The structural, the post structural and the commons: meta-networking for change

This is a chapter originally published as:

Ramos, J. (2016) The structural, the post structural and the commons: meta-networking for systemic change,In Pease B., et al. (Ed)Doing Critical Social Work, Allen and Unwin


This chapter takes up the challenge posed by the editors of this volume, to articulate new forms of critical social and community work thinking and practice which engages both with the need to provide conceptual leadership in transforming existing structures and institutions, while simultaneously providing openings for conceptual diversity, interpretive multiplicity and opportunities for agency (Briskman et al 2009). My work has focused on global problems which affect most countries today, namely: challenging neo-liberalism and articulating alternatives to it, the co-optation of political power by moneyed interests and the need to strengthen democracy, the problem of social atomisation and consumerist driven individualism and the need to develop peer-to-peer and solidarity cultures, and the ecological crisis and the need to create ways of living which are in genuine balance with our integral life support systems. As might be recognised from this litany of issues, my work and research, initially connected to the World Social Forum but now with a variety of communities, has been typified by conditions of high cultural and conceptual diversity (Ramos 2010). Because of this, my work has simultaneously engaged with both the question of developing agency that can create and transform global structures and systems, within communities in which there are a wide variety of interpretations on what those structures are, and diverse visions for change. This chapter provides an overview of this work from both the inner (or epistemological) dimension, and outer (or ontological) dimension of the practice. This practice can be described as ‘meta-networking’ for systemic change.

In this chapter I therefore argue for a social work practice which integrates the structural and post-structural nature of the challenges and issues people face in addressing many commonly held social problems. Rather than accepting that diverse social perspectives are mutually exclusive, meta-networking offers an approach that can lead to the capacity for diverse actors and agents to collaborate on solving common challenges. Reflecting Jim Ife’s (2012) core argument that social and community work needs to be coupled with a strong ethos of shared humanity and more extensively cultural forms of human rights, I argue the integration of structural and post-structural strategies through the practice of meta-networking is a pathway toward developing a practice that can develop the social ‘commons’ and common good at many levels, an approach fundamental to social work in the 21st century. If critical social work is to address the origins of social problems through systemically intelligent change strategies, meta-networking should be a key approach in the critical social work tool kit.

What is meta-networking?

Meta-networking is a process by which people work to create networks which facilitate flows of information and allow coordination and cooperation between otherwise disparate groups of people, with shared interests but with differing perspectives.

Meta-networking involves the linking or associational formation of disparate actors into a network, with the aim of helping the constituency to develop and meet its goals. It can be located as both a social research practice (Chisholm 2001) and an approach to community development (Gilchrist 2004). Trist (as well as Carley and Christie) were early developers of the thinking and practice of inter-organisational network development (Trist 1979, Carley 1993). Gilchrist locates it as a core community development practice and role, while Chisholm argues it is a type of action research.

Carley and Cristie describe inter-organisational network development aimed at sustainable development through ‘action centred networks’. These use network strategies to solve complex sustainability dilemmas (Carley 1993, 180). In their approach to ‘human ecology’ and ‘socio-ecological systems’, they argue that ‘meta-problems’ are at the heart of many of the modern problematiques we face:

‘metaproblems both exist in, and are the result of, turbulent environments which compound uncertainty, the root of the word problematique’ (Carley 1993, 165).

This era’s meta-problems overwhelm the capacity for single organisations to cope with the challenges they face. What is required, they argue, is the development of ‘action centred networks’ that develop ‘connective capacity’ and undertake ‘collaborative problem solving’ (Carley 1993, 171). These networks can offer a variety of solutions; regulation, problem / trend appreciation, problem solving, support, political / economic mobilisation, and development projects (Carley 1993, 172). They argue for ‘linking pin’ organisations – organisations that provide a structure or platform for communication and coordination across groups, and thus can become a network of networks (Carley 1993, 172-173).

They argue that if potential conflicts within action centred networks are properly managed, such networks can lead to the capacity for innovative responses to meta-problems collectively faced. This innovation requires linking ‘anticipation’ (drawing from Godet’s ‘La Prospective’) with collaborative mobilisation and practical and strategic action. They specifically called for approaches that develop such action centred networks (Carley 1993, 180-181). Trist (1979) argued that ‘referent organisations’ were a critical aspect of meta-networks in providing leadership for a domain:

Once… a referent organization appears, purposeful action can be undertaken in the name of the [meta-network] domain. To be acceptable the referent organization must not usurp the functions of the constituent organizations, yet to be effective it must provide appropriate leadership. (Trist 1979, 9)

Meta-networking as pathway to the commons

My research area on the World Social Forum (WSF), spanned a decade from 2001 to 2011. Early on, from 2001 – 2004, I saw the gathering at Porto Alegre as an emerging ‘counter hegemonic block’, where various civil society organisations would unite in common solidarity. This idea (originated by Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci) contained the proposition that revolutionary change is preceded by a form of cultural activism – that is, when the key cultural institutions, churches, social organisations, etc. come together in a coherent opposition to a dominant consensus or ‘hegemony’ (a ruling order), change then follows (Hansen 1997). I therefore hoped that with time, the various actors, organisations, activists and people brought together in the World Social Forum, would ultimately work through their differences, and come together in a strategic and ideologically coherent relationship. At the time George W. Bush was in power and the United States (US) invasion of Iraq – initiated on the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction – was in full swing. The connection between those with great political power and corporate / big oil seemed to be converging to satisfy each other’s primal interests. It seemed at the time that, with the veil of corporate imperialism lifted for all to see, the 100 000+ people attending the forum would be united in opposition, if not in a shared project to create an effective alternative to the problem.

