Fred Polak

Fred Polak (May 21, 1907September 17, 1985) was a Dutch sociologist, politician and futurist. He was one of the Dutch founding fathers of futures studies, perhaps best known in the field for theorising the central role of imagined alternative futures in his classic work The Image of the Future.


  • Modern technology could advance to the point at which social engineers would be true masters of a complete conformist society which could no longer distinguished from a mass concentration camp. We might ultimately be directed by a superstructure of intelligent machines... Revolutionary changes in the next 30 years would be farther-reaching that many over the past 3.000 years.
    • Quote about the future challenges that industrial society faced due to the societal catastrophe, which was considered to be 20 to 50 years away. Cited in: Ian Murray (1972) "Workers told of peril of technology". In: The Times, April 16, 1972

Prognostics, 1971Edit

Fred L. Polak (1971) Prognostics: A Science in the Making, Surveys and Creates the Future. Elsevier, London.

  • As the reader is aware, at the cradle of our learning stood the philosophy of Asia Minor and Greece, itself influenced in turn by Indian and Oriental philosophical and religious conceptions. It is the tragedy of this philosophy that, although it was traditionally directed towards the undogmatic acquisition of wisdom and virtue, always regarding the freedom of human rational thought in visionary fashion as the highest good, it nevertheless inevitably led to a mental hardening of the arteries into coercive thought models.
  • My own philosophical position, if I may put it that way, is very briefly as follows:
    (1) I think about the future, therefore I am and can be a human being;
    (2) The future is partly knowable for man: thinking back = thinking forward;
    (3) Anyone who ponders the future will learn that this is still open to a considerable extent that can be further determined from case to case...
    (4) Determining one’s own destiny implies two things: ready acceptance of a stewardship for the future and of the duty to make a choice;
    (5) Everyone must therefore be able to have access, as soon and as completely as possible, to all available data for, and possible consequences of, this choice to be made...
    (6) For this purpose everyone, choosing in complete freedom and on his own responsibility, must be able and permitted to utilize all the philosophical and scientific thought models useful for this vital choice;
    (7) Thought models, or models of the future, are useful insofar as they can reasonably contribute towards the optimum realization of man’s future-directed wishes and actions in a given situation or period;
    (8) Optimum realization aims at a harmonious synthesis of effectiveness and justice in the furthest possible surveyable part of future time;
    (9) The effectiveness to be aimed at calls for the application and refinement of all conceivable prognostic techniques for adding to knowledge of the future, including those which can be effectively developed over an ever-wider time scale...
    (10) All objectives meet in the endlessly continued approach to and progress towards the ideal “summum bonum”, though this, the most valuable humanistic good of a full human society, may perhaps never be capable of realization in total perfection.
    • pp. 65–66
  • All kinds of separate, fragmented portions of the jigsaw puzzle are of little avail, unless they are fitted together in the best possible way, to form an image of the future depicting a number of main areas of development.
    • p. 261

The Image of the Future, 1973Edit

Fred Polak (1973) The Image of the Future. Elsevier Sdentific Publishing Company.

