How can ‘sustainability impasses’ be best understood and dealt with (ideally broken)? This increasingly seems like one of the most important questions. Just look at the situations of (mostly) inaction and major, increasing conflicts around the management of the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia over the proposed ‘Basin Plan’ for more sustainable water use, over major energy system transitions (in many countries, including Australia), and climate policy. Additionally, I’ve found in my research on emerging science and technology (e.g. new biotechnologies such as genetically modified foods, nanotechnology) more frequent stalemates on issues concerning technological risk, which has led to greater, mostly unsuccessful, use of deliberative exercises such as ‘consensus conferences’ (to-date use of these exercises has tended not to resolve such conflict). Other writers points to additional impasses being reached on global health challenges – such as the persistent problems of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and respiratory disease caused by indoor air pollution.
A recent paper on ‘sustainability impasses’ argues that these owe “less to lack of awareness, knowledge, technology, or resources, and more to a suite of other reasons like economic priorities or human cognition, social neglects and denial”, and commonly result from “inadequate use of science; competing interests and values; a disconnection between science, practice and policy; or any combination thereof”. If we, for example, think about the example of major energy system transitions (especially stationery energy) this sounds about right.
Many fields provide specific suggestions to address impasses such as these. Environmental economists typically suggest examining and modifying incentives (e.g. via price-based measures or changing ownership/property rights). Some sustainability researchers, informed by evolutionary economics and institutionalists, point to a need to understand and address “lock-in” problems (e.g. institutional, or technological lock-in) due to path dependence often caused by sunk costs; others highlight transition barriers such as “policy cooptation” that can combine with “lock-in” dynamics. Scholars from the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies advocate frame analysis and use of re-framing processes – that consider a wider range of disciplinary perspectives, along with relevant theory (e.g. ‘transitions’ theory) – to trigger redefinition of problems and reveal new facets that may support resolution. These Lund Uni scholars contend that ‘boundary work’ is also likely to be needed to facilitate solutions, by bridging current knowledge barriers or enabling other transfers (e.g. of capital). Other social and physical science disciplines will offer additional important perspectives.
A question that therefore comes to mind is what specific suggestions would the futures field provide? What roles could futures research and practices play in breaking such ‘impasses’? Two distinct aspects stand out: 1) better, more timely, anticipation of potential forthcoming (sustainability) issues and problems, especially where changes can then be effectively accommodated; and 2) enabling more future-minded innovation and change, which should also include anticipating both the intended and unintended consequences of new policies. For some current sustainability problems it is probably too late for the former (although leaving responses too late might be seen as an important contributor to impasses due to constrained options). The latter focus on creating change and ‘deliberate transformation’ is the main game but what specific suggestions emerge from futures theory, research and practice?
My initial recent reading of some futures and related literature (e.g. from Science & Technology Studies [STS], management science) highlights a few important potentials:
- Exploiting/mobilising the performative power of expectations (about the future). This principally refers to the potential for images of the future to influence the present, which can inform specific suggestions around vision-building and vision promotion, and increasing awareness of dangers (which are then hoped to become self-denying prophecies). The challenge here is that many actors play these strategic ‘expectations games’ (e.g. promoting different, competing visions) which, consequently, makes the future highly contested.
- Use of futures methods to assist with ‘re-framing problems’, and as way to elicit and then change ‘mental models’ (e.g. causal layered analysis can be useful for frame analysis and re-framing, and early use of scenarios at Shell was focussed on challenging the mental models of senior managers). This potential indicates ways in which futures research and practices could intersect with sustainability research.
- Use of futures methods in firms to promote and agree sustainability strategies. One recent example of this is Nike’s use of scenario planning which led to major new sustainability commitments, and highly innovative new product development. Futurists such as Peter Saul and Sohail Inayatullah have also shown how futures methods can be helpful when identifying and conceptualising potential new products and services.
- Use of futures methods to facilitate change in complex multi-stakeholder situations/problems. Angela Wilkinson from Oxford University has written about how innovative forms of scenario-building/analysis can contribute to collaborative action. Linked with this, some scholars have argued that scenarios can be better harnessed as ‘boundary objects’ that support deliberative processes and governance.
The above potentials are unique suggestions, but they also can be linked with those emerging from other disciplines. For example, scenario analysis can be conducted to consider the potential for problematic unintended consequences from changes to economic incentives.
A basic additional argument that futures practitioners can, and should, make is that sustainability strategies must be informed by a ‘forward view’ that considers alternative scenarios (e.g. relevant to an organisation). Sophisticated temporal perspectives are required (e.g. sustained for how long?) and normative aspects (preferred futures) must also be considered.
Similarly, Peter Bishop (from the University of Houston futures program) and co-authors recently wrote a paper in Ecology & Society on ‘Strengthening Environmental Foresight’ via futures research. In their view, potential benefits from applying futures research in environmental domains can be expected because it “encourages decision makers to think big”, and futures methods can enable “taking into account a diversity of perspectives”. They write:
With its transdisciplinarity, methodological pluralism, and insights into the nature of change, futures research can help all stakeholders take a broader and more creative view. Futures research promotes thinking big in terms of multiple disciplinary perspectives, creative problem solving, and a systems perspective, in addition to the obvious inclusion of temporal scales that are beyond the range usually considered in environmental decision making. The complexity of environmental problems requires envisioning a wide and creative range of alternative futures, and resilient decisions must include consideration of the broad context.
Additionally, they link futures research and practices to the increasing focus on adaptive capacity (e.g. building system resilience), and increasing responsiveness to unfolding changes.
This is clearly an emerging topic in the futures community. In their recent paper Peter Bishop et al focus on the potential of futures research to improve environmental planning and policy. Richard Slaughter advocates more critical and ‘integral’ futures work that challenges the status quo on a much more ‘macro’ scale (in particular the economic growth imperative), based on the core assumption that only post-growth societies and futures can be sustainable. Other practitioners offer additional methodological suggestions and analysis of sustainability problems (e.g. Josh Floyd, Peter Ellyard). I’m keen to hear from others who are also considering these challenges.