PhD intentions and motivations

The past few days I’ve been reading Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future (Pilkey & Pilkey-Jarvis, 2007), and scanning Gareth Priday‘s Master’s thesis which reviews the recent growth in neuropsychology (along with other areas of psychological research) relevant to ‘mental time travel’ and explores what the implications for foresight might be.

In different ways both have prompted greater thought about my PhD intentions and motivations. Some key points are listed below for reflection and to revisit later as the project evolves… but they begin to ‘unpack’ why the relationship between futures and sustainability is important.


1) The recent (problematic) rise of quantitative mathematical (predictive) modelling amid efforts to cope with new complexities (c.f. Useless Arithmetic)

Useless Arithmetic is a polemical critique of the increasing use of quantitative mathematical models for understanding and predicting natural processes (e.g., processes on the surface of the Earth, the outcomes of complex natural and human-related processes); especially the growth in the use of such models as a basis for policy. The authors’ catalogue and discuss numerous failures and challenges, such as in modelling marine ecosystems, climate change (e.g., for predicting sea level rise), or in managing shoreline erosion problems, along with critiquing past modelling projects such as Limits to Growth and the modelling of energy resources/futures (e.g., availability, limits, usage, etc.). To Pilkey & Pilkey-Jarvis (2007) attempts to “truly quantify the future” are just an “academic exercise”, of which “none can predict accurately the outcome of natural processes”.

Three aspects of the critique are particularly interesting: the discussion of politics and modelling (e.g., modeling used as a “fig leaf” that provides cover for politicians, political priorities influencing models and predictions); the claims that increasing reliance on mathematical model-based predictions can be a barrier to solutions (e.g., enabling the stalling of action until accurate projections/predictions can be delivered); their argument that a widespread shift in expectations and practices is needed (in sections titled ‘A Qualitative World’ and ‘A World Without Models’). E.g. they write “accurate estimates of the outcome of natural processes must not be expected or required” (pp.192-3), and note alternatives such as adaptive management/adaptive staging, contingency scenarios (e.g., via scenario planning), and normative scenarios.

The book reminded me of the current centrality of prediction – and looking ahead, managing change, etc. – to many aspects of environment management and the additional problems this can create. The authors note, in more balanced sections of the book, that such practices are often a way of coping with new complexities. Overall, it has re-sparked my passion for helping to enable more effective ways of looking ahead and thinking about the future – along with deepening my grasp of the importance of this in the context of sustainability challenges such as climate change.

The authors are pessimistic. They contend that the applied mathematical modelling of complex systems and natural processes will likely continue, and even accelerate; unless skepticism and recognition of failures (and their social consequences) arrests the trend. Key reasons for this, they assert, is “the unwritten pecking order of the sciences” with physics and math in number one position and, further, “thinking like physicists and not recognising complexity is what allowed us to escape from reality through quantitative modelling” (p.202). Naomi Oreskes suggests this can provide a false sense of security and ‘an unwarranted confidence in our scientific expertise’.

The authors further argue that “probably the main opposition of casting aside the quantitative approach to predicting the path of natural processes will be the engineering community” (p.196). I know what they mean! Work I’ve done for firms with an engineering culture has been challenging. This has stimulated an interest in understanding the barriers to adopting ‘foresight’ practices.

2) Promises unfilled, and the recent increase in critical literature

The last chapter of Useless Arithmetic is titled ‘A Promise Unfulfilled’; meaning that, based on the series of case studies, they conclude that set of issues (e.g. theoretical, methodological, socio-political, etc.) mean that quantitative modelling isn’t delivering on its promises and often has negative social consequences. This book is only one example of the recent growth in critical literature. Others are critiquing the increasing use of climate and other the Earth System models for long-term projections (e.g. Mike Hulme, Roger Pielke Jr, etc.), and greater attempts at advance assessment of emerging technologies such as to anticipate social/ethical implications and environmental risks (e.g. Williams’ piece on ‘compressed foresight’, and Joyce Tait on the problems that our unavoidably poor capacity to predict long-range technology futures and anticipate the future outcomes of basic scientific research raise for the governance of science).

These critics raise concerns about the potential downsides (or darksides) to increasing futures research. Hulme raises concerns about the re-emergence of determinism. Williams similarly raises concerns about ‘determinant projections’ that miss the “unpredictability and serendipity of social and technical outcomes [from technological change]”. Many others have raised issues that must be addressed for futures research, more broadly, to live up to its promises (e.g. Jerome Glenn).

Such literature has influenced my thinking. Constructive engagement with these criticisms can help to advance futures research and practice. However, I also think a more nuanced views need to be developed considering potential pitfalls and benefits. Moreover, I believe that efforts to better understand or address complex sustainability problems is an essential context to analyse this.

3) The need to better understand the challenges to operationalising ‘foresight’ and ‘sustainability’ (c.f. Gareth Priday’s thesis)

Many scholars have noted that thinking and acting across temporal scales is inherent to sustainability, along with concern towards the future and taking responsibility for actions that affect future people. Moreover, linked with this, such scholars often also note that there is little consensus about the operational characteristics of the idea of sustainability. That is, the ‘what’ and ‘how’ for achieving such thinking and acting. Quantitative models can help, but can often also be a hindrance (as noted above and in Useless Arithmetic). Can the challenges (and the opportunities) for operationalising sustainability be better understood and, thereby, be overcome?

Psychological research is clarifying, on the one hand, the basis of prospection (i.e., of mental predictions) and why prospection errors are regularly made, and, on the other hand, psychological barriers to considering the longer-term. The good news from a sustainability point-of-view: research suggests human are unique in their capacity to anticipate the consequences of future events that they’ve never experienced – providing the possibility of partly avoiding Richard Slaughter’s dialectic of foresight and experience. The bad news: psychologists also argue we’re hard-wired to be more present-oriented, to discount the future, and to not care much about longer-term future. (Similarly, Richard Hames recently remarked about “our pathological tendency to focus only on the present”). Memory is central to prospection – i.e. we extrapolate – which can also be problematic.

