I was teaching futures at the SOIF Summer Retreat last summer, and that sent me back to scanning frameworks, and from there to Richard Slaughter’s 1990s article ‘Mapping the Future’. Of itself, a scan is really no more than a catalogue of the features that you see in the landscape, and most scanning frameworks are effectively designed to ensure that you fill in your blindspots.
This is obviously better than not filling in your blindspots. But the purpose of a scan is not to build a catalogue: that’s only a necessary condition of success. The purpose of the scan is to help you get to a ‘diagnosis’, in Richard Rumelt’s sense of the word:
A good diagnosis simplifies the complexity by identifying the critical aspects of the situation.
In other words, you are building a systemic and dynamic picture of your futures landscape, in a way that enables you to make decisions about how to act. The reason I went back to Richard Slaughter’s article was because the six questions in ‘Mapping the Future’ allow you to do this:
1. What are the main continuities?
2. What are the major trends?
3. What are the most important change processes?
4. What are the most serious problems?
5. What are the new factors ‘in the pipeline’?
6. What are the main sources of inspiration and hope?
Continuities are about the idea that while the futures literature tends to stress change, “some things change very little from era to era… processes of change tend to be limited or conditioned by pre-existing realities.”
Trends—or driving forces, perhaps—are more familiar in the literature: these are substantial forces of change that are changing the landscape, often in combination with each other.
The worked example he gives in the paper includes a mix of major trends, critical issues, and strategies, from a paper called ‘World 2000’ by Halal. I’m not sure that this helps: I’d prefer to work through all six questions, and build the whole map, before getting to critical issues and strategies, which are then informed by the whole discussion that you’ve had to work through the questions.
Change processes might seem, on the face of it, to be the same as ‘trends’, but the way they are described in the paper makes them seem more like ‘inflection points’. These are things where something that has been part of received wisdom, and sits in the dominant worldviews, is starting to crumble. I think the paper could be more rigorous on this, but in the 1990s some of the examples he mentions are (from Lester Thurow’s work) ‘The end of communism’ and ‘A multi-polar world with no dominant power.
To this Slaughter adds a list called ‘ideas in decline’, about the industrial worldview. For example:
The view that idea is merely a thing or a resource
The idea of progress and unlimited material growth
Serious problems can be understood as issues that are deep-seated and which may prevent other types of change (this is my interpretation of the paper). I’m not sure that the examples in the paper help, but I think of these as being similar to Adam Gordon’s category of ‘blockers’—things that are locked into the system, often with strong reinforcing properties and large vested interests sitting behind them.
In 2022—my examples—I might locate ‘problems’ such as ‘global wealth disparities/ offshore wealth’ or ‘persistent inequality within and between states’ or ‘domination of the tech sector by a small group of large monopolistic businesses’ might come into the category of ‘serious problems’.
In the article, Slaughter talks about the persistence of the ‘industrial mindset’—extractive capitalism, if you like. I suspect that there’s perhaps some overlap between the sub-category of ‘ideas in decline’, above, and ‘serious problems’, but that it might not make much difference in practice.
New factors represent the classic issues that are identified through emerging issues analysis. They’re not necessarily positive or negative. The examples in the paper include:
The human genome project and synthetic organ replacement
The development and applications of nanotechnology
(These examples, from the 1990s paper, also remind us how long it takes emerging issues to emerge.)
Inspiration and hope
Sources of inspiration and hope are essential to agency, and for me, these are similar to the idea of ‘seeds of change’ developed by the Good Anthropocene Project. Here’s their definition of those:
They can be social initiatives, new technologies, economic tools, or social-ecological projects, or organisations, movements or new ways of acting that appear to be contributing to the creation of a future that is just, prosperous, and sustainable.
In the paper, he gives examples that include ‘the notion of a stewardship ethic’ and ‘the re-birth of the sacred’.
The Three Horizons method hadn’t been developed when Richard Slaughter wrote the paper, but I wondered as I re-read his paper it Three Horizons could be used to map the six questions. It might look something like this.
Even more so, some of the oppositions that seem to emerge from the process might lead themselves to the dilemma resolution approach that Anthony Hodgson evolved from the work of Charles Hampden-Turner.
Rocks and whirlpools
Dilemmas often fall into the tensions between ‘rock’ qualities and ‘whirlpool’ qualities (yes, we’re talking about The Odyssey in this metaphor). Dilemmas are dilemmas because they have to be integrated—you can’t just choose.
Slaughter has a good example of this type of question in his conclusion:
to what extent, and how quickly, can powerful constituencies (governments, corporations, key decision-makers in all fields and enterprises) bring themselves to set aside the old industrial “game, worldview, etc. and develop a different outlook based on a new or renewed worldview oriented toward new ends; for example, a stewardship ethic; qualitative growth; more caring and inclusive human and economic relationships?
Dilemma resolution connects to Three Horizons, and in Three Horizons terms these are conflicts between ‘maintainers’ (in H1), whose goal is system stability, and ‘visionaries’ (in H3), whose goal is system transformation. We know enough about systems change to know that successful systems transition requires the skills of both—typically through the integrative skills of the ‘entrepreneurs’ who populate H2.
The dilemma resolution method comes with a set of steps that enable the social construction of an integrated outcome that goes beyond the usual organisational trade-offs or compromises when managing change. That sounds like a post for another time. But what I like about the six questions as a scanning tool is that it speaks to the interests and worldviews of all these actors.
A version of this article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.