Initially major motivations for doing my PhD research were to contribute to the evidence base that underpins ‘foresight’ work (given that formal evaluations are rarely conducted and practitioners rarely have the time or the capacity to do this research), and to contribute to a better understanding of the roles such tools and practices can play in addressing sustainability problems like climate change.
I had also seen the huge growth in the use of scenario methods and other similar techniques and practices by groups seeking to create and explore low carbon futures. I was curious whether this helped to bring about such change, but couldn’t find much detailed empirical analysis of this. I knew from my own work that impact can be limited and often different to the intended outcomes.
As I’ve become more of a “foresight skeptic”, and posed related questions, these motivations have waned somewhat. Whilst I more clearly see the need for additional theory-building and research, on the other hand I’m now less sure of continuing to work in this area post-PhD.
Of more interest now are related questions around the prospective dimensions of sustainability-related knowledge production and action, institutional change, and anticipatory knowledge.
Some social scientific research has looked at this. For example, a special issue of Science and Public Policy published in 2008 themed “the anticipatory state” explored “the way states produce and use anticipatory knowledge”. The issue editors assert that state actors and others find anticipatory knowledge “to be indispensable for many purposes, such as mobilizing support for policy proposals, grounding decision-making in reasonable levels of predictability, and projecting the appearance of managerial competence when confronting a world of contingencies” (p. 546).
An interesting paper from this issue looks at debates on ageing in the Netherlands, in particular political debates about the sustainability of welfare state institutions in light of population ageing (van der Steen, 2008). These debates were similar to those held in Australia earlier this year around the recent Intergenerational Report released by former Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey. Van der Steen argues that “anticipatory knowledge and a perceived crisis in the future can be important and powerful drivers for institutional reform”. Specifically he argues that the case shows that the shifts in future narratives “accompany and support or even precipitate shifts in institutions”.
Other STS scholars have looked at related trends and phenomena. For instance, Stephen Hilgartner at Cornell University looked at what he calls the “emerging anticipatory machinery” that is involved with promoting and developing a “bioeconomy”.
There appears to be an emerging body of research that looks at related processes in organisations and senior management teams. One interesting paper examined the “temporal work” conducted by managers when they confronted greater uncertainty and that influences the level of organisational change that occurs (see here). Another looked at cognitive inertia and used the Conflict Theory of Decision-making when considering why a scenario planning intervention failed (see here). Such studies often look at a central empirical phenomenon (e.g. cognitive inertia, temporal work, etc) and then examine the related use of specific techniques/interventions and their impacts.
Some of my preliminary case study findings are related to underlying issues around institutional stability and change, and also demonstrate that both prospective practices and the outcomes of these exercises are institutionally structured. Such research could help to both inform practice and produce knowledge of more general interest (e.g. about related agency processes/dynamics).
Similarly, in an earlier post I called for greater attention to the ways that groups attempt to mobilise the future as part of attempts to generate institutional change and/or reduce inertia. That is, this is a tactic that is frequently used by groups who want to generate institutional change.
This call was motivated by recent events in Australian politics (e.g. the use of long-term scenarios by the then Abbott Government to justify tough budget reform), preliminary findings from my case study research, and examination of other ‘cases’ (e.g. see my recent post on The Population Bomb). You also see this frequently in the climate change space, such as Oreskes and Conway’s book The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future and The Clean Industrial Revolution by Ben McNeil. Books like Made in Australia: The Future of Australian Cities are also interesting examples.
The question of whether and why such actors are successful in their attempts to mobilise the future to achieve institutional reform is an interesting one I have not seen detailed analysis of, aside from in a general sense (e.g. on perceptions of climate risks and their influence on present action, or the general rise of the population control movement in the mid-20th century which The Population Bomb contributed to). Whether specific interventions contribute to this and the varying success of different actors (e.g. politicians, activists, etc) are separate questions.
These dynamics are relevant to climate action. As noted earlier many efforts to bring about low-carbon transitions involve scenario analysis, and changes to institutions are often an important part of such action (e.g. Henn & Hoffman, 2013). To my knowledge little research has connected these.
Example attempted mobilisation of the future to support major institutional change: the 2015 Intergenerational Report [see report, and a critique by Richard Denniss as part of his essay “Spreadsheets of Power: How economic modelling is used to circumvent democracy and shut down debate”]:
Whilst some scholars have sought to analyse the functions of scenarios in ‘transition’ process, few have specifically examined processes of institutional change and institutional inertia. Nor have they explored the ways that “intendedly rational activities [e.g. scenario planning, use of strategy tools, etc] are implicated in political and interpretive processes” as emphasised by some management scientists (see Jarzabkowski and Kaplan, 2015, p. 551). Further work is needed to fill these knowledge gaps.
Henn, R.L. & Hoffman, A.J. (eds) 2013, Constructing Green: The Social Structures of Sustainability, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Jarzabkowski, P. & Kaplan, S. 2015, ‘Strategy Tools-in-Use: A Framework for Understanding “Technologies of Rationality” in Practice’, Strategic Management Journal, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 537-58.
Nelson, N., Geltzer, A. & Hilgartner, S. 2008, ‘Introduction: the anticipatory state: making policy-relevant knowledge about the future’, Science and Public Policy, vol. 35, no. 8, pp. 546-50.
van der Steen, M. 2008, ‘Ageing or silvering? Political debate about ageing in the Netherlands’, Science and Public Policy, vol. 35, no. 8, pp. 575-83.