Like many in the futures field I’m motivated by the potential to further harness this capacity for prospection and the need to address prospection errors and limitations. (Although the ‘bad news’ needs to be considered). It seems to me that ‘foresight’ practices – drawing on the psychological research – can and should be a part of enabling the paradigm shift towards sustainability.

4) Fascination about emerging foresight/futures practices

Some scholars and practitioners point to experimentation with new types of futures work that is more suitable for understanding and addressing ‘wicked’ problems / complex societal challenges (e.g., major sustainability issues). For example, Wilkinson (2012) points to more collaborative futures work (with multiple clients, rather than a single client), such as that conducted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Kahane (2012) points to redesigning futures methods so they are explicitly ‘transformative’ (i.e., not forecasting tools) and, similarly, are incorporated into multi-stakeholder change processes. Various change consultancies have begun to adopt and develop these practices, such as Forum for the Future and Reos Partners.

More broadly, we’re seeing the emergence of lots of new practices such as ‘environmental horizon scanning’, ‘sustainability assessment’ (which typically includes scenario analysis, and visioning), and the increasing use of new backcasting approaches in sustainability research.

These are important innovations. However, these practices have often not been well-characterised (e.g., theory-light) or scruntised, which will help to understand and improve their effectiveness. To my mind practice has raced ahead of theory, which suggests the need for research. I agree with Wilkinson & Mangalagiu (2012) who recently called for more research into “how collaborative futures practices are evolving to deal with new puzzles and wicked problems”.

 5) Socio-political dimensions and impacts

I’ve also developed an interest in what could be termed the social aspects to prediction and prospective thinking in this space (esp. environmental activism and management). For example, activists are often quick to jump on predictions (or forecasts) that are consistent with their agendas. Their opponents consistently argue alarmist speculation is (again) being used to try to terrify the world into compliance. These dynamics seems to have intensified over the past few decades and, moreover, no not appear to be conducive to enabling timely societal action!

Interestingly, the environmental movement often embraces quantitative mathematical models. For example, those used in estimating ‘planetary boundaries’ (system thresholds) and Earth’s carrying capacity, and climate modelling. It may turn out that environmentalists are a key barrier to moving towards alternative approaches (e.g. more qualitative approaches) – not just engineers!

(My 2011 paper ‘Environmentalism in Transition?’ [in JFS] also touches on some of these issues, as does Professor Mike Hulme’s recent paper titled ‘Reducing the Future to Climate’ [in Osiris])


A general point of reflection is the tension I often feel between ‘big picture’ questions and being pragmatic. The former centres on the broader sustainability debate (e.g., complex questions about capitalism/growth, existential crises of industrial civilisation [of which climate change is probably the most serious expression], potential for societal breakdowns/collapse, etc.); the later centres on defining a meaningful and doable research project and not getting lost in the big picture! Striking a balance will be a challenge, one that I’m sure many PhD students have grappled with.

In part this dilemma is caught up with the broader context in which this PhD research will be conducted. Richard Hames recently argued that “our future has become unclear and the way confused” and we need new ways to chart ” a drastic course correction”.

A doable research project might simply be identifying and examining trends in futures research and practices and using case study methods as part of a broader evaluation of their impacts and effectiveness. How is futures practice evolving/need to evolve to address contemporary ‘wicked’ problems? Has the experience and outcomes of these practices met expectations? How can the outcomes be evaluated? (This is similar to my PhD project proposal).

Related big pictures themes to give the project meaning might include key questions about: how to accelerate the radical innovations required to address sustainability problems (e.g., advancing clean energy systems; financing issues); the role of futures inquiry in operationalising ‘sustainability’ and related challenges that must be addressed (e.g. in developing new/shared visions, addressing potential pitfalls such as determinism); governance and long-term planning (e.g., avoiding past pitfalls of ‘central planning’; related ideological barriers to government interventions in sustainability problems). In addition, as an aspiring ‘change agent’, I hope my research will help me to become a more effective practitioner and to develop greater ‘agency’.

A core thread running through these questions is climate change, which raises issues about innovation, enabling forward planning, vision (of positive zero-carbon futures), and anticipatory action (e.g., see Anthony Gidden’s book The Politics of Climate Change). Climate change risks, responses, and politics may turn out to be an important theme in my research!**

My increasing interest in broader ‘environment-society relations’ has also shaped my PhD topic. Environmental change and issues – and how societies identify and respond (or don’t respond) to these – appear central to twenty-first century futures and beyond.

**Giddens emphasises four areas where progress is needed to achieve a step-change:

1. Finding a way back to a politics of the long-term (e.g., a return to planning); this includes finding a new relationship between the state and markets

2. Finding a way of controlling political polarisation around climate change  (i.e., no longer part of left/right political conflict)

3. Mustering enthusiasm for change – it’s not enough to talk in terms of avoiding catastrophe, we need to develop a more positive view of what can be achieved through a low-carbon economy and a sustainability agenda.

4. Developing an alternative models of development, both in developed and developing countries. Linked with this, Giddens calls for ‘utopian realism’ – thinking beyond the world in which we live right now (utopian), but grounded in real trends and current imperatives

Postscript: I intend to spend the next fortnight reflecting further on my PhD intentions and motivations, as I take a break ahead of starting my PhD in early January. (I say “take a break”, but to be honest I will be reading from time-to-time a textbook on qualitative inquiry and research design so that I’m in a better place to plan my research project in the New Year…).

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