Key themes and publications

Doctoral research (PhD thesis): “The roles and use of prospective knowledge practices in sustainability-related transitions: a realist evaluation and pragmatist synthesis”

ABSTRACT: Although attempts to explore the future and to assess or influence expectations are common in sustainability-related transitions, too little research has examined the utility of such activities. To address this, this thesis develops the concept of prospective knowledge practices (PKPs) and investigates their roles and use. An evaluative case study is presented which examines the “futures forums” run by staff at Australia’s peak research agency, CSIRO. A theory-driven approach to evaluation was used called realist evaluation. Critical consideration of elicited intervention theories and social scientific perspectives informed the development and consideration of explanatory inferences, with a view to accounting for the outcome patterns of three futures forums. This analysis reveals the importance of the social, political, and reasoning dimensions of PKPs, given the evidence of their influence on the use and roles of PKPs. The thesis builds on this research to outline prescriptions for enhancing the use of PKPs in transition contexts which are grounded in a pragmatist philosophical perspective. A core focus is enabling greater reflection on habits of thought and action (of both the participants in such exercises and practitioners). The study also demonstrates that such reflection can be informed by evaluative inquiry.

If you would like read my thesis it is available in the UTS Digital Theses collection:

Beyond this study I have a number of related research interests and associated peer-reviewed publications which reflect the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches adopted in my research. My research interests also reflect the forms of applied social research that I have conducted and would like to contribute to:

Evaluation research and the roles and use of evaluative inquiry

My doctoral research also explored evaluation research (in particular theory-driven and realist approaches to evaluation) and the potential roles of evaluative inquiry. Traditionally, accountability and social inquiry have been seen as providing the dual foundations of evaluation research. Whilst accountability can be an important underpinning focus of such research – particularly in governmental contexts and in the context of results-based management systems – I have explored broader potential roles for evaluation in the context of wicked problems. I am keen to continue using and exploring learning-centric models for evaluation research. Additionally, practices used for evaluation research and related learning processes can be seen as knowledge practices that can be studied.

Related key publication:

  • McGrail, S. 2014, ‘Rethinking the roles of evaluation in learning how to solve ‘wicked’ problems: The case of anticipatory techniques used to support climate change mitigation and adaptation’, Evaluation Journal of Australasia, vol. 14, no. 2, 4-16. (Paper awarded Rosalind Hurworth Prize and subsequently published in the Evaluation Journal of Australasia)

Climate change and society and decarbonisation processes

Finally, over the past 14-15 years I’ve worked on a number of climate change-related projects and occasionally published papers addressing climate change and society issues and associated practices that are commonly used to promote/enable change (e.g. visioning exercises). I’m also interested in how human-induced climate change is constructed, addressed and contested as a public issue.

Related key publications:

  • McGrail, S. 2013, ‘Climate Change and Futures Epistemologies: Tensions, Trends and Possibilities in Climate Discourses Epitomised by Three Prominent Climate Experts’, Journal of Futures Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, 21-40.
  • McGrail, S. 2013, ‘Climate action under an Abbott government’,
  • McGrail, S., Gaziulusoy, A.I. & Twomey, P. 2015, ‘Simple in Theory, but not in Practice: A ‘Warts and All’ Reflection on the Use of Visioning Exercises in Urban Contexts’, State of Australian Cities Conference, Gold Coast, Queensland (link).
  • McGrail, S., Gaziulusoy, A.I. & Twomey, P. 2015, ‘Framing Processes in the Envisioning of Low-Carbon, Resilient Cities: Results from Two Visioning Exercises’, Sustainability, vol. 7, no. 7, 8649-83

Psychosocial aspects of, and barriers to, envisioning the future

This research concerns the ways that expectations, and actors abilities (and inabilities) to effectively envision the future, are influenced by psychological and socio-cultural factors. The research is also informed and influenced by other social scientists such as Karen Cerulo (e.g. see her book Never Saw it Coming), Thomas Suddendorf (see his fascinating book The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals), Andrew Lakoff (link) and Jens Beckert (see Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics).

Related key publications:

  • McGrail, S., Gaziulusoy, A.I. & Twomey, P. 2015, ‘Framing Processes in the Envisioning of Low-Carbon, Resilient Cities: Results from Two Visioning Exercises’, Sustainability, vol. 7, no. 7, 8649-83.
  • McGrail, S. 2013, ‘Framing and reframing the emerging ‘planetary crisis’: A plea to avoid, and for increasing critique of, neoenvironmental determinism’, On the Horizon, vol. 21, no. 3, 230-46.
  • McGrail, S. 2013, Australia’s ‘carbon budget black hole’: fact or political fiction?, viewed July 12 2013,

The production and use of anticipatory knowledge

This research draws on my own practitioner experiences (e.g. use of scenario methods and visioning processes in consulting work), earlier studies of ‘strategic foresight’ (link) and in science and technology studies, and also explores the temporal work done by actors in innovation processes (on this theme also see my PhD research). It involves research on key techniques of prospection (e.g. see McGrail 2012, McGrail 2016) and attempts to produce and mobilise claims about the future for various purposes.

Related key publications:

  • McGrail, S. 2010, ‘Nano Dreams and Nightmares: Emerging Technoscience and the Framing and (re)Interpreting of the Future, Present and Past’, Journal of Futures Studies, vol. 14, no. 4, 23-48. (My most cited paper)
  • McGrail, S. 2012, ”Cracks in the System’: Problematisation of the Future and the Growth of Anticipatory and Interventionist Practices’, Journal of Futures Studies, vol. 16, no. 3 (March), 21-46.
  • McGrail, S. 2016, ‘On being and becoming more of a foresight skeptic’, Compass (publication of the Association of Professional Futurists), January, pp. 17-20. (Pdf of Futures Symposium published in Compass)

Environmental movements, philosophy and politics

One of my developing research interests is environmental movements and politics, encompassing trends and issues in modern environmentalism and the contemporary nature of environmental politics. Of particular interest are the ‘prospective turn’ in environmental thought (see blogpost), formation of beliefs about sustainability threats/issues, and associated public policy challenges and political movements.

Related key publications:

  • McGrail, S. 2011, ‘Environmentalism in Transition? Emerging Perspectives, Issues and Futures Practices in Contemporary Environmentalism’, Journal of Futures Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, 117-44. (Awarded 2012 Jan Lee Martin Foundation award for this paper)
  • McGrail, S. 2013, ‘Framing and reframing the emerging ‘planetary crisis’: A plea to avoid, and for increasing critique of, neoenvironmental determinism’, On the Horizon, vol. 21, no. 3, 230-46.
  • McGrail, S. 2012, ‘Does ‘conservative environmentalism’ really unite? A review of the book Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet by Roger Scruton’,, June 20,
  • McGrail, S. 2010, ‘Is Sustainability the Enemy of Progress or the Key to Creating a Future Worth Having? Three Provocative Perspectives on Sustainability, Climate Change and the Future’, Journal of Futures Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 31 – 40.