On being, and becoming, more of a foresight skeptic

Skeptic: ‘a person who questions or doubts something (such as a claim or statement): a person who often questions or doubts things’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Over the past few weeks it’s slowly dawned on me that I’ve become more of a “foresight skeptic”. Although for some time I’ve thought the foresight term (e.g. “foresight practitioner”) is generally problematic, this is a new feeling of doubting some of the aspirations that inform fields like futures research, strategic foresight, and so on, and some of the practices that are used.

In this post I’d like to detail some of the reasons why my views have shifted, both as a marker of my current thinking (for later reflection) and, potentially, to stimulate responses from others.

Limited theorisation; tensions between theory and practice

As part of my doctoral research I’ve read papers questioning whether practices like scenario planning, visioning, and so on, have a sound theoretical basis. Slowly I’ve come to agree with many of these critiques.  Critics (e.g. Shipley) expose important tensions between theory and practice.

There is no shortage of ‘tools’ and approaches (e.g. inductive or deductive scenario-building processes, backcasting processes, including some recipe-type guides), but I have often found these to be lacking in practice. For example, existing scenario guidelines proved to be inadequate when developing scenarios of the Copenhagen global climate summit (held in 2009) and its potential implications for future global climate regimes. Tools and practices also need theory; currently this aspect – in most cases – is largely determined by the practitioner’s background and/or improvisations. Scenario development models typically do not provide explicit supporting and underpinning theory for developing robust forward views. The specifics of scenario construction processes are, furthermore, generally vague.

Although efforts to address this problem have grown over the past five or so years (e.g. by linking to larger paradigms like constructivism, or to particular social theories, and complexity theory) they remain partial. Angela Wilkinson (Counsellor for Strategic Foresight, OECD), and colleagues further argue that there remains a “lack of well-grounded theory” to explain what scenario-based techniques work, when, in what circumstances, and why – and what doesn’t, when, and why.

At the same time I think this problem been amplified by the trend to use future techniques in inter-organisational settings. Examples are the shifts from product/service roadmaps to producing them at the sectoral level (rather than by individual firms) and the increasing use of scenario planning in community contexts or public policy contexts (rather than in a single organisation).

I also think the recent issue of On the Horizon that responds to Richard Slaughter’s book The Biggest Wake-up Call in History is a “wake up call” to our nascent professional field. It includes no unique theory and scant discussion of the methodologies used for speculating about possible and preferred futures. Contributors draw on theory and research from various other fields when making assertions and posing questions about the future. (I have a paper in this issue, so I’m also criticising my own work!). In some ways this is simply a reflection of the inter-disciplinary nature of futures inquiry; in others ways I feel that much of the issue fails to make a significant contribution to the debates it comments on. For example sustainability scientists and human geographers have deeper insights about population-environment dynamics and the complex relationship between humans and the natural environment.

I’ve started to call this perspective the “doughnut” view of futures inquiry – to provocatively suggest that there remains a big hole (i.e. in terms of theory) in the middle of current practice.

Lack of evaluative studies and critical scrutiny of methods

Over the past year I’ve looked into the lack of evaluative studies of prospective exercises, becoming aware of the fact that evaluation – when conducted – tends to be anecdotal. As other scholars note supporting empirical evidence is rarely cited by those advocating particular methodologies.

The reasons for this are complex. However, as I’ve probed a little deeper during my PhD research I’ve noticed that it contributes to gaps in knowledge that are problematic for practitioners and other users of these techniques. For example, it problematic if you’re looking at real-world effects as part of efforts to judge if particular techniques or approaches are more or less effective (e.g. in contexts like organisational decision-making, change processes, etc) and to assess their relative merit and worth.

The broader situation – which some call “methodological chaos” – may be worsening because we simply don’t know “what works”, stimulating ongoing trial-and-error style experimentation.

Coming to terms with complexity

On the one hand complexity, and the behaviour of dynamic systems, informs arguments for new approaches to planning, futures inquiry, and management. What some have termed the ‘complexity turn’ has had important implications for many domains. Some scenario practitioners argue scenario-based approaches are grounded in recognition of the inherent indeterminism of complex systems, thus necessitating exploration of multiple possibilities. E.g. Consistent with this Angela Wilkinson and colleagues argue we should “hold the future not as a belief, but as a fiction.”

