Puruesh: What is futures studies?
Futures Studies is the study of alternative futures – possible, probable, preferred – and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. The futurist employs time, uses the future, to change the present. The futurist seeks not only to solve tomorrow’s problems today, but find tomorrow’s opportunities today. While many use futures studies in the corporate sector – focusing on strategic foresight, the use of the future to create more effective strategy – futures thinking can also be an asset for individuals, nongovernmental organizations, and associations. Futures as practice begins with identifying the default future and questioning it, and thus creating alternative future. It is a way, a practice, to decolonize time.
My mapping alternative futures, one has a better map of what is emerging, and thus one more successfully navigate change. By having a vision of the future, during difficult times one can stay focused on where one is going. By using scenarios, one is better prepared for contingencies and far more ready to make necessary changes as the world changes.
Futures studies has moved from prediction and accuracy to scenarios and uncertainty. More recent efforts have focused on not getting the particularly right (given the rapid rate of change) but on creating reflective, adaptable learning organizations and cultures. This means that foresight – or an understanding of how, self, world, technology are mutually changing – is embedded into the nature of the organization and nation.
Puruesh: Has this been a difficult journey?
I have really enjoyed my work in Futures Studies. Certainly when I was starting out as a university undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, some professors did not think it was a wise route. One said: “Futures Studies, it is just a can of worms.” Other suggested I go to law school instead. But following the words of Joseph Campbell, I needed to follow my bliss, and I did.
I pursued a graduate degree in Political science with a focus on futures studies and then did my Phd on macrohistory, the grand patterns of change.
I have been working as a professor at multiple universities and co-director of a think tank focused on creating alternative and preferred futures.
Over the past 20 years, Futures Studies has taken off throughout the world – in the offices of Prime Ministers, in corporations, in ngos, and with individuals. There is a great need and desire to explore alternative futures, envision the preferred and developed transformative strategies to achieve the desired.
Puruesh: Foresight studies is the most interesting phenomena of building scenarios on longer time horizons; why in your opinion do you see a growing use of such techniques by Governments and Businesses?
Yes, everywhere. I have just finished a project for the Office of the PM, government of Canada on the social disruptive futures of Asia 2030. They sought research and advice on how Asia was changing. A few months back I did a project with my colleague and co-director of our think tank, Metafuture.org, Professor Ivana Milojevic on the implications of the youth bulge, ageing and migration on the Middle East and North Africa. And earlier this year, we spent a session presenting foresight methods and tools to the Science and Technology Policy Institute, Government of South Korea. I also teach a course at the Mt Eliza Executive Education, Melbourne Business School where CEOs and senior leaders spend four days exploring the future.
Why? There is more and more uncertainty and individuals and organizations desire a map of the future so they can make more effective decisions. As well, they realize more and more that old tools and methods do not work when change is both heterogeneous and exponential – the rapid and uneven pace of change – requires new methods and tools. As well, executives need new narratives so they can lead in uncertain times.
Certainly at the national level, Pakistan needs a new narrative, as it has been defined firstly as non-India and then not-West. Or, in the last twenty plus years the future has been cornered by a particular extremely conservative, rear-view looking brand of politics. While there historically have been multiple contending images of Pakistan – I tried to explore these in research on images of Pakistan’s futures – the Islamic socialist (roti, capra, makaan), the Islamic rightist (the Land of the pure); threatened sovereignty (from within and without); the grand disillusionment and the planned disciplined capitalist economy (like South Korea), the last decade has seen the choices narrow with the contending images of the land of the pure, threatened sovereignty and the grand disillusionment dominant. Recent politics has been an attempt to find a way out of these limiting images, to break the pendulum between rule of the military and landlords, and the attempt of the maulvis to control both.
The crises and the foundational changes of the past few decades– the collapse of communism, the Asian financial crisis, SARS, the global financial crisis as well stunning shifts in world geopolitics – the rise of China – digital disruptions with the growth of the internet along with advances in genomics, in preventive, personalized and participatory health – all require a different way of understanding the future. More complex and nuanced maps are required. And as the future keeps on changing, our maps need to be more robust. We often forget that the future changes with every step we take. Where do we wish to go? Every decision, every future has a cost.
Puruesh: Tell us in simple language how Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) can help leadership prevent policy failures? And how is it different from other foresight tools and methodologies?
