1. Good to keep the discussion going. The APF spent a day on professionalization alongside the World Future Society conference a few weeks ago. For me, the key insight of the day came fro Peter Bishop in a panel discussion in which he shared his key learning from doing the research in support of his white paper on professionalization was “how much we [professional futurists] actually agree on.” He suggested that there is a great deal of consensus on core concepts in the field and the disagreement — which we tend to focus on — is on the margins.

    It was a reframing moment for me, and I think for others. We’ve assumed [re: “I’ve heard that the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) can’t agree on much…..”] that there is is much more disagreement than there really is.
    — Andy Hines

  2. Stephen McGrail

    Very interesting! I’d love to read Bishop’s white paper, if possible? My email address is stephen.mcgrail@gmail.com if you can email it.

    During my PhD research I’ve reached the opposite conclusion. Everything appears contested, with little agreement on the definition of key terms, use of methods, underpinning epistemology, and purpose. Many observers point to methodological chaos (e.g. regarding scenarios), a “mish-mash of sometimes contradictory epistemological views” (Wendell Bell’s assessment), and so on. As you’ve also noted, it’s amazing how different people can look at the same or similar data and come up with very different conclusions.

    As I said in my blog post I’m open to hearing, and would like to explore, different perspectives. Hence, I’d love to read Bishop’s analysis if possible. Stephen.

  3. Thanks Stephen, I appreciated these reflections on Friday’s event. As a member of the group organising the COP initiative, I think the overall motivation for this is along similar lines to your preference: “a practitioner-oriented group was established around the use of particular forward-looking methods of inquiry.” Chris very kindly agreed to take the conversation lead due to Maree Conway having to cancel Friday morning, and in the course of things the differentiation between the Centre for Australian Foresight’s focus and that of the COP possibly became a little blurred. That said, I’m largely in agreement with you even in the broader context of what we’re doing with the CfAF–our focus there is really on making forward looking methods of inquiry practically useful and effective in a broader range of organisational and social contexts, rather than on professionalisation per se. I think in referring to “industry building”, this is really closer to building a wider appreciation and constituency for high quality forward-looking inquiry (and if I’ve understood correctly, your PhD work is related to the question of what “high quality” might mean in this context), than it is to making foresight practice the professional equivalent of engineering, accountancy or legal practice. I should add, though, that my own views on “high quality” very much entail bringing theoretical and conceptual rigour to the forms of inquiry that are typically gathered under the foresight banner. Following Checkland’s approach with Soft Systems Methodology as a rigorous form of action research, I tend to be guided here by the criterion of “recoverability” (the ability for others who didn’t participate directly in the work to recover the means by which the outcomes arose) rather than the natural sciences’ gold standard of repeatability–this presents some interesting questions around the issue of empirical validation.
    Josh Floyd

  4. Stephen McGrail

    Gday Josh, thanks for commenting! I appreciate both the tone and the content of your response, and I’m pleased to read this re: the COP initiative. The broader issue I’m pointing to is the merits (or otherwise) of gathering various forms inquiry “under the foresight banner” and promoting “foresight practice”. I’m no longer convinced this is the right road to go down, but I recognise this is unlikely to be a popular argument in the context of CfAF and important uncertainties folk are discussing (e.g. the future of the Swinburne course).

    My PhD research continues to evolve, but it’s taking shape around my collaboration with an innovative consultancy (Reos Partners, see http://reospartners.com/). In essence, I’m examining the use of scenarios and new forms of scenario planning as a ‘sustainability intervention’ — both how they are being used (e.g. as part of a “soft” intervention, such as a dialogue/change process) and examining the impacts of these activities.

    My consideration of evaluation and related rigour/quality issues has emerged in the context of this research focus. E.g. How do practitioners assess the impacts of scenarios and/or scenario planning interventions? Can the impacts be rigorously assessed? (Many argue they cannot, some argue they can and should be). What sort of impacts are the most important to monitor (or aim for), and why? What theory can inform this assessment?

