Teaching Futures Studies:
From Strategy to Transformative Change
Tamkang University, Sunshine Coast University, Queensland University of
In this short
piece, I describe my pedagogy in futures studies, based on teaching it in
numerous countries (New Zealand, Pakistan, Australia, Andorra, Thailand,
Malaysia, the United States, Taiwan, for example), in numerous settings
(government agencies, the University, non-governmental organizations,
corporations, professional associations) and in short one-day courses, week
long courses, and semester long courses.
approach is based on teaching about
the future (data, trends, litany, for example) and teaching for
the future (civilizational challenges, the necessity to decolonize the
future) as well teaching in the
future (living the future one prefers, as well as possible). My theoretical
framework consists of empirical, interpretive, critical and action research
What I teach is
based on the following: (1) the main pillars of futures studies; (2) ways
that the future can be used; and (3) mapping and change methods.
Pillars of Futures Studies
I see five main
pillars defining the field.
study of grand patterns of change. I tend to use the theories of
macrohistorians such as Ibn Khaldun, P. R Sarkar, Pitirim Sorokin,
JohanGaltung, Arnold Toynbee and Riane Eisler to help understand what might
be in the future. However, this is not an exercise in forecasting but in
understanding the contours of change. For example, Khaldun focuses on
decline. Thus I ask questions such as: given that decline is likely, what
can be done to create innovation? Khaldun also focuses on shifts of power
from those outside the center. I thus ask: Who is outside the current seat
At one level, the main point of macrohistory is to search for deeper
patterns of change, to understand the stages of history and the shape of the
future and at another level, it is about asking questions that give us
insight to the structure of the future.
emerging issues and trend analysis. This tends to focus on forecasting but
not in a precise sense. Rather, the goal is to search for the seeds of
change, to identify them before they sprout. I tend to use emerging issues
analysis, as this method disturbs conventional categories of the future but
also has a predictive dimension. This method is a micro dimension
and social design. This dimension has two parts. At one level it is
constantly asking what are the alternatives. This can be expressed in
scenarios but not necessarily scenarios designed to produce strategies.
Alternatives can be deeper: about different ways of timing the world, for
example, about creating new dimensions of the future, including social
of Knowing –
depth, deconstruction, decolonizing time. Even
deeper than developing alternatives, is understanding how epistemes create
our ontologies of the world More
authentic alternatives emerge once we shift our gaze to the ways in which we
know the world. Often the future is given to us unquestioned, but by
entering ways of knowing we can begin to explore alternatives. This helps us
to unpack the future and to entertain and enter alternative cultures and
perspectives. This shift involves a move from what we know, to what we
don’t know, to what we don’t know we don’t know (see appendix).
Knowledge – visioning
desired futures, action learning. This process of alternative perspectives
allows the creation of knowledge that transforms. Knowledge, however, need
not be vertically structured (given from above or based on strong
hierarchical relations). Indeed, knowledge can be created through a process
of democratic questioning.
I have found
that students’ questions often lead to methodological improvement, to
theoretical insights. As well, in the action learning approach, the issue
becomes not of filling the student with content but creating a process of
mutual learning. This does not mean expertise is forgotten but that the
future is created through iterative interaction.
Ways to Use the Future
In the last few
years, as well as teaching a formal university course, I have conducted a
number of short courses. The
most recent included courses for Maroochy Council (a local council in
Australia), Queensland Tourism, the Office of Fair Trading and Racing, and a
general workshop on Cyber-bio futures for futurists in Queensland. The
courses aim to develop policy-oriented futures studies. That is, to use the
future to create better policy.
I teach courses
at Tamkang University, Taiwan, in a similar way. After discussions on theory
and methodology, classes become policy teams, focused on developing policy
papers for the President on issues such as Aging, Innovation, Green
technology, Transport, etc. Thus, their theoretical, methodological and
content knowledge is used to create more effective ways to deal with future
is far more to it than thus just future problems. The future becomes a site
for organizational transformation. The future can be used in different ways.
I generally use
the future in the following six ways:
– to make better decisions, however defined, but usually profit-driven.
