I was invited to speak at the end of January at an event to mark the last decade of the journal Futures, and the retirement as editor-in-chief of Professor Ted Fuller. I was asked for a five minute ‘provocation’ looking backwards and forwards at futures work, and this represents the ‘director’s cut’ of that, since it includes some of the material that I cut for the event to stay to time.
“I’ve been a futurist for more than 20 years now, and most of what I have learnt in that time has either been self-taught or learned through practice. So looking back to when I started, more or less in 2000, most of the things I learned then were probably wrong. As I continue to work with clients, and continue to think and write, I have become increasingly heretical.
“Before I get to some heresies, the best thing that has happened since I started as a futurist has been the gradual eclipse of the 2×2 intuitive logics scenarios framework by a whole diverse range of critical futures approaches. I’ve done more 2×2 scenarios than I can remember, but they are profoundly limiting, in more ways than I have time to list here.
“But one of the biggest limitations of the 2×2 method is that it produces scenarios. One of the things I have learned in 20 years of practice is that scenarios are often profoundly unhelpful in supporting organisations who are trying to make change.
“There are several reasons for this. They are cognitively different to work with; they align poorly with organisational decision-making processes; and no matter how clear your processes are for getting from scenarios to implications to actions, something in that process is going to look like a bit of magic or a black box.
“To expand on this point: when you’re working with an organisation, you usually only engage with a subset of the people who work there. At the end of the project, those people need to be able to explain what they did, and how they reached the conclusions they did, to others in the organisation. In short, this is a question about social learning, not about futures.
“So in my current practice I tend to recommend that a futures landscape approach is likely to work better than a scenarios methodology. This creates a set of domains, or sub-systems, that describe the emerging futures landscape, in all of its contradictions. This seems to make the futures work stickier. It certainly makes the story, the implications, and the actions easier for people to explain to others, which is where effective futures work starts.
“The other thing I have become increasingly sceptical of is the idea that futures work is designed to manage uncertainty, or to inform responses to uncertainty. I think now that it is better suited to reducing uncertainty and identifying how best to act to achieve vision and purpose.
“There’s quite a lot in what I’ve just said there, so let me unpack it a bit.
“One of the things we learn right at the start of our futures journey is that “there are no future facts”. It is hard-coded into the literature. But—it isn’t clear why.
“The idea comes from the narrowest possible interpretation of Hume’s idea of induction. It’s based on the idea that we don’t know if the sun’s going to come up tomorrow morning, and so on. When you look at some of the literature about induction, philosophers are sceptical about this extreme version of it. And from the point of view of futures work, a moment’s reflection tells you that this is nonsense. If there are no future facts, then the future is absolutely and radically open all of the time, and this is evidently not the case.
“At the very least—and I need to thank Richard Sandford of UCL for this insight—there are present facts that extend into the future and lock in certain elements of that future. As my colleagues at the Institute of Social Futures at Lancaster University say, futures have a context, a history, and a geography.
“Just as an aside here, I’ve also been worrying about futures and time, where futurists seem to have very Newtonian views of time that are badly out of sync with the understandings of time that physicists have, but that’s a huge discussion and I’ll need to park that for another day.
“Anyway, in suggesting that futures work is about reducing the realm of the uncertain, I’m partly following in the steps of Pierre Wack, who used to make a distinction between diagnostic scenarios, that mapped out a landscape, and decision scenarios, that identified options.
“Decision scenarios used a combination of structural analysis and actor analysis to rule out certain outcomes that were on the face of it possible but in practice were very unlikely. I did a similar exercise recently, although without the large staff and three year working cycle that Pierre Wack enjoyed at Shell.
“The purpose of my exercise was to think about planetary futures through the lens of the four Hawai’i alternative futures. You’ll remember these: Growth, Collapse, Discipline, and Transformation, though not necessarily in that order. When you look at these through the lens of ethical or desirable futures, only one of them represents a future that is likely to be sustainable, in all the senses of that word, and then only in certain circumstances.
“And since I’ve mentioned the e-word, there is still not enough about ethics in the futures field. The lasting legacy of Global Business Network’s 2×2 scenarios is a large hole where our ethics ought to be—“flatland”, as Richard Slaughter described it. Barbara Adam and Chris Grove’s book Future Matters tries to repair this hole, but it seems to be much more read outside of the futures field than inside it.
“Going back to the alternative futures, Collapse is collapse, and both Growth and Discipline also lead to collapse, sooner or later. The only one that provides a route to sustainability is Transformation, and only then if it is not dependent on a technology transformation.
“We see the same lesson in the Club of Rome’s recent pair of Earth4All scenarios. These are helpfully called ‘Too Little Too Late’, and ‘Giant Leap’. ‘Too Little Too Late’ oscillates between Discipline and Collapse. ‘Giant Leap’ involves a complex, and layered, just transition. We’ve all been taught that the risks of having a pair of scenarios is that people choose the one they prefer, but here that’s exactly the point. One represents a vision and a plan, to get to the narrow path that might reach a sustainable future, and the other represents an awful warning.
“So this is about visions and visioning, and there’s a whole lot of reasons why the work of visioning became a neglected child in the futures field. Suffice it to say, none of the reasons are good. Neglected or not — it’s visions that we need now, visions that we can animate, visions that we can bring into being.
“By way of a conclusion, in the 19th century, the Scottish scientist and urbanist Patrick Geddes developed the idea of heart, head, and hands. Each was informed by the other—we’d probably call this integrated practice these days, or some similar mouthful, but he started with the heart, with caring.
“Looking back across my practice over two decades or so, those scenarios I started with in the early 2000s were pretty much all about the head.
“Looking forwards, we’re going to need a lot more heart, and a lot more hands, if the work that we do as futurists is going to have any purpose or any value.
“As the systems theorist Donella Meadows once said:
The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being.”
A shorter version of this article was also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.