Mapping Futures Studies and Risk Analysis, Management and Communication (2010)

Sohail Inayatullah

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

“I agree that it would be pleasant to walk on streets free of animal waste products. But can we be sure that the waste products of the automobile will be an improvement?”
Herman Cohn, The Social and Political Consequences of the Internal Combustion Engine. 1916.

Clearly no technology, social or material, spiritual or of this world, is without risk. Even though the Hare Krishna claim that they provide “After Life Insurance”, we cannot know until the time comes. And then it may be too late to transform. As the Buddha said on whether there was life after death, “First die, then see”. Of course, cryogenics and life extension from genetic engineering changes risk assessment.

Risk and Futures

This presentation will link approaches to risk with approaches to the study of the future. It concludes with comments on contending images of the future, and the risks associated with each.

To begin with, risk is central to thinking about the future; it is implicit in any statement about the future, however banal. This is especially so for risk defined as probability, i.e., what will happen – what is known as futuribles – the study of probablistics.

But it is also true for risk defined as consequences, what will happen if x occurs – that is, impact analysis.

But perhaps futures studies is best known for the warnings it gives – whether this is the Club of Rome’s classic Limits to Growth, Ravi Batra’s forecasts of economic depressions, or Alvin Toffler’s forecasts of the breakdown of industrial society – the ‘Second Wave’. These warnings are not just confined to the socio-economic but hark back to warnings and prophecies of the physical world as well. For example, writes Bill McGuire in A Guide to the End of the World, there are numerous dangers ahead of us. These include giant tsunamis, asteroid collisions (a 1km asteroid will cause a cosmic winter and kill a billion people), great quakes, volcanic super eruption (part of earth’s natural cycle) and global warming (which would mean some 5 billion people would be without adequate drinking water, and the death of the Great Barrier Reef by 2050 ). It is intriguing that vulcanologists die at the rate of almost one a year, peering into volcanoes.

Types of Futures Studies

Of course, futures studies is not just about prediction. However, that is clearly one dimension of it, and unfortunately, the dimension most well known.

This essentially assumes that:

  • The future can be predicted.
  • The universe is a closed system.
  • Current trends are generally problematic to change.
  • And that essentially, the issue is to better manage and thus control the future.

The real issue is the accuracy and precision of the prediction; less dominant is the validity of the assumptions upon which the predictions are based , or the reasons that those issues are the subject of predictions – that is, the issue of relevance.

In this mode of the future, risk is to be consumed. Risk becomes associated with fear.

The issue becomes how to understand the many codes of fear coming at us. Who to believe? Who to trust? And certainly, as pointed out by Paul Slovic, the experts and the ‘public’ disagree on these things. Experts rate the car the most dangerous and the people nuclear power plants. This of course raises the issue of risk communication and the worldview in which we enter conversations on the future.

Thus, predictions should not be seen outside the context of who makes them, when they are made, whom they are made to, why they are made, and the institutional relationships in which they are rendered intelligible.

Indeed, remembering Kafka, risk and fear and their future essentially force us into a postmodern burrow. As Mike Shapiro argues, our consciousness can be more of an enemy rather than an ally. We are no longer sure which forecasts can help us maneuver in this world, which forecasts will hurt our chances. Like the creature who digs a burrow to avoid a predator but who over time can no longer distinguish which sounds are simply its own digging and which the sounds of the predator, we can become lost. The problem of intelligibility does not go away.

But we are soothed by the media: fear is a big business. The fear of fat (fat as a risk criteria for heath disease and cancer) and now the fear of being stupid (with the rise of the smart state, the smart economy and smart nutraceuticals) makes fear essentially the way we know the world.

We thus need to move away from the surface of prediction to an analysis of meanings.

In this sense, a second dimension of futures studies is less an attempt to forecast the future and more an ethnographic understanding of the image of the future. What is desired? Does the way we imagine the future vary according to our gender or culture?

Perhaps such an approach is spreading risk, a means by which the future is not seen in univocal terms but rather as segmented. We live in different worlds and imagine different futures. We cannot know what is true, real and beautiful – and as genetics, postmodernism, multicultural, globalization, virtualism, feminism challenge these essentials, we are less sure of what we know and even what we don’t know (see Table 1). But we can inquire into difference and, understanding how the many see the future, we can move toward a map of what will be and what can be.