  • Every great thinker who has concerned himself with the historical process has speculated about the meaning of time and its flow in history. Marx, Hegel, Spengler, Toynbee, and Sorokin, each with his own variation on the theme of time-flow as mechanically patterned fluctuation, predict the future but ignore its dynamic interaction with the past and the present.
    • p. 1 (partly cited in: European Centre for Leisure and Education (1975) Society and leisure. Vol. 7. p. 22)
  • Social change will be viewed as a push-pull process in which a Society is at once pulled forward by its own magnetic images of an idealized future and pushed from behind by its realized past.
    • p. 1 (as cited in: H.C. Marais (1988) South Africa: perspectives on the future. p. 15)
  • Once he (man) became conscious of creating images of the future, he became a participant in the process of creating this future.
    • p. 6
  • Values, means and ends... [that drive this process in current societies; mean that we now] stagger under the double load of not only having to construct (his) own future but having to create the values that will determine its design.
    • p. 9 as cited in: Rowena Morrow (2006) "Hope, entrepreneurship and foresight". In: Regional frontiers of entrepreneurship research
  • Awareness of ideal values is the first step in the conscious creation of images of the future... for a value is by definition that which guides a ‘valued’ future.
    • p. 10 as cited in: Rowena Morrow (2006) "Hope, entrepreneurship and foresight". In: Regional frontiers of entrepreneurship research
  • The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society's image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.
    • p. 19
  • The trends in modem technology reveal most clearly the contrasting modes of development in thinking about the future. Technology offers an unprecedented confirmation of the possibilities of the utopia, often far exceeding the utopian fantasies in its concrete achievements. Through technology, Homo sapiens can transform ail things; at last man appears to be master of his own fate.
    • p. 142
  • Utopism is the forerunner of all modem conceptions concerning social policy, social organization, and social peace. All the art of social engineering could not place one stone upon another in the social edifice if the broad outlines of the system as an idea had not been projected long before, and if the seeds of the motivating ideals had not early been sowed in the hearts of men.
    • p. 178
  • The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. The image of the future can act not only as a barometer, but as a regulative mechanism which alternately opens and shuts the dampers on the mighty blast-furnace of culture. It not only indicates alternative choices and possibilities, but actively promotes certain choices and in effect puts them to work in determining the future. A close examination of prevailing images, then, puts us in a position to forecast the probable future. Any culture which finds itself in the condition of our present culture, turning aside from its own heritage of positive visions of the future, or actively at work in changing these positive visions into negative ones, has no future...
    • p. 300
  • The brain attempts to recognize this odor image by scanning and resolving it into previously stored patterns
    • p.469 as cited in: Donald A. Wilson, Richard J. Stevenson (2010) Learning to Smell: Olfactory Perception from Neurobiology to Behavior. p. 2


  • My first acquaintance with the work of Dr. Fred Polak came in the year 1954—5, when we were both fellows at the new Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. Dr. and Mrs. Polak lived in a little house at the back of the garden of the house that the Bouldings rented and participated very cheerfully in the life of the Bouldings and their four young children. Many exciting things came out of that year at Stanford, such as the Society for General Systems Research and the Journal of Conflict Resolution. But looking back on the expérience after nearly twenty years, I think the most important impact on the thought of both Elise Boulding and myself were the many conversations that we had with the Polaks around the dining table and in the garden.
  • Polak (1973) notes that when the dominant images of a culture are anticipated, they "head" social change
    • Amir Levy, Uri Merry (1986) Organizational Transformation: Approaches, Strategies, Theories, p. 75
  • During the mid-20th century the Dutch Futurist Fred Polak despaired of the loss of the cultural ability to retain sustaining images of futures. In his view, viable images of futures were the key to real progress. And, it is true, that the latter half of that century was dominated by Dystopian views. Many of Polak’s detailed observations remain pertinent. But it is not the case that the ability to envisage different and better futures has vanished forever. Rather, the powers involved have been malnourished over recent decades. They have slipped from sight, as it were, but have most certainly not been lost.
  • Polak (1973) has argued that yesterday's utopia often becomes today's social philosophy.
    • Irvana Milojevic (2005) Education Futures: Dominant and contesting visions, p. 5
  • "Among the founders of the futures studies field, the Dutch sociologist Fred Polak is one of the least known. Although he is still mentioned by several renowned futurists, very little has been written about the evolution of Polak’s ideas and as far as we have been able to trace back, no retrospective work has been published. Today, Polak is mostly known for his opus magnum The Image of the Future, an impressive cultural-historic study of the relation between imagined futures and the dynamics of culture. He was an original thinker, but his work was remarkably uneven: his encyclopaedic and erudite style has led to both very deep and very shallow analyses. Especially his earlier contributions in the 1950s and 1960s still prove a very valuable resource, although many of his ideas should be handled with care. However, his later works in the 1970s are out of tune with the rise of a more critical approach to the study of the future."
    • Ruud van der Helm (2005) "The Future According to Frederik Lodewijk Polak: Finding the Roots of Contemporary Futures Studies", in: Futures 37(2005) 505-519 (Elsevier Publishers)

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Last modified on 13 April 2014, at 01:55