By Robert Hickson 23/09/2016

Many discussions about the future are about “what?” and “how?”

What will … [insert favourite industry or issue here] … look like?

How will we … [insert favourite activity] … in the future?

The outcomes are usually lists or descriptions.

These are fundamentally second order futures questions.

They are a consequence of a need for answers in the face of uncertainty, to demonstrate perhaps the perceptiveness of the futurist, or the failure to go deep enough in your futures or foresight activities.

Less commonly is “why” used. And when it is, it is nearly always deployed as a definitive statement (“Why x will be the future of z!”), rather than a question.

Rarely is a futures question framed as “Why will we … in the future?” (or even without the why).

Why is that important? The questioning why is more powerful because it focuses on what we are (or will be) trying to achieve, not just what we may be doing.

It challenges the assumption that in the future we’ll be doing what we do now, only differently (with robots, or AI, etc added). “Why?” is a more strategic question, it identifies more critical choices. “What?” and “how?” are usually tactical questions.


Strategic whys

For example, farming in the future. The common approach is to consider how we will be farming, or what farming will look like in 5, 10, 20 years or more. You come up with precision farming, smart farming, vertical farming, bio-pharming, synthetic foods, insects, etc. Or what consumers will want. Localism, novelty, ethical production, sustainability, transparency.

“What?” and “How?” emphasize the changing environment, and the need to adapt our existing systems.  These are important issues to highlight, but can lock you in to a train of thought or solution.

If instead we ask “why will we be farming in the future?”or “will we be farming?” at a national or regional level, this prompts us to take a step back and broaden the context of inquiry. As a result we examine a broader set of possible futures, and critical decisions and actions that are relevant to each of them. Once, that is, you move beyond the obvious answer of “because we need to eat”.

  • Will we be farming largely because it is our (New Zealand’s) tradition, regardless of whether it is a key part of our economy?
  • Will we be farming largely to ensure New Zealand can, to a certain extent, feed itself?
  • Or will we still have a competitive advantage in food production that provides export opportunities?
  • Will it be more advantageous to produce non-food materials than edible products?
  • (Why) will we still have a “social license” that supports farming in the future?


The decision to feed (or not) other parts of the world and not just ourselves will influence what and how we farm. If farming is to remain an important economic activity, then we can go on to consider how  we develop and maintain that in the face of climatic change, societal changes, new technologies and new competitors?

Considering the why also helps ensure that we don’t forget to dissect our assumptions about having the means to distribute our products to the world at a reasonable cost.

If, thanks to technological developments, we do or don’t need to use more of the land, or our marine environment, for farming activities what will the consequences be?


Similar questions can be asked for other issues.

  • “Why will people want to travel in the future?”, not just “How will they travel?”
  • Ask “Why will people need higher education in the future?” before “What will tertiary education look like in 2030?”
  • Consider “Why will we need a public service in the future?” before you look at defining what is the workforce that you will need.


How you start shapes what type of futures you end up exploring. And it is often the insightful questions you end up asking rather than the answers you produce that are the best outcomes from futures activities.


Featured image: By Elizabeth Lies  courtesy of Unsplash

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