The future is thus less of a managerial predictive enterprise and more of a humanist one, searching for the good society, the eutopia, developing the social capacity for civilizational innovation. Using the future to transform today as opposed to using the future to reduce risk and thus gain strategic and competitive advantage.

This moves us to the third approach to the study of the future. This is the critical. In this approach, the future is contested, its categories made problematic. The future is seen in historical terms, as the victory of one way of seeing the world over others. The future that is hegemonic does need to be so. Forecasts are questioned, not for accuracy, but for validity. Why is nation-state risk assessment required, what is it about our world that we need to know which nations are ‘risky’. Isn’t the issue the transformation of the nation-state itself?

Scenarios, for example, are not constructed to be more robust or flexible but they are of use because they distance us from the present. The present is seen as impossible to change. By moving forward and backward in time, the present can be made problematic, remarkable, open to transformation, constructed by particular frameworks and choices.

The notion of choice brings us to the fourth approach: anticipatory action learning. The way to reduce risk is to create desired futures. This is done not in the bravado of or Enron but in the slow and deliberative action of community consultation, of engaging others in how they see the world, what is of importance to them. The details of a scenario, often categorised into society, technology, economy, environment and politics (STEEP) are not assumed, rather the y–axis is developed by those creating the future. They contour within their own categories. The future is not given but made.

The future is created through doing. Mistakes in forecasts are not seen as disasters but as feedback loops. Learning develops by being sensitive and responsive to initial and future conditions – what we discover from complexity and chaos.

Essentially this is a plea for participation and a recognition that common sense is necessary for understanding the future. Experts are needed but they should be contextualized in the worldview they arrive in. All knowledge is, if not biased, then textured. However, this texture is not to be controlled for (as in the predictive), or made distant (as in the critical), but, like the interpretive, to be used to create a better future – texture is a necessary ingredient.

While this is a philosophical typology, it relates as well to the more practical task of how should one engage in thinking about the future.

From Forecasting to Depth

Single Point Forecasting:
As mentioned earlier, forecasting intends to get it right. The future is feared and thus the forecast must be accurate. Vertical organizations tend to use this approach.

And, of course, one may get it right from time to time, but over the long run, this is impossible, since human agency is an ingredient. Our forecasts should assume agency; that is, humans act to avoid certain futures and work diligently to create desired ones.

Alternative Futures

Since single point forecasting may not reduce risk, scenario planning has become the latest corporate flavour. Scenarios reduce uncertainty by clarifying alternatives, by clarifying assumptions, by clarifying probabilities. By describing alternative worlds, risk can be reduced. However, more often than not, corporations tend to desire scenarios that only differ marginally from ‘business as usual’. Alternatives are generally considered a waste of time.

However, one can develop scenarios and use them to test strategies, and, for example, use the strategy that is the most robust, that occurs as preferred or logical in each scenario.

The Australian Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Association (APMA) and the Insurers Manufacturing Association (IMA) have both used this approach. It can also be used for contingency planning or for developing divergence. As well, IMA has used it to develop products. Within each scenario, products can be teased out. These can then be tested in the market place.

However, merely having scenarios is not enough. In the APMA project, while the scenarios were presented to the government agency spearheading Australia’s role in developing the pharmaceutical industry, they were not seen as useful, since they provided alternatives while the Ministry responsible desired specific realizable results. The goals of the scenario project were to anticipate futures and prepare for unknown worlds and to use scenarios to become more adaptable. The government vision was that of developing a series of shared goals so that implementation could be made easier. Clearly this lack of shared methodology and final goal was crucial in the scenarios not being really used.

There are other crucial issues as well. In 1985, Charlie Schnabolk developed four scenarios for the risk associated with the World Trade Center:

(1) Predictable – bomb threats;
(2) Probable – bombing attempts, computer crime;
(3) Possible – hostage taking; and
(4) Catastrophic – aerial bombing, chemical agents in water supply or air-conditioning.

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

The issue, then, is not just the development of scenarios, but how well they are communicated and how well understood.

Depth analysis

What scenarios also miss is the levels of analysis. Scenarios are excellent in reducing and mapping risk, and in extending breadth, but they miss depth.

For example, one could develop scenarios of the futures of quality and safety in health care. At a litany or superficial level, one can develop criteria for different types of medical experts who are more likely to commit mistakes. One can, however, go deeper and focus on the systemic issues; that is, move to the actor-invariant level. Does the system design lead to loss of life, resulting in a medical system that is the third biggest cause of death? Is it the long hours, or lack of communication between personnel the crucial variable that leads to risks?

