My ‘strategic foresight’ studies

Some of the themes of this blog (and my research) are influenced by the Master of Science (Strategic Foresight) degree I completed between 2003 and 2005, which was taught at Swinburne University (located in Melbourne, Australia) from 2001-2018. Here I wish to briefly discuss this experience from my own perspective (recognising that others had different experiences and likely also have different views on the course), and draw out some learnings which potentially have wider relevance.

Some personal framing context: I learned that this degree existed in the course of doing some web-based research prompted by a work task I was given when I worked in the planning department of an advertising agency. In 2002 in was asked to do some trend analysis and future scenario exploration work for some clients of this agency. I looked online for material on potential approaches or methodologies, or tools or other materials, that may help me to complete this unusual task. During this research I spotted an intriguing course being offered at Swinburne University via an impressive sounding institute called the ‘Australian Foresight Institute’ (AFI) which was established in 1999 as part of the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship (AGSE) in the Faculty of Business and Enterprise at Swinburne. I had also been involved in a global socio-cultural trends research project run by this ad agency and begun to develop an interest in such social research. Colleagues I showed the course brochure to were a bit unclear on the likely content, as was I, and also appeared fairly “suspicious”, but when I was retrenched by this ad agency in early 2003 I gave further studies more thought and decided to apply to do the ‘Master of Science (Strategic Foresight)’ degree. I recall thinking that it might help me to shift my career in new directions beyond the advertising and marketing work I was doing after completing a marketing degree, but I don’t recall thinking too deeply about what I might be about to embark upon.

When I enrolled I wasn’t seeking to become a “futurist”, nor a “foresight practitioner” which I hadn’t heard of prior to doing the course. Subsequently, I found such labels were often attached to some of the work I was doing and I found this problematic, especially the notion of being a “futurist”. (Strangely, such labels seem to be becoming much more popular).

I also wasn’t aware of the broader efforts over many decades to establish a new discipline called “futures studies” which informed the course and key personnel involved in establishing it who contended that this ‘discipline’ provided foresight activities with a rigorous intellectual basis. What we might term the modern futures movement was to large extent a product (and reflection) of the 1960s and early-mid 1970s period much like many other reform movements. Within this movement I witnessed cult-like adherence to particular ideas and styles of thought. Indeed, advocacy of “futures studies” would also turn out to be linked to wider socio-political agendas which went well the focus on preparing people for professional work in a specific area or domain (which is more typically the focus of Master’s degrees) – along with beliefs about the existence and urgency of related social problems – and it sought to help rescue humanity from an unliveable emerging future. As I note below, at the time I wasn’t dismissive of some of these ideas and wider agendas – and they do have some validity – but I later gained more critical distance.

In the course I also developed a better understanding of the concept of sustainability. One of the course units as focused on this and the ‘triple bottom line’. Exposure to more radical conceptualisations of ‘sustainability’ was an unexpected aspect of the course.

Finally, via this course and other experiences I also developed a stronger interest in what Harro van Lente terms prevailing “repertoires of the future” and how these can condition (or enable) action, contrary to claims that ‘the future’ is typically a blank space.

Having provided this preamble, I’ll move on to some broader comments on my ‘strategic foresight’ studies (see below) and related topics and personal learnings.

=======================================

The AFI brochure suggested that ‘strategic foresight’ involves the “fusion of foresight methods, with those of strategic management”. I had little idea what ‘foresight methods’ are (or aren’t) but the idea such methods were linked to – or could be linked to – strategic management seemed like an interesting proposition. Indeed, I don’t think I would have applied to do the course if it wasn’t based at the AGSE and didn’t have what appeared to be a link to strategic management, though I should have thought more deeply.

Additionally, ‘foresight’ was argued (in this brochure) to be an ‘in-built’ cognitive capacity, implying that the course may also have some grounding in cognitive science. I subsequently developed more interest in cognitive science but this wasn’t addressed in the course.

Now, to be sure, quite a few things have been written on this course and the AFI (e.g. link, link, link, link) and I don’t want to simply repeat information detailed elsewhere or repeat stories told previously. Indeed, some of my thoughts on this course are outlined elsewhere on this website. So, below I will focus on some different considerations.

Upon beginning the course, it quickly became clear that the content – and indeed the AFI itself for the short time it existed – turned out to have foci and agendas that went far beyond the notion of ‘strategic foresight’. I thought that an emphasis on ‘strategic foresight’ implied a central focus on exploring and thinking about emerging futures in ways which enhance strategic management and serve related organisational needs such as better sensing and adapting to change. In contrast, we focused much more on a little known area called “futures studies” (and were given related readings such as the “Knowledge Base of Futures Studies”), esoteric philosophical ideas and writings, and an interdisciplinary grab bag of other material without much overall coherence.  The sole professor of foresight at Swinburne University, Richard Slaughter, was the President of an organisation called the World Futures Studies Federation. Wider socio-political agendas were also prominent such as the idea of creating ‘social foresight’ – an “emergent, socially distributed capacity for systematic, long term thinking oriented towards the maintenance and enhancement of collective wellbeing” (link) – and the goal of addressing the major foresight deficit which we were told that the world currently has. New kinds of trained professionals – “futurists” and “foresight practitioners”, amongst others, doing so-called ‘futures’ work – were, in effect, being asked to answer a calling to help resolve such societal problems and achieve related socio-cultural changes, not simply help to solve organisational problems or improve strategic thinking.