On the other hand, as Tim Harford has written in Adapt, a more complex world, with more complex problems, also can be seen to militate against those seeking to develop foresight.

Similarly, when asked if forecasting techniques are improving, Nate Silver stated: “as-a-whole not by a lot, maybe a little bit at a time. Technology gradually improves, and scientific knowledge becomes more complete, but it’s still very incomplete… And in some things, and in human endeavour, society becomes more complex so you might have better methods, arguably, and more data, but you’re also are running against a moving target when the system itself becomes more complicated.

Complexity science also suggests we should doubt some uses of scanning processes and early warning systems. Writing recently in the academic journal Foresight Averil Horton notes that complexity science has demonstrated that disruptive events (in complex systems) often don’t have earlier triggers, and he suggests people looking for “weak signals” may therefore be more likely to be caught unawares! ‘Foresight’ techniques may, instead, embrace “emergence” and the reality of unexpected disruptive events, but such dynamics make forward-looking assessments inherently problematic.

Cognitive barriers and related issues

Psychological sciences also provide a mixed picture for strategic foresight, futures research, etc. It points to the importance of mental models and need to address “cognitive inertia”. It suggests that imagining and considering scenarios can provide a useful basis motivating action by persuading folk of the plausibility of such futures, and this can also reduce overconfidence. However, it also suggests scenario-based exercises and related techniques can: exacerbate existing biases or create new ones; lead decision-makers to overestimate the likelihood of future events; and lead to maladaptive anticipatory actions. Drawing on a range of published studies Healey & Hodgkinson (2008, p.574) write: “contrary to popular wisdom, scenario analysis can narrow and confine as well as stretch thinking”.

Bradfield (2008) has done some important related research. He found that cognitive barriers can limit learning in scenario exercises, and individual cognitive and group behavioral factors are insufficiently considered. Bradfield observed – as I have too – that constructed scenarios tend to match the creators’ pre-existing belief systems and previous experiences, and surprising or extreme developments (so-called “out-of-the-box” thinking) get omitted. Cognitive science research indicates that the cognitive issues “are likely to be most prevalent when there is a multitude of inherently uncertain and complex situations and issues to consider as is generally the case in scenario work” (p.210). He adds:

“there are numerous cognitive factors at work in determining how people think, and therefore, stretching mental models and moving people beyond their business-as-usual thinking to create new insights about the changing world is a complex and difficult task… it should be recognized that overcoming the cognitive barriers discussed in this article requires a great deal of attention to the design of a scenario process, and the existing literature on scenarios provides little guidance of any substance in this area” (p.211)

I’ve grappled – often unsuccessfully – with the related ‘plausibility paradox’ (Healey & Hodgkinson, 2008). That is, scenarios must be considered plausible so that decision-makers meaningfully accept them and they, thereby, motivate change or inform action; however a highly plausible scenario is typically one that fits prior knowledge well and therefore is unlikely to challenge or, where necessary, transform existing mental models. This paradox is a key barrier to challenging status quo thinking.

Similarly, engaging more with uncertainty may not have the claimed benefits, such as improved decision-making capability. Potential pitfalls need to be considered, including perceived uncertainty leading to slower, rigid decision-making and heightened negative affectivity. The latter can trigger decision-avoidance and dysfunctional coping strategies (Healey & Hodgkinson, 2008).

The overall picture presented by such research is that practice is more complex than often presented.

There’s often more to the story than what’s told in “success stories”

Stories about Shell’s 1970s “oil shock” scenarios are a case in point. First, predictive success is celebrated when prediction is explicitly not the (stated) aim. Second, insider accounts show that Shell’s scenario planners often struggled to be heard and taken seriously – Pierre Wack himself remarked that scenarios that significantly challenged decision-maker’s mental models were “like water on a stone”. It took, in-part, some senior managers who saw the scenarios as well-aligned with their own agendas to drive change. They latched onto the scenarios that could help them to make the case for change.

Kees van der Heijden notes that the oil shocks helped to legitimise scenario planning at Shell but – and this is a big but – most manager’s continued to interpret the unfolding events as mere blips before a return to ‘business-as-usual’, instead of recognising change as the beginning of a new world.

