Revisiting my 2012 paper on “Cracks in the System”

Often I write something and then just move on, rather than revisiting earlier learning and trying to integrate it with what I’m doing now. With this in mind I decided to revisit a recent paper: McGrail, S. 2012, ”Cracks in the System’: Problematisation of the Future and the Growth of Anticipatory and Interventionist Practices’, Journal of Futures Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 21-46. (accessible here).

Key claims/contributions

The paper drew on Elizabeth Shoves work to discuss so-called “cracks in the system” within niches “opening up within and at the margins of policy-as-normal” and where “knowledge is on the move”. Shove has advocated greater focus on interventions “designed to exploit” these ‘cracks’. She also contrasted this with other positions within sociology: seeing society’s salvation in sociology “coming to the rescue”, or alternatively seeing society’s salvation as lying in a major ‘shock’ (e.g. due to further climate change) that disrupts the status quo and demonstrates the need for change.

I suggested that the common positions in sociology are similar to perspectives often voiced in debates within the futures studies community. In calling for greater practitioner focus on “cracks in the system” I further suggested that the “soft” intervention approach used in Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA) processes potentially offers a model we can adopt or adapt.

I went on to discuss four ‘niches’ ‘within and at the margins of policy-as-normal’: initiating and achieving sustainability transitions; industry adaptation and transformation strategies; governing emerging technologies to enable ‘responsible innovation’; and greater experimentation with planning and policy-making approaches for more uncertain futures (e.g. in climate change adaptation).

The paper included some more speculative claims. For example, I proposed that we can see – in the context of sustainability challenges and wicked problems – the broad contours of a major shift in styles of planning, policy-making, and action. I tentatively termed this an emerging ‘anticipatory interventionist paradigm’. That is, both an increase in anticipatory modes of engagement in which futures are made ‘real’ in the present (and often call for greater  pre-emptive action) and engage more fully with uncertainty, and an increase in anticipatory projects as interventions in the present. A good example is the governance of emerging technologies. Here there is greater effort to both better manage the major uncertainties inherent to innovation trajectories, and to better shape these trajectories in-line with particular normative goals. An example is increasing dialogue on the Ethical, Legal, Social Implications of new and emerging science and technology (e.g. synthetic biology); also termed ELSI  analysis.

Such an “‘anticipatory interventionist paradigm” would seem to be a major shift away from technocratic, or ‘modernist’, planning and policy-making which centre on a ‘predict and plan’ or ‘predict and control’ approach. Here, there is a tendency to disengage with – or to conceal – uncertainty, and so on. Although “control” aspects clearly still remain, we can also see a range of important trends.

Some of my analysis is similar to what Adams et al term new ‘regimes of anticipation’ (see paper), where “anticipation is not just betting on the future; it is a moral economy in which the future sets the conditions of possibility for action in the present, in which the future is inhabited in the present” (p.249). For these social scientists “anticipation has long been a component of political practice”, as seen in how marxism, feminism, and so on, “rely on conjouring the possibility of new futures” (p.248); however they contend that “one defining quality of our current moment is its characteristic  state of anticipation, of thinking and living towards the future” (p.246). A nice phrase is “the future hails the present”.

Relevance to my current research and thinking

My collaboration with Reos Partners (in my PhD research) is clearly closely-aligned with the paper’s arguments. Their work can be seen as a form of “soft” interventions. It is also similar to Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA). In CTA interventions, “there already exist openings and possibilities for change which are then stimulated and orchestrated rather than sought after” (Te Kluve, 2011, p.20) [who I cited in the paper on p.22]. As such my research with them can be seen as a possibility to investigate the real-world potential of the sorts of approaches that I advocated in the paper.

A major shift in my thinking since writing the paper is that I no longer see an ‘anticipatory interventionist paradigm’ as an unambiguous good. Greater emphasis on speculative futures can have a range of effects on the present, some ‘good’, some ‘bad’. For example, some of my interviewees for my Master’s thesis (on nanotechnology) argued that greater ELSI analysis, earlier in the innovation process, is also having the unintended consequence of preventing innovation. Adams et al also highlight – for biomedical innovations and policies – the politics of affect in the growth of anticipatory practices.

The paper also represented my first published statement in which I critiqued a senior figure in the futures field (in this case Richard Slaughter). In the discussion section I wrote that the paper:

suggests that, contrary to the claim that the futures field “has been so apparently ineffective in helping to avoid a new default future of ‘overshoot and collapse’” (Slaughter, 2011a), it has been very effective at helping to pioneer new ways of – and methods for – thinking about the future. These are clearly being adopted and adapted outside the field in efforts to help avoid this ‘default future’. Indeed, this is consistent with Slaughter’s (2012, p.124) recognition that new “niches are required in which extended inquiry into possible futures can take place, be valued and applied” (such as those outlined above) and partly validates his more optimistic claim that “under the growing pressures of global emergency, futures/foresight work can emerge from the margins, as it were, and take on new and distinctively social forms”.

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