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Futures thinking as a creativity tool

by Riikka Hiltunen

The importance of creativity in futures thinking and foresight is widely recognised, but conversely the role of futures thinking in creativity is less obvious. Nevertheless, actively thinking about the future holds multiple benefits for all kinds of creative work, and music is no exception.

The relationship between musical creativity and futures thinking is a fascinating but rarely addressed topic. The term ‘futures thinking’ encompasses all contemplation of the future in the discipline of futures studies, including simply having an interest in what will happen in the future.

The connection is self-evident in many ways: music is created to be listened to in the future, obviously, and when making creative choices we consider their consequences in multiple ways. If I make this compositional choice, how will the piece develop? How will the audience or the gatekeepers receive it? What will happen to my career if I make radical departures from my earlier output? By contrast, the creative process can sometimes involve what is known as ‘backcasting’: many composers and music-makers describe their creative process as beginning with hearing an end result in their head and then reverse-engineering it, so to speak, to find out what is needed to achieve that end result.

However, there are much deeper dimensions to the interplay between creative and future-oriented thinking than those obvious ones.


Making the future visible

A sci-fi author creates a literary universe that will not become reality until decades later. A singer-songwriter facing a life crisis may realise that they wrote songs about the crisis years earlier. A fashion designer may find themselves doodling a sketch of something that has not been seen on a catwalk, let alone on the street, for years. A producer of hit songs may have a sudden urge to add a 1980s synthesiser sound to a track, even though moments earlier such a decision would have seemed unthinkable.

It has been suggested in futures studies that artists are more sensitive than most at anticipating what is to come. This ability is explained with personal traits commonly attributed to creative people: sensitivity, intuition and an open mind. Such a capacity for foresight is implicitly included in certain theories in creativity studies. The investment theory of creativity proposed by Robert J. Sternberg and Todd I. Lubart posits that creative people see growth potential in ideas that are not yet commonly known or popular. In building on such ideas, they may encounter prejudice and resistance, but as early adopters they will eventually be able to sell their idea with a high return on investment.

None of the above should be taken to imply that artists are somehow fortune-tellers. It would be more accurate to describe the examples given as involving observant people whose sensors are attuned to weak signals that they may not even be conscious of picking up. Such weak signals can be early augurs of change. Thomas Lombardo, author of several books on future consciousness, has even said that creative people live in the future more than most others – they are prepared to take risks and leap into the unknown.

On the other hand, it is difficult to distinguish whether a creator picks up on an incipient change before anyone else or whether that creator themself is an agent of change. Often both are true. A creator who is among the first to recognise a trend may contribute to its growth. Anticipation is linked to action and thus actively helps shape the future.

If personal life events appear in a songwriter’s music before those events actually occur, this may reflect the fact that our subconscious mulls over things that have not yet made it across the threshold into the arena of conscious thought. Songwriters may find themselves writing about changes in personal relationships that have not yet happened, yearnings of which they are not yet consciously aware, or past traumas that will have to be addressed at some point in the future. This demonstrates the sensitivity, intuition and open mind mentioned above.


Futures thinking expanding the range of creative choices

Imagining a future different from the present requires creativity, the ability to stretch one’s imagination beyond that which is immediately visible and the courage to think otherwise. This is acknowledged in foresight workshops, which may include the use of tools such as drama or the building of ‘creative foresight spaces’ to detach participants from rational thinking.

Thomas Lombardo sees creativity as a component of futures thinking, but we may also look at this from the opposite angle, considering futures thinking as a component of creativity. Futures thinking can boost creativity in many ways. Imagining an unexpected future can help us take leaps forward, and imagining multiple alternative futures can liberate our thinking and inspire us to try something new.

For example, pop music is created within quite narrow musical confines, described by popular music scholar Jason Toynbee as a ‘space of possibles’, after Bourdieu. In such a space, it is easiest for music-makers to make choices that are broadly the same as the choices made by other creators. In such a context, it is difficult to ‘hear’ options that are at the margins of that space, let alone beyond it.

This space is defined by genre conventions established by songs created earlier. Yet the space is always also time-bound and subject to conflicting forces: the weight of the past, the push of current trends and the pull of the future. In pop music in particular, the demand to be at the cutting edge is paramount.

It is the pull of the future that can help expand the space of possibles and allow creators to hear the impossibles of today as the possibles of tomorrow. When a music-maker detects a weak signal or imagines an unexpected musical future, they may be encouraged to make less conventional choices. If their hunch proves correct, they may then be at the cutting edge of a new trend. In the fashion industry, such anticipation is a given. As fashion scholar Mathilda Tham has noted: “The very practice of fashion design also constitutes a cognitive and tacit processing of possible, probable and desirable futures.” Foresight of this kind is often automatic and intuitive, and no doubt it can be found in the music industry as well, even if there it is less obvious and detectable.


Owning the future

In practice, the making of determinedly future-oriented choices is complicated by a number of factors. There are many levels of futures thinking, and in weighing the risks a creator must consider and evaluate their goals. A music-maker may be obliged to consider how going along with any individual trend will affect their career prospects, or how wider cultural trends will affect the music industry. Reactive choices are often less risky than proactive ones, but what originally seems like a passive choice may in the long term turn out to be the most future-conscious choice of all.

Being an agent of change and exercising foresight require believing that this is possible in the first place. The key thought in futures studies is that the future is always a blank canvas and subject to influence. The first step towards an active approach to the future is to renounce determinism. However, not everyone can assume ownership of the future in such a way. Music-makers, for instance, may feel that the power to do so resides with others: record labels, other creators or the general public. The rapid changes happening in the music industry certainly do not help with attempts to understand one’s own position in it.

Although it is claimed that some people are simply innately better and more sensitive than others at predicting the future, it should be noted that foresight and futures thinking are cognitive skills and capabilities that can be taught and that can be improved with reference to creative work.


The article is based on the writer’s dissertation Foresightfulness in the creation of pop music. Songwriters’ insights, attitudes and actions (2021).

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Photo: Wikimedia commons