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Questions and answers about futures studies. 
A chapter from Questioning the Future

I am too busy to think about the future!

There is no question that thinking about the future takes away time from other activities. However, the current present was once a future, and was either created from planned activities, or from things that you wanted to do but never got around to, because you were too busy. The default future.  

Also, unless you think about the future, someone else who makes time for the future will, if not control, then certainly define the future for you.

Just tell me then the strategic aspects of the future I need to know—which parts of my company are likely to grow. Where the opportunities are and what events or trends I should watch out for.

This is not too difficult to do. However, you are asking for someone to predict the future for you. Sometimes one can be correct in getting a single-point forecast right. But there are so many factors that could impinge upon the forecast. It is wiser to develop alternative scenarios about the future or map the future based on the likely trajectory of trends.

Each scenario should be driven by a different factor. Technology. Demographics. Economic cycles. Changing consumer expectations. And it is important to have a contingency scenario that describes a dramatic system collapse. That is, where everything goes back to zero, where we all have to relearn everything.

But can't we reasonably say something about the future?

Of course, this does not mean we shouldn't discern trends that are creating the future. But it is important to see trends not as fixed structures but as directional, as changeable. Certainly, we can make an entire range of sensible statements about the future. We know that the population in OECD nations is dramatically ageing, that the worker/retiree ratio is going from 3 to 1 to 1.5 to 1. Globalization, the Internet, Multiculturalism, democratization are all forces that will change the future. However, what these trends mean, what counter trends might emerge, how events might impact them, and how long they will take to actualize is far more difficult, and important, to ascertain.

For example, recently a colleague asked whether anyone had accurately predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall. While there were a few macrohistorians who got it pretty much right (using the hypothesis that totalitarian systems are more likely to explode while democratic systems change more slowly), the question can be framed differently. It could be: what are the Berlin walls in our life, in the world, in our organizations that need to be broken down? One approach leads to prediction, the other to questioning.

Returning to the issue of prediction, we can actually say a great deal about the short-term future—what you might call the known future (technologies under development, government policies to be enacted). However, and this is crucial, the future cannot be precisely predicted. The universe is not closed but open. One's image of the future and the resultant actions (not to mention the collective unconscious) influence the future that will be.

In this sense, the role of anticipatory action learning is not so much to figure out the exact future to but to work with the client to determine unconscious and conscious images of the future. It is moving even beyond scenario planning to actually creating an action learning (and healing) organization.

Yes, but are there certain methods that can help me in my need for strategic thinking?

The best way to think about this is the s-curve. Most of our planning efforts focus on current problems, the end of the s-curve. Trend analysis is a bit better as it is concerned with the middle part, where there is some data. Figuring out the trends that might impact your work, community, life allows one some lead-time. It also gives one time to consider opportunities that may have not been there before.

But perhaps the most exciting method is emerging issues analysis. These are issues that are unlikely to occur but if they do could have dramatic, often dire, consequences. New technologies, dramatic changes in population flows, revolutions are some examples of these. They also force us to rethink the present. Indeed, the best use of the future is as a vehicle to question the present. Utopian studies have rarely been about the future but rather about the peculiar nature of the present.

When I worked for the courts many years ago, we identified issues that would dramatically change caseload, the business of the courts, or how courts resolved conflicts (computer judges, neighborhood justice centers, culturally appropriate dispute resolution). This allowed the courts to better meet the changing needs of citizens. It was also a lot of fun and played an important educational role in training young administrators and judges. They saw that their role was not just to be efficient, effective and economical but also to challenge the basic assumptions of what courts do.

Sounds like a lot of work.

In the beginning it is. One strategy is to outsource to a futures scanning firm. They scan the environment and look for trends and issues that might influence your organization.

Another tack is always to be looking for the new idea, the alternative approach to something, the outlier, the event or trend that does quite make sense. This is more than thinking differently, it is being different. I remember one colleague—Jordi Serra—who said: you can't just search for emerging issues, you have to become an emerging issue.

But at a deeper level, it is scary since the ground of what one is doing is questioned. Of course, paralysis by critique is a grave danger, and thus, it is important to engage in a pilot project to test one's hypothesis, insights about the future. For example, in the courts this was about setting up an alternative dispute mediation system to test if citizens wanted less formal adjudication.

