I have been thinking about the value of theories of change in futures work since reading an article a few years ago by Wendy Schultz and Richard Lum. It described a scenarios project on the future of education for a school in Hawai’i in which different scenarios were underpinned by different theories of change.

As they argued there:

Good futures work includes clearly identifying the theories of change underlying scenarios: what drives the changes that create alternative futures? how do impacts collide and connect in the patterns they do? Yet researchers rarely acknowledge the specific theory(ies) of change that contribute to their scenario outcomes, and none that we know of use alternative theories of change and stability (TOCS) as the actual conduits and differentiators of change.

That thought crystallised for me recently when I was writing an article reflecting on Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock, for a collection of pieces reflecting on Toffler’s 1970 book as it reaches its half century.

I’ll share the full article here when that collection is published, but the thought is this: if “there are no future facts,” leaving aside that there are probably more future facts that futurists normally acknowledge, the thing that makes futures work testable (testable in the sense that the work can be falsified) is the coherence of the theory of change that underpins it. I’m going to follow that thought through for a moment.

Explanatory power

The point about a theory of change is that it may–or may not–have explanatory power about observable change in our societies. In other words, we can test its explanatory power against unfolding events.

If — for example — we argue that the vote for Trump, or the vote for Brexit, is the result of an inter-generational conflict about core social values, then one can test this against the increasing body of social research on the extent to which there is a “values gap” between Trump and non-Trump voters, or Leave voters and Remain voters. To say it again: explicit theories of change make claims made by futurists falsifiable.

Used futures

There is a little more to this. If this idea is right, it also helps to put some flesh on the idea of the ‘used future’, mentioned by Sohail Inayatullah in his Six Pillars paper without precisely defining it. It is an image of the future that, in his words, “is unconsciously borrowed from someone else”, which imitates “what everyone else is doing”.

Jose Ramos (2016) suggests the used future is “an image or idea of the future that someone else created in some other context, but to which we are unconsciously holding on to, blinding us to other more authentic and empowering ideas of the future.”

The example Inayatullah gives of a used future is of Asian cities chasing after models of urban development that were borrowed from 1950s and 1960s America, exemplified by multi-lane highways snaking into city centres.

In other words, a ‘used future’ is one that can no longer be validated by a viable theory of change. One contemporary example is the used future about Heathrow, with its very specific assumptions about economic growth, and a certain blindness to the data, that is continuously recycled to justify Heathrow’s endless attempts to promote its expansion and growth.1

When theories change

Being explicit about theories of the future has a positive benefit as well. If you are explicit, it means that it becomes very clear when theories change. And, further, that means that it is possible to see clearly the shifts in social values that a change in a theory of the future indicates.

Inayatullah’s example of Asian city highways, for example, was played out in Seoul. In the mid-2000s this started to change when the mayor decided to demolish the urban highway running through the city that boxed in the river Cheonggyecheon, and clean up the river so it could be used as a linear park. The highway had been built in 1968. Opening up the river again involved a different set of theories about urban success:

it fit in with the movement to re-introduce nature to the city and to promote a more eco-friendly urban design. Other goals of the project were to restore the history and culture of the region, which had been lost for 30 years, and to revitalize Seoul’s economy.

In the new model, cars were seen as a problem, not a benefit. The results of the project were measured across social and environmental metrics, including biodiversity, flood protection and heat island effects, and as well as economic ones.

Image of Cheonggyecheon at the top of the post is courtesy of Wikimedia. Photo courtesy of madmarv00CC BY 2.0.

  1. Don’t look too closely at any of the desperate modelling attempts used by the Davies Commission as it tied itself in knots to give the government–trapped the used future of Heathrow expansion–the answer it wanted on the Third Runway.