extrapolating from given experience”, he says. As for his own future, he thinks less of fixed job descriptions than of skills that he has acquired in his master’s studies and can use in various fields. He is already working as a journalist, advising start-ups and taking part in film productions. The more he concerns himself with the future, the better he feels himself prepared for it.

Developing sustainable solutions

Looking into the future is an eternal dream of mankind. Can the program meet this expectation?

Bernd Stegmann: It isn’t about predicting the future; we’re not fortune tellers. The oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece also wasn’t about fortune telling, but about people’s attempt already back then to figure out rationally what behavior was viable for the future. Our program wants to project paths and pictures of the future that, in view of the complexity of the world and the finiteness of resources, show sustainable solutions – and this in very different fields of application.

What fields do you mean?

Bernd Stegmann: The curriculum distinguishes four fields: society, politics, economics and technology. A business, for instance, has very different expectations of a futurologist than do political or social actors. A car manufacturer wants to know what kind of car has a future in view of increasingly dwindling resources. The Federal Ministry of Education, on the other hand, recently asked about how the educational system has to be developed so that it can keep pace with social and technological developments. What do we now have to feed into the schools so that high school graduates will be able to do what they need to do to survive 20 or 30 years from now?

The future doesn’t just fall on our heads. Our decisions influence the future, while at the same time what we do now determines our future expectations.

Björn Helbig: Futurology attempts to create an awareness in both directions. On the one hand, for the fact that our daily actions effect the future. On the other hand, futurology wants to present structured and scientifically well-founded scenarios of a possible future. In the next step, it can bring the actors into dialogue so as to ask how the future should be shaped, and then to prepare a path to the future.

Future scenarios as a decision support

How can the future be researched at all?

Björn Helbig: In futurology we use and combine all the methods of empirical social research. Very important are the Delphi method and scenario techniques. In the Delphi method we ask experts what developments in their fields they think are probable and which they desire. In a second round, we present the experts with all their answers and they have the chance to revise their decisions. These answers then yield a picture of the future. In various scenario techniques, on the other hand, we attempt to seek out and weigh all factors that could potentially co-determine some future field. Through different evaluations of the factors we arrive at alternative and consistent future scenarios that could serve as aids for reflection and decisions for the present. That sounds simple, but it’s actually very elaborate.

Per semester, the program costs the student € 1,300. Why are there tuition fees?

Bernd Stegmann: We’re an advanced master’s program that is largely funded by tuition fees. Unlike conventional consecutive programs, our costs aren’t fully covered by the university’s regular budget.

And what qualities should a budding futurologists have?

Björn Helbig: He should be open to very many new subjects, inquiring and curious. The more you know, the more creatively you can carry on future research and shape the future.