Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Four Futures and the S-Curve

Posted on | March 13, 2024 | No Comments

One of my favorite professors in graduate school was Jim Dator, a professor at the University of Hawaii and Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies at Manoa. One of Dator’s major strategies for thinking about the future was an exercise discussing four types of potential scenarios for the future of humanity: Continued Growth, Transformation, Limits and Discipline, Decline and Collapse.

I include this approach in discussions about different futures strategies in my Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society Studies (STS) course to get students to think more about the trajectories of new technologies and social developments, and what they may mean for the world they are inheriting.

Dators Scenarios on an S Curve

I also include a discussion of the S curve initiated by futurist John Smart’s interpretation of Dator’s four scenario exercises, as illustrated above. S-curves, also known as sigmoid curves, are mathematical models often used to describe the adoption or growth rate of various phenomena over time. Examples would be the adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) or the growth rate of bacteria in a lab sample. This representation is based on living systems theory by James Miller but seems to fit well with the futures writing exercise. However, Dator saw the scenarios more as four generic, separate alternative futures rather than naturalistic growth phases.

Scenarios are narratives or ‘stories’ illustrating possible visions of a future. These scenarios provide a structured way to consider the components of alternative futures and their potential developments. It presents four broad scenarios or perspectives on the future that can help individuals and organizations think about and plan for different possible outcomes. They are not strictly predictions but rather help generate ideas of some possible futures.

Combining an understanding of S-curve dynamics with futures scenario can be useful in projecting a trajectory, isolating trends, and constructing a vision of likely outcomes. It also marks inflection points (IP) where the curvature changes suggesting the beginning of a major change. Also important are tipping points (TP) critical thresholds when a tiny perturbation can qualitatively alter the state or development of a system or society, indicating dramatic change. DP marks the decline or de-acceleration phase. GP (growth point), IP (inflection point) and SP (saturation point) are also key indicators of curve’s dynamics.

S-curves are commonly used to predict the adoption and lifecycle of technologies or products. Innovations such as personal computers, smartphones, and social media platforms have been analyzed using S-curves to predict their growth and market saturation. As they move through stages of introduction, growth, maturity, and decline, S-curves can provide insights into when these stages are likely to occur and their duration. Researchers like Everett Rogers used S-curves to explain the “diffusion of innovations,” describing how new ideas or technologies are adopted by a population over time. For example, understanding the adoption patterns of electric vehicles can help policymakers develop incentives, infrastructure, and safety standards.

The categories below expand on the four scenarios mentioned above.

Continued Growth projects the current emphasis on economic development and its social and environmental implications into the near future. In this scenario, the future is seen as an extension of the present. It assumes existing trends, systems, and patterns will continue without significant disruption. This business-as-usual (BAU) trajectory is represented in the upward orange curve.

Limits and Discipline emphasize the importance of rules, regulations, and control. In this perspective, the future is shaped by enforcing strict discipline and adhering to established norms and principles. It is a scenario that focuses on order, authority, and conformity. It suggests a society that highly values places, processes, or values that are threatened by the existing economic and social trajectory. In this scenario, it is often believed that society has “limits to growth” and should be “disciplined” around a set of fundamental cultural, ideological, scientific, or religious values. These will likely involve environmental concerns, including “green” solutions such as recycling, social distancing, and mask-wearing in pandemic times. Understanding where this saturation point lies in the S-curve can help predict when growth will likely slow down or stabilize. It is represented by the blue line that reaches a plateau after the tipping point. S-curves often reach a plateau, indicating that the phenomenon is saturating or approaching its maximum potential.

Decline and Collapse is represented by the descending green line on the right. This scenario envisions a future characterized by the breakdown of existing systems, institutions, or structures. It often involves a significant crisis or disruption that leads to a reevaluation of the way things are done. It is a scenario that encourages preparedness for unexpected challenges and the need for adaptability. It suggests a catastrophic turnaround or reversal of fortunes due to natural or human-made disasters. Will climate change create such a decline? Is nuclear war a possibility? Pollution and changes associated with massive carbon dioxide and methane releases are current concerns as they are linked with dramatic weather changes influencing droughts, floods, and wildfires. The challenge to US leadership in the world by China and Russia could lead to a dramatic escalation of war in the world as witnessed in Ukraine.

Finally, a Transformative society envisions a future marked by radical change, innovation, and the emergence of entirely new paradigms. It challenges individuals and organizations to think creatively, embrace innovation, and be open to transformative possibilities. It emphasizes the need to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world. It anticipates a radical makeover of society based on biological, spiritual, or technological revolutions. For example, the creation of new genetically reconfigured “posthuman” bodies is a possibility, perhaps due to the viral innovations of COVID-19 research or rapid adaption to environmental changes. A “singularity” of network-connected humans and AI is another projected scenario. A global set of religious revivals is also considered by many to be a possibility. These scenarios posit entirely redesigned global culture, economic, and political structures.

Dator emphasizes that the purpose of scenario visioning is to determine preferable futures and work towards them rather than prophesizing a specific future. While S-Curves add a temporal trajectory and can indicate future activities, they lack information about time-frames. It is difficult to use them to suggest the number of months, years, decades, or even centuries before they might take shape and play out.

This historical context can be useful for predicting future trends.By analyzing historical data and fitting an S-curve to the data points, it may be possible to gain an understanding of how a particular phenomenon has evolved over time. S-curves can then be used to extrapolate future growth. By extending the curve into the future, you can estimate when a particular phenomenon is likely to reach a certain level of adoption, maturity, or impact. Policymakers can use this information to predict future developments, allowing for better long-term planning and resource allocation.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2024, Mar 13). Four Futures and the S-Curve.


[1] I was working on my PhD on cyberspace and electric money and found the futures approach interesting. He dissuaded his students of the idea of a one true future whose probability could be calculated with positivistic certainty, and suggested we use a futures visioning process to envision and develop several alternative scenarios.

[2] The notion of ideal types comes primarily from Max Weber.

[3] Dator’s Four Futures is a framework developed by futurist and educator Jim Dator. It presents four broad scenarios or perspectives on the future that can help individuals and organizations think about and plan for different possible outcomes. These scenarios provide a structured way to consider alternative futures and potential developments. The four generic alternative scenarios are: four generic alternative futures” (continuation, collapse, discipline, transformation) Dator, Jim. (2009). Alternative futures at the Manoa School. Journal of Futures Studies. 14.

These scenarios are not meant to predict specific outcomes but to provide a structured way to consider different possibilities and their implications. By exploring these scenarios, individuals and organizations can better prepare for a range of future developments and make informed decisions about their strategies, policies, and actions. Dator’s Four Futures framework is a valuable tool for futures thinking and scenario planning.

[4] Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” is a book that explores the concept of rapid change and the challenges it poses to individuals and societies. While Toffler introduced the idea of future shock, he did not specifically outline “four scenarios of the future” in that book. Instead, he discussed various scenarios and trends related to technological, social, and economic changes.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand. He keeps his American home in Austin, Texas and has taught there in the Digital Media MBA program atSt. Edwards University He joyfully spent 9 years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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