Linking Foresight and Action

In 2015 I got the opportunity to write a chapter for the The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research, a pioneering effort that gathered together the spirit of transformative approaches to participatory action research into a remarkable compilation with dozens and dozens of chapters almost 900 pages long. The book brought together an amazing group of scholars and practitioners from all around the world. This past year the book was finally published and launched.

The significance of the handbook in my opinion is in linking and contextualizing action research within an explicitly global political project for social and ecological justice, indeed cognitive justice. For example, there are chapters on action research’s relationship with alternative futures of globalisation, as well as knowledge democracy.

The book points to a deepening of our understanding of the social and political context within which action research takes place, and its role in linking the potential of a transformational praxis with the broader aims of social transformation.

While I have written extensively on alternative futures of globalisation, and in fact my PhD dissertation was an action research study of alternative futures of globalisation, I instead decided to write a chapter titled Linking Foresight and Action: Toward a Futures Action Research, which is more focused on strategic foresight / futures studies as a field and its relationship to action learning and action research, and the principle of action in general.

Below is a section of the chapter that deals with the future as a principle of present action, and also gives a potted history of the field from the perspective of an action researcher.

For those interested in obtaining a copy of the paper, feel free to contact me via the website contact page and I would be happy to send a personal copy to you.

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The Future as a Principle of Present Action

Slaughter (1995) put forward the idea of ‘foresight’ as a human capacity and quality, in contradistinction to the widespread notion that the ‘future’ is somehow outside us. In sharp contrast to a future state independent of human consciousness, Slaughter located the future in human consciousness, in our human capacity to cognize consequence, change, difference, temporality. The future, he argued, is therefore a principle of present action (Slaughter 2004). The images we hold of our futures can and should inform wise action in the present.

This simple idea represents a radical departure from previous epistemologies of time, from a fixed and unitary notion of the future to one where ‘the future’ is a projection of consciousness and culture. This embodied and constructivist concept of the future points toward the need to build ethnographic and sociological understandings for how various communities cognize time differently, and how human consciousness and culture mediate decisions and action.

In a number of professional settings, foresight informs action in a variety of ways.

In the area of policy, governments at various scales are engaged in a variety of decisions, many which will have enduring effects over decades and may be difficult to undo. Policy foresight helps regions to understand long-term social and ecological changes and challenges, to develop adequate responses.

In the area of strategy, businesses require an understanding of how market, technology and policy shifts may create changes in their operating and transactional environments. Strategy foresight helps businesses discover opportunities, address the challenges of fast changing markets, and develop a social and ethical context for business decisions.

In the area of innovation and design, foresight can inspire design concepts, social and technical innovations that have a future-fit, rather than only a present-fit. Design and innovation provide the ‘seeds of change’ interventions that can, over many years, grow to become significant change factors, leverage for desirable long-term social change.

The broader and arguably highest role for foresight is to inform and inspire social transformation toward ethical goals (for example ecological stewardship and social justice). In this regard social foresight can play a major role in informing and inspiring social movements and community based social action. Citizens and people from many walks of life have the power to plant the seeds of change, create social innovations, alternatives and experiments that provide new pathways and strategies that can lead to alternative and desirable futures. Foresight can inspire a sense of social responsibility and impetus for social action, at both political and personal levels. In my own life, I have found that as I have cognized various social and ecological challenges, I am compelled to act differently in the present. This has been as simple as using a heater less, changing to low energy light bulbs and installing solar panels, to more entailed commitments like attending climate change and anti-war marches, organizing social alternative events, and even co-founding businesses. The link between foresight and action is at once social, political, organizational and personal, and uniquely different for each person.

