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Futures Methods

Futures methods seek to help decision-makers anticipate conditions and events that have not yet fully developed so they can influence or better respond to the ultimate outcome. Futures methods attempt to look “beyond the horizon” to provide insight into future trends that can be used to inform strategic planning. The following four basic techniques are widely used futures methods, each drawing on a different body of knowledge and serving a distinct purpose:[97, 98]

  • Scanning methods are systematic and broad-based reviews of information gleaned from journal articles, newspapers, websites, books and other sources to identify relevant “weak signals,” early indications of trends that are just beginning to emerge. Scanning methods results typically require further analysis and can provide input for other futures methods.
  • Delphi methods use a structured series of interviews to learn from the observations and judgments of experts. Interview questions may explore the probability, timing, and impact of emerging opportunities and challenges.
  • Trend analysis methods examine quantitative data for trends and patterns, and use mathematical projections to extrapolate into the future. A complete analysis also requires identifying potential counter trends, exploring possible implications, and identifying options for a response.
  • Future scenario analyses construct detailed qualitative or quantitative snapshots of alternative scenarios that serve as plausible images of the future rather than predictions or forecasts and are used to investigate how individual elements might interact under certain conditions. [99] [100] This method can provide a context for a diverse group of stakeholders to examine how changes occur in complex systems, and explore how best to achieve positive outcomes given the range of potential changes.

Many variations on these basic techniques have been developed. [101]

How can Futures Methods contribute to sustainability?

Futures methods provide a way to anticipate and respond to new trends, issues, and opportunities that may shape the social, environmental and economic landscape in significant ways. Developing approaches to environmental sustainability that are resilient over time requires accounting for a dynamic future.
Future methods can contribute to sustainability in the following ways:

  • Improve discussions and debates about future policy decisions by incorporating a longer term perspective. [97]
  • Provide a more cohesive basis for planning that considers impacts to all three pillars of sustainability. [97]
  • Provide an open forum for collaboration and brainstorming that can help incubate innovative approaches to sustainability policy. [98, 102]
  • Allow policymakers to realistically envision how policy actions could interact with external drivers and lead to multiple outcomes, and potentially uncover unintended consequences. [102]
  • Support other sustainability analyses, such as life-cycle assessment, by identifying emerging issues for evaluation.

What are the main steps of a Futures Method?

Scanning methods begin with identification of key areas to investigate, followed by a broad review of documents and websites for relevant new developments. The scanning output is then typically ranked by experts using criteria such as novelty, scope, timing, probability, and overall relevance to identify important trends, themes, and issues.[98]

Delphi methods begin with identifying a set of questions for experts to answer regarding future developments in a topic of interest. A facilitator compiles and analyzes the responses, and a statistical summary of the relevant responses are returned to the group. All responses are presented anonymously, and the interview process continues for multiple, iterative rounds until the group responses converge or stabilize. [103]

Trend analysis methods begin with the identification and characterization of an indicator of change, which must be based on data that is documented and validated. The next step is to look for additional trends that may reduce, reverse, or alter the identified trend. With this context understood, the implications of the trend and options for responding can be examined.[98]

Many different approaches to scenario planning exist; most have been derived from methods developed by Royal Dutch Shell in the 1970s and 1980s. There are typically six key steps in conducting scenario planning: [102]

  • Step 1—identification of a focal issue;
  • Step 2—assessment of the people, institutions, environmental factors, and relationships between them to define a system, including external influences (e.g., ecological or social changes) and uncertainties that will have a large impact on the focal issue;
  • Step 3—identification of plausible ways in which the system could react and evolve given specific interactions, with particular attention to the focal issue;
  • Step 4—building scenarios that present a credible series of external forces and the actors’ responses to those forces;
  • Step 5—testing scenarios to ensure credibility and consistency. The actors should react to the external forces in plausible ways; and,
  • Step 6—policy screening to test and analyze how various policies will fare under different scenarios and identify characteristics of policies that perform well (or poorly) under all scenarios.

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What are the strengths and limits of Futures Methods in a sustainability context?

Futures methods provide a way for decision-makers to confront future uncertainties and to identify, monitor and adapt to the forces that drive change. These methods allow for a more sophisticated approach to strategy development than relying on implicit or unexamined assumptions about the future.