    In terms of broader sustainability frameworks, I’m presently looking at ‘reflexive governance for sustainable development’ (http://www.e-elgar.co.uk/bookentry_main.lasso?id=3982).

    Regarding empirical validation issues I agree with you. It is also worth noting that the same issues also confront all modelling activities (e.g. climate models, “world” models – e.g. re: the limits to growth study, assessments of carrying capacity, etc). This links with what a ‘scenario’ is understood to be and to mean — a form of testable knowledge production, or something different.


  5. For me there are two diffferent but overlapping issues. One is the person – the futurist – just what is it that constitutes such a person, and in particular what constitutes a professional version of such a person. Is a professional futurist like a professional accountant in the sense that everyone has to be an accountant, but if you want to take your money seriously you are better placed to seek a professional? Or is a professional futurist something outside the scope of ‘ordinary people’?

    And this second possibility brings to mind the other issue we seem to be discussing – the process (what Josh calls “high quality forward-looking inquiry ” above. Is this something to which anyone can (or should) aspire, or is it an esoteric art?

    Stephen seems to think that such a process is accessible to many, others think it is doing this “high quality forward-looking inquiry” which distinguishes professional futurists from others. If it is the latter, then we have quite some work to do internally because while there is almost universal internal agreement that “high quality forward-looking inquiry” is important, there is little agreement on just what this means in practice.

  6. Stephen McGrail

    Hi Charles

    Thanks for reading and contributing your thoughts. The accountant-futurist analogy perhaps holds in the way you suggest, in that everyone thinks about possible futures and takes these futures into account in more or less sophisticated ways when they act (just like everyone does at least basic accounting) and – perhaps – there is a role for a more competent professional to help them to do this better. Where it breaks down is there is much more agreement amongst accountants about what they do than futurists (similarly as you suggest in your comment), although like all professions it evolves and there are disagreements.

    The simplest possible definition of a “professional futurist” is probably someone who gets paid by others for their perceived competence in producing ideas about the future. However, beyond this, I doubt there ever will be a strong consensus on methods, who is ‘in’ and ‘out’, credentials (e.g. necessary qualifications), etc.

    I tend to lean towards the “esoteric art” position – and I can’t see it ever being a science – and this is one reason why I try to steer well clear of the futurist label. That’s not to say forward-looking inquiry isn’t useful; I just don’t see it as a unique profession. It’s incorporated into a range of things that people do (e.g. various forms of planning, innovation, etc) and into various forms of inquiry in a wide range of existing fields.


  7. Maree Conway

    I’m catching up on this late – as Josh indicated, I didn’t get to attend the event. I see value in people doing similar sorts of work coming together occasionally to talk about their work, or craft, or art. That’s one thing.

    Professionalising is another, and that’s always fraught. I spent about 10 years with another professional association trying to ‘professionalise’ and my Masters thesis was on this association and its professionalisation process. The biggest challenge I encountered was that people revert back to the historical definition of a profession, and make comparisons with accounting and the like. Standardisation, for example, in my view, should never be a hallmark of futures work. Totally different context and totally different activity – one is numbers, tangible and finite, the other is about thinking, intangible and endlessly variable. But that’s where we always end up.

    I’ve offered to write something for the APF on ‘beyond professionalisation’ because I think we get stuck in conversations about what is a profession, when the question is, I think (because I’m still thinking about it) is something along the lines of what value do ‘trained’ foresight pracitioners offer that anyone else who uses the labels futures/futurist don’t? What makes them unique?

    Conversations around those sorts of issues would be useful right now – not that the topic is new, it’s been around for eons. Nailing that, however, would help those who don’t see it as a distraction.

    And the CFAF connection – it’s always easier to run events like this where individuals are the primary audience and organisers if there’s an organisation willing to aspice the back room stuff – publicity, registration etc. That’s how I see the CFAF involved, nothing more.

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