Throughout history, people have consulted everything from oracles to crystal balls in order to predict the future. But it was not until the 1960s that interest developed in a more systematic study of the future – inspired by major social and political upheavals and a growing awareness of the dangers of environmental degradation and over-population. In the early 1970s, separate institutes were established to pursue futures studies in many countries.
In 1971, a government commision was set up in Sweden to investigate what form futures studies should take. It was led by cabinet minister Alva Myrdal and its final report was entitled Choosing One’s Future (SOU 1972:59). The Government followed its recommendation and in 1973 the Secretariat for Futures Studies was established, which was originally accountable to the Prime Minister’s Office. In 1987, the Government decided to transform the Secretariat into an independent institution, whereupon the Institute for Futures Studies was established.
The Secretariat for Futures Studies began working in the fall of 1973. Lars Ingelstam, mathematician and active in the public debate, was appointed director for the Secretariat. The studies were to function as a foundation for strategic planning and stimulate the public debate.
The first research program focused on the problems of industrial society and the contradictions inherent in economic growth. Four problem areas were given priority: future working life, energy supply, natural resources and growth, and Sweden’s place in the world.
The Secretariat’s work reflected the hopes of the day concerning a more equitable world, and its researchers actively sought new concepts, new guidelines, and new patterns of social development.
In 1980, the Secretariat for Futures Studies was reconstructed as a unit within the Council for Planning and Coordination of Research. Its new director was Olof Eriksson, a professor of architecture.
Under Eriksson’s leadership, the focus changed to the difficulties facing municipalities and sparsely populated areas, future needs in the health care sector, and changing values in Swedish society. The ambitious project, Future Social Movements, concerned the forms of democratic organization. A distinguishing feature of these projects was that they brought in people from outside the traditional research community.
The journal Framtider (Futures), which was launched during Olof Eriksson’s time at the helm (1982), became a means of encouraging debate on future threats and opportunities.
In 1987, the Government decided to establish an independent institute for futures studies. The directorship was taken over by Åke E Andersson, a professor of regional economics at Umeå University.
The new research plan focused on communications, knowledge, art and creativity (dubbed the ‘K’ society due to the corresponding words in Swedish – kommunikationer, knowledge, konst and kreativitet). The big city was presented as a symbol of future work and life.
What became known as the ‘seventies cohort project’ saw young people as a driving force in society. The new generation was described as being inspired by post-material values relating to internationalism and individualism.
A key figure during these years was the physician, psychologist and author Nils Uddenberg. He was responsible for studies focusing both on people as biological beings and on the ethical considerations prompted by new gene technology.
In 1999, Lena Sommestad, an economic historian, was appointed Director of the Institute. The research program she initiated, Shaping the Future, was centered around the demographic shift towards a society with an increasingly ageing population.
The question was how anticipated shifts between age groups would affect democracy and the economy. Other important areas in this program were gender, power and citizenship of the future welfare state, and the development prospects of local communities in the face of new economic and political conditions.
A couple of dozen researchers from different disciplines were brought into the program, from sociology, cultural geography, economics, political science, statistics, history, and economic history.
During Sommestad´s directorship a seminar series Framtidsfokus (Focus on the Future) was started. At these seminars the Institute’s researchers present new findings and discuss long-term trends and topical problems. These seminars attract both a broad general public and representatives of the political community, government agencies and interest organizations.
In 2002, Joakim Palme, a sociologist from Stockholm University’s Institute for Social Research, took over as Director of the Institute for Futures Studies. Until 2005, he headed Sommestad´s research program Shaping the Future and in 2005–2008 led the program Society and the Future, which he himself designed.
The basic idea in this program was to gain more in-depth knowledge about what is actually happening to our public institutions. How do structural changes and reforms affect people’s welfare? How is the resource distribution and agency affected by this?
An international comparative perspective characterized this program, and there was a stronger focus on European integration and global migration issues. During the program period, closer ties were developed with Nordic, European and international networks.