Most recently this has included the triple bottom line approach (and moving
beyond this to quadruple approaches focused on future generations or the
learning and healing organization) or meeting the changing needs of
future is about learning new ideas and methods. Thus, futures is used not
necessarily to enhance policy but to increase the knowledge of students,
employees, managers and directors.
– the future is about learning to learn, about developing one’s
potential, individually and organizationally. Capacity development is moving
away from the command and control organizational model, and creating spaces
for renewal. It takes an anticipatory action learning approach wherein the
goal is to empower, to enable those in the organizations to take charge of
– the future is also about finding new memes (social genes) and finding
ways to have organizations select them and make them real. For example, this
could mean in the city the move from roads, rates and rubbish to the clean
and green, active and healthy, international city.
– the future is about qualitative transforming, moving an organization to
the edge of chaos. In this phase, new ideas can push a system so that it
undergoes a qualitative shift. By chaos, I mean ordered disorder.
– this means that what is changed is more than just information or
knowledge; the purpose of the future is about changing who we are. In
colloquial language this is expressed as vibrations, or in New Age
discourse, the energetic dimension. Essentially, this is about our inner
lives as individuals but as well as about the organization's inner life –
what stage it sees itself in. It is thus more than learning to learn,
specifically: learning and healing both individual and collective, and inner
and external dimensions.
Organizational transformation and educational
These six stages
should not however been seen as valid just for organizational courses
focused on policy. They are relevant for the more traditional futures course
as well. For example, strategy is about helping students find out what
careers they may wish to pursue, how best to reach their goals. Which
courses should they take? What should they do when the graduate?
more traditional, about understanding theories and methods – the content
of the field.
enhancement is about empowering the student to develop his or her own theory
of the term future, to focus on
how they personally develop their ability to manœuver in the world. Such a
course is more than simply giving information. Rather it provides a vehicle for expression, for learning about
learning, for ‘workshopping ideas’ so that they are relevant to their
can be about helping the student find new memes in their work, and as well
understand that the future itself is a meme. That is, other courses
generally focus on disciplinary knowledge, often specific, without
interaction with other fields. Futures is transdisciplinary, indeed, it is a
about taking a group of students to a new level in how they see the content
of the course, themselves, and, indeed, the purpose of education. At this
stage, the course in itself hopefully becomes more than the litany of
getting grades or making the professor happy but essentially about
transforming the nature of the course.
microvita change is, at one level, having fun. Another level, it is seeing
the course itself as an experience, as more than theory building. This is
essentially connecting with students at more than an intellectual level but
being concerned (within certain boundaries) about who they are. Ultimately,
microvita change goes beyond the transformation evoked in emergence by
focusing on the inner dimension of what it means to be and to know.
I have found, here learning from Debra Robertson and
Gretal Bakker of Performance Frontiers[i]
that to enhance pedagogy that leads to an understanding of ‘in the
future’ drama scenarios are useful. For example, after presenting content
and then having workshop participants infer what this means for their lives,
profession and workplace, they are asked to develop a skit, or piece of
artwork that exhibits this future (whether it is preferred or a possible
scenario). This embodiment of the future leads to the use of another way of
knowing. Individuals feel with their bodies the future they are exploring.
Recently, Farhang Erfani of Villanova has brought to my attention the use of
music to teach utopian studies.[ii]
Thus, along with video clips from movies about the future, she has started
to use music to better embody the future.
Mapping the Future
dimension of my futures pedagogy is focused on mapping the future. I use the
The futures triangle maps three dimensions: the push of the future (new
technologies, globalization, demographic shifts such as aging and
migration), the pull of the future (competing images of the future: Gaia
versus global tech versus collapse versus national realism) and the weight
of the future (what is problematic to change, deep structures). Taken in its
totality the triangle of the future presents a way to map the competing
dimensions of the future. This is useful in that with a simple diagram the
dialectics of the future can be understood. The future is not seen as fixed
out there but as being created by various processes (and not being created
because of historical patterns or weights).
landscape has four categories.[iii]
The first is the jungle. At this stage, competition and short term thinking
dominate. The second is the chess set. Strategy dominates here. Which future
is the most appropriate is the guiding question. The third consists of
mountain tops. At this level, the big picture through alternative futures is
explored. The fourth consists of the Star – the vision of the future.
analysis seeks to identify issues before they become common knowledge. These
can be opportunities as well as warnings. They are traces of the future.