These cases also seem to question that capacity of scenarios to be effective “cognitive devices” (van der Heijden, 1996) in surfacing underlying assumptions and enabling critical debate.

Lack of balance in writings of many practitioners and advocates

Many writings create the impression that practices like scenario planning are panaceas (e.g. for improved decision-making under uncertainty), rather than considering both potential benefits of the practices and the potential pitfalls (e.g. process risks, and the possible unintended consequences, etc).

Wider influences, underlying intellectual journey?

Since completing a Masters in Strategic Foresight program at Swinburne University I’ve immersed myself in interdisciplinary social sciences like Science and Technology Studies (STS). On the one hand research by those developing a Sociology of Expectations supports a focus on future expectations and guiding images the future (see my paper on nanotechnology). On the other hand, STS’s critique of determinisms of all kinds (e.g. technological determinism, social determinism) has strongly shaped my thinking.

STS scholars have persuasively demonstrated that technological developments – and their social consequences – are inherently unpredictable and, to a large extent, indeterminate. The desire to know which frontiers of advance will (or could) come to dominate, or lead to the most progress, is potentially fatally flawed.  Consequently, anticipatory activities can in many ways seem pointless – although the stories that are told about scientific and technological futures clearly do have effects.

What is interesting from this perspective is the way that visions and expectations are strategically deployed. STS scholars focus on these dynamics, examining their ‘performative’ qualities.

Over the past five years I’ve also be heavily influenced by Professor Mike Hulme, who was an influential climate modeller and is now a sustainability scientist. Whilst he recognises the underpinning climate science, Hulme has critiqued the current emphasis on modelling the future. He argues that ‘climate reductionism’ (via climate modelling and related impact assessments) has become the dominant mode of analysing environmental change – both reflecting, and contributing to, overly pessimistic readings of social futures. Like STS scholars he is also wary of determinism – in this case the re-emergence of influential forms of environmental determinism. He also asks important STS-style questions about how climate models and climate modellers gain and then exercise social authority.

Hulme’s public doubting of the growing investments in climate modelling is thought provoking and important. Equally important has been his critiques of how climate change is framed and thought about, with Hulme questioning pessimistic readings of social futures. He has further argued that sustainability issues like climate change need to be understood both as ideas (which are situated in cultural contexts) and as physical phenomenon studied (and forecasted) through scientific practices.

Where to from here?

Over the past decade or so the increasing scholarly attention on futures inquiry has raised questions about these practices, leading to growing doubts (in my mind) about their use and effectiveness.  At the same time, I note that threats and opportunities are increasingly “made real in the present” through model-based projections, scenario-building, and other modes of futures thinking.

Perhaps some of the issues raised by the critical scholars can be better addressed. Certainly, it’s been suggested by some management scientists that practitioners can increase their effectiveness by drawing on the latest psychological research (Healey & Hodgkinson, 2008).

Another possible way forward is to look anew at practice (e.g. scenario-building) through new theoretical lens. This may be a way to both critically examine and enrich these practices. An example paper I spotted recently examines and rethinks roadmapping practices through the lens of socio-technical transition theory and transition policy (see McDowall, 2012). Another recent paper also argues for more attention to social theory in backcasting exercises (Kiraly et al, 2013).

Practitioners often gravitate towards understanding theories of change and stability in an effort to ground their work (E.g. Sohail Inayatullah draws heavily on macro-history; Andy Hines and Hardin Tibbs draw on theories of cultural/social values change; Rafael Ramirez draws on social ecology theorists; and many others draw on a wide range of theories of technological change). There may be opportunities to go further, drawing on wider bodies of social theory produced by social scientists (e.g. in fields like sociology, political science, anthropology) and theories of socio-ecological systems (e.g. resilience theory). Prior to embracing integral theory, Richard Slaughter pointed to the importance of social theory such as those theorising the social construction of reality (Slaughter, 2002).