In addition, futures methods that involve stakeholders can provide avenues for collaboration, brainstorming, and policy innovation. They can encourage participants to think more broadly about the future, and specifically how applying different aspects of sustainability can lead down alternate paths and how their own actions can move the system toward a particular outcome. Thus, scenario planning helps stakeholders step away from deep-rooted positions and identify positive futures that they can work toward. [102]

Despite the many benefits, researchers have identified several limitations of futures methods. [102, 104] The process can be a very time-consuming, and requires a certain level of background knowledge of participants. Even the most knowledgeable experts do not have perfect information, and assumptions or biases may lead to implausible scenarios. However, careful planning combined with an open process that includes a variety of viewpoints can help minimize the impacts of these limitations. [102, 104]

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How are Futures Methods used to support EPA decision-making?

A futures initiative established in the 1990s within EPA’s Office of Policy, Planning and Evaluation used futures methods such as scanning, trend analyses, forecasts and scenarios to assist with the development of innovative programs such as Energy Star.[105] Building upon this effort, EPA’s Science Advisory Board convened an Environmental Futures Committee to investigate the need and applicability of futures work with regard to environmental issues. This led to the 1995 Beyond the Horizon report, which raised the profile of futures work across EPA.[97]

In 1999, to support the newly established strategic planning process required by the Government Performance and Results Act, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer established a Futures Network of individuals involved in headquarters and regional planning, as well as interested staff from across EPA. This group has provided scenario training, conducted senior level executive interviews (PDF) (21 pp, 2445K), and developed scenarios to support strategic planning. The Futures Network group continues to carry out environmental scans to support work such as the Science Technology Policy Council’s 2011 Technology Innovation Road Map.

Futures methods have also been used in a wide variety of contexts outside of EPA. The private sector commonly uses scenario planning to highlight the potential range of plausible outcomes and uncertainties, and to identify the factors that could influence relevant business sectors.[106, 107] The Department of Energy investigated using future scenario analysis as a method for introducing uncertainty into energy forecasts, and conservation biologists have used a scenario planning approach to evaluate the potential effects of climate change and to consider options for adaptation.[102, 108]

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Where to Find More Information about Futures Methods

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Illustrative Approach Applying Futures Methods

  • The Future of Radiation Protection: 2025

    Source: EPA Office of Air and Radiation [255]
    Suite of sustainability tools: futures methods; green accounting; risk assessment; exposure assessment; collaborative problem-solving
    The Future of Radiation Protection: 2025 (PDF) (81 pp, 901K) is a report on challenges the radiation protection community will confront over the generation ahead. It is also a handbook with exercises that people in the field of radiation protection can use to develop better responses to those challenges. It is a product of a project carried out by the Institute for Alternative Futures with support from the US EPA. The project involved hundreds of people inside and outside the radiation protection community during a three-year period between late 1999 and early 2002.

    The project reached conclusions that are themselves challenging. The bottom line is that the challenges ahead are so numerous and serious that they cannot be dealt with successfully through business as usual. A major shift in perspective and approach is needed:
  • From


    Exclusive focus on current issues, programs, budgets

    Greater attention to the full range of radiation-related challenges facing society, leading to major changes in current priorities

    Tacit assumption that the future will be much like the present

    Realization that the future is likely to be much worse than the present if business-as-usual continues

    Radiation protection defined primarily by a focus on “Legacy” issues

    Assessment that Legacy issues will decline in importance and that future needs center primarily around developing more preventative approaches to 4 Key Sectors: Energy, National Security, Industrial & Consumer, and Health

    Radiological attacks and other terrorist acts viewed as possible but not given a high priority

    Radiological attacks and other terrorist acts considered highly credible and on a high priority

    Reactive responses to problems after they become serious

    More anticipatory, preventative approaches to problems

    Conflicts between deeply entrenched positions

    Emphasis on good science and shared principles for working toward better positions

    Limited emphasis on public information and involvement due to habits of secrecy from the Cold War era

    Primacy of transparency and public right-to-know; emphasis on public education and as much access as feasible to credible, usable information

    Radiation protection as a community onto itself

    Integration of radiation and environmental protection through shared principles for guiding action, combined databases, and risk harmonization

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  • Innovative Tools Help EPA Scientists Determine Total Chemical Exposure

    Source: EPA Office of Research and Development [256]
    Suite of sustainability tools: exposure assessment; risk assessment, futures methods

    Everyday activities – actions as simple as biting into an apple, or walking across a carpeted floor – may expose people to a host of chemicals through a variety of pathways. The air we breathe, the food and water we consume, and the surfaces we touch all are the homes of natural and synthetic chemicals, which enter our bodies through our skin, our digestive systems, and our lungs.

