Last week I attended the Asia-Pacific Foresight Conference, held in Perth, Australia. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect, expand our networks, etc. (like all good conferences) but on the flight back I was filled with mixed emotions and concerns about the conference and the futures field’s evolution. This reflection tries to capture some central themes for discussion and to address the issue of remaining hopeful and productive in what often seem like impossible times.
Dominant discourses and futures practice
The conference began and ended with a focus on ‘descent’ futures, and some of the sessions in between also focussed on descent issues. Whilst such discussions rarely moved beyond the abstract and theoretical, the implicit focus of these was ‘overshoot and collapse’ (a systems dynamics and population ecology concept) and expected future energy constraints.
Richard Slaughter’s opening keynote presentation focussed what he terms the ‘global emergency’ and advocated a ‘descent’ narrative/pathways focus as an alternative to ‘collapse’. During the Q&A he explained the theoretical basis of this framing: in the (mostly) implicit systems theory he drew on the two alternative options for a system in ‘overshoot’ are uncontrolled collapse or controlled descent. Richard argued that we are unambiguously now in ‘overshoot’, particularly ecological overshoot, and therefore have a constrained range of alternatives to choose between.
Whilst it is valid and reasonable to explore descent futures, I had some concerns which suggest key issues for discussion in the future field. First, Richard also argued that the 21st century context means that the central concept of alternative futures has decreasing validity – i.e. that the ‘futures cone’ has significantly narrowed – which, if true, has enormous implications for the field. We would have to ask the key questions: what is the role and validity of the futures field if there isn’t a wide range of alternatives futures to explore and navigate? If we abandon this concept do we simply revert back to traditional forecasting and planning? The futures field has always emphasised the importance of pluralistic consideration and scrutiny of the future. I was left thinking Richard’s view is potentially a case of creeping determinism, something the field has previously aimed to challenge. Second, much of the discussion about collapse and descent futures sounded politically and socially naive. Great hardship can stimulate extremism and pathologies, both of which we should worry about. Already we are seeing the growth of extremist political parties in Europe.
My partner is currently doing a psychology degree and she has shared related psychological theories and research with me. This research clearly shows that during periods of stress and/or hardship (e.g. in response to the ‘emergency’) regression is often a coping mechanism – just like denial, and so on. That is, people commonly revert back to earlier stages of psychological development during stress and hardship. This highlights the importance of understanding human psychology.
For me it is interesting to see many foci of the environmental movement, and currently dominant schools of environmental thought, increasingly dominate our futures thinking. This is clearly not the case in many other contexts, and may say something about our local foresight community. My own reaction to the opening session was much like Kristin Alford’s, who wrote the following on Facebook after the opening keynote: “Futurists try to instil hope but quite honestly hearing academic work on why we are in a global emergency is core-shattering. Drawing on sources of action and community response feels so tiny and insignificant. I am told there will be ways to be move beyond the depression. I’ll let you know.” Problems were continuously ‘rehearsed’, session-after-session; but solutions, pathways, and reframings were rarely discussed, particularly ones that appeared to be commensurate to the problems; this weighed on me throughout.
Implicit debates and alternative narratives
In opposition to this narrative some presentations focussed on continued growth. A Finnish futures research professor, Sirkka Heinonen, promoted the concept of ‘neo-growth’ as an alternative to de-growth or ‘steady state’ economies within her discussion of a preferred future image of post-carbon cities. Essentially neo-growth aims to change the underlying basis and focus of economic growth and development – similar to earlier ideas about decoupling growth from consumption of natural resources – with a focus on achieving growth in the immaterial realm, i.e. non-material consumption, and consistent with a new set of values (e.g. humanistic).
Non-futurist speakers, such as Richard Weller (Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Western Australia) and Jason McFarlane (an urban economist) touched on related issues. They discussed the reality and drivers of population growth with a focus on Australia and city futures. For Australia a major implication of their analysis is that rapid growth is the likely medium-term (and perhaps longer-term) reality and, therefore, our urban planning and strategic thinking needs to focus more on this. Additionally, when/if population growth stalls there will be economic implications, e.g. need for more debt-fuelled or productivity-based growth.
Clearly, the conference as-a-whole embraced pluralism; however, the tensions between different points of view generally wasn’t surfaced, nor was there much of a dialogical process. Debate and difference remained largely implicit. One was left to ponder the enormous differences in views that were articulated and seek to reconcile these, or to accept some and reject others.
One opportunity that comes to mind for conducting productive dialogue and exploring alternative narratives is to hold more holistic dialogue around limits (e.g. biophysical). Such discussions would necessary include both how limits are/could be handled, along with the existence, evolution, and past/potential impacts of such limits. To me, this often seemed like a conversation we needed to have, but we didn’t really have the chance. This may enable moving beyond simple black-and-white ‘environmental pessimist’ Versus ‘technology/design optimist’ debates.