In Futures for the Third Millennium Richard Slaughter also noted that one of the criticisms of futures studies has been that its grounding in other fields has not been well ‘mapped’. Unlike Slaughter, I think this criticism still carries legitimate force. The recent focus on ‘methodological renewal’ has perhaps masked underlying issues regarding the theoretical basis of such methods. An example is the ‘framework foresight’ model recently published by the Houston program: it features a number of analytical steps but zero theory (some is alluded to, such as economic theory [e.g. Kondratieff Cycles, the business cycle], sociological theory [given the reference to ‘constants’], and stakeholder theory).

Or, perhaps, a largely indeterminate future means the hole in the “doughnut” ultimately cannot be filled. This thought refers to my lingering doubts about aspirations to achieve ‘foresight’ – be it organisational or social. Yes, we need action taken in reference to the future, but the dynamic complexity of reality may be too great for a sophisticated grasp of the not-yet. What I see, instead, are partial viewpoints shaped by belief systems. As Tim Harford persuasively argues in his book Adapt: Why Success Starts with Failure “the world we inhabit” may simply be “too complicated for anyone to analyse with much success” (p.8). The concept of organisational foresight is a problematic one if – as Harford argues – “it is impossible to know in advance what the correct strategy will be” (p.65).

Similarly, Jose Ramos has considered the implications of complexity theory for futures inquiry: “such an approach acknowledges that variables involved in understanding change are staggering enough as to make absolute certainty impossible. With human intention and action influencing ‘the future’, any kind of mastery over knowing change or creating change seems ridiculous.” (Source: ‘Action Research as Foresight Methodology’, Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, Foresight International).

Here, the “action foresight” work of Ramos appears useful. As I understand it, futures inquiry of this kind does not seek to discover “truths” (about the future); instead the core objective is to help to enable action in a particular local context. Without disregarding the issues raised above, participative futures inquiry like this may help to create change and to test ‘foresight’ methodologies. Ramos also notes that action research has moved toward conducting “systemic interventions”, and argues that well-grounded foresight may help to link larger patterns of change to action in local contexts.

Finally, if futures thinking and studies is, in essence, storytelling – as powerfully argued by Donald Michael – more interesting questions may focus on which stories get told and why. Given so many different possible futures and stories could be told, complex choices must be made.

I wonder if the above thoughts resonate with others and, if they do, how others are responding…

12 Comments

  1. Stephen,

    Your point about “what stories get told and why” is indeed crucial. I’ve written about this earlier, but it’s worth repeating:

    During the past 20-30 years, futures studies have become all the more professional in nature, not the least because of efforts by e.g. MILLPROJ, including its Futures Methodology Series. However, it is still the case much in Futures Studies remains a collection of specific techniques and ad hoc practices, and therefore – for many – lacks the status of a legitimate scientific/academic research field. It will not gain this status without a proper theoretical framework not only concerning its methodology: it must begin to better examine its epistemological-ontological basis.

    For instance, one of the central issues of futures studies is the status of the notions of societal development, social evolution and “progress”. The ontological assumptions underlying these notions are seldom examined, and what different researchers actually mean by these concepts (or their rejection) remains obscure. For futures studies to attain the status of a legitimate academic field of research, these concepts need to be grounded and given a common conceptual framework – not the least because they have significant consequences for political outlooks and policy formulation.

    This does not mean that futurologists have to agree upon a single set of ontological assumptions, but that that they must make explicit the assumptions they do make. Remember Poincaré’s warning 100 years ago: The denial of ontological assumptions does not mean that we have rid ourselves of them, but that we are left with

    “… dangerous hypotheses … which are tacit and unconscious. Since we make them without knowing it, we are powerless to abandon them” (Poincaré, H. (1913).The Foundations of Science. New York: Science Press.)

    Since futures studies ARE so political in nature, the absence of a careful study of its ontological assumptions will continue to leave it open to (not unfounded) accusations of being propaganda and of serving one or another group’s hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) political agendas.

    Regards,

    /Tom Ritchey
    SweMorph

    • Stephen McGrail

      Hi Tom, I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

      This post, in part, expresses my increasing uncertainty regarding the potential for futures research/studies to become a legitimate academic/scientific research field.

      In saying this I recognise that experts in other fields do develop forward views (sometimes very long-term), e.g. climate scientists, economists, etc, that are (fairly widely) viewed as being scientific, or at least academic. However, I struggle to see what unique basis futures practitioners (or ‘futurologists’, as you term them) have for developing such views, other than their imagination. Certainly people can be more or less imaginative, and futures practitioners often are extremely imaginative people.

