Celebrating 21 years
of Futures Studies

We have been navigating the complex and
uncertain future for over two decades

An overview of USB’s Futures Studies programmes

  • June 11 2019
13 minutes to read

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By Prof André Roux

The University of Stellenbosch Business School’s postgraduate programmes in Futures Studies have their roots in the expertise, tradition, and operational ethos embodied in the Institute for Futures Research (IFR). The latter was established in 1974 in response to a growing realisation that, in a world of rapid, pervasive and omnipresent change, ad hoc, instinctive decision-making was not only inappropriate, but potentially dangerous. At the same time, South Africa entered a period of isolation, economic stagnation, and fatalism. Leaders – both business and political – were in desperate need of strategic foresight.

In short, futures thinking came of age in South Africa during the 1980s and early-1990s.

The roots of the Futures Studies programme

The IFR was led for the best part of two decades by Prof Philip Spies. He crafted and honed the discipline of Futures Research by, at first, learning from the best – before very long he became one of the best. The future was no longer a mystical, ethereal temporal dimension; it was a space in time that could be measured and made. And, importantly, by knowing and applying the right techniques, models, tools and through a disciplined systemic inspection and analysis of trends and behavioural patterns, it was possible to devise strategies for a fan of plausible future outcomes. In short, futures thinking came of age in South Africa during the 1980s and early-1990s.

I was privileged to take over as the Director of the IFR in 1996 when Prof Spies took early (and far too premature) retirement. I certainly had no intention of deviating from the tried-and-tested model and operating philosophy of the IFR. I did, however, start to entertain the possibility of introducing an academic element to Futures Research. After all, by the mid-1990s the IFR had built up an impressive repository of both scholarly and applied knowledge in the still little-known area of Futures Studies. It was time to formalise and institutionalise Futures Studies as a postgraduate qualification.

In early 1998 – 21 years ago – the first 10 candidates for the MPhil in Futures Studies arrived on campus.

In 1997, ably assisted by Lynnette Ferreira, I embarked upon the daunting task of completing a series of forms aimed at convincing the “powers that be” (the IFR’s own management committee, the university’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, the university’s Academic Planning Committee, and the Council for Higher Education) that an MPhil programme in Futures Studies was justifiable, plausible, financially viable, do-able, and of sufficient scholarly worthiness to be included in the university’s suite of academic offerings. This is a process that can take up to 18 months to run its natural course (typically involving a series of iterations, and numerous semantic inquiries). To everyone’s surprise a decision was reached within barely six months: Approval to roll-out the MPhil in Futures Studies; a two-year modular (block release) programme; a USB offering, managed and choreographed by the IFR; with myself as programme head, and Lynnette Ferreira as de facto programme coordinator.

As gratifying as it was to get such a quick response, we now had only three months to not only have systems up and running, to book lecture rooms and faculty, to order text books and prepare course outlines, but to also garner the interest of suitably qualified, paying students. Whether through luck or judgement, we managed it! In early 1998 – 21 years ago – the first 10 candidates for the MPhil in Futures Studies arrived on campus. They graduated two years later, having passed a number of subjects, and having written a “mini thesis”. The subjects were chosen to provide a sound scholarly foundation (e.g., Introduction to Futures Studies, and Systems Thinking), as well as equipping students with the skills to apply principles in practice (e.g., Applied Demography, Technology Futures, and Advanced Futures Studies). The “mini-thesis” gave students the opportunity to use the toolkit at a futurist’s disposal to analyse and research a futures-related issue or problem, and to propose ways of solving or mitigating for that problem.

Just as a neuro-surgeon needs to have advanced degrees in medicine, so, we believe, should a proper futurist possess an advanced qualification in futures thinking or foresight.

An implicit objective of the programme was to ensure that graduates practiced proper futures thinking (transdisciplinary analysis; using systems thinking as an intellectual model; scientific inquiry; questioning assumptions; evidence-based research). In so doing we want to avoid succumbing to the seductive allure of “pop” futurism. Just as a neuro-surgeon needs to have advanced degrees in medicine, so, we believe, should a proper futurist possess an advanced qualification in futures thinking or foresight.

