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Futures thinking – Exploring possible futures

Futures thinking methods help our students understand the forces shaping this world.


Annika Konttinen

lehtori, matkailuliiketoiminta
Senior Lecturer, tourism business
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Anu Seppänen

lehtori, markkinointi ja viestintä
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 24.04.2024

Futures thinking is an approach that enables individuals and organisations to envision and prepare for multiple potential futures. It is not about predicting or forecasting futures, but about understanding possibilities and ways to move forward.

We introduce our students to several methods for futures thinking as skills to master, and to show that the future can have many positive outcomes in store for them and their future careers.

Spotting and analysing trends

We usually start our courses with trend hunting, which gives students a chance to do a proper literature search and look for sources on fascinating trends in an industry they are interested in. In the process of trend spotting, they become familiar with reports from international organisations and consulting firms.

For instance, if they choose to explore the future of food and restaurants, they might delve into topics such as vertical farming, hydroponics, seaweed cultivation, and lab-grown meat as well as technology to enhance the food related experiences. As part of their trend analysis, they also identify two megatrends that will shape the future of food, such as climate change and population growth.

By filling out a trend canvas (for example a template offered by Haaga-Helia’s Service Experience Laboratory Lab8), students can gain a better understanding of the trends they are analysing. Organising information on a canvas helps them identify trend patterns and make informed decisions based on their insights. After this, they will construct scenarios based on these trends and assess their impact through environmental scanning.

Scanning environments and planning scenarios

Alongside trend analysis, we motivate the students to engage in environmental scanning – that is spotting early signs or weak signals of potential future events. It is like setting up a radar to catch signals of change from diverse sources such as news, academic papers, market trends, and technological advancements. This approach helps in anticipating shifts in the environment that could impact future decisions.

Students can use the environmental scanning wheel devised by Finnish futurist Elina Hiltunen (2021) to explore how various factors like values, politics, health, climate change, and the economy shape potential futures.

When creating scenarios students identify the key driving forces or factors that will shape the future – for example megatrends of climate change and population growth. By analysing these forces, they gain insights into the potential directions the future might take. The students create alternative scenarios or narratives about the future using the environmental scanning wheel. These scenarios represent different possible futures based on how the driving forces interact and unfold over time.

Scenarios help organisations test their strategies against diverse future possibilities and develop flexible plans that can withstand unexpected changes. As one of the most prominent Finnish CEOs and advocates of scenario planning, Risto Siilasmaa (Nordic Business Forum 23.3.2020) has said, circumstances can change quickly, and it is good to be prepared for all scenarios.

Writing a letter from the future

As a final step in futures thinking, we encourage our students to write a letter from the future. They start by defining a desirable future and then work backwards to identify the steps necessary to reach that future. Unlike forecasting, which projects forward from the present, backcasting focuses on how current actions can lead to a preferred future state (Service Design Tools n.a.). It is a goal-oriented approach that helps to create a roadmap for strategic planning. It is also a creative process that combines imagination with strategic thinking to inspire action towards achieving the desired future.

The letters from the future are still our favourite assignments to read and assess, as we wrote in an earlier blog post. In the letters, inked with imagination, the future spills its secrets from flying cars to robot buddies. Sometimes they may even suggest how to save the planet.

Understanding the big picture and grasping possibilities

Futures thinking is not about predicting and having a crystal ball to see the future. It is about being prepared for whatever the future may hold.

By using the presented futures thinking methods, our students can better understand the forces shaping our world and develop ways to thrive in an ever-changing environment. The future offers us endless possibilities, and with futures thinking, we can navigate with confidence and creativity.


Hiltunen, E. 4.3.2021. Futuregraphics = future + infographics. Medium. Accessed: 28.3.2024.

Konttinen, A. and Seppänen, A. 2023. Letters from the future – unleashing the power of student creativity. eSignals, Haaga-Helia. Accessed: 28.3.2024.

Service Design Tools (n.a). Future backcasting. Accessed: 5.4.2024

Siilasmaa, R. 23.3.2020. Scenario Planning – Tool for Strategic Planning and Forecasting (Webinar Summary). Nordic Business Forum. Accessed: 28.3.2024

Kuva: Haaga-Helia