Tutorial: Calibrating Ethnofutures

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This tutorial introduces Ethnofutures to ethnographers who want to integrate forecasting methods and tools into their current professional practices. The goal is to translate ethnographic material into imaginative, but grounded, scenarios of their future users, services, and products. Practitioners, such as designers and business strategists, must imagine futures based on existing signals of change. Those signals can come from the activities of individuals, the organizations in which they work, as well as the larger social events around them. The forces fomenting change can be highly localized, such as a specific municipal policy on gig workers or also be global in scope, pointing to the role of gig work as a facet of contemporary transnational capitalism. Moreover, the future itself is scalable: Organizations toggle between data-rich forecasts that extend less than a year, to more speculative futures that consider impacts decades into the future. Each practitioner must judge what scope to use to create a design fiction or develop a business strategy.

The instructors reviewed recent research by the Institute for the Future to demonstrate the range of practices and practitioners that pull futures perspectives into their organizational work. Then in breakouts, participants used an exercise to explore how they can use ethnographic data to build scenarios that interpret the experiences of producers and consumers. Next, instructors explained basic principles of Ethnofutures, and gave participants a chance to work with pre-curated ethnographic data, in this case collected on the experiences of workers in the gig economy, to build future scenarios. Finally, participants imagined a use case for Ethnofutures in their own work, identifying optimal temporal and spatial scales. The session established a foundation for participants to:

  • Develop a forecasting framework using ethnographic data
  • Identify how different social scales (individual, networked, organizational), different spatial scales (local, regional, national, global), and different temporal scales (near-term, mid-term and long-term) change with the kind of question the organization is trying to address
  • Reframe their own professional identities as futures-oriented practitioners
  • Discover use cases for Ethnofutures approaches within their organizations

This tutorial was presented in full at EPIC202020. The video includes instructor presentations; discussions and breakout sessions are excluded for the privacy of the participants.


Jan EnglishLueck is Professor of Anthropology at San Jose State University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future. She has written ethnographies about the anthropology of work, science and technology among California’s alternative healers, and China’s scientists. She is also the author of several books on Silicon Valley including Cultures@SiliconValley (second edition), winner of the American Anthropological Association’s 2006 Diana Forsythe Prize for the anthropology of science and technology. English-Lueck is Past President of the American Anthropological Association’s Society for the Anthropology of Work. As a member of the graduate faculty in applied anthropology, she integrates ethnographic design futures into her students’ training with partners ranging from the Silicon Valley Alliance (Renault Nissan Mitsubishi) to Japantown Prepared!

Rod Falcon brings his extensive experience directing research and teams at IFTF to his current role co-leading the IFTF Vantage Partnership. With a deep background in public health policy, he has served in several different capacities at IFTF since 1995, including leading the Food Futures and Health Futures programs and leading research for the Tech Futures program. In the course of his work, Rod speaks to executive audiences and helps them find innovative strategies for participating in the global economy. His research focus areas have included personal health technologies, communication and messaging practices in the workplace and home, social networks and abundant connectivity, and health-aware environments. Born in Oakland, California, in a time and place of great social change, Rod attended nearby UC Berkeley to better understand what was happening. There he earned a BA in American history and a Master’s of public policy. After working one summer enforcing the Voting Rights Act for the Justice Department, Rod realized that public policy was not as future oriented as it might be and was inspired to do something about it. He came to IFTF to forecast the future of the California health care safety net and ended up staying on.

Andrew Marley is a graduate student in applied anthropology at San Jose State, currently researching the future of reputation in the gig economy. Before returning to graduate school, he spent several years leading various process improvement projects in a manufacturing environment. He left to improve his understanding of how the way we do business affects the lives of all stakeholders. Andrew’s past projects include process improvement, building bridges between departments in a global manufacturing company, and research into transportation strategies informing the development of autonomous vehicles.


Candy, Stuart and Cher Potter, eds. 2019. Design and Futures. Taipei: TamkangUniversity Press.

English-Lueck, J.A., and Avery, Miriam. 2020. “Futures Research in Anticipatory Anthropology.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Oxford University Press. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190854584.013.14.

English-Lueck, J.A., Miriam LueckAvery. 2014. “Corporate Care Reimagined: Farms to Firms to Families.” 2014 EPIC Proceedings, 36-49. https://www.epicpeople.org/corporate-care-reimagined-farms-to-firms-to-families/

Institute for the Future Report: Voices of Workable Futures: People Transforming Work in the Platform Economy

Salazar, Juan Francisco, et al. 2017. Anthropologies and Futures: Researching Emerging and Uncertain Worlds. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Textor, Robert. 1989. “Commentary: A Brief Explanation of Ethnographic Futures Research.” Anthropology Newsletter 30 (8):1,24. https://doi.org/10.1111/an.1989.

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