We can say that the ‘strategic foresight’ program sought to enlist its students in what the founders saw as a “high-order social purpose” (Slaughter, 2004) to create ‘social foresight’. The lead professor (Slaughter) argued that social foresight “obviously does not exist at the present time” and asserted that this “lends the enterprise a high-order social purpose”.

During these studies I began to develop the sense that the future, broadly speaking, needed to be salvaged via activism and other kinds of interventions. This, in part, reflected the influence of Professor Richard Slaughter who was the most influential intellectual figure in the ‘Master of Science (Strategic Foresight)’ degree, despite leaving Swinburne in late 2004. He was treated with the sort of reverence usually reserved for intellectual authorities (e.g. Nobel laureates) or major religious figures considered beyond questioning (e.g. the Pope). Slaughter had become focused on what he termed “critical futures studies” as well as “integral futures” – both of which informed the program – and focused his ‘futures’ work on what he variably referred to as the “civilisational challenge”, the “human predicament”, and “the global problematique”. In 2004 (when I was in the second year of the Master’s program) Slaughter published a provocative book entitled Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight which, the publisher (Routledge) noted, “takes the view that the dominant trends in the world suggest a long-term decline into unliveable dystopian futures” – not simply imperfect or problematic futures, but unliveable ones – and argues that the “human prospect is therefore very challenging” (link). Consistent with this, Slaughter recently argued that “within any credible forward view there are very tough times indeed ahead”.

As a brief side note pointing to some themes of wider relevance, exactly what makes some ‘forward views’ more or less credible was never deeply addressed. Though the primary purpose of the AFI was said to be facilitating “the emergence and application of high quality forward thinking” in individuals and society, the educational materials and professional development elements failed to codify or clearly specify what makes some forward thinking more or less ‘high quality’ and why, aside from orienting ideas which are similar to qualitative research philosophies proposing that the researcher is the central research instrument in such studies, i.e. not the tangible research methods they use. The way this was put was the core argument that it is “depth within the practitioner” that produces depth (and related capabilities) in forward-looking analysis, not whatever method is being used.

Much of what we heard was cultural critique, arguing “embedded [Western] cultural commitments” are “complicit in the emergence of the global problematique” (Slaughter, 1996), as per Slaughter’s ‘critical futures studies’. Thinking and practice in prevailing forms of ‘futures’ work (and related forms of so-called ‘applied foresight’ activities) were argued to be superficial and impeded by wider cultural conventions and economic imperatives. There is some truth to this, and my PhD touches upon these dynamics. Wider cultural critiques focussed on both modern ‘Western’ cultures (as noted above) – ecological and anti-capitalist themes were central here – and what we were told is the excessive focus on change in the outer world (rather than addressing human and cultural ‘interiors’). Such memories are reinforced by reviewing key texts like Futures Beyond Dystopia and materials related to ‘integral futures’ approaches. Papers published around 2004 also note the high-level prescription for giving greater attention to “active processes of personal and social construction that had been widely overlooked” (Slaughter, 2004). Earlier Slaughter had similarly suggested that a new methodological paradigm in futures studies is grounded in the social construction of reality (see Slaughter 2002) without saying much about how this might actually be done nor what methodologies should be employed.

Moreover, ‘credible’ forward views were rhetorically claimed to centrally feature highly dystopian future situations and events (in the absence of extensive radical activism managing to mitigate the worst possible outcomes). This was ‘the future’ we were implicitly told was rapidly emerging and that ‘credible futures work’ must help prevent. Related to this, Slaughter would later diagnose the present situation as representing a “global emergency” and being the “biggest wake-up call in history” (Slaughter, 2010). The way he came to put it in his self-published book The Biggest Wake-up Call in History is that “we are in fact already right in the middle of a planetary emergency with no simple solutions, no easy exits” (link). Recently in the journal World Futures Review Slaughter provided an autobiographical account entitled “Futures Studies as a Quest for Meaning” which further details core ecological themes and ideas informing his work (amongst others) and argues that “the purposes of futures work cannot be to further assist the economic growth machine on its rush to oblivion”.  He then adds the fairly abstract suggestion that the “core purpose is to help us all to live within a deeper, richer, and unbounded present”.