Indeed, the conceptual seeds of such a dialogue can be found in some of the studies and ideas that were discussed. For example, I think it is important to recognise that the Limits to Growth (LtG) study contained a more nuanced and tentative discussion than is often conveyed. For example, the authors of LtG noted that exceeding limits need not necessarily result in serious damage, e.g. if people learn to minimise the consequences of exceeding them. Collapse is not automatic. Similarly, the emerging field of resilience science presents evidence that regular, modest failures are essential to many forms of resilience. Such failures can allow a system to release and reorganise resources. The necessary counter-point is that complex systems are vulnerable to unanticipated dangers as seen in the global financial crisis; however, potential frames and paths for transcending ‘optimism/pessimism dichotomies’ can be found. (It is also clear that a broader important tension between risk mitigation and risk adaptation exists and should be discussed)
The value of new perspectives (even if you don’t agree with them)
One of the key things successful organisations often do is bring in outside perspectives to challenge and enrich their thinking. Similarly, for me, one the best parts of the conference was hearing from voices that haven’t, in my experience, often been part of events run by the Australian foresight community – such as hearing from urban planners, designers, and economists, as well as people from other foresight communities (e.g. European practitioners) or working in different foresight contexts (e.g. doing government policy-oriented foresight work). This is not to say that I agreed with all that they had to say. But I felt mentally refreshed from engaging with new perspectives. Hopefully this can be a continuing part of Australian foresight community events.
A related reflection is that this is something we can do better. There is an understandable tendency to converge around particular orthodoxies and taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs. Just as this happens in organisations it often occurs in academic fields (as shown by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and articulated as “paradigms”) and related communities.
As I reflected on this on the plane back to Melbourne, whilst perusing some papers, I was struck by how the idea of the ‘Anthropocene’ is an important example – that is, how this idea is framed, used and perceived. As Ben Dibley, research associate at the Institute for Culture and Society (UWS), notes the term Anthropocene has become influential for many reasons. For example, it “supplies an arresting image of a daunting development: the advent of a geological era of humanity’s own making”, and it also can be understood as “a counter-discourse to globalization” (much like climate change science challenges ideas/visions of unfettered global capitalism).
We tended to only consider one point-of-view, or perspective, when discussing the Anthropocene at the conference and in the futures field: that is, as the problem of hard limits imposed by biophysical thresholds (i.e. the ‘planetary boundaries’ concept articulated by a group of senior scientists [Rockstrom et al, 2009]). Recently the Anthropocene, as a potentially new geological epoch and a discourse, has become an important part of Richard Slaughter’s writing, as well as others.
A greater diversity of views on the ‘Anthropocene’ is articulated within the scientific community, and the idea has become major cultural meme far more quickly than it has been formally accepted in relevant scientific fields. Whilst some scientists are highly concerned, even alarmed, about the potential for new global risks to threaten human civilisation, others hold and express very different views. For example, another senior group of scientists’ advocate a more solution-oriented focus, termed ‘planetary opportunities’, that navigates a middle ground between those demanding immediate social and economic transformations and those whose unflinching belief in human ingenuity risks complacency. Similarly, environmental scientist Erle Ellis argues the concept and current definition of ‘planetary boundaries’ are hypotheses, not facts, and that we shouldn’t see the Anthropocene as a crisis; and science communicator and environmental journalist Emma Marris, who regularly writes for the journal Nature, recently argued that what’s primarily required is to reframe our conservation goals and relationship with nature. To Marris we should optimistically look forward to a new hybridity of wild nature and human management. Her book Rambunctious Garden describes related unfolding paradigm shifts in ecology and conservation.
The key point is that is that within the futures field we don’t engage with the full diversity of views on the Anthropocene. Perhaps here we also see the influence of dominant discourses.
Exclusion/repression narratives – might these be self-fulfilling?
Another important theme I heard was whether futures/foresight work is effecting generating change, or A) has been ‘captured’ by vested interests that are invested in the status quo, and/or B) is actively opposed by psychological and institutional barriers. This was most explicit in Stephanie Pride’s presentation, but aspects popped-up in many talks (even if only implicitly).
Whilst this is an important topic one concern I have with this is the potential for exclusion and/or repression narratives to be self-fulfilling. That is, rather than discuss how such issues and barriers might be best addressed we dwell on them and/or only look for non-mainstream opportunities for practising foresight (e.g. we don’t discuss how to work more effectively with policy-makers and senior decision-makers). The potentially self-fulfilling aspects are obvious. If foresight work aims to focus only on the grassroots it will be ‘outside the tent’ and become “othered”.