CLA is a simple method that seeks to unpack policy issues at four levels. For example in health work, if we seek to increase quality and safety and reduce medical errors, then level 1 or litany solutions are to education doctors differently – more training. Level 2 or systemic analysis is to redesign medical systems, to make them more efficient, to redesign hospitals to make them ageing friendly, to set up protocols so there are checklists that reduce mistakes. Level 3 or worldview analysis is to see how the different stakeholders: doctors, nurses, specialists, patients, registrars all see the process. Level 3 develops a dialogue of efficiencies and by using the wisdom of many increases effectiveness. Level 4 analysis is focused on the metaphor that coheres the system, in the case of medical systems, the current model is the “doctor is always right.” The new emerging more effective model is patient-centred, “I am the expert of me.” The new story reduced risks since quality and safety are enhanced as now the patient is in dialogue with the system. They are empowered in this participatory process. With CLA, all four are required – changes in how measure the future, changes in the system, changes in the culture and changes in the core narrative, the metaphor that creates meaning.
In Pakistan, certainly, new measurements of growth are required, that go beyond gdp. Extensive systemic reforms are required that encourage cooperatives, the social economy, reducing the power of the State as ensuring that the playing field is fair. And a forward looking worldview with a new metaphor is needed.
Puruesh: What has been the most interesting challenge for you as a futurist?
I try and learn from every group I work with. I don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. I need to find ways for individuals to recover agency in their lives, to let them speak their truths and let them explore what is urgent and important to them. My role then becomes the facilitator who guides others. However, dealing with the voices of skepticism, cynicism in facilitative environments can be a challenge. More and more, I let others in the room respond to the resisters – to let other participants share their knowledge and experiences. I also now try and frame the cynicism as an idealist who has been hurt, and thus, my role is to have them explore their narrative around social change, around what is possible. With resisters, I see that the goal is to find out what they are resisting and use their knowledge to make solutions more transformative, to include them without being captured by their fear, disguised as cleverness.
Puruesh: As inspiring as this is, this way of thinking futures connects people at such a rudimentary level that it can only…
…lead to better strategies, more informed decision-making, longer term decision-making, and more importantly decision-makers who are reflective of their own life stories and organizations who begin to move toward becoming a learning organizations. Often organizations want the right answer, the future. Our role is to expand this to alternative futures, scenarios. But even this is not enough; more than a map is required. We also require ways to successfully implement the preferred future such is backcasting (wherein the desired future is considered already arrived and we remember the past, the milestones that led us to the future). And finally, the inner work of discovering one’s own core metaphor and how the metaphor defines the world we see is critical to creating different futures.
Puruesh: So long range planning is possible?
Futures studies is not long range planning. It is not the PLAN – which is static, owned by the government. Rather futures studies is challenging the present, opening up alternatives, and developing inclusive approaches to policy making. Certainly from strategic foresight – an overview of how technologies are changing – one can articulate strategic plans. But the first step is the scan – how is the world changing?
Some nations build in foresight to the Office of the Prime Minister. Others seek to encourage foresight in the Ministry of Science and Technology. Others believe it should not be wasted with the bureaucracy but rather seeded throughout society, as capacity building, as anticipatory democracy. Still others believe education – critical, questioning, open-ended, process based – comes first. And still others see that it is best if corporations and professional associations lead in scenario development. Ultimately, it does not matter where one starts, as long as one starts.
Puruesh: Global Futurists is a very small community, how does it build its niche in a developing world or is this just a super power thing?
Certainly, foresight work has taken off in wealthier areas as they can afford to invest in the knowledge economy, in ideas that make a difference. At the same time, we have seen great success in using futures studies in developing areas such Malaysia, and poorer areas such as Bangladesh. The Rockefeller foundation has began a wonderful initiative titled, “pro-poor foresight.” Each person already has a view of the future, futurists work on making that view explicit, and then deconstructing the future, so that nations, organizations and individuals can move toward desired futures instead of living the used future, or the colonized future. Thus it is crucial for the developing world to unpack its current view of the future – is it only playing catch-up? If so, what are some other models? For the developing world, other stories are also required. I was discussion foresight in cancer research. And a researcher told me in one developed nation, the cancer patient said the only way she could get off the fast track of development, the one way train line was to get cancer. The pressure of that story on her health was overwhelming. No choices were possible. At an OIC foresight course in Dhaka on the futures of education, the old story, participants suggested was the arranged marriage, ie the given future. The new story was the love marriage, the created future. This was not a denial of the society but an understanding that change is required if individuals are to be happier and education to be more effective. The Ministry may know many things as do professors, but the best pedagogy is student-centred, process-based, interactive and whole of person, encompassing multiple ways of knowing.
Puruesh: What potential do you see within the Pakistan’s ecosystem; having played a significant and an influencing role in various decision-making circles of different Governments and Businesses; Is there a space for a mind-shift?
