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Teaching Futures Studies: From Strategy to Transformative Change 

Sohail Inayatullah

Professor, Tamkang University, Sunshine Coast University, Queensland University of Technology 


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.

My pedagogical 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 approaches.  

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.

1.       Macrohistory – the 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 of power?

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.

2.       Anticipation – 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 of macrohistory.  

3.       Alternatives – scenarios 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 innovation.

4.       Ways 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).

5.       Transformative 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 problems.

However, there 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:

1.       Strategic – 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 citizens.

2.       Educational – the 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.

3.       Capacity development – 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 their future.

4.       Memetic change – 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.

5.       Emergence – 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.

6.       Microvita change – 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 practice:

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?

Education is more traditional, about understanding theories and methods – the content of the field.

Capacity 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 needs.

Memetic change 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 meta-approach.

Emergence is 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.

Finally, 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

The third dimension of my futures pedagogy is focused on mapping the future. I use the following methods:

1.       The futures triangle.

2.       The futures landscape.

3.       Emerging issues analysis.

4.       Causal Layered Analysis.

5.       Scenarios.

6.       Visioning.

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).

The futures 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.

Emerging issues 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.

Causal layered 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 the future:

·         first, is seen as layered;

·         second, it is seen as complex;

·         third, can be entered through multiple spaces and;

·         fourth, is seen not as given but as constituted by various levels of reality.

Causal layered 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.

Scenarios also 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.  

Significantly, 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).

Taken together, 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:

(1) theoretically rigorous (satisfying the demands of the Academy);

(2) empowering (satisfying the demands of social movements);

(3) critical without being paralyzing (that is, productive pedagogies are created, deconstruction with 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 student.

Teaching futures 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.



KNOW                                                                                      DON’T KNOW

Type 1


What you know


  • Day to day given reality


  • Uncontested - Accepted


  • Forecasts – Data
Type 4


What you don’t know


  • Knowledge outside one’s field, locale, area of expertise
  • Study – emerging issues analysis
  • Learning from others
  • Being conscious


Type 2


What you know you know


  • Reflection


  • Science especially testing of hypothesis


  • High degree of certainty – Information
Type 5


What you don’t know you know


  • Unconscious Understanding


  • Superconsciousness


  • Intuitive Foresight


  • Wisdom



Type 3


What you know you don’t know


  • Scenarios are the most useful tool as they help contour uncertainty – frame areas of ignorance


  • Emerging issues analysis


  • Knowledge through questioning



Type 6


What you don’t know you don’t know


  • Only way to approach this is by entering other ways of knowing, moving outside comfortable paradigms


  • Epistemic futures


  • The Problem of Consciousness – Enemy, Friend or Transcendence



[i] 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. As well, Robertson as well has participants deconstruct the experience afterwards, asking participants to analyse the drama – the tensions, the meanings, the  beginning, middle and end, for example.  
[ii] Email, November 2, 2002
[iii] I am indebt to Hardin Tibbs for this concept and design.


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