A related perspective that I tried to share at the conference is that futures/foresight work is being widely take-up in sustainability-focussed and oriented contexts and, through this, could be seen to be challenging vested/existing interests. Some recent and current examples:
- The United National Environment Program’s (UNEP) recent use of a foresight process and related ‘foresight panel’ to identify emerging environmental issues. UNEP is able to use its resources etc. to increase the attention given to these issues;
- Collaborative horizon scanning of global conservation issues by senior scientists based in both universities and government (e.g. see this paper). The aim is to identify these issues “sufficiently early to encourage policy-relevant, practical research”;
- Projects run by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), such as the water project (which included development of 2025 water scenarios) and Vision 2050 initiative which was a collaboration between WBCSD and many of the member companies;
- CSIRO projects such as those which were part of the Energy Transformed Flagship (e.g. Energy Futures Forum). The ‘eFuture’ website, http://efuture.csiro.au/, has also be created in which alternative scenarios of Australia’s electricity future can be built;
- Collaborative futures exercises run activism-oriented organisations such as Forum for the Future (e.g. Sustainable Shipping Initiative), the Rocky Mountain Institute (e.g. the Electricity Innovation Lab [e-Lab]). Collaborative innovation/change programs such as the Sustainable Food Laboratory also often incorporate futures tools and processes;
- The RMIT Community Sustainability Program, run by the Global Cities Institute, which has conducted scenario thinking exercises in local communities exposed to climate risks (e.g. see this book chapter) that draw on both scientific and local knowledge;
- Global socio-ecological scenarios looking out to 2100 produced for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which examined the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being;
- McKinsey & Co’s “Resource Revolution” study and consulting services focussed on natural resource risks and challenges, in particular water, energy and food, in a world in which the emerging markets’ growth will further intensify these emerging issues. This study included trend, modelling, and scenario analysis to engage senior decision-makers; and
- The Australia in 2050 project run by the Australian Academy of Science (Kristin Alford mentioned this project in her formal talk at the conference)
The above exercises point to the expanding use of tools and processes such as scenario planning, backcasting and visioning, horizon scanning, and so on. How and why the tools and processes are being used, and adapted for new contexts, is an important area for research – as is what impact these exercises are having (or not having!). Nonetheless, I think the emergence of new forms and contexts of futures work is often not noted in assessments of the field’s impact, role and evolution. It would be great to see this become part of the conversation at future events.
Perspectives not being heard
Some of the most interesting side conversations that I had were with people who felt the need to exclude aspects of themselves in futures practice and when at futures events. These aspects tended to be business-related, such as marketing, banking and finance, and international business. This resonated with me, given my background in advertising and marketing. The following question concerns me, however: if people cannot bring their full professional background and self to the futures/foresight field will the field’s development inevitably be impaired?
The psychological impact of uncertain times and importance of self-care
Two final questions I was left with are: what is the psychological impact of engaging with material often focussed on threats, ‘emergencies’, and for some a sense of unfolding crisis, and how does this shape us as practitioners and people? And can or does this impair our effectiveness? Rather than feeling motivated and inspired to act I was often left feeling a diminished sense of agency in the face of such massive issues. My perception – it could just be perception (not reality) – is that this is also weighing on others. Moreover, if it’s reality, it wasn’t being openly discussed.
Linked with this I came away even more keenly aware of the importance of personal resilience, learning how to deal better with uncertainty, and accepting what we cannot change. RMIT Professor Martin Mulligan talks about the importance of ‘travelling hopefully’ – despite living in a worrying context in which it often seems hard to expect better times to lie ahead and feel hopeful about the future – as well as challenging our desire for predictability. Mulligan’s argument is that we have become too destination oriented and “need to find a way to think differently about how we travel into the future”. This includes being open to unexpected things that might set us on different, unplanned paths – perhaps also changing the destination – and learning to contemplate the journey. The bigger question he asks is can we learn to sustain hope? He suggests we need to learn how to reframe change to see the potential positives (not just the downsides/risks), engage imaginatively with unpredictability, and pay more attention to “the multitude of possibilities that always exists in the here and now”.
Interestingly, environmental writers like Bill McKibben have also worried about the consequences of “obsessing over collapse” (see remarks in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on Tough New Planet). McKibben notes that this can “keep you from considering other possibilities” and, thereby, limit creative thinking. If Mulligan and others are right this requires ‘re-inhabiting’ the world (i.e. the here-and-now) and paying more attention to the emerging, always evolving, possibilities it contains.
Acknowledgements: I thank my partner Melissa, a transpersonal counsellor, for many discussions which helped me to mentally process some of these reflections and to articulate them here.