The question of whether futures studies is sufficiently theorised was raised in an exchange between Sirkka Heinonen (Finland Futures Research Centre) and Sohail Inayatullah. Heinonen states that “currently in futures research there are a lot of futures methods and foresight tools available but not so many theories” and asks “what do you think should be done to address this situation or what could be done?” Inayatullah’s response surprised me. He argued that the field is adequately theorised and suggested the problem is that many practitioners are unaware of theory and are in “theoretical deficit”.
Certainly, practitioners draw on varying amounts of theory. Inayatullah’s “six pillars” approach has a strong theoretical underpinning and actual use of the approach is also further shaped by the theoretical insights the practitioner brings to the practice (in Inayatullah’s case many decades of scholarship across multiple fields/disciplines). Interestingly, Inayatullah positions futures studies as helping people to recover their agency. On this point I also agree that practitioners can be more or less theoretically informed, often less so, with a huge range from people who have learned one or two tools and only use those tools, through to people with PhDs and who draw on theory from a range of fields.
Where I felt inclined to disagree is with the broader argument that futures research (or foresight, or whatever you want to call it) is adequately theorised. The exchange between Heinonen and Inayatullah prompted me to revisit this question.
A wide range of experiences have led me to question the adequacy of existing theory, including:
- Experiences teaching futures thinking and scenario planning in a Master’s program where I realised that a lot of what I was teaching was based on basic heuristics and principles (e.g. which inform the process of scenario development) but there wasn’t much underneath this. Put bluntly, no scenario development theory has been scientifically validated (and none will be, at least not scientifically proven in the positivist sense). Practitioners follow “rules of thumb” they’ve picked up over time, which are more or less appropriate for different domains, with a hefty dose of imagination thrown in as well. Some researchers have begun to examine cognitive processes and group dynamics in scenario development but the data remains suggestive. The same is true for other aspects.
- My own practitioner experiences where I often struggled to apply the tools, methods and high-level theories I had been taught to specific topics (e.g. in consulting work). At first I thought it was mostly a case of user error or that I wasn’t up to the task. Later I reflected on what I had been taught and whether it was robust. An example I remember vividly is when a client asked us to develop scenarios for the future of global climate change governance in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate change summit (in 2009) exploring the potential outcomes of this UNFCCC meeting, the implications for future climate governance and associated potential changes. This was a complex task for which existing methods and theory offered little guidance. Ultimately, the project was feasible mostly because we did a series of interviews with people deeply familiar with UNFCCC processes and climate governance (including relevant theories) and this suggested some plausible scenarios. I’ve had many similar experiences during other projects. Of course this could be a “theoretical deficit” issue – as suggested by Inayatullah – but I’m not so sure…
- Subsequent research I’ve conducted which identified similar concerns in the futures community and also further examined the underlying notions of anticipatory knowledge and anticipatory action. Regarding the former, people like Angela Wilkinson have argued that scenarios are a practice “in search of theory” and scenario methods are increasingly being critically examined.
However, inquiry should examine the question that was posed of whether futures research/foresight is adequately theorised. What does “adequate” and “theorisation” mean? Adequate for what purpose?
My general view is that the nature of futures research or inquiry means that theorisation is in many respects inherently limited. We can consider different approaches to futures inquiry (e.g. predictive, emancipatory, critical, etc) and consider theory relevant to each approach and to specific contexts (e.g. innovation processes in business contexts, public policy, etc). However, even then “theorisation” will often be limited to developing and assessing key principles that such activities are based on.
I’m currently less concerned about whether there are adequate theories for developing forward views (e.g. scenarios). I don’t think there will ever be scientifically validated theories of scenario development or vision creation from which practices are then derived. This is a central point. This is not to say that people trained in technical disciplines cannot produce theoretically-informed and empirically-informed predictions; it is to say that future-oriented research and practice will retain elements of artful practice.
My current concerns about theoretical underpinning are focussed on other aspects, including:
- The development and use of theory for understanding real-world practice, i.e. better understanding the actual use of methods and practices such as scenario-building methods, roadmapping tools, or techno-economic modeling. In this respect I see much scope for further theorising such methods and practices (for an example see this paper on technology roadmapping);
- Better understanding the varying impacts of real-world practice. Models could be created to try to understand why such practices sometimes having large impacts but often have little or no impact, and eventually, perhaps, basic theories could be created and tested; and
- Better understanding related agency processes such as the management of expectations (see another post on this topic) and related social processes/dynamics.
As an example for topic 1, I’m interested in the phenomenon of collective strategic action and the use of forward-looking practices like scenario planning and roadmapping to try to catalyse or enable such action. Related claims are made by consultancies like Reos Partners (see their transformative scenario planning approach). Indeed it is sometimes argued that multi-actor processes like scenario work and roadmapping provide a strong foundation for collaborative action and ‘systemic’ transformation. However, these claims are poorly substantiated and the underlying theorisation is weak. It seems to me that a wider range of social scientific insights and perspectives can be drawn on in order to more rigorously consider and theorise this and thereby better connect theory and practice.
Research in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) also provides interesting examples. For example, some STS scholars are theorising the role of scenario methods in the context of technology assessment with respect to the influence on actor “reflexivity” and responsible development of emerging technologies (e.g. see research of Arie Rip, Douglas Robinson, etc). Robinson’s PhD thesis positioned the use of such methods as aiming to enable a “process of reflexive anticipation”, not prediction, and further theorised such anticipation in the context of emerging technologies. Technology assessment is one example of a real-world practice which further theorisation can enhance.
I’m also interested in underlying action theories and see the potential for drawing more on current thinking in sociology to develop a more robust microfoundation for such practices.
Later in the dialogue Inayatullah suggests that there needs to be more research on when does it [foresight/futures research] ‘work’ and when doesn’t it ‘work’ (as per point 2 above), and – linked with this – how and why? I was pleased to hear this. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ parts of these questions may also lead to new theoretically-oriented research agendas which, in turn, may enable improved practice.
For more on this checkout the interesting exchange between Heinonen and Inayatullah and perhaps share your thoughts on these issues in the comment section below.