Mapping out the past and present of an issue or a situation is crucial for any futuring exercise. The more is known about what happened before and what is happening now, the more grounded the conversation about the future can be. This technique shares a strong link with 'walking backwards into the future', an aptitude which can help us avoid unnecessarily reinventing the wheel. While not a formalised technique, the approach outlined here involves a simple (but deep) conversation complemented with visual mapping of key elements and their connections.

At FoAM we use this technique when the participants need to establish a shared context and learn about each others' perspectives on the situation. It makes clear what knowledge exists in the group already and whether assumptions are widely accepted. It literally maps the territory of inquiry and puts it into a wider historical perspective. However one potential snag with this technique is that its very openness can lead to it going on for a long time and involving so many topics that the group gets lost in the details. We tend to use this technique in conjunction with other observing and mapping techniques, especially with larger groups who don't know each other.

There are no formal requirements for this process. It can help to make a visual map of the past and the present as you are discussing it, and if you do so, you'll need a large (vertical) writing surface and markers (and optionally Post-its or other types of cards). The conversation can be free-flowing, or you can invite a short individual reflection at the beginning of each step.

  • Step 1: Frame the conversation mentioning the importance of history in futuring exercises and propose a general question: 'How would you map the territory of your issue/situation?'
  • Step 2: The present situation: it can help to ask the usual questions: What, Why, How, Who, When and Where, to identify simultaneous actions, events, places, people (etc.) that make up the current conditions. Alternatively you can also use a more sensual approach and ask what is seen, heard, sensed, smelled, tasted, thought and felt. Your guiding questions depend on the issue or situation you're examining. Focus particularly on the interconnections between the various aspects of the situation that can make it seem overwhelmingly complex. The key to mapping the present is to untangle complexities and relax any tensions arising from participants' potentially divergent understandings of the situation. At the end of this step identify a few core characteristics of the situation.
  • Step 3: The past (causes, patterns, roots of current situation): Look at the core characteristics of the present situation and discuss their origins: Why did this happen? What are the causes, roots or patterns that extend from the present to the past? Has something similar happened before (see the analogs framework). What can we learn about the present situation by examining its past? When did things happen differently than we expected? Why did this happen?
  • Step 4: Key insights: At the end of the exercise look at the map you've created and reflect on the outcomes. Are there any key insights (old or new) that should be carried into the futuring exercise? Which things, events, patterns, behaviours, relationships or causes in this system should we be particularly aware of? What can you do with these insights in the present and in the future?