Sohail Inayatullah recently published a new book which has the bold title What Works: Case Studies in the Practice of Foresight. The book provides an overview of Inayatullah’s approach to futures studies (the “six pillars” approach) but the core of the book is nine case studies, three chapters on methodological innovations, and an effort to distil some lessons and reflections about ‘what works’.
It’s useful to have a diverse range of case studies brought together in one place for easy review and comparison. This feature alone is probably worth the price of admission, so to speak. I have little doubt that the book will be a useful reference for people learning the foresight craft. Inayatullah has attempted to define some simple principles for futures thinking with broad applicability.
However, the case examples vary a little in depth and related limitations need to be considered. The cases generally only emphasise the facilitators’ take on the exercise and its success – rather than, for example, presenting the first-hand views and reflections of participants and other stakeholders – and often only present a limited period of time. Inayatullah argues that “evaluating foresight cannot be done in traditional time frames” (p.245) however the cases in the book to some extent also suffer from this limitation. Addressing such limitations is difficult and time consuming however this may be an area for improvement if Inayatullah publishes an updated or revised second edition.
For me two of the most important issues that ought to have been addressed more deeply in What Works are the deep ambiguity that there often is around what ‘worked’ means in foresight practice and, linked with this, the issue of how one might rigorously establish ‘what works’ as well as clarifying what doesn’t ‘work’. The concluding chapter points to such issues but doesn’t go into them in much depth. Inayatullah notes “the problem of defining success” (p. 244) and importance of clarifying goals. The related assertion that “part of defining success depends on how one wishes to use the future” (p.248) highlights the problem and suggests an instrumental focus (i.e. ‘using’ the future as a means to some other end). The diverse interpretations of what ‘worked’ means in foresight practice (and associated goals) is emphasised by the following passage:
If it is a tool, then success is the correct application of the tool. If it is to develop strategy, then success is whether the futures approach – concepts and methods – informed the new strategy, making it more robust, deeper, and resilient. If the goal is to enhance capacity, then success is whether the approaches and methods informed what the individuals did in their lives, in the short, medium and long term. Did they change, and were they able to impact change in others? For example, in the e-health futures project in Bangladesh, among the successes was one of the organizers winning an international award for an innovative mobile health application that connects rural patients with doctors. Finally, if the goal is to create emergence, to destabilize the organization, to ask tough questions, then success is if a new future emerged, even if the transition was difficult. The framing questions are does the organization have a new purpose, a new vision, is it more prepared for the changing landscape? (p. 248)
The closest Inayatullah gets to clearly stating what success in foresight work ultimately means to him is the following statement in the concluding chapter: “foresight is about challenging assumptions about self, society, nature, technology, the planet, and enhancing agency” (p. 245). There are two key components in this mission statement: challenging assumptions and enhancing agency. Similarly, the book makes occasional reference to change agents, “foresight interventions” and the goal of “creating not just the possibility but the reality of alternative worlds, alternative futures” (p.21). The initial chapter links this to trends in futures studies. That is, he argues “the study of the future has moved from predicting the future to mapping alternative futures to shaping desired futures” (p.2).
However, I would suggest that this dual focus on challenging assumptions and enhancing agency begs more questions than it answers. For example, whose agency should be enhanced or should be the focus of foresight practices? Rarely is everyone’s agency enhanced by a foresight exercise through some sort of ‘win-win-win’ outcome (although this may be an ideal of sorts to aspire towards in some contexts). More commonly different outcomes would occur (e.g. some peoples’ agency is enhanced whereas the agency of others does not increase or declines). I know that I’ve grappled with such dilemmas in my own work. It would be great to hear more, deeper reflections from experienced practitioners on these sorts of issues. Additionally, are some assumptions (about ‘self, society, nature, technology, the planet’) more valid than others? Or is the goal of a foresight exercise to challenge all assumptions held by all participants? How is this issue considered and reckoned with in a foresight process? How should it be? The generic goal of challenging assumptions sounds good and quite straightforward but in practice things can be much more complicated. I found What Works to be pretty much silent on such issues and questions. Hopefully an updated or revised second edition could address them too.
Interestingly the book ends by questioning the idea that we can definitively define ‘what works’ in foresight. Inayatullah asserts that “there cannot be nor should there be a recipe for success in foresight. Rather, it is best if each one of us experiment and develop our own ways forward” (p. 248). Aside from a call to experiment and innovate this statement potentially also points to the need for further reflection on what lessons can be drawn from practice and their transferability or broader validity. I applaud Inayatullah for openly and reflexively questioning the extent to which his approach and insights can be considered a “recipe for success”. However, the book is strangely silent on related questions about the transferability of the principles and insights Inayatullah has developed. Perhaps this also remains to be determined as part of the experimental approach to foresight noted in the Preface to the book.