Each nation has different pulls of the future, imaginations of what is possible? And each nation has different weights or deep structures that prevent possibility – time, the bureaucracy, the mind-set of nothing is possible, the power of the landlords, for example. Pakistan, for sure, has more weights then imagination. But the same drivers of change are here – the need for renewable energy, the need for better infrastructure, the impacts of globalization, digitalization, for example. Thus, in Pakistan the possibility of agency is more challenged. And yet, there, within one’s zone of control, many things one can do.
At foresight workshops in Pakistan, there has been a dramatic interest in scenario writing, in using narrative based foresight methods, in backcasting –in strategic transformation. And in types of interactive pedagogy.
Thus, certainly change is possible. However, the greatest weight is the worldview of geo-politics, of the international relations paradigm, where everything is a “card game” and each nation is fighting for supremacy. It is not that we do not live in a jungle of nation-states, it is that this mind-set overwhelms other possible ways to see reality and the future. It is a zero-sum game that destroys the ecology of thought.
However, when I have run foresight workshops in Pakistan, participants have been brilliant: creative, resourceful, and balanced between theory and practice. As one scientist said, “most of our training is in how to hold on to what we have: foresight, I see, is about creating the new.”
Puruesh: What of the challenge of governments constantly changing, that is, the lack of continuity in policy?
Certainly engaging in long term projects – foresight or infrastructure – is far more challenging when there is either regular political change or coups. But this occurs throughout the world – in established democracies and democracies where institutionalization and deep culture has yet to emerge. In these places, the goal is to articulate foresight not solely at the state level but in professional associations (in policing, for example, or universities) and in civil society in general. Thus capacity building becomes equally important. Thus, there is a push from sideways and from below if there is a political change. The long-term is not lost sight of. Even in established democracies foresight can be difficult. In Malaysia for example, in the education system, we focus on leadership development, working with deans, professors and deputy-vice chancellors to articulate new visions and strategies. Of course, capacity building – learning how and when to wisely use tools of change –takes time. I use the anticipatory action learning approach. Learn by doing and constantly question the future. In policing – the global pearls of policing project – we focus not just on the current commissioners but the future commissioners. The current commissioners set an assignment for the deputies, eg the futures of cyber policing, and then using futures tools and methods they present their scenarios and global strategies back to the commissioners. This helps create new strategies and enhances the capacity of the deputies so when they become national commissioners they can not only excel and problem solving but think of the long term. Thus, even in situations where political change is frequent, success is possible.
Puruesh: And what of corporations and their focus on the single bottom line and quarterly returns.
In Pakistan, certainly corporations are not strategic. They focus on implementation and operations, rarely looking at what’s next – new technologies, new opportunities – and success often only occurs through the cultivation of personal relationships. But if Pakistani corporations wish to go global, certainly having a clear vision, articulating scenarios, searching for outlier events and emerging issues can reduce their risk and enhance opportunities. The issue is if the leader and the board merely wish to be more efficient in the current game or do they wish to create new game, to excel at the emerging landscape. I have worked with hundreds of corporate leaders and most want both – to keep on getting returns in the short run but also to have an eye out on the changing world, so that they are not disrupted.
Almost every part of Pakistani society is ripe for technological disruption, for example, imagine how uber (which disrupts the private taxi system) would increase efficiency in transport? Pakistan, as African nations are already doing, leapfrog the West and innovate. That is, since many African nations did not have landlines, they went straight to mobile phones, and thus have innovated in the digital economy, for example, with the invention of mobile money – m-pesa. Similarly, Pakistan which is mired in a feudal economy could bypass the oligarchic capitalist and move into a collaborative social economy. Already social technologies such as the Hawala system exist, but digitalization (allowing real time personalized transparent information where the user creates value) would allow the creation of a true social economy where value grows through connectivity. Instead of being marginalized, the informal economy could become the social economy – relationships could be leveraged for prosperity in transparent ways. Both feudalism and capitalism would be challenged.
Puruesh: How often do you find people apprehensive to your way of approaching an issue or a national crisis? Please share your experience?
The people I work with are rarely apprehensive. They are excited to be part of a process of transformation. They are excited to be creative and find new solutions. They are excited to design new products. They are excited to challenge their own paradigms and create new possibilities. They do worry that if the change and others stay in the old world, will they felt feel left out, too far ahead of the mass. That is the main concern, being too far ahead and perhaps not so easily intelligible. However, those interested in futures tend to be idealistic while very grounded in strategy and data. They are balanced. However, they seek change, and know that current models do not work. Disruption and innovation will occur, the issue is whether they, Pakistan, will be part of that change. Will they be inventors of the future, or passive recipient of the words and stories of others.
The choice is easy.