      What are your thoughts on its prospect of becoming such a ‘legitimate academic/scientific research field’? Do you have a view about a more robust epistemological-ontological basis could look like? (E.g. Wendell Bell argued that the field should ground itself more explicitly in a critical realist philosophy).

      I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the issues you’ve raised.

      Stephen

      P.S. This discussion can be linked to debates in philosophy of science, given a good theory is widely viewed to be one that makes reliable predictions. From this perspective good futures inquiry is just good science. However, many folk in the futures community don’t view prediction as their aim – which, of course, is one of the many issues that needs to be considered!

  2. Ruben Nelson

    Stephen,
    I would encourage you to purse this line of inquiry. Our field needs sound underpinnings all the way down. And, in order to not just add to the confusion, you need to bring to it the careful, reflexive capacities that so many lack. The effort above does not yet show that you have the enough capacity to make the careful distinctions that are necessary for us to make progress. But then, that’s what being a student is about — developing capacities you do not yet have. My only advice would be to find a mentor who has a developed capacity for patient, thoughtful, insightful and careful analysis. Good luck, such persons are rare in any field.
    Ruben

    • Stephen McGrail

      Dear Ruben, thanks for the encouragement and taking the time to read and comment.

      Are you able to expand on your comments — in particular, re: “the careful distinctions” you think are essential to making progress on these issues? What distinctions, exactly? Also, what do you mean by “sound underpinnings all the way down”?

      Thanks in advance!
      Stephen

  3. Stephen

    I think we need to be very careful in deciding just what foresight practitioners do. If they claim to have some valid way of engaging with the future, then many of the comments you make are relevant (ie many of these claims are seriously open to question). On the other hand, if what they claim to do is help others who have a need (or a desire) to engage with the future to do so in a way which works for them (ie the client defines the successful outcome) then perhaps their interventions don’t need to be subjected to such rigorous analysis (though I acknowledge that one of the reasons why a client might choose to engage a foresight practitioner is because they believe that their proposed intervention had been rigorously proven).

    One potential implication from your foresight skepticism is that no attempt is made to engage with the future, and I doubt that you support such an approach. Alternatively, perhaps you are suggesting that individuals, organisations and governments should happily engage in whatever efforts they seek to make to engage with the future without any external assistance (ie it is simply not worth engaging a foresight practitioner to help you, they don’t add any value). I also doubt that you believe this, though you do seem to question the value which the practitioner might at. I would also remind you of the adage that two heads are better than one, and it is always better if the second head has at least some training and experience.

    So, exactly what does your skepticism mean? You are clearly skeptical of the claims made by some foresight practitioners for their particular methodologies. Some would claim that it is still too early to tell how effective these might be (Ruben above might be one of those, suggesting that these methodologies need to have “sound underpinnings all the way down”). I come back to my first sentence above, I think practising foresight practitioners need to be very careful about the claims they make. If we get into the sort of features trading which characterises used car salesmen we do risk our credibility (many more people believe they need a car than believe they need a futurist, and hence are more prepared to ‘shop around’ for their car. I agree that futurists risk being ignored if their claims seem unachievable, or if their peers discredit them which happens all too often).

    You comment that Richard Slaughter’s “Biggest Wakeup Call” doesn’t offer any new methodologies. No it doesn’t. What it says is that there are some things in the future which are clearly worth our attention, and he bemoans the lack of attention they get. Richard would clearly be happier if they attention they got was rigorous and valid, but he would be happier that they got any attention than that they were ignored.

    The role of the foresight practitioner is to find a way into the client’s mindset which encourages them to engage with the future, and then to help them sustain that engagement as long as possible (one of my assumptions is that, with limits, the more attention paid to the future the better). Promoting one’s futurist toolkit as being scientifically valid is one way of doing this, but only one way. Demonstrating such an engagement with the future in your own life and practice is another, as is getting out an amongst the general public and getting the future talked about.

    • Stephen McGrail

      Hi Charles,

      Thanks – those comments are tremendously rich and thought provoking.

