In this post I want to look back at the some key themes discussed on this blog over the past 12 months, and suggest some questions for exploration next year (and beyond). Looking back, 2013 feels like “the year of critique” and it has hopefully been preparing the ground for more constructive and creative activities in 2014. Looking back, the following themes were important:
1. Critical thinking about the aims, practices, and effectiveness of ‘foresight’ exercises
Over the past couple of years, gradual shifts in my thinking led to posts on: the “wake up calls” to futures thinking presented by social scientific research (e.g. the Sociology of Expectations); whether the futures field has a robust theoretical underpinning, pointing to many unresolved theoretical and philosophical aspects (for me tools and methods currently dominate the field, and it has a hole in the middle in terms of underpinning theory); the lack of evaluation; whether or not ‘foresight’ is a discipline or profession; and, finally, coming out as more of a “foresight skeptic”. The term ‘foresight’ can be problematic (e.g. ‘foresight practitioner’, etc). This was clear at a doctoral seminar on strategic foresight I attended last week where the term was used very differently by attendees from Europe and Australia.
I also reported on academic research on how ‘foresight’ work is done in-practice, reviewing the book Foresight in Practice. Most of authors were practitioners who decided to “step out” from their foresight practice and conduct ethnographic research. This research revealed the real-time activities, pitfalls, and challenges that – they argue – “usually become concealed or are overlooked in stylized [practitioner] self-accounts and methodological-epistemological discussions” (p.3). The analysis also concluded that foresight practices are often at odds with the way they are presented in textbooks. For example, they found that scenarios rarely live up to the stated focus on discontinuities, surprises and shocks, etc, and were found in-practice to tend towards “business-as-usual” or trend-based assessments.
2. The psychosocial aspects of futures thinking and practices
More attention is being placed on the psychological and sociological aspects of forward-looking practices. For example, Kahneman and Tversky’s work on heuristics and cognitive biases are often cited by practitioners and futures research scholars. Similarly, in a paper I drew on Williams’ (2006) argument that critical science studies scholars’ often exhibit “narrative bias” in their formulaic assessments of nanotechnology and other emerging technologies. Williams bemoaned the lack of reflexivity shown by his colleagues. I similarly wondered if my colleagues are sufficiently reflexive in their assessment of emerging technologies and global environmental change/risks.
A related learning is that some scholars are looking into such issues for practices like technology roadmapping. For instance, Kerr et al (2012) examined “the psychosocial reality of technology roadmapping”. They point out that “group processing of the textual elements, with the combined use of colours and symbols, leads to a socially constructed image” which conveys meanings (p.3). They also argue a technological roadmap can be considered a ‘boundary object’. In another paper they look at cognitive and social process inhibitors in roadmapping exercises.
Early scenario practitioners like Pierre Wack also emphasised the psychosocial aspects of practice. Wack encountered difficulty altering existing mental models. He emphasised a related challenge: the process by which information of strategic significance leads to shifted perceptions. Wack argued that “this transformation process is not trivial — more often than not it does not happen”.
3. Self-critique (not just critiquing the foresight field, etc)
In some posts I also noted some of the gaps in my own knowledge base etc which also inform and motivate my research. The limitations of theoretical frameworks often caused issues in scenario and visioning projects that I’ve led or worked on. For example, I discussed how existing qualitative scenario methods were problematic during projects – often when there is the expectation of rapidly developing a set of useful scenarios on a complex topic. A greater understanding of the psychosocial processes and inhibitors in visioning exercises would have been beneficial for the facilitation of such projects.
My first post of the year, entitled “Towards researcher ‘reflexivity’”, covered some of these gaps and issues that I’ve faced in my work. Some sets of scenarios have been poorly received and/or not acted on. In other cases, the change objectives haven’t been met (e.g. incremental changes resulted).
4. The ‘Anthropocene’, facing the future, and related dangers
At the 2013 Sustainable Living Festival spirited debates were held about how best to enable social change and greater action on climate change. In one post I noted that many speakers I saw at the festival shared a general perspective that “there is no going back” to a pre-industrial type of climate essentially for good (given the fact carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for many centuries and global emissions won’t peak for many more years), which struck me as an important shift from the desire to ‘go back’ to a safe climate (i.e. Holocene-style). This sense that we need to be facing the future, also raised questions about how “Anthropocene futures” are imagined and assessed.
My first post of the year also noted related issues regarding visions and narratives of sustainability. I cited the work of Matthews and Boltz (2012) who asserted that “there is danger in a vision of sustainability that is overly deterministic and does not reflect the dynamic nature of the biosphere, its ecosystems, and economies”. Such concerns informed my recent paper on “Framing and reframing the emerging ‘planetary crisis’”. I also drew on Mike Hulme’s critique of “climate reductionism”.
5. The potential roles of research
A number of additional posts discussed possible ways further research (e.g. my doctoral research) could contribute to foresight and sustainability practice. For example:
- Foresight in Practice shows that ethnography can contribute to a richer understanding of foresight practice by revealing “black boxed” aspects (i.e., what’s taken-for-granted and/or not consciously considered) or problematic aspects of practice and, in this way, serve practitioners by helping them to reflect on and to improve their work;
- Some posts discussed how there is a lack of tools and frameworks to systematically assess the impacts and benefits of foresight, and the value of these activities is questioned;
- Examining the potential for (and limits of) an applied science for handling “wicked” problems (Rittel and Weber provocatively questioned whether such a science is possible); and
- The symposium last March held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of publishing the Limits to Growth (LtG) – I watched it online a year afterwards – call for more attention to institutional, psychological and policy-making issues that create “decision delay” problems and associated barriers to change. Similarly, sustainability scientists have called for focus on new research pathways that can help to address these issues. In his presentation Jorgen Randers said that he sees no real alternative to moving towards new forms of “eco-dictatorship”.
For Jorgen Randers, the key conclusion of LtG was that decision delays would likely cause the global economy to overshoot limits. He notes that “it remains an open question whether economic growth without growing physical impact is feasible” – the project “did not seek to resolve this question, and the authors were split in their views on whether full decoupling can be realized”.
Some of the critiques emphasise issues that might be addressed through research. Others suggest key aspects (e.g. sociological) that condition practice and simply must be grappled with. For example, foresight exercises are “surrounded and nourished by informal estimates, voiced expectations, and circulating images of the future” (Harro van Lente) which both enable and limit formal anticipations. (Van Lente argues that it leads to a tendency to “reproduce circulating assumptions”).
Moreover, social dynamics are argued to result in a ‘dual vulnerability’:
When a formal articulation [of possible futures] is surprising, that is, only loosely coupled to the informal articulations, it is vulnerable and less forceful because it is disconnected from the repertoires of the future that legitimise, steer and coordination action. On the other hand, when the formal articulation is tightly coupled to the repertoires of the future, it is not seen as adding much news. The alignment of formal and informal expectations makes foresight socially more robust, but cognitively more vulnerable. The general dilemma, then, is: how can foresight raise salience while not hampering its efficacy? (van Lente, 2012)
The degree to which exercises reproduce assumptions and/or social situations (e.g. existing conflicts and oppositions, lock-in conditions) or challenge these, and why, is an important research question. Theoretical lens can help to provide new insights, such as the Sociology of Expectations.
Looking ahead, I see the potential for my research to contribute to key questions for the future of sustainability science (see this paper which proposes these research questions), such as: How does envisioning potential futures translate into action? How can this be done more effectively? I would add to these questions (to address context dimensions): under what conditions?
The question of whether or not envisioning potential futures translates into action implies greater evaluative research, and consideration of how impact assessment can be improved.
The paper also proposes questions regarding how social and institutional learning can be fostered and effective forms of social learning in advancing sustainable outcomes. To these questions I would add: does consideration of potential futures improve or impede these learning processes?
My research in 2013 also suggests the need to: consider the psychosocial factors that influence this learning, and the underlying cognitive and social processes and inhibitors (e.g. which could generate societal change or, on the other hand, to ‘decision delay’ problems); and critically explore the visions and narratives of sustainability, and the methods used to develop these visions. Key concerns about overly deterministic perspectives (see Matthews and Boltz, 2012) inform these questions.
Looking ahead, and overall, I see my research more in the solutions-oriented sustainability science space, and less in the general ‘foresight’ (or ‘strategic foresight’) space. Emerging research pathways in sustainability science indicate areas to focus my research and make a contribution.