    This makes determining how (and how much of) certain chemicals enter our bodies challenging. In most cases, there is not one single source for any given chemical that may be found in our bodies. Using sophisticated computer models and methods, EPA scientists have developed an innovative set of tools to estimate total exposures and risks from chemicals encountered in our daily lives.

    “The traditional approach of assessing the risk from a single chemical and a single route of exposure (such as breathing air) may not provide a realistic description of real-life human exposures and the cumulative risks that result from those exposures,” said EPA scientist Dr. Valerie Zartarian. “Risk assessments within EPA are now evolving toward the ‘cumulative assessments’ mandated by the Food Quality Protection Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

    Moving the science of chemical risk assessments forward to where it’s possible to evaluate total risks from exposures to a wide variety of chemicals requires several key pieces of information. You need to know what chemicals are found in the environment, their concentration levels in the environment, and how they come into contact with humans. You also have to know how they enter the body, and what they do after that.

    EPA’s Stochastic Human Exposure and Dose Simulation (SHEDS) model addresses the first part of this problem. SHEDS can estimate the range of total chemical exposures in a population from different exposure pathways (inhalation, skin contact, dietary and non-dietary ingestion) over different time periods, given a set of demographic characteristics. The estimates are calculated using available data, such as dietary consumption surveys; human activity data drawn from EPA's Consolidated Human Activities Database; and, observed chemical levels in food, water, air, and on surfaces like floors and counters.

    The data on chemical concentrations and exposure factors used as inputs for SHEDS are based on measurements collected in EPA field studies and published literature values. "EPA’s observational exposure studies have also provided information and data to help define the processes simulated in the model, and evaluate or "ground-truth" SHEDS model estimates", said Zartarian, "who co-developed the model with Dr. Jianping Xue, Dr. Haluk Ozkaynak, and others."

    “The concept of SHEDS is to first simulate an individual over time,” she explained. “The model calculates that individual’s sequential exposures to concentrations in different media and across multiple pathways, and then applies statistical methods to give us an idea of how these exposures might look across a whole population.”

    The story of how chemicals enter the human body doesn’t end there, however. The exposure estimates that SHEDS generates are now being used as inputs for another kind of model – a physiological based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) model, which predicts how chemicals move through and concentrate in human tissues and body fluids.

    Using PBPK models, scientists can take the estimates of chemical exposures across multiple pathways generated by SHEDS and examine how these will impact organs and tissues in the body, and determine how long they will eventually take to be naturally processed and expressed.

    Together, these two models provide scientists with a much more accurate picture of the risk certain chemicals pose to human health – a picture they’ve been able to confirm by extensive comparisons against real-world data, such as duplicate diet and biometric data collected by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which collects biomarker data from 5,000 people each year. When EPA researchers have compared the SHEDS-PBPK exposure and dose estimates with the physical NHANES data, they’ve found that the model’s predictions line up very closely with the observations in the survey.

    “The real-world grounding gives you a lot of confidence in the exposure routes modeled in SHEDS and PBPK,” said Rogelio Tornero-Velez, an EPA scientist who has helped develop the Agency’s PBPK models used in the study.

    SHEDS has already been used in developing EPA’s regulatory guidance on organophosphate and carbamate pesticides, and chromated copper arsenate, a chemical wood preservative once used on children’s playground equipment. Now, EPA researchers are using the coupled SHEDS-PBPK models to examine a relatively new class of chemical pesticides called pyrethroids to determine whether they pose any risk to human health and the environment.

    EPA scientists are continuing to refine the SHEDS and PBPK models used in these studies, adding functions and testing them against real-world data. For policy makers, these models will serve as invaluable tools in making decisions meant to protect human health and the environment from the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals.

    “The science and software behind SHEDS and PBPK are substantial,” said David Miller, who has worked on the project from EPA’s regulatory perspective. “They provide exposure and risk assessors both within and outside EPA with a physically-based, probabilistic human exposure model for multimedia, multi-pathway chemicals that is in many ways far superior to those that are presently in routine use.”

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