      First, you’re quite right to point out assumptions about what practice is, and is not, need to be carefully made before considering their robustness. I have played many of the different roles you allude to – content/expert roles (e.g. being hired to produce scenarios of the future) through to interventions that aim to support others in doing such inquiry and reflection. My post was meant to address all such roles, but perhaps it’s skewed towards content/expert roles.

      Your question “So, exactly what does your skepticism mean?” is a really useful provocation. My first response is that it means I’m increasingly scrutinising the claims that are made and what evidence there is/isn’t to support such claims – this is an emerging theme of the literature review in my PhD research. Efforts to gain legitimacy perhaps promote bias towards positive claims.

      My second response is that it expresses my concern that futures inquiry – as currently practiced – tends to fail to productively ‘open’ the future and can, in fact, leads to poorer handling of uncertainty and complex situations. (As Bradfield notes – cited in my post – scenario work and other futures activities are often conducted to better handle such situations). This is linked to my interest in examining and improving how sustainability issues are handled.

      A third response is related to Tom Ritchey’s (see above) observation that futures studies “are so political in nature”. I increasingly doubt the underling political project and related views of leading figures in the field, such as Richard Slaughter, Jim Dator, Oliver Markley, etc. I’ve become much more skeptical of their analyses and prescriptions for action. I’ve also come to see such analysis as being highly subjective and, consequently, doubted many of their conclusions. Furthermore, I’ve become more aware of how futures inquiry is often used to pursue political objectives (and often this aspect is implicit).

      Finally, I guess it also expresses lingering, probably strengthening, doubts about my own professional work and career direction. I’m increasingly unsure about the unique value-add of the futures toolkit – which of course could partly, or largely, be a reflection of my own capabilities and professional experience in this space and whether (or not) I’m suited to this line of work.

      I’m sure there’s more but that’s what comes to mind right now.

      Warm regards,
      Stephen

    • Dear Stephen,

      I have to agree with Mr Brass. I’m a foresight practitioner in the real sense of the word. I don’t look at it from the academic side but from the strategic side (a word I find not too much in all comments in and on your skeptic view). For starters, any approach or methodology needs skepticism so we all have to be thankful for your insights. These fora serve exactly to challenge each other.
      But maybe you study foresight too much instead of practicing it. It’s a cheap remark, I know but I would defend a foresight project much more for the team dynamics and the divergent thinking opportunity than I would do it for scientific correctness or academic value of the final scenario’s. They only will serve as a framework to challenge strategy or policy anyway. I conduct foresight as a facilitator both for private as for public sector and every time, their is that magical moment were participants let go of the normal ‘command and control’ way of looking at things and really go beyond their business sector boundaries. I saw innovation being born there which, for a facilitator, is the highest reward possible.

      The real challenges is the follow up once the dynamic strategy/policy is developed. Why? Because at that point, the facilitator hands over the responsibility to the team to take it further in the organization. In 90% of the cases, participants go back to their daily work and nobody takes ownership for the process to keep the scenario’s alive, set up early warning signals (whatever it means to them) and last but not least, executing the strategy according the dynamic plan. If the work is done properly, and all black swans aside, most shock changes have a set of strategic options ready for roll out if necessary. With a firm back up plan, you do already better than 90% of competition if we look at the private sector. I really believe that the foresight success within Shell can mainly be attributed to the follow up of a devoted team, an element largely underestimated when we want to measure ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a foresight project.
      I hope my contribution was of any use.

      Kind regards,

      Peter

      • Stephen McGrail

        Hi Peter,

        Great thoughts, thank you for sharing them.

        I straddle both worlds, studying foresight and practicing it, but I do think your questioning about what criteria and standards should be used to judge/assess these practices it is an important line of inquiry. In your consulting work do you evaluate your projects? If so, what’s the focus? How?

        Your comment that “in 90% of the cases, participants go back to their daily work and nobody takes ownership for the process” is also consistent with much of my worries… I have seen this too, and it led me to really question the consulting model.

        Interestingly, the Shell case reflects all these themes, and I’m not sure you could call their work a “foresight success”.

