Mapping the Edges:
How History Maps Enable Future Forecasting
by Eileen Clegg

Philosophy Behind the “History Map” Discipline

“Reculer pour mieux saute” —“We need to step back to leap forward.”

The timely re-surfacing of an old knowledge can launch insights powerful enough to help forecast the future. Some of the greatest discoveries of all time emerged after deep study of ancient ideas. One discipline that encourages this kind of leap is the history map – a careful arrangement of historical information in a timeline – one sheet of so the “big picture” is visible.

One organization that has effectively leveraged this tool is the Institute for the Future (IFTF) a Silicon Valley based think tank and oldest futures research firm in the United States, founded in 1971 as a spinoff of the Rand Corporation. IFTF has been a leader in technology forecasting, enabling clients to take strategic action based plausible future scenarios. The history map is one tool IFTF uses for forecasts. For example, here is the end of a 1996 IFTF map that successfully forecast the rise of online social networks.


The map outlined a history of communications technologies, business trends, political events and social events. Looking at all of these in a timeline, forecasters were able to see a vision of a socially-connected world—long before anyone had dreamed up MySpace, LinkedIn. here is a section of the map

Insight at the Intersections

History maps work by juxtaposing streams of key information from different disciplines (e.g.. technology and business) with events in history (e.g., political), trends (e.g., urbanization, feminism), and theory (e.g., scientific management). Although it is not always clear to the untrained eye, history maps often contain at least one grid, and sometimes three and four dimensions of information, enabling the cross cutting of themes. Insights often come at the intersections.

“”When cutting-edge fields of knowledge come into contact, new disciplines can be spawned, and progress can go zooming off in unexpected directions. If history is any guide, then, some of the most significant tech trends of the future are likely to begin at the intersection of disciplines that are just now beginning to flourish,” wrote Paul Saffo, director at Institute for the Future, in 2002.

Forecasts emerge from careful study of the streams of information, looking for meta-level themes.
Forecasting Future Mindsets

The History of Corporate and Executive Education Map is an example of a map that helped forecast trends within a specific discipline but also foreshadowed a shift in mindset that would pervade many disciplines.

Below is a photograph of the map, originally developed in 1999, showing a 120-year history of Corporate and Executive Education. It was redrawn and displayed at Learning 2006 to show past trends and raise questions about future trends in corporate learning.

In a history map, visual logics connect the pieces of information into a coherent story. For this map, the visual taxonomy seemed to help create a mental framework in which leaps were possible. (Later in this article, we will explore more about the cognitive features of what Douglas Engelbart called “dynamic knowledge.” Even though history maps are static in the sense that they are on a single page, they are ideally transitory, ever-evolving. Hence, the emergent, hand-drawn style).

You can link to an online version of the entire map here:

Before explaining how this map worked to effectively forecast trends and mindshifts in education, here is some background about this particular visual tableau:

• The green arrows indicate major shifts in workforce/organization/business (e.g., from agricultural to industrial economy)
• The blue “stream” in the middle indicates how and why education tended to be delivered at a particular time in history (for example, in an individual learning environment, to support the management structure)
• The “clouds” contain dominant theories or principles of the time that informed and/or were informed by trends in education

Below is the beginning of the map with the “key” showing the various types of information selected for inclusion in the History of Corporate and Executive Education map: new ideas in training, key books, important events, technology, measurement, organizational theory, organizational development events, and influential thinkers.

Using this framework, we were able, back in 1999, to identify “Innovation” as the dominant mindset about/reason for learning (as well as business, organizations, relationships, etc). And, at a time when organizations were just beginning to separate “training for skills” from “education for knowledge workers”, we were able to forecast the future trend of “natural learning” (also called “Informal Learning”)

Below is the conclusion of the map. What would you fill in for the future? Some suggestions we’ve heard:
Green arrow (large cultural shift): Networks replace organizations
Blue flow (how/why education is delivered): Just in time decision-making support
Cloud (theory, mindset) Personalization

Raising Collective IQ

There is an illuminating and little known connection between the father of modern computing and the discipline of history mapping. In 1968, Douglas C. Engelbart stunned onlookers when he sat in front of the “computer screen” that was hooked up to a keyboard and the world’s first mouse (made of mahogany, which Engelbart patented) and his computer in Silicon Valley was connected by cable to another computer in San Francisco for the world’s first-ever video conference This came to be known as the “mother of all demos” and Engelbart’s place in history was made—In the year 2000 he received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton. So what does that have to do with mapping?

Few understand Engelbart’s reason for his amazing inventions: He believed that if everyone had access to well-organized information from different disciplines, they would raise their collective IQ (his term from back in the early 1960s) and do a better job of solving the pressing problems of the world. He had the idea of a “dynamic knowledge repository” – no, not like today’s knowledge bases but rather an elegant combination of what we today call blogs, wikis, networks, online documents, conversation spaces, search engines…but organized in a way that, alas, it is not today. Engelbart talked about the id ea of “facilitated co-evolution” (note: the cameraman at the 1968 was Stewart Brand who went on to found the Whole Earth Catalogue and Coevolutionary Quarterly). The idea was that tools and people would co-evolve by the use of dynamic information.

The following is a visual “snapshot” of Engelbart’s ideas, created during a talk Engelbart gave during the National Knowledge Commission of India meeting

A key feature of Engelbart’s dynamic knowledge repository is this: A “facilitator” would view the information in a dynamic knowledge repository, and because of the high level of information organization in many ways (“multiple views of information”), this facilitator would be able to find the “edges” of ideas across disciplines and map those idea in such a way that patterns and consistencies would emerge. Meta-level patterns across disciplines would enable people to “see” future trends.

Here’s is the little known connection: Original founders and staff of Institute for the Future were with Engelbart at SRI during the 1968 Demo at SRI (then Stanford Research Institute). They were privy to the elaborate logic about how and why to make information more “visible”. Some of the secret sauce for futures forecasting may have come from Engelbart’s original recipe for raising collective IQ.

Engelbart’s hope was that the Web would enable what he called the “CODIAK” process — “concurrently develop, integrate, and act on knowledge.” We are beginning to get there with vast improvements in information visualization and collaboration tools. Perhaps in Engelbart’s lifetime (he’s 82 at this writing) we will see dynamic knowledge repositories in action with people working.

Meanwhile, we have the old-fashioned medium of big paper create, share, and learn from information maps, thanks to Michael Doyle, David Sibbet and other pioneers of graphic facilitation. History map below by David Sibbet .

About the author 

Eileen Clegg is a visual journalist, book author and founder of the company Visual Insight, creating large-scale, real-time murals for organizations. She works with top leadership invoking visual language to wordlessly introduce the power of emotion and meaning into group communications. Her practice emphasizes metaphor, intuition, and story to facilitate business transformation, strategic planning, and team effectiveness. Her clients have included companies such as IBM, Starbucks, and the Gates Foundation. She also has two books under way on the anthropological history and technological future of visualization.