We can also go to a deeper level and begin to question not just the person or the system but the worldview underneath the enterprise – in what ways is allopathy itself the problem?. How does the vertical relations embedded in allopathy, with doctors unwilling to listen (they are the experts), create conditions that lead to increased patient risk? One can then examine quality and safety in other worldviews: alternative medicine, Chinese, or homeopathic, for example. But it would be a mistake to leave it at that. Risk reduction requires a conversation of worldviews, of questioning each worldview in the light of the others. Allopathy asking tough questions of homeopathy, and Chinese of Western. Bringing in divergence allows difference to create safety and health. Difference reduces risk by acknowledging the other, by seeing that each system has areas that it does not know, indeed, areas that it does not even know it does not know.

It is these assumptions that must be challenged.

For example, take Cisco. Cisco developed a brilliant real-time forecasting method. Ram Charan and Jerry Useem in their article for the May issue of Fortune magazine, ”Why companies fail” write:

Cisco, more than any other company, was supposed to be able to see into the future. The basis of this belief was the much vaunted IT system that enabled Cisco managers to track supply and demand in ‘real time’, allowing them to make pinpoint forecasts. This technology, by all accounts, worked great. The forecasts, however, did not. Cisco’s managers, it turned out, never bothered to model what would happen if a key assumption – growth – disappeared from the equation. (p. 50)

Even when things were looking bad, CEO John Chambers was still projecting 50% growth. He said: “I have never been more optimistic about the future of our industry as a whole or of Cisco”(ibid.).

Growth as a factor was not challenged because the deepest level of reality is unconscious and unavailable to us. Fish cannot see water and we cannot see the story we are living.
Stories and competing visions of the future
To see the story, either we need to move to other planets (and thus develop true comparative sociology and macrohistory) or we need to travel to the future, and thus imagine societies and worlds different from today. However, this is not science fiction as currently constituted. Current science fiction merely extrapolates the technological and the economic and thus imagines the Global-cyber world.

Social movements express what that story hides. They imagine a world of sustainability and sharing, planetary consciousness and spirituality. Each in effect becomes a mirror of the other. Of course, there are truly competing visions of the future, coming out in education (global-cyber versus green gender multicultural partnershp) or in transport (telecommuting versus public zero-emissions transport) or in governance (cyber anticipatory democracy or social movements and world governance) or in time (hyper and real time versus slow and spiritual time) and as foundational myths (Spaceship Earth versus Gaia). These images pull us to the future, much as trends such as ageing, genomics, multiculturalism, and ozone layer depletion push us to the future. As well, the weight of history arrests the possibility of system transformation.

Realist, Spaceship and Gaian Images of the Future

What does not compete, but what dominates remains the reality; that is, the nation-state oriented, strategic focused, male based, profit as bottom line world. It is, the Bush-Howard view of the future, where risk is collectively managed but the depth questions are not entered.

When alternative worlds are offered, they are seen as utopian (meaning unrealistic). But, if we take a critical and a depth view, every reality was once a utopia, an imagined world. And every utopia has a dark side, a dystopia. Of course, writes Ivana Milojeivc, having a dystopia is part of making a utopia real. Once both are present then the image has begun to gain credibility, credence. It has the possibility of supplanting the dominant vision of the future.

But returning to the main point, the foundational story is not accessible to those living it. They are in greatest risk if reality does change. This risk is not just financial but existential. Those who lived in former socialism, and believed in notions of quality, international brother- and sister-hood, and safe pensions, now live in emotional tatters. They have no image of the future. Their past has been denounced. Capitalism is a ghost, spirituality a ruse. There is nothing in the past or future. Agency is impossible for them.

What this means is that if one desires to enter and engage in the understandings of risk, merely seeing the exercise as risk management or even risk communication is likely to be unsatisfactory. Certainly writers like Mark Slovic who explore worldviews and risk are, I believe, on the right track since risk in their model is constructed by people’s wordviews and practices.

As he writes: “Risk management decisions will finally be a matter not of mathematics, but of judgement”. This means taking account of scientific and social information and applying what Slovic calls “reasoned thinking”:
Using our human faculties to the best effect. Risk decision makers must continually attend to building trust with stakeholders. They need to demonstrate the care, thoughtfulness and fairness of their decisions. It will not be enough to demonstrate that a decision is ‘scientific’- it also has to be shown that all values were considered.

