Some reflections on the decision to cease teaching strategic foresight at Swinburne University

The news is not entirely unexpected, but this week I found out that 2016 is the last year that Swinburne University will offer a Master’s degree in strategic foresight.  In this post I want to provide a personal perspective on this course and the decision to cease teaching strategic foresight.  For me, and perhaps for others, this is an interesting moment for reflection – as such this post is more of a personal reflection with some commentary on the course (as I experienced it back in 2003-05) and related issues.

Back in 2002 I was uncertain whether to apply to do the course.  Although it was somewhat related to work I had been doing in the advertising industry and looked quite intriguing, no one I showed the course brochure to was able to make sense of what was being offered.  People wondered, is this a change management course? Or a strategy course that uses the term foresight to differentiate itself?  Something else?!  A few factors influenced my decision to apply: an impressive sounding institute had been set up related to the course called the Australian Foresight Institute (AFI), which was based at the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship (AGSE) at Swinburne University; some people I respected were patrons of the AFI such as Barry Jones; and I was keen to explore new opportunities after I lost my job due to redundancy (the advertising agency I worked for decided to shrink its workforce and some junior staff were “let go”).  The link to the AGSE made the whole thing seem much less foreign given I’d recently completed a business degree and had been working in advertising.

Doing the course contributed to me being able to pursue some interesting work opportunities but it also often led to frustration and confusion.   One of the banes of my existence has been dealing with people who think I’m a “futurist” or believe I want to be one.  These issues still come up occasionally.  I found that other titles used by graduates like “foresight practitioner” also caused confusion.  In the end I found that job titles like management consultant were a workable alternative for a while.

In my opinion the course never equipped someone to become a futurist anyway.  This added to my frustration.  Most interesting and credible futurists I have come across have deep expertise in at least one domain, often gained from a career working in a field or in specific industries.  They’re typically not generalists with a toolkit which is used to produce insights for any topic or research question.  On this point I think my views differ from some of the staff who taught the course.

My views on this also contrast with some folk teaching foresight at North American universities such as the University of Houston (link, related website).  The program leaders of the University of Houston program argue that it prepares people to become professional futurists (e.g. see this video) and have strong links to a professional body called the Association of Professional Futurists.

Discussions about such issues often go round and round in circles.  Some folk (the enthusiasts) believe that tertiary qualifications can provide a credible basis for determining who is and isn’t a professional futurist and that this can enable the development of a new profession.  I’ve always been skeptical.  Certainly there have been fewer moves in this direction here in Australia.

As I understand it low enrollment numbers was a major contributing factor to the decision to cease teaching strategic foresight at Swinburne University.  I wonder if the kinds of issues outlined above contributed to this problem.  Graduates of the strategic foresight course have few clear career paths or jobs to aspire towards.  Similarly, if you’re interested in a research career there are few research options, although in Europe there is some research on “corporate foresight”, “technology foresight” and “organisational future-orientation”.  In contrast if you do, say, a marketing degree, there are clear paths towards working in the marketing department of a company or you can work in related industries such as advertising or market research.

Related to this there may be lessons to learn regarding consideration of the post-course prospects of students.  This didn’t seem to be a priority when I did the course, although perhaps this changed.

Beyond these issues I’ve often reflected on the course, what I learned (as part of the 2003-05 cohort), and its impact.  This seems like a good moment to articulate some thoughts.

It’s fair to say that when I enrolled to do the strategic foresight Master’s course I was primarily interested in enhancing my analytical, planning and forecasting skills.  At the time I was working in strategic planning and trend analysis/tracking roles which, in part, involved efforts to understand and anticipate emerging trends and related commercial opportunities and risks.  The notion of “strategic foresight” is quite a strong promise or claim in these sorts of commercial contexts.  However, it quickly became apparent to me that the course was not principally about this!

I’ve often felt that this was one of the disconnects between the idea that the course produces “futurists” and the course content.  Instead the course was far more philosophical and big picture in nature than I expected.  It was taught by staff who often had a missionary zeal – indeed, “futures studies” felt more like a social movement (rather than an emerging academic discipline) that aimed to advance socio-political agendas.  It appears that this aspect of the program reduced overtime but it was a big part of the experience for early cohorts.  At the time I found this intriguing but I also observed the varied level of comfort with these social movement aspects.  Few participants had signed up for this.

Importantly, when I completed the degree it was a Master of Science degree.  My degree certificate states that I hold a ‘Master of Science (Strategic Foresight)’.  Reflecting on this aspect I always felt uncomfortable with it being a science degree.  Something that became apparent to me during the course was that no matter what technical tools or techniques are developed for doing future-oriented inquiry such research will require people to exercise their judgement and, thus, such inquiry is always shaped by the subjective perspectives of whoever does the analysis.  Moreover, knowledge production always occurs “in a more or less messy set of practical contingencies” (Law, 2004, p.13).