It soon became clear that, while the interest in our programme was undeniably healthy, the mode of delivery (being away from the office for a few weeks over a two-year period) was neither appealing, nor practical for the caliber of students we wished to attract (fairly advanced in their careers; engaged in strategic thinking). Fortunately, at the time, Stellenbosch University launched a new initiative – telematic learning. Lectures were broadcast live from a studio in Stellenbosch to over 20 appropriately equipped electronic classrooms in various centres throughout the country, and in Namibia. This meant that students could attend classes at their nearest centre once a week, and experience an interactive classroom situation, with only a marginal disruption of their career and family responsibilities. Thanks to this new mode of delivery, over the next 15 years Stellenbosch University conferred the MPhil in Futures Studies on more than 200 students.

Introducing the PGDip in Futures Studies

Until 2013 students were able to enroll for any MPhil degree without having to have possessed a previous postgraduate qualification (Honours or equivalent) in that discipline (or a closely related one). In 2013 the Council for Higher Education changed the rules of the game. Henceforth, the possession of an appropriate postgraduate qualification would be a requirement for admission to any MPhil programme in South Africa. This necessitated a comprehensive re-assessment, restructuring, and revamp of our postgraduate offering.

The programme stretches candidates’ cognitive flexibility and creativity, by exposing them to a wide range of modules underpinned by the mantra that we can make and manage the future.

The outcome of this exercise (again, after a lengthy administrative process) was the Postgraduate Diploma in Futures Studies (PGDip FS), and the relaunch of a new, revised MPhil in Futures Studies (MPhil FS). The PGDip is a one-year programme, and the MPhil, as before, a two-year programme. Although the PGDip is an essential pre-requisite for admission to the MPhil, it is also, in its own right a stand-alone qualification, equipping students with the basic skills to implement long-term strategies to create a better future for people, by taking into account increasing competitiveness, complexity and volatility. In recognition of the nature of the discipline, the programme stretches candidates’ cognitive flexibility and creativity, by exposing them to a wide range of modules (including Applied Philosophy, Introduction to Futures Thinking, Systems Thinking, Understanding the World, and Managing for Change) underpinned by the mantra that we can make and manage the future. Since its launch in 2014, over 50 students a year have enrolled in the programme.

The relaunch of the MPhil

The MPhil in Futures Studies further enhances students’ knowledge and understanding of futures concepts and tools so that they are able to perform their duties as a professional futurist responsible for strategising and planning. Skills are acquired to understand local and global issues, and also understand their impact on strategic planning. The content of the programme is therefore aligned with the professional and intellectual skills required of futurists. Candidates acquire consultation and facilitation capabilities, and learn how to manage projects and do stakeholder analysis, environmental scanning, scenario planning and strategic planning. The research assignment (during the second year of enrolment) gives students the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills acquired to a field of their choice. Since its (re)launch in 2015 some 15 students have been enrolled each year.

The PhD

There is also a PhD in Futures Studies, which builds on the MPhil in Futures Studies. This programme allows candidates to become a specialist in this field by acquiring in-depth knowledge through supervised doctoral research. This is the only PhD of its kind in Africa. The minimum registration period is two years.

Blended learning

Meanwhile, Information and Communication Technology does not stand still. USB has introduced blended (hybrid) learning, which combines e-learning technology and methods with traditional classroom learning practices to create a hybrid way of learning. This means students can choose to attend the class on campus or via any internet-linked device from anywhere in the world. The online option is delivered synchronously with the on-campus option. Those who follow the classes via an internet-linked device, can also ask questions and interact with the class. Both of our postgraduate programmes are delivered in this fashion – sessions lasting four hours each are generally presented once a week.

Stepping down as IFR Director

In 2015, I decided to stand down as director of the IFR and to formally move over to USB, responsible for teaching Economics on various programmes, and also as programme head for the two programmes. In 2017, USB appointed an additional faculty member within the Futures Studies group, Dr Lize Barclay, thereby showing the School’s commitment to the programme. Also in 2017, a programme coordinator, Mireille de Villiers-Kleynhans was appointed in the Registrar’s office to administer and choreograph all the administrative issues and details that are so crucial in running a successful programme.

As we celebrate the 21st year of Futures Studies as a postgraduate offering of USB, I am proud to have been intimately associated with the programmes since the very beginning. I am also privileged to have seen hundreds of students embarking upon the journey towards foresight. And I would like to pay tribute to those faculty members (permanent, part-time, and guests) who have so capably and willingly guided our students on their journey of learning. Prof Philip Spies (still the doyen of Futures Thinking), Prof Eon Smit (for many years Director of the USB), and Prof Tobie de Coning (recently retired Chief Director: Strategic Initiatives and Human Resource at Stellenbosch University) have lectured on the programmes since the very beginning, and as of 2019, still are.