It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the AFI was established in a business-oriented area of Swinburne University (Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship) in the Faculty of Business and Entrepreneurship. Many students had jobs or careers within the ‘economic growth machine’ which Slaughter and others so detested, and some (such as myself) were beginning to question these jobs and careers. Such were the deeper social dynamics and interesting contradictions which coexisted with our time in this program.

On a personal note, for a period after graduating with a new MSc degree in ‘strategic foresight’ (in early 2006) I became highly engaged in the ‘futures’ enterprise and related work which I began to think of as ‘foresight practices’ whilst also being uncomfortable with labels like “futurist”. It would be dishonest and incorrect to suggest otherwise. For instance, a CV of mine from July 2006 (i.e. soon after graduating) states that:

My objective is to work in a capacity that enables and encourages a wide range of organisations and people to be involved in processes that actively engage with the future (work that is sometimes called “futuring”). This work aims to bring the range of possible futures before us more clearly into view; rather than remaining largely ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’.”

Re-reading this now I’m appalled by how vague this career objective was but I think it reflects the early phases of my tentative attempts (at that time) to begin to inhabit the new professional identity of ‘foresight practitioner’ and experiment with ways of conveying such an identity to others and with doing such activities. This was something I continued to actively experiment with over the 2006-2013 period.

Furthermore, during the 2010-13 period I published a number of articles in the futures studies literature with a focus on potential connections between ‘futures’ work and ‘sustainability’ (e.g. link) and related change-making activities. Some of the themes of this website reflect my continuing interest in the goal of ‘environmental sustainability’, though I am now much less convinced of the roles and value of ‘futures’ work in this context, which puts me at odds with others who “have no doubt whatever of the enabling power of a futures discourse” (Slaughter, 1996).

Overall, looking back on those heady days and many enjoyable drinking sessions at the pub after class I also have mixed feelings. Increasingly, I am unsure whether to list the ‘Master of Science (Strategic Foresight)’ degree on my CV and may in future delete it.

Two of the main reasons for this are that: (i) I have become unsure what of value we were taught in this program and what specific credentials (if any) such a degree provides; and (ii) it is a cause of confusion. Degrees are useful – in a sense of being professional credentials – if they are widely recognised in society and/or a specific profession (e.g. one cannot practice medicine without successfully completing a recognised medical degree at an established university and being a certified practitioner), but if a degree is poorly understood and often misunderstood then it may actually impede career development.

One basic framing point is that – like others have reported – I have commonly found the science aspect (i.e. holding a Master of Science degree) just confuses people. It also sets up often unhelpful debates about, for example, whether it is possible for anticipation of the future to be scientific. I have both grown rather tired of repeatedly having the same sorts of conversations, and I’ve also come to see these questions and considerations as being more central to other fields doing forward-looking analysis (e.g. climate science).

Whilst some scholars and advocates contend that fields like ‘futures studies’ (and/or ‘strategic foresight’) are on their way to becoming recognised and viable ‘meta-disciplines’ I currently (in 2021) see little evidence of that.

More broadly, I have found myself asking basic questions like: what were we actually taught in this program? Did I learn anything of substance via this course? And what can this ‘knowledge’ enable us to do in the world (if anything at all)? (Readers should keep in mind that I was part of the cohort that studied during 2003-05, i.e. during the first phase of the Master’s degree, though the core of the program reportedly was fairly constant).

My first comment (and reflection) is that we learned basically zero theory in the course, at least with respect to how the term ‘theory’ is commonly understood in the social and managerial sciences. This was surprising to me at the time. Some years afterwards, when I more deeply reflected on the experience, I struggled to grasp how the program was accredited by a fairly credible Australian university and then taught for a couple of decades. To my mind, the program and content met few of the basic academic standards that one would hope that all accredited Master’s degrees would meet.

I have observed with interest that some scholars are beginning to notice and address this issue. For example, see this forthcoming paper in the journal Futures & Foresight Science entitled “The resistance to scientific theory in futures and foresight, and what to do about it”. The authors suggest that the field has “ingrained norms, conventions and beliefs” but no scientific theory, and, moreover, they contend there is active resistance to such theorising within the ‘futures and foresight’ field. I agree.

Related to the above observations, a further reflection is that the Swinburne ‘strategic foresight’ course essentially provided a kind of immersive socialisation into a particular culture (i.e., the interconnected set of ingrained norms, beliefs and practices we were exposed to). This was a very interesting experience and, for a period, it was quite impactful on me. However, it was very difficult to communicate this foreign culture to others who hadn’t had the same experiences, and the ‘knowledge’ we had gained (to the extent it existed at all) was insufficiently codified to pass it on efficiently to others.