Futures Studies’ Road to a Participatory-Action

Like any field, Futures Studies has undergone major shifts over its 50-year history. From my perspective as an action researcher, and building on the work of Inayatullah (1990) and social development perspectives (Ramos 2004a), I argue that the field has gone through five major stages: Predictive, Systemic, Critical, Participatory and Action-oriented. From the 1950s to the 1960s, the field was concerned with prediction, in particular macro-economic forecasting, where change was envisaged as linear (Bell 1997). From the 1970s to the 1980s, the field used various systems perspectives that incorporated more complexity and indeterminacy into its inquiry and scenarios and alternative futures emerged (Moll 2005). From the 1980s and 1990s, interpretive and critical perspectives emerged that incorporated post-modern, post-structural and critical theory influences, where change was seen related to discursive power (Slaughter 1999). From the 1990s to the present, participatory approaches have flourished. The most recent shift puts an emphasis on action-oriented inquiry, associated with design, enterprise creation, innovation and embodied and experiential processes (Ramos 2006).

To understand these shifts it is important to understand the epistemological assumptions that underpin these modalities. In the linear modality, forecasters believed that the future could actually be predicted. Without a relationship to subjectivity or inter- subjectivity, the future was ‘out-there’ and could be known like a ‘substance’ or thing. There were problems with prediction, however, as many were wrong (Schnaars 1989), and this perspective could not account for human agency or the ‘paradox of prediction’ – once having made a prediction, other people may decide to work toward an alternative future. It could also not account for complexity, that is, that a variety of variables, factors, and forces interact in complex and difficult to understand ways. Hence the systemic modality was born.

In the systemic modality, instead of attempting to predict a single future, systems analysts created complex models that examined the interactions between a number of variables. Trends and forecasts were still used, but instead of assuming a single future, the ideas and practices for creating scenarios emerged. A number of World Models, including Limits to Growth (Meadows 1972), took this perspective, providing a number of scenarios relying on the prominence of particular variables, and their interactions. A challenge to this arose when World Models and other systemically informed studies emerged that were inconsistent or which contradicted each other (Hughes 1985). Research institutes from different parts of the world produced radically different perspectives on the future. This is where the critical modality brings such contradictions into perspective.

In the critical mode, models or systems for future change have their basis in different cultures, perspectives, discourses and interests, as well depending on whether they were from a ‘developing’ or ‘developed’ world perspective. Variables seen as essential aspects of a system, from a critical view, were an expression of discourse and culture, rather than universal ‘truths’ (Inayatullah 1998, Slaughter 1999). This is seen in how gendered power dynamics are expressed in images of the future (Milojevic 1999), or when people are caught in someone else’s discourse on the future, and are in-effect holding a ‘used future’ (Inayatullah 2008). The critical mode questions default futures and develops alternative and authentic futures. The critical mode affirms the importance of questioning the role of perspective, deepened through engagement in participatory approaches.

Whereas critical futures posits that the future is different based on discourse, culture, and disposition, in the participatory mode or process, contrasting perspectives on the future will be present in the same room or group process. The exercise becomes much less abstract and far more dialogical. The challenge shifts to how people can have useful, enriching and intelligent conversations about the future, while still honoring (indeed leveraging) differing perspectives. The participatory mode uses workshop tools and methods that include previous approaches: identification of trends and emerging issues (predictive), scenario development (systems) and de-constructive approaches (critical). Participation forms the basis for generative conversations about our futures, and is a pathway toward transformative action.

An action modality is what emerges from embodied participation. When people come from systemically different backgrounds, the potential for conflict and miscommunication exists, but likewise a group based inter-systemic understanding can emerge, and this embodied and emergent ‘alliance’ is critical in developing the potential to create change. When participants can co-develop new narratives, authentic vision and intelligent strategies, people can feel a sense of natural ownership and commitment. Group based inquiry that leads to collective foresight with an understating of shared challenges and a common ground vision for change, can call forth commitment and action.

Each stage in the process relies on previous stages. The systems modality relies on statistically rigorous trends and data to construct scenarios. The critical modality relies on scenarios as objects of deconstruction. The participatory modality relies on all previous modes to be enacted in workshop environments. The action mode relies on participants to come together to create shared meaning and commitment.

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