Isn't there safety in following the pack?

This is true and not true. Certainly, nations like Japan and later Taiwan have risen in the world economy by copying. But there is a certain point where such a strategy won't get you anywhere except middle-income status. You have to move up the value-added chain. This is true for business, and for one's own life as well.

A study found that corporations that have lasted over one hundred years all had one shared variable: tolerance for ideas from the edge. Clearly, this is not about copying, but about leading.

What is the role of action learning in futures thinking?

First, while forecasting the future gives one information about the future, it does not provide the context of the future. This comes through action learning where the entire process is created by those involved in the process.

So, the notion of the future, of strategy, is created by the partners in the process.

Futures thinking transforms action learning by injecting an anticipatory notion. Action learning is no longer just about the questioning the product or the process or the factors of production but about questioning the future. It is asking:

Whose future is being created?

Is the future being lived explicit or implicit?

How can the future become more explicit?

How can questioning the future lead to shared futures?


For the consultant, this means asking the client what metaphors her or his organization uses to think about the future.

I am still confused about strategy and futures.

While being strategic has its rewards, strategy remains means-end focused. It does not include different ways individuals know the world—through authority, intuition, reason, empiricism and even love. Strategy is useful in a world that is flat, where difference is minimized.

But when there is a great deal of difference—of cultures, languages, perspectives—then strategy is far more difficult. A post-strategic approach is needed. This means using forecasting and scenarios but trying to move beyond rational planning to develop an evolutionary-organic feel of the future. This is partly about one's gut feeling but also about having an inner guidance system as to which future one might want. My own futures approach is precisely the organic unfolding of the future. The future grows out from within in the context of a changing external environment.

This means seeing the future not just in terms of expanding our horizon, having more and different types of data and information but moving to a knowledge framework where there is depth.

This means seeing the future in terms of levels of the future. Strategy is generally short term oriented as it changes the most visible part of our worlds. Deeper levels accessible by metaphor and story are not so easily available to strategy. One has to enter different personal and cultural frames to begin to enter this deeper view of the future.

Why is difference so important?

By understanding difference we can understand others' needs better. We can make better products, better design. Having a diversity of representation allows for difference. Difference can lead to synergies unexpected outcomes. Indeed, even misunderstandings can lead to positive outcomes.

Difference can also create unexpected futures.

And unexpected headaches!

The other part of the futures toolbox that is useful is creating a shared vision. Emerging issues, scenario planning, ways of knowing and depth approaches to the future create a diversity of information. This enriches the planning context. However, the other crucial dimension of planning for the future is created shared spaces.

To do this, engaging in a visioning process is crucial. The vision has to be detailed, though. Not just motherhood statements that all can agree to. Specific statements about how you want the future to be like. You wake up in the morning, say 2010, what does the world look like. Are you working? What is your income level? Are you married? Is there still marriage? Is there still work? What technologies are you using to communicate with others? Is communication important? Is there even a you (the modern notion of an integrated autonomous self)?

If one engages in this process with a group of people, it is likely that a shared vision can result.

This shared vision can remove many organizational headaches.

So there are different types of planning for the future?

At least four: the first is concerned with the mission of the organization. This is about being clear on the core business and identity of the organization. The second is the social, technological and environmental context. This means constantly being on the lookout for how the future is changing. The third is problem-oriented planning. Questioning is the most useful at this level as one questions current problems, finds new problems and discovers innovative solutions. The fourth is the vision of the organization, where is the organization headed toward, how will the basic mission, the identity change as the future changes.

There is a fifth, though that is not often mentioned in the literature. The fifth is the organic evolutionary future, which emerges from a mixture of data about the world, gut feelings about what to do next, individual ethics and dialogue with others (self, nature, colleagues, customers, and the mysterious beyond). Sensitivity to changing conditions, inner and outer, is far more important than the plan.

What are the usual approaches to the future?

The first approach is determining the probable future. That is, given economic, technological, consumer, demographic trends, how will the world (or nation, community, organization) look in a few years. Of course, as you go further out in time things get a bit hazier (unless you believe the universe is foundationally patterned and a science of forecasting is possible).

The second approach is focused on possible futures. The full range of what can happen—all the alternatives.

The third approach is the preferred. What do we want the future to be like? There is usually quite a marked difference between the preferred for oneself and for the world. Most studies show that we expect our own futures to be good and the world's futures to be quickly going to hell.