A second comment (and reflection) is that we learned very little by way of actual methods that may aid anticipation of the future. This may have been because such a focus would have been too close to notions of prediction and forecasting which were critiqued in the program. We quickly learned that prediction is a dirty word that should be avoided. However, the act of anticipating possible futures at the very least implies making suggestions about what could happen in the future and making high-level ‘predictions’ of a sort, even if these are probabilistic and/or couched appropriately in relation to broader uncertainties and unknowns like we’ve seen in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was interesting but a little disorienting for me at the time. As I noted, I was doing strategically focused work at that time which was strongly oriented towards anticipation (as per the scenario, forecasting and trend analysis work I had been asked to do by an advertising agency) and I was seeking to learn how to do this better.  This kind of pragmatic orientation was not what the course was primarily about.

A related reflection is that associated tensions and internal contradictions continue to confound the wider field of ‘futures studies’ and perhaps they always will. (On this point, one could also refer to Slaughter’s views on “forecasting as a necessary contradiction” and his discussion of his personal disagreements with other scholars like Wendell Bell). This intellectual territory is characterised far more by deep disagreement than coherence, and it remains a philosophical and methodological minefield which is not for the faint hearted. One of my regrets in life is that I didn’t properly recognise this before I – instead – casually wandered into the minefield and proceeded to lose some limbs!

The field and its methods remain idiosyncratic and, despite repeated attempts to codify a shared ‘knowledge base’ (e.g. the so-called ‘Knowledge Base of Futures Studies’), what students get exposed to in different programs appears to be highly dependent upon who the lead intellectual figures are and what they decide to ‘teach’. There are no authoritative textbooks on ‘strategic foresight’ or ‘futures studies’, much like one finds in mature sciences taught in most universities. I can’t see this changing any time soon and people who consider this field ought to strongly consider this: you are likely to instead be at the mercy of the individual educator and the whatever has shaped their perspective(s).

Turning now to the interesting notion of ‘strategic foresight’ which was front and centre in all the promotional material and the degree name itself, I think it’s fair to say that we weren’t taught anything of substance regarding organisational ‘strategic foresight’ capacity and activities. (Here I should acknowledge that this may have changed somewhat in later iterations of the program). This was the original reason some people like myself I signed up and I found the program didn’t meet these needs. There were some interesting overarching frameworks that might help to organise forward-looking activities but surprisingly little on the practical doing aspects and the consideration of ‘so what?’ implications. Perhaps other programs like the University of Houston foresight program, or courses on future-orientation offered in Europe, may better meet some of these needs.

Aside from my own ongoing reflections an additional basis for such criticisms is my observation that people who have done the program quite often either: 1) go on to mostly invent their own frameworks and methods which they implement in their own practice or consultancy work; or 2) abandon the area soon after graduating (e.g. go back to their previous career or work). There seems to be little of substance that is either taken away from the course and/or implemented in their ‘futures’ work. Sometimes such practitioners claim to be “academically trained” – thereby attempting to leverage the social status of universities and higher education – whilst implementing little from the course.

Much of the above may sound too critical but it is relevant to the explicitly stated goal of enabling via the course (and earlier the AFI) the emergence a new generation of ‘foresight practitioners’. I see little evidence that this has occurred aside from a small number of graduates who appear to successfully work as consultants. There is a tendency to look externally and blame society (broadly speaking) for such outcomes, rather than critically evaluate programs like the ‘strategic foresight’ program which was offered at Swinburne. I was reminded of this point when reading another retrospective on this program.

I’ll say a few final concluding things. Firstly, perhaps more than anything the course was an interesting deep dive into a distinct way of being in the world – more so than the kind of theoretically grounded and evidence-based educational experience one might reasonably expect from a Master’s degree – which I took on until a period of estrangement gave me more critical distance on my experiences and prior habits. It’s clear that some people found the program personally transformational. It’s equally clear than many others got little substantive ‘education’ from their participation. If such a program ever gets offered again, I would hope that the conveners and educator would think more carefully about whether the necessary knowledge and intellectual content exists to underpin such a Master’s degree or whether, on the hand, a different kind of program should be offered.

Second, I think we need to be more honest that these areas – ‘futures studies’ and ‘strategic foresight’ – aren’t established or maturing disciplines, and perhaps they never will be, despite the importance that some people place upon them and their beliefs about their importance. To be clear, participants in such programs may learn some useful things (e.g., about facilitating group processes or other participatory activities) but they do not receive a clear grounding in an established or distinct discipline that can be readily taught. Given this it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that such degrees ought to be abandoned.

Finally, my experience with this program and subsequent reflections have made me suspicious of educational programs that have a highly normative purpose but arguably little intellectual content or underlying rigour. My conclusion, informed by participation in various such programs, is that such programs primarily serve to enlist people in social movements (if it appeals to them) but the conveners seem to have largely forgotten the underlying purposes of higher education. This is a valuable learning which may be relevant to others, and one I reflect on often, but it isn’t one that was intended by the program creators.