        The former head of Group Planning and Scenarios at Shell, Arie de Geus, covered this in his book The Living Company. Reviewing the scenario practice within Shell the scenario he notes that the scenario planners found it hard to identify and communicate their value. “Both top management and planners felt uncomfortable with the scenario approach. We could see no discernible influence, from this advance knowledge, on the major decisions which had actually been taken” (p.67). “Planners… found it equally difficult to cite a convincing example of a decision which had been taken after a scenario had highlighted a critical change” (p.68). “We could not offer the sceptics [i.e. the scenario planning sceptics inside the company] any demonstrable evidence that the Shell Group, as a whole, had changed its behaviour or become more adaptive. There was at best a weak link between our advance knowledge and the actual business decisions which had been made” (p.68)

        And this is the big success story that’s held up!

        Other books that cover Shell’s development of scenario planning practices convey a similar, mixed (at best), picture — e.g. see The Age of Heretics by Art Kleiner, and Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation by Kees van der Heijden.

        Later in the book Arie de Geus reframes these issues. For example, he argues we shouldn’t evaluate the resulting decision-making quality. He argue we should assess the speed of decision-making – i.e. whether planning and strategy-aids can reduce the time it takes to get from perceiving change to implementing fundamental shifts. But de Geus provides little evidence of effectiveness against this measure, either.

        Stephen

  4. Riel Miller

    Hello Stephen
    Very glad to see this discussion advancing. You might be interested in the work being done around anticipatory systems: http://www.projectanticipation.org/ and http://www.fumee.org/ that is precisely about the theoretical underpinnings of “thinking about the future”. I’d welcome the opportunity to hook you up to the on-going work that we’re doing here at UNESCO regarding the Discipline of Anticipation (DoA) and Futures Literacy as the capacity to use the future on the basis of the DoA. Get in touch directly with me and we can take it from there.
    Best
    Riel

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful article, Stephen. And say hello to our friends at Swinburne while you’re there.

    My background is sociology before futures studies back in the day. So the call for “more theory” is quite familiar to me. My only problem is what would count as a theoretical statement in futures studies. Can you give some examples, at least as questions or as hypotheses (propositions) to be tested.

    And I draw a distinction between theory and evaluation. Both are the product of research, but they have quite different purposes. And I agree with you wholeheartedly that we do not enough evaluation. But the problem is not so much a lack of motivation, but a lack of an evaluative framework, particularly for scenarios. Scenarios are statements of plausibility. How does one support those statements compared to the more common predictions, which are statements of “fact” in the future tense–such and such will or will not happen.

    I’m working on this pr0blem so I’d appreciate your thoughts…

  6. Stephen McGrail

    Hi Peter, thanks for visiting my blog!

    I’m working on evaluative frameworks as part of the doctoral research. There does seem to be increasing interest in evaluation, and I’m pleased to hear you say the motivation is there. I’ve found it really depends on context, purpose and the related question of how should the merit and worth of foresight be judged? There’s no consensus on this question, so evaluation processes are consequently disputed. I’ve written another blog post on this challenge, see: http://www.facilitatingsustainability.net/?p=2090

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on evaluation, including how/if this has been done in your projects (e.g. evaluating consultancy work).

    The broader question of “what would count as a theoretical statement in futures studies” is obviously a complex one — in part because there is no agreement on what the field aims to explain/achieve, or what the core problems are that the field seeks to solve. Again, I would love to hear your thoughts!

    Propositions could focus on the relationship between the creation of images of the future and the effectiveness of planning activities or goal achievement. E.g. Robert Shipley (University of Waterloo) has critically interrogated propositions like “a clear image or vision of the future acts as a beacon to guide actions until that vision is reached”, and “the more people are involved in creating a vision the more they will accept it and be motivated by it”.

    Or propositions might focus on the assessments of plausibility – theoretical statements regarding knowledge claims about the future, and statements about in which domains probability is meaningful, and for which it is not, and why. I know that Rafael Ramirez (Oxford Scenarios Programme) has been working on this for quite some time. Wendell Bell tried to theoretically ground this in critical realism.

    From a philosophy of science perspective there’s, in an important sense, nothing unique about futures studies. All theory generates predictions which provide a test of the theory. So perhaps that’s what you are alluding to when you asked “what would count as a theoretical statement in futures studies”?

    Or perhaps you had something else in mind?

    Stephen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *