In theory futures inquiry and sustainability are the perfect bedfellows. For starters they’re both fundamentally about the future. Additionally, areas of practice like strategic foresight and adaptation science both aim to build capacity to cope with uncertainty in decision processes, and researchers in both domains tend towards highly interdisciplinary and even trans-disciplinary research.
So what’s the problem? Increasingly, I sense that various issues frequently get in the way. Admittedly the title of this post should probably have been ‘Why certain types of futures inquiry and sustainability often don’t mix very well’… but here’s some of the key issues which are top of mind right now:
1) Beliefs treated as facts / belief reinforcement (rather than examination)
Often people I meet in the sustainability space have deeply-held beliefs about the future which they consider to be unchallengeable facts. For example, a relatively common belief is that an affluent consumer society is unsustainable. For example, Ted Trainer’s book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society is shaped by his own beliefs and preferences (for small-scale, localised, post-growth forms of “sustainable communities” that he terms “the simpler way”) and, rather predictably, his analysis of the potential for renewable energy to sustain a consumer society concludes that it cannot. Trainer’s futures analysis is a belief reinforcement strategy (rather than actually examining his beliefs and assumptions about the future). Another common belief is that “green growth” is an oxymoron which gets simply treated as an unchallengeable fact and then frames peoples’ thinking about the future.
There is a need to guard against preconceived ideas biasing research, but often they do bias analysis.
2) Cognitive simplification processes and cognitive biases affecting how people think about uncertain and complex events (and limiting learning e.g. in scenario processes)
Studies by scenario planning scholars have found that cognitive simplification processes (see the heuristics and biases literature) are often prevalent and problematic when people think about uncertain futures. This research draws on the work of cognitive scientists. For example, “empirical evidence suggests that individuals tend to be satisfied with a single interpretation of a situation and are predisposed at the outset of a decision process to focus on a single outcome and a single alternative for achieving that outcome, especially in highly uncertain and complex decision domains” (Bradfield, 2008). In effect, people fall back on their pre-existing mental models and, moreover, such cognitive barriers 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” (Bradfield, 2008). (Also see issue 1 above). This, in turn, often results in learning barriers in scenario development and planning processes.
3) Normative preferences preventing sufficiently open-ended inquiry
Sustainability problems often require open-ended learning strategies and new forms of problem-handling processes (Voß et al, 2006), in order to consider sufficiently diverse potential pathways for addressing a particular problem and the longer-term consequences of different options. The trouble is that sustainability advocates and activists often have strong normative preferences which, in turn, means that they see a particular pathway as the right or only way to go. Consequently, their main goal is often to gain greater acceptance of a particular pathway (rather than to explore – and constantly re-consider – a range of alternatives). They, in essence, “lobby” for a particular option/future.
4) Politico-economic dynamics
Alan Peterson from Monash University has discussed the politico-economic dynamics of expectations, referring to how future expectations are often constructed to serve and carry particular interests. For example, IBM develops and promotes visions of smart cities which – surprise, surprise – require the advanced ICT solutions which it is well-placed to provide. Similarly, in a futures exercise people can advocate and concentrate on scenarios and ideas aligned with their interests. Whilst not necessarily a “problem”, per se, it can constrain both the discussion during a futures exercise and the outputs from the process. Too often such agendas are not surfaced and transparently addressed in exercises.
5) Tendencies towards determinism (e.g. historical determinism, technological determinism)
Deterministic thinking can problematically shape assessments of threats and opportunities. A good example is the book The Sixth Wave: How to Succeed in a Resource-limited World in which the authors drew heavily on historical patterns when making future predictions (specifically Kondratiev’s research on boom and bust cycles in capitalist economies – termed “Kondratiev Waves” – and Perez’s theory of “techno-economic paradigms”). The theoretical framework led the authors to interpret the global financial crisis in ways that supported their forecast, rather than ways that questioned it. Moreover, because the “forecast” that’s made in the book is their own preferred future their goal is to persuade people to “ride” the “sixth wave” of innovation (i.e. they’re trying create a self-fulfilling prophecy).
In an earlier post I examined the technological determinism exhibited by sustainability thinkers.
Determinism is a really interesting one because techniques like scenario development exercises (and related forward reasoning methods) can “reinsert a sensible notion of contingency into theoretical arguments that would otherwise tend towards determinism” (Bernstein et al., 2000, p.54). Additional literature also suggests that the use of futures methodologies and related processes can address the issues I’ve raised (see the table below) but my own experiences generally haven’t been encouraging.
|Issue||Contrasting possibilities discussed in futures/futures-related literature:|
|Used as a belief reinforcement strategy||-Scenario thinking acts as a ‘mode of facilitating challenge’ by forcing consideration of alternative understandings (Wright & Cairns, 2011)
-A futures exercise prompts articulation and greater reflective examination of ‘mental models’
|Cognitive simplification processes and biases affecting how people think about uncertain and complex events||-Use of futures inquiry methods to help people to overcome reliance on potentially suboptimal heuristics and as a means of debiasing judgments|
|Normative preferences preventing sufficiently open-ended inquiry||-Futures inquiry enables “suspension” – that is, greater recognition that “there is not only one way to look at what is happening or [what] should happen” (Kahane, 2012, p. 93)|
|Politico-economic dynamics||-View the generation and sustaining of future expectations as a political process (see Peterson, 2011); important to make agendas transparent as part of the process (e.g. economic interests).|
|Strong tendencies towards determinism||-Scenario development/exercises reinsert a sensible notion of contingency into theoretical arguments
-Increased in perceived uncertainty reduces overconfidence in unwarranted prior assumptions
So, those are the issues I’m currently thinking about. What are your thoughts? Do you find that futures inquiry and sustainability are the perfect bedfellows, or that issues tend to get in the way?
Bernstein, S., Lebow, R.N., Stein, J.G. & Weber, S. 2000, ‘God Gave Physics the Easy Problems: Adapting Social Science to an Unpredictable World’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 6 no. 1, pp. 43-76.
Bradfield, R.M. 2008, ‘Cognitive Barriers in the Scenario Development Process’, Advances in Developing Human Resources, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 198-215.
Healey, M.P. & Hodgkinson, G.P. 2008, ‘Troubling futures: scenarios and scenario planning for organisational decision making’, in G.P. Hodgkinson & W.H. Starbuck (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Organisational Decision Making, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Kahane, A. 2012, Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, San Francisco, USA.
Peterson, A. 2011, The Politics of Bioethics, Routledge.
Voß, J.-P., Bauknecht, D. & Kemp, R. (eds) 2006, Reflexive Governance for Sustainable Development, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham,UK.
Wright, G. & Cairns, G. 2011, Scenario Thinking: Practical Approaches to the Future, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.