This method is also useful in that the shape of the future can be mapped.
Individuals can thus develop their own capacity to anticipate. Forecasting
ceases to be framed in expert quantitative terms and more in intuitive
terms. Yet, since most emerging issues identified tend to be current
problems, individuals begin to see how their views of the future are just
twenty minutes out into the future.
analysis takes a depth view of the future. The litany of the future
(forecasts, the most superficial part of the future) is questioned by
exploring how forecasts are dependent on other dimensions – social,
political, cultural, for example – the systemic level.
This systemic view is, however, nested in worldviews. These are
deeper paradigms of civilizations see self, other, future, time and space.
Finally, the worldview is based on a story, a myth or metaphor. Causal
layered analysis explores these multiple levels of the future, ensuring that
is seen as layered;
it is seen as complex;
can be entered through multiple spaces and;
is seen not as given but as constituted by various levels of reality.
analysis transforms the litany of a particular future by nesting it in
systems, worldviews and myths. The deconstructed future thus can be
reconstructed by switching to an alternative system, worldview or myth.
In terms of
pedagogy, this is useful as individuals have certain proclivities toward
particular levels. This helps them see their own level but also to see how
their take on the future relates to other perspectives. It also assists the
move out of one’s own box of the future, whether that be a litany, system,
worldview or myth box.
map the future – but in horizontal space. Alternative futures based on
different assumptions, particularly drivers, are developed. Globalization
can lead to one scenario; the rise of cultural creatives to another; aging
to a third. Alternatively, I use archetypal scenarios: Transformation
(technological or cultural); Collapse; Continued Growth; and Return to the
Imagined Past. These archetypes frame the future. Scenarios are of great
value in teaching in that complex alternatives can be mapped. The
exploration of scenarios is done in various ways: through text, through art,
through drama skits, through oral presentations. This is crucial as
alternatives must be lived, they must be embedded in body and mind.
Visioning focuses less on the breadth of the future and more on the
preferred future. This is the aspirational dimension of the future – what
future do people want? What does it look like? What metaphor best describes
the future? This is a powerful pedagogical tool, as individuals become
creators instead of receivers of the future. While developing the details of
one’s vision of the future is difficult at first, with prodding and gentle
facilitation, it becomes easier.
all these methods have a visual analog: that is, they are easy to diagram
(triangle, landscape, s-curve, ice-berg, two-by-two tables, and metaphors).
the pillars of futures studies, ways to use the future, and futures methods
provide a futures teaching framework that is rigorous, empowering,
productive, efficacious and engaged. It transforms.
I've thus found
that teaching futures studies becomes a field and process that is:
theoretically rigorous (satisfying the demands of the Academy);
(satisfying the demands of social movements);
without being paralyzing (that is, productive pedagogies are created,
reconstruction) thus satisfying the demands of the oppressed and dealing
with the paralyzing effects of fear of dystopias);
(4) creates more
efficacious strategy (and at multiple levels) and policy (that is
anticipatory) thus satisfying the demands of the market and State; and
(5) engaged with
students, be they in the university, government, market or society (thus
making it fun and meaningful, and not a routine chore for teacher or
studies is a process that transforms. I learn and change from every
experience and I believe that those who are partners in this process – as
facilitators, professors, students – do as well.
you don’t know
- Knowledge outside one’s field, locale, area of
- Study – emerging issues analysis
- Learning from others
- Being conscious
you know you know
especially testing of hypothesis
degree of certainty – Information
you don’t know you know
you know you don’t know
- Scenarios are the most useful tool as they help contour
uncertainty – frame areas of ignorance
- Knowledge through questioning
What you don’t know you
way to approach this is by entering other ways of knowing, moving
outside comfortable paradigms
Problem of Consciousness – Enemy, Friend or Transcendence
In one experience with this method, our group developed a skit for Glo-cal.
While conceptually we had clarity on this image of the future, in the
skit we failed at presenting it. This helped us realize the real tension
in creating a Glo-calized world. Robertson
well has participants deconstruct the experience
afterwards, asking participants to analyse the drama – the tensions,
the meanings, the
middle and end, for example.
November 2, 2002