In a recent article appearing in Journal of Futures Studies on “transmedia storytelling”, Peter von Stackelberg and Ruth Eira Jones write:
The development of useful scenarios, accurate forecasts, and compelling visions of the future is challenging in itself. Having them applied in a meaningful way can be even more difficult. It is not uncommon for excellent foresights and insights to be discounted or completely ignored while “business-as-usual” continues even in the face of threats that should be obvious.
I know how they feel. I’ve often had the same experience and at times found it quite demoralising. Von Stackelberg and Jones’ solutions seem to be focussed on new approaches to communication whilst also making a broader argument that “simply presenting data and having a “rational” discussion is not enough to shape perceptions about the future and move people to action”.
Good communications using digital media technologies and approaches like transmedia storytelling can surely help. But I’m far from convinced that it is a full answer to the problem.
Another common response is to argue that the real problem is short-termism and that it’s fundamentally a cultural issue. I’m not convinced of that answer, either – at the very least I think it is a partial explanation that’s only part of the story in some contexts.
This problem is one of the reasons why – as part of my PhD research – I’m examining the ways that CSIRO Energy Flagship approach futures inquiry. The head of their Carbon Futures program, Paul Graham, is aware of these issues and often points out that decarbonisation scenarios and associated proposed transition pathways (a new buzzword) are “a dime a dozen”. Just the other day yet another report on “2050 Deep Decarbonization Pathways” was released, this time by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (a global initiative associated with the United Nations).
There seems to be a vast increase in the number of these sorts of forward-looking studies and exercises which are conducted in the hope that they will stimulate or accelerate change. It is perhaps time to think more critically about such activities, what they hope to achieve, and how they are conducted.
A basic communications perspective might, in part, view this situation as a differentiation challenge – that is, needing to work out how make sure your report (or whatever) stands out, is seen, and is viewed as credible. Or a so-called “social physics” approach might develop strategies based on theories about how ideas spread through social networks that can be leveraged in a hyper-connected world.
But perhaps better questions are ones about our theories of change. What do we expect to happen when we publish a scenario report, or project a range of 2050 “decarbonisation pathways” for Australia (or the world), or gamify scenarios in some online platform (like the ones developed by the Institute for the Future)? How do we expect people to participate in such exercises or to use such content and then to act as a consequence? What assumptions do we make about human behaviour, social action, and social processes when pondering such questions and conducting projects? Yes, we have general ideas about roles that images of the future can and do play in decision-making (e.g. as per Wendell Bell’s work), or about decision-making under uncertainty, and so on, but largely I find these ideas to be lacking depth.
One domain I’ve been thinking about lately is climate risk reduction and the barriers to a science-based approach to climate adaptation and vulnerability reduction. For example, attachment to place, politics in coastal communities (e.g. a “no retreat” stance), and so on, can and often do prevent effective risk management with a long-term view. There are likely to be limitations to the impact of a report with scenarios and future projections in such a context even if advanced transmedia storytelling etc is used. There is a need to reconcile the complex normative and subjective aspects of climate change adaptation with a science-based rational approach which calls for new approaches to such interventions.
The other domain and side to the climate problem that I’m looking at in my research and work is decarbonisation. Here a range of complex social, political, technical and other transitional problems must be addressed in order to achieve decarbonisation. Some more modelling or whatever – e.g. as used in advocacy and lobbying – asserting that a zero emissions grid is possible is unlikely to make much of a difference. The exact functions of scenario-based techniques, roadmapping or a technology foresight exercises needs careful thought and to be critically examined. One possibility is reducing the strategic inertia of key players (e.g. in the energy system such as incumbent generators or energy businesses); other functions could potentially be played in new market development (e.g. for aviation biofuels) or in “bounding” uncertainty and reducing complexity to better enable strategic decision-making. However, the causal processes remain under-theorised and lack empirical evidence.
In such domains I don’t think we’ve thought sufficiently about the human, social and organisational complexities of having “scenarios, accurate forecasts, and compelling visions” of the future “applied in a meaningful way” (to again quote the Stackelberg and Jones paper).
Related, thought-provoking questions about scenario planning are posed by Cynthia Selin. She points to challenges “demonstrating trust, reliability, credibility in the absence of truth”. That is, “how do scenarios become trustworthy or considered valid for action?” (Selin, 2006).
If we open the “black box” of futures inquiry we might be inclined to conclude it is empty. Or at the very least we would conclude that more thinking is required regarding the causal logics of such activities.
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share on these issues I’d love to hear from you.
* NOTE: The title of this post is brazenly stolen from a brilliant essay by political scientist Langdon Winner on social constructivism in which he examined this perspective in the study of technology and society. The term “black box” typically refers to a system or device described simply in terms of inputs and outputs (with no understanding of what goes on inside). Similarly, for futures inquiry we talk a lot about inputs (e.g. scanning, weak signals, etc) and outputs (e.g. scenarios, “transition pathways”) but less often about inner workings (e.g. the cognitive and social processes in a scenario-based exercise), or about how these inner workings are related to broader desired outcomes, or the social origins of methodologies and approaches.