Even strongly routinised areas of forward-looking applied research such macroeconomic forecasting typically don’t involve purely mathematical procedures and aren’t objective (Beckert 2016).  I credit the Master’s degree with developing my interest in the epistemic practices of forecasters and others doing forward-looking analysis and related social factors (e.g. the influence of power relations).

These realisations – about the centrality of non-technical aspects in forward-looking inquiry (and related questions about whether such research is scientific) – continue to shape my research and thinking.  It led me to ask more critical questions about research used in environmental movements and to focus more on understanding the influence of non-technical aspects. The latter interest includes both social influences on the analysis that is done and related artifacts (e.g. reports, sets of scenarios, etc) as well as the influence of social forces/factors on the ways such studies are interpreted and used.

I think doing the course increased my wariness of ideology presented as science (though I also reject a positivist epistemology for social science).  In part this is because some of the research by scholars in the futures studies field is strongly influenced by ideology but this tends to be obscured.

Independent of much of the course content something that I found thought-provoking was the contrast between the anti-capitalist views of the course professor (during the period in which I completed it) as well as some other students and the context in which we met, i.e. at a school of entrepreneurship (although social entrepreneurship was also being explored by some folk at AGSE).  This prompted me to engage much more with these ideas, futuristic studies we were exposed to (e.g. the Limits to Growth study, one of the best-selling environmental books of all time), and related sustainability debates that have intensified in recent decades.

Over time I stepped back from such debates and asked related questions such as: what makes actors have certain expectations and not others?  What influences which future states of the world are judged to be plausible or implausible?  Additionally, despite the well-known limits of anticipation, why do actors form and articulate strong expectations?  These turned out to be non-trivial questions.

The course also stimulated greater interest in contemporary attempts to look further into the future (in one publication my co-authors and I termed such shifts in temporal disposition and time orientation an “anticipatory shift”) and greater skepticism.  Rather than seeing perfect foresight as a goal that might be aspired towards – or getting increasingly frustrated by the tendency of human beings to be less rational and deliberative than I would like them to be/become – I’m now more interested in better understanding and enhancing action processes under uncertainty.  Given the unknowability of many aspects of the future and the cognitive limitations of human beings action consequently must often be taken under conditions of uncertainty.  Whilst the course didn’t cover issues related to the limits of human cognitive powers in much detail (at least when I did it), in a roundabout way it did suggest to me that new understandings of action under uncertainty may be necessary.

Some closing thoughts: the course had a profound impact on many participants, including myself, independent of any skill development or technical training.  To my knowledge few graduates developed successful careers in “foresight” work, but in other respects the course had lasting effects.  I suspect I’d be living a very different life if I hadn’t done it.  I’m sure others feel the same way.

Cited literature

Beckert, J. 2016, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, Harvard University Press.

Law, J. 2004, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, Routledge.

2 comments

  1. James Gillespie says:

    Stephen

    It has been too long!

    So glad i took the time to click on your link.

    Your take on the course and your experience of it, as well as your observations and statements on foresight, futurists, etc. are very refreshing, and reassuring to me. There are many similarites to my thoughts.

    Of course it came to an end!

    I took a number of units of the Master of Entrepreneurship course and saw the chasm that needed to be crossed to offer relevance and garner understanding and respect for the potential of thinking about the future. Particularly for this seperate species, the ‘Entrepreneur’.

    Those lucky enough to have experienced the course only have themselves to blame if they don’t take the baton and run with it. Each in a slightly different direction hopefully.

    Your observations in so many ways resonate with my reflections of why i chose to apply, my experience during the course, and the large amount of work i have undertaken to use the best of what I learnt, and to explore so much new thinking to direct my current thinking and clarify a direction for my own practice.

    I know that it was the ‘right’ course at the ‘right’ time. My thinking, values, abilities and experience would not be where they are today if i had not been offered a place in that Masters of Science. It was all that i hoped it would be, yet in time i came to realise it bore little relationship to the course brochure description or unit titles.

    So many very bright people, so much good will. So many links to alternative ways of knowing, etc.

    Like you i think learning how to thrive in a space of uncertainty, is critical, and of most use.

    In my case recognising the particular needs of operating in complex and chaotic spaces is paramount to effective leadership. Particularly how these areas fit as a natural progression from traditional business and thinking, and how all can be accessed to allow new thinking, new ideas, new products and services, and thus new and successful businesses.

    It is the understanding of context that opens up possibilities in this space for me.

    If you would like to catch up any time, let me know. Always happy to travel for good coffee and interesting thinking. Thanks for your frank and honest thoughts.

    James

  2. Stephen McGrail says:

    Hi James,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and sharing your thoughts on the course. Glad to hear my rambles resonated with your experience and had some value.

    For me personally, I don’t fully agree with your sentiment (which I’ve heard others express too) that – roughly speaking – “the course wasn’t what was promised [in course brochure, unit titles, etc], or what I expected, but it was everything I needed…”. I’m not so sure for me that the course was everything I needed. But I tried to keep an open mind and to get the most value from it that I could. It also would have been preferable if what was delivered was more in keeping with what was promised.

    All the best,
    Stephen

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