I would go a step further and assert that: Risk is not out there in the real world, it is created by our imaginations. We constitute risk by who we are. Far more than reasoned thinking is needed; indeed, post-rational depth analysis is required.

What then to do?

While there are no easy solutions, I would take the anticipatory action approach and question reality at all levels: Question the litany, question the system, question the worldview and find ways to question the foundational myth that supports the entire system.

When forecasting the futures of risk, I would do my best to move beyond single point forecasts to scenarios, but then go much further, unpacking the levels underneath scenarios. That said, there are patterns to reality.


One of the pillars of futures studies is macrohistory – the study of grand patterns of social change. Civilizations do have a linear trajectory – increased rights over the last 500 years or so, for example – but there are also cyclical dimensions. Driving a car is individually tailored; the opposite of course is the community, public transport. Perhaps we have erred on the side of the individual and earth’s limitations now call into question the realist Bush-Howard world we have created. There may be limits. Or there may be spiral solutions that bring out the best of each, perhaps creating boutique public transport wherein the public remains but is reinvented, where public transport is less drab, more tailored for communities. New technologies also may even dramatically further individualize the car, for example, by testing for alcohol, testosterone, the number of passengers (all risk criteria) and perhaps even genes. This further individualization may lead to safety for the public, turning cars off if risk factors are sensed.

In this sense, the grand question is: Do the new technologies promise a transformation of the world we have had for the last five hundred years? Can they transform the obvious risks industrializiation, materialism, the western way of life have generated? Or are the genetic, nano and other technologies mere continuations, now extending risk far beyond our capacity to imagine the futures being created, as with germ-line intervention and xeno-transplants.

Is then the solution the alternative softer Gaian society, organic, gender partnership, led by social movements, far more concerned with distribution than with growth, committed to community relationships and not necessarily to nation, but to planet. But we should not assume this Gaian future is risk free. As Michio Kaku argues, we need to move from Type 0 civilization (focused on using using non-renewable fossil fuels and nuclear energy) to a Type 1 civilization that uses the sun for energy, sending huge space ships to collect the vast resources of the sun, allowing us to modify the planet, weather, and begin to prepare our departure from this planet if need be (and eventually we will need somewhere else to live as our solar system will die one day). The soft Gaian future, focused on our inner lives and social justice is unlikely to have the capacity to save our species.

But the Bush-Howard model is clearly wrecking us and the Spaceship models poses more risks than we can imagine.

Perhaps it is time to imagine another vision of the future, moving toward but beyond the nation, or earth as spaceship or Gaia.

Shall we take the risk?

Table 1: Knowledge and Ignorance

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
  • Super-consciousness
  • 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



[1] Bill McGuire, A Guide to the End of the World: Everything you never wanted to know. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002.

[1] Sohail Inayatullah, Questioning the Future: Futures Studies, Action Learning and Organizational Transformation. Tamsui, Tamkang University Press, 2002.

[1] Paul Slovic and Elke Weber, “Perception of Risks Posed by extreme events.” Paper prepared for Conference, Risk Management Strategies in an Uncertain World. New York, April 12-13, 2002.)

[1] Michael Shapiro. , Reading the Postmodern Polity: Political Theory as Textual Practice. Oxford and Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

[1] Sohail Inayatullah, Questioning the Future, 118. From, Richard Reeves, “Mission Impossible: Securing Tall Buildings Against Terrorists.” The International Herald Tribune. (October 20-21, 2001), 6.

[1] Ram Charan and Jerry Useem, “Why companies fail,” Fortune (May 27, 47-58)

[1] Ivana Milojevic. The futures of Education: Feminist and Post-western critiques of the Global Cyber hegemonic vision of education. Brisbane, the University of Queensland, 2002. Doctoral Dissertation.


[1] Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah, eds. Macrohistory and Macrohistorians. Praeger, Westport, Ct., 1997.

[1] Sohail Inayatullah, Situating Sarkar: Tantra, Macrohistory and Alternative Futures. Maleny, Gurukul, 1999. Understanding Sarkar: The Indian Episteme, Macrohistory and Transformative Knowledge. Leidin, Brill, 2002.

[1] Michio Kaka, Visions. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.