The fourth approach is the gut level/intuitive future. This is the organic future that emerges from our life choices, our patterns of behavior, our expectation of others, our deep-set beliefs and worldview. It is our karmic future to some extent. For some this means trusting that there is a divine pattern guiding them, for others this means that the universe is intelligent, for others that the Gods favor (or disfavor) them, and for still others, it means leading a good moral life.

The future in this latter approach is a process of learning about self, family, community and world. It is a co-evolutionary pattern. Essentially it is about having a deep sensitivity toward the world.

What use is futures planning to a typical manager, consultant?

If one is a consultant—providing knowledge solutions to government, community and business—then futures can add to your toolbox. Scenario planning can help an organization determine the effectiveness of current decisions.

Futures thinking can also help determine what trends are creating the future university. How, for example, how new technologies, corporatization (the end of monopoly accreditation by the Academy), multicultural content and virtualization are transforming the University. This can assist in determining what niche markets are possible.

In general, futures thinking provides new types of insight as to what the world might be like, what the dominant images of the future are, and how to create alternative futures.

How does this relate to the famous axiom, Learning = questioning + programmed knowledge?

What is often forgotten is that in most of our questions there are assumptions about reality, about culture, about the right way to do things. So, we need to question the cultural basis of our questions, seeing them not as universal but as problematic as well. That is, our questions are actually congealed knowledge. Thus questioning has to be questioned.

The same goes with programmed knowledge. Programmed knowledge is actually answered questions.

So questioning and programmed knowledge are subsets of each other. Look for the hidden content in questioning and the answered and un-asked questions in programmed knowledge.

If we can do that, we can really create alternative futures.

What of ways of knowing and learning?

Learning, then, is questioning plus programmed knowledge plus ways of knowing. Without challenging the epistemic content of the questions asked and programmed knowledge, only instrumental changes will result. Ways of knowing move us into areas where we don’t know what we don’t know.

I am still too busy to think about the future, especially since I don’t know what I don’t know.

You are already going toward a future. The question is: Is that the future you want? How do you know? If yes, wonderful, how can you be more explicit about your vision? If no, then how can you change your direction?

Remember: there is the pull of the future (the vision, the image) and the push to the future (technology, demographics, changing economic ideologies). There is also structure—that which is difficult to change. These are worldviews, patterns of behavior, dominator relationships. One can spend all one's life fighting them or create a new vision and focus on living that.

The exciting part of anticipatory action learning is that the future is co-created. There is certainly some programmed knowledge involved in questioning the future. There is data on trends, information on scenarios, knowledge of different types of futures approaches, methods and hopefully some wisdom on when it is appropriate to use which method, to focus on which trend. But the questioning part makes the future real instead of a one-way lecture about the future. As with other professions, expertise can be a gift and a danger. Action learning means a back and forth reflection on probable and preferred futures. It means asking questions of the scenarios we desire to happen and the scenarios we believe are probable. Why this scenario, we can ask? What will the impact of x scenario be on a strategic plan, a product line, a marketing campaign?

Being too busy now means huge costs later. Remember that in 1985 Charlie Schnabolk developed four scenarios for the World Trade Center: (1) Predictable—bomb threats; (2) Probable—bombing attempts, computer crime; (3) Hostage Taking; and (4) Catastrophic—aerial bombing, chemical agents in water supply or air conditioning.

And when asked in 2000 what the greatest terrorist threat to the WTC was, he responded: “Someone flying a plane into the building.”

Well, why didn't they listen?

Accurate forecasting is one issue but implementation is another. For that, the planner/futurist has to work with the organization in question, finding ways to not just get the future right but ensure that those that can do something about the future are involved. That they have an interest in the future, that they have something to say as well. If they remain simply consumers of information, then the chance of implementation decreases dramatically.

Then a conversation about the future is most appropriate?

A conversation enhances programmed knowledge—it deepens it, brings in alternatives. A conversation—especially a layered conversation that explores not just the words being uttered but the meanings they represent to each participant and the structures of knowledge that create the categories of intelligibility—can be foundational in creating a more satisfying future.  
Otherwise, what is learned is simply one expert's view of the future, with all its natural limitations.  

So back to you: Why is questioning the future important?

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