Methods Of Investigating The Future

This post was adapted from a presentation given by Dr. Morné Mostert at Nation Builder’s In Good Company conference on 15 August 2019.
Dr. Mostert is a Director of the Institute for Futures Research at Stellenbosch University (the first and only such institution on the African continent) which focuses on studying long-term thinking, as well as how thinking about the future can change the way we think. In this presentation Methods Of Investigating The Future delivered at the fifth annual In Good Company conference on 15 August 2019, Dr. Mostert elaborates on a recent study that investigated the way artists think, and how understanding the way artists’ think may also change the way we think about the future. As part of this study, Stellenbosch University commissioned 100 artists to produce works that illustrate their view on the future of higher education in the next century, which were then published in a book entitled Forward.
What is ‘new thinking’?
Currently, the trend is to call people in all fields to ‘new thinking’, but what does this mean? Although everyone is familiar with the idea of ‘thinking’ it is, in fact, not that simple to define. Thinking is somewhat of an art form too. And what does ‘new thinking’ really mean when you sit at your desk on a Monday morning?
The good thing is, you can increase the quality of your thinking by changing:
  • The content of your thinking – i.e. changing what you are thinking about.

  • The method of your thinking – i.e. rather than taking a classic analytical view, you can consider how an artist would approach the situation.

  • The level of your thinking – instead of thinking about how particular tasks and processes affect you personally, you can think about how they affect the planet… i.e. seeing the bigger picture.
These are three ways to access new thinking. Consider for example Raphael’s fresco painting The Parnassus (circa 1510), which is part of a room depicting the four areas of human knowledge: Philosophy, religion, poetry, and law, with The Parnassus representing poetry. The fresco shows the god Apollo in the centre surrounded by the nine muses, nine poets from antiquity, and nine contemporary poets on Mount Parnassus, the mythological home of creativity, innovation and new thinking. While looking at this painting, we must ask ourselves: “Can it affect the way we think – in terms of the method, content or level of our thinking?”
Another example is Rembrandt’s oil painting Minerva In Her Study (1635) that depicts the goddess Minerva, who is the goddess of creativity and war. What Rembrandt illustrates, is that these two things are contradictory. She has been studying the open book before her and is now reflecting, staring out of the window. The weapons of war can be seen in the background, however, seemingly laid to rest. Its symbolism suggests that war must cease before artistry and creativity can flourish. Bringing this a bit closer to home – when we think about the context of South Africa today, and the longer-term future of South Africa, we have to wonder to what extent are we at war, and to what extent is this preventing us from allowing artistry and creativity to flourish in our country?
We can also consider the concept of ‘time’ as an example. ‘Time’ is a fascinating subject, as the concept of time is not universal – different nationalities and cultures treat time differently. How much time do you spend thinking about the past, the present, and the future? Finland treats ‘the future’ as extremely important: Their government is required to collect futures data annually, they have a parliamentary committee for the future, and children in primary schools learn about futures thinking. Similarly, Dubai has a Minister of the Future. But what directs our conversations as South Africans? Is it where we are going as a country, or is it trying to make sense of where we have been?
The Directional Thinking Framework
This leads us to the Directional Thinking Framework, which is used to investigate how your thinking shifts in relation to yourself (on the vertical axis), and how your thinking shifts in relation to time (on the horizontal axis).
So if we use the example of engaging with a piece of art within this Framework, you are thinking inward in relation to yourself, and backward in relation to time. The shift is about how the artwork affects you emotionally and psychologically. A different shift happens when you think onward and upward in relation to time. For example, you can ask “What’s going on in my life? What is happening around me?” Particularly, you can think about different power structures that currently exert an influence over your life. This indicates that you are not stuck in your past and you are paying attention to the present, but it also means everything is still about you (in other words, inwardly directed thinking). When you start looking forward, you are thinking about your future.
Back to the vertical axis on the Framework (how your thinking shifts in relation to yourself), you can move beyond thinking in an inward direction, to thinking in a wayward direction. And moving along the horizontal axis, you can think in a wayward way about your past (backward), your present (onward and upward) or your future. These are the times when you object to and disagree with what is happening around or to you, and you rebel or protest. The delicate question is, however, if you are being rebellious, where are going with this rebellion? If #feesmustfall, what must rise? Unfortunately, protest very seldom produces anything but protest.
Back to the vertical axis again, you can also think in an outward direction, and this is where future thinkers become excited. You can move outward in terms of your history, and you can move outward in terms of power structures – you can transcend it in a sense so that it doesn’t ‘capture’ you.  Very importantly, you can think and thereby move outward in terms of what you want the future to look like. Future thinkers are curious about how you look outside yourself, and how we can use that insight to produce something positive in the future.
In the words of the late George Burns, famous Hollywood actor, and comedian: “I look to the future because that is where I am going to spend rather a large part of the rest of my life.”
Dr. Mostert is well-respected as a global advisor to senior leaders on futures-based executive decision-making and cognitive development. He is Director of the Institute for Futures Research at Stellenbosch University and writer of the influential book Systemic Leadership Learning – Leadership Development in the Era of Complexity, which has been the prescribed text for several international programmes on strategic leadership.  
His work spans cities such as London, Paris, Madrid, Dijon, Abu Dhabi, Azerbaijan, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and several African countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Lesotho, Nigeria, Botswana, Swaziland, Tunisia, and Mauritius. He is also a member of the ILO international panel of experts on the Future of Work.