In early June, I’m giving a talk to the Centre for Sustainability Leadership on futures thinking and techniques (for the Melbourne Fellowship Program). This post is an initial “idea dump” which I’ll revisit over the next month. It also picks up on some themes I’ve spotted in relevant literature, such as on “wicked”/”super-wicked” problems and systemic innovation.
My initial thinking regarding the type of talk I could give is either a practical talk outlining and “playing” with some techniques that have wide applicability, or a more intellectual talk addressing futures thinking and analysis in sustainability fields and related domains. The latter is increasingly of concern (and interests me), particularly the contemporary resurgence in catastrophist and deterministic thinking. In the end the talk will probably be a hybrid of the two. The talk could also seek to challenge program participants to think about how they tend to think about the future. (One interesting categorisation of ways of thinking about the future is: extrapolators, pattern analysts, goal analysts, counter-punchers, and intuitors).
An overarching theme that comes to mind is “mental models”. This concept is particularly evident in the “Shell school” of scenario planning, but is also central to the thinking of system modellers like Donella Meadows. Meadows defined a mental model (and models in general) as “any set of generalisations or assumptions about the world”. In the case of mental models they are the assumptions in our head. Literature on scenario planning addresses the core aims of revealing mental models and changing shared mental models (e.g. of a management team).
The issue of shared mental models is raised by Meadows and Robinson in their book The Electronic Oracle: Computer Models and Social Decisions. They comment that “joint decisions require communication of mental models” (p.2); however, it is difficult to transfer these from one mind to another. They argue: “mental models are virtually unexaminable and uncriticizable” (p.6). This is where computer models of system dynamics are argued to be most beneficial.
A similar requirement of shared mental models is emerging with the increasing focus on collaborative innovation (e.g. here) and collaborative planning (e.g. here) for addressing sustainability issues. This is due to the ‘systemic’ nature of sustainability innovation in many domains. I would suggest that other tools are useful here, not just building computer models. Participatory scenario planning exercises, roadmapping processes, and other techniques like visioning and backcasting can help to reveal and change mental models. Ariel de Geus (then Head of Planning at Shell) wrote in Harvard Business Review: “In fact, the normal decision process in corporations is a learning process, because people change their own mental models and build up a joint model as they talk”.
This connects with the wider theme of developing critical awareness of our own assumptions and those of others. For this, futures thinking and analysis can be helpful. For example, the ‘plot’ of a narrative-based scenario often expresses the author(s) mental model.
Four additional key themes in futures literature can also be considered:
1) Reperception: Pierre Wack famously described scenario planning as “the gentle art of reperception”. Here, a common focus is breaking the mental habit of thinking the future will look much like the present. A related theme is reperceiving change. In some of the most impactful projects I’ve worked on people have shifted from avoiding change (e.g. due to associated anxieties) towards accepting it and seeing positive opportunities.
Here ‘sustainability leadership’ might involve explicitly addressing feared futures (e.g. fear in regional Australian communities such as in the Latrobe Valley about the impact of climate action on their communities) which can act as a barrier to change, to reperceive change and future opportunities. It also involves reflection on our own mental models and images of the future, to improve our decision-making.
2) Preparedness: Another key theme is complexity and the unpredictability of most, if not all, complex systems. This leads to a focus on preparing for futures that might happen, rather than only considering the future you’d like to create (as is common in policy and planning).
Similarly, leading Australian practitioner Oliver Freeman recently asserted that “by engaging with it [uncertainty] you can recognise the fact that you live in a world you don’t control. Although we still kid ourselves that we do control the future”. He argues: “most people, businesses and governments identify those areas they do have some control over and then focus their planning on these, but they forget about the rest of the other factors they can’t control.”
Here ‘sustainability leadership’ might involve championing resilience – such as by aiming to be ‘robust’ to the plausible futures that might happen. (For example, we’re starting to see this in climate adaptation). It also involves coming to terms with irreducible uncertainty and the openness of the future. Many futures practitioners advocate seeing uncertainty as a positive force, but that message tends to conflict with human psychology.
3) Generating and testing images of desired futures: in contrast with the above theme, others argue that futures research should instead have a choice-orientation that explicitly recognises the value-laden and theory-laden aspects of these practices. This aspect focuses on examining the feasibility of desired futures, and considering the relative desirability of different possible futures. As such this has a normative orientation, and focusses more on shaping the future (rather than forecasting). A related idea is examining scenarios in relation to a specific vision – i.e., whether plausible futures support the vision, or might militate against it. This theme is core to the French school, La Prospective, which aims to illuminate present choices (in light of possible futures) and lead to action to avoid dangers and arrive at the desired objective.
Here ‘sustainability leadership’ involves articulating possibilities (e.g. a personal vision) and evaluating future possibilities. The latter might involve stakeholder engagement processes engaging others on a vision or in order to understand whether it is attractive or, alternatively, barriers to wider engagement and how it might be achieved (i.e. the feasibility). This sort of work was central to my involvement with Melbourne City Council’s Future Melbourne project.
4) Better choices and decision-making: A general, overarching theme in much foresight literature is improving decision-making processes and, linked with this, assisting decision-makers to more effectively cope with uncertainty. Decision-making can be improved by considering the potential effects of different choices (this approach is core to most technology assessment) and feeding the reflections and learning into decision-making processes. Decision-making might also be improved by explicitly recognising that, whilst the actions we often take actions require knowledge of the future, they often must be made under a discomforting ignorance.
Applied forward reasoning is an interesting emerging theme in the literature on applied social research for tackling complex social and environmental problems. For example, climate policy experts (see this paper on “super-wicked” environmental problems) argue against probabilistic prediction in the social sciences, and instead suggest identifying and examining the causal logics of potential interventions: “reason forward to how the problem and interventions might unfold over time” (i.e. towards preferred outcomes, or towards other outcomes). Change agents could similarly employ this applied forward reasoning.
Some scholars have suggested new conceptualisations of scenarios for use in informing climate-related decisions. For example, Robert Lempert from RAND Corporation argues scenarios should be used to illuminate the vulnerabilities of proposed policies, by considering and presenting plausible futures in which the policy would fail to meet its goals. The aim is to identify policies that are robust over a wide range of future conditions.
Here ‘sustainability leadership’ involves adopting and development new forms of futures thinking and research that might result in ‘better’ choices – which is often defined as more ‘robust’ – and inform the design of strategic interventions. It could also mean championing new forms of technology assessment. More broadly, applied forward reasoning (generally, and aided by relevant tools) provides a way of evaluating different options that are under consideration.
Philosophical and methodological reflections
Meadows and Robinson in The Electronic Oracle: Computer Models and Social Decisions comment that many people embrace futures research or systems modelling in the hope of becoming oracles. However, these adopting these practices actually tends to push them to come to terms with uncertainty and, instead, become a sage who better recognises the discomforting ignorance under which decisions generally must be taken, focuses more on shaping (rather than on predicting) futures, and questions conventional wisdom. Meadows and Robinson called for modellers to develop more humility and argued the “computer is not and never will be a reliable oracle”.
I thought of their reflections whilst pondering the often deterministic projections and visions of environmental scientists and activists. I’d like to see emerging leaders in sustainability fields champion and express new ways of thinking capable of incorporating ambiguity and irreducible uncertainty, and forms of action that don’t use future projections as a ‘fig leaf’ hiding normative assumptions and choices. Of course politicians tend to do the same!
A final theme is the evolution of futures methods for use when facing “wicked” problems and deeply uncertain future conditions. Perhaps a call should be made for emerging leaders in sustainability fields to help pioneer and clarify the effective use of futures methods in these contexts.