| 6 minute read

Futures Literacy: Why is it relevant for Higher Education?

Elena Galán-Muros
Futures literacy

In an era defined by rapid change, educators face the critical task of preparing students for an uncertain future. This article explores the concept of Futures Literacy (FL), highlighting its role in envisioning future scenarios and defining preferable outcomes. We delve into the intersection of FL with sustainability education principles and its transformative impact on science education, shedding light on how it equips students with the tools to navigate an evolving world.

One thing that is certain about the future is its uncertainty. However, this does not mean that we should not attempt to prepare for it. Amidst rapid technological development and the climate crisis, educators are faced with an imperative task – preparing students for navigating the uncertainty of a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. While the concept of FL has been present for some time, its popularity has surged in recent years. The term is often used in the context of, for example, scenario building and Foresight,  Foresight, as described by European Commission[1], is a “discipline of exploring, anticipating and shaping the future to help building and using collective intelligence in a structured, and systemic way to anticipate developments”, while scenarios or scenario building or scenario planning is a one of the tools offered by Foresight. FL, as defined by UNESCO[2], is a capability or a skill that “allows people to better understand the role of the future in what they see and do”. Essentially, it is about the awareness and ability to integrate future into one’s cognitive processes, by using tools that help us anticipate and navigate the complexities of an uncertain world. One of the pioneers in recognising the potential of FL in Higher Education, The Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, Netherlands, has incorporated it as a capability in the curriculum for Master’s students in 2019, and has developed training modules for the Master’s faculty. Their initial research[3] into the impact of teaching and training FL indicate that as a result, students become more creative in developing strategies and increase their self-efficacy.

Nexus of Futures Literacy and sustainability education

The relevance of FL becomes particularly pronounced when considering its alignment with the principles and objectives of sustainability education outlined by UNESCO and the OECD. Within the realm of education for sustainable development, the concept of anticipatory competence aligns with the ability to envision varied future scenarios and link them to personal aspirations[4]. The educational framework proposed by the OECD similarly underscores the significance of incorporating futures thinking into sustainable development, asserting that responsible action necessitates foresight and contemplation[5]. Additionally, FL is part of EC’s GreenComp reference framework for sustainability competences. There it is described as competence to “envision alternative sustainable futures by imagining and developing alternative scenarios and identifying the steps needed to achieve a preferred sustainable future”[6].

Transformative impact of Futures Literacy in science education

To cultivate students’ commitment to values, responsible scientific practices, and sustainability, science education needs to delve into their perspectives on personal and collective futures. However, research indicates that young individuals struggle to fully engage with the future and its potential outcomes[7].

In the field of science education, adopting future-oriented methods such as envisioning futures, scenario planning and backcasting allows students broaden their futures perceptions, imagine alternatives and navigate uncertainty[8]. These methods also facilitate the expansion of thinking, enabling students to move away from entrenched viewpoints and biases.

The crux of FL in science education lies in its power to foster imagination and creativity, empowering students to envision and create future possibilities. Engaging students in activities  that boost the FL competence, encourages thinking outside the box and exploring innovative solutions is paramount for inspiring them to take action. A recent investigation by Rasa et al.[9], focused on examining the advantages of future-oriented science education. The study revealed that students who perceive the future and technological advancements as both positive and unpredictable tend to have clearer and more promising perceptions of their agency. This is particularly evident when they identify with peers or envision their desired career paths, fostering a stronger connection to the otherwise vague concept of the future.

In conclusion, FL is an important competence for the 21st century, and therefore, should be explored by Higher Education. It is especially relevant in sustainability and science education, but most importantly, it can help young generations engage with the future in a more positive and proactive way.


[1] European Commission (2020). Strategic Foresight. Available at: https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/strategic-planning/strategic-foresight_en

[2] UNESCO (2023). Futures Literacy. Available at: https://www.unesco.org/en/futures-literacy/about

[3] Kazemier, E. M., Damhof, L., Gulmans, J., & Cremers, P. H. (2021). Mastering futures literacy in higher education: An evaluation of learning outcomes and instructional design of a faculty development program. Futures132, 102814.

[4] UNESCO (2017), “Education for sustainable development goals: learning objectives”, UNESCO, Paris, available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000247444

[5] OECD (2018), The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030, OECD

[6] Bianchi, G., Pisiotis, U. and Cabrera Giraldez, M., GreenComp The European sustainability competence framework. Available at: https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC128040

[7] Cook, J. (2016). Young adults’ hopes for the long-term future: From re-enchantment with technology to faith in humanity. Journal of Youth Studies, 19(4), 517–532.

[8] Laherto, A., & Rasa, T. (2022). Facilitating transformative science education through futures thinking. On the Horizon: The International Journal of Learning Futures30(2), 96-103

[9] Rasa, T., Palmgren, E., & Laherto, A. (2022). Futurising science education: Students’ experiences from a course on futures thinking and quantum computing. Instructional Science50(3), 425-447.

Ready for more?

Learn more about how universities are preparing their students for the future in our podcast episode Future-ready students: The transformative impact of industry-integrated courses, in our episode Lessons from Hollywood: How industry can benefit higher education institutions, or in our article Forward-looking competence needs of academics to support talent collaborating with the cultural heritage sector.

Rimante Rusaite (author) is a Senior Project Officer at UIIN and holds an MSc in Environmental Policy and BSc in Psychology. Dedicated to sustainability and innovations, she’s also a design thinking coach and systems thinking enthusiast.

Go to overview