In Australia, Social Forums were held in the major cities, and I was part of the organisation of the Melbourne forums, five of which were held between 2004 and 2010. In the seven or so years studying social forums and communities, fundamental assumptions I held were challenged. The idea of a Gramscian counter hegemonic bloc made less and less sense in the face of participant diversity, indeed radical diversity, and the very different images of the future (of alternative globalisations) that were held by participants. In my quest to understand the various images of the future that a variety of different activist organisations and non-government organisations (NGOs) held, or what Castells (1997) termed the ‘telos’ of a group, I found that the discourses and visions that mobilize various actors in such events were not so easy to combine. While concerned scientists, peace activists, eco-feminists, re-localists, socialists, cosmopolitans, post-developmentalists and a variety of other mindsets converged in a maelstrom of discontent and radical activism, all which can be considered to be counter hegemonic (in their opposition to the dominant neo-liberal vision), the histories and strategic visions of the various groups were distinctive nonetheless. Understanding what was in play would require distilling and clarifying differences as much as creating conceptual similarities.

In the process, Latour’s (2005) version of Actor Network Theory would be of great assistance, as it would show me that the way that a discourse frames the world does not just describe reality (the positivist view), but indeed it provides a template for strategic action for those who hold, use and disseminate a particular discourse or ideology (the constructivist view). As an organizer in such an event there was an aspect of letting go of the certainty of my particular frame of reference. I would need to listen beyond discourse, not just to discourse, but as discourse’s relationship to people and action. I would need to become a discourse mapper, practice ‘cognitive mapping’ (Bergmann 2006) as a way of coming to grips with deep conceptual and discursive differences, while at the same time keeping my eye on deeper connections and indeed the structural dimensions that brought us together as diverse actors. Thus, for an issue like climate change, there was no denying that a Greenhouse Mafia in Australia has systematically thwarted any significant political action for decades – collusion and the convergence of corporate and political interests, on a variety of issues, was well documented (Hamilton 2007). The structural nature of power, however, did not negate that critiques of power come from diverse perspectives and discourses, which frame both the present situation and the future differently. This is what Inayatullah (1998) terms as levels of reality, an acknowledgement that both the post-structural (language, metaphor and discourse) and structural (geography, culture, power, economy etc.) are all in play.

In this way I discovered that post-structuralism was a pathway to building deeper coherence and strategic action between a variety of groups that may not necessarily speak the same conceptual languages. This is where I slowly began to learn the notion and practice of meta-networking. The naïve belief that the world could be organized and neatly fit into a single ideological or conceptual frame of reference did not make for very good social and community development work. In the quest for social change I was required to engage with people with often very different pictures and narratives of our situation. However, as a group with common concerns, we still needed to be able to challenge and transform shared structures, but this was better done across the embodied experience of diverse people. The post-structural turn, to honour a variety of embodied ways of knowing, was a healthy and important step beyond a naïve structuralism.

Post-structuralism – an approach that could appreciate and leverage multiple discourses and worldviews – was important but not enough.. What was needed was inquiry toward a shared diagnosis of a problem, developing common ground vision and enabling collaborative collective action. The question remained over the why, what and how that brings us together – even when our discourses and perspectives differ.

In the World Social Forum and satellite forums (e.g. MSF) various actors, despite coming from often radically different perspectives, would collaborate to create change. Social theorist De Sousa Santos (2006, p. 168) thus argues that the modus operandi for the alter-globalisation movement (via the World Social Forum) is through ‘de-polarizing pluralities’. A pragmatic approach to diversity held sway, not by ignoring perspectives, but by making the diversity of thinking, what Santos (2006, p. 20) termed the ‘ecology of knowledges’, a resource that could be leveraged for co-analysis and collaborative strategic opportunities.

What emerged from this was an increasing appreciation for what brings us together despite our deeper differences. I have come to understand this through the language of ‘the commons’, as a keystone concept that may hold, if we construct it so, multiplicity and difference, but in dynamic relationship and synergy (Bollier & Heilfrich 2012).

Over the past ten years, I have been involved in a variety of processes that have taught me what it means to work across and integrate these dimensions of social and community work. The following account provides a brief overview.

The Melbourne Social Forum

The Melbourne Social Forum emerged as an expression of the rich networks of counter hegemonic actors in Melbourne. This included groups supportive of the WSF initiative, as well as groups and people who advocate or articulate for post-neo-liberal and post-capitalist visions. Initially, the MSF founding group was inspired by the shared experience of the Mumbai WSF in early 2004, that led to the first MSF in late 2004.

Social forums were co-constructs, in which forum organisers facilitated a process in which the ‘forum community’ came together. Without a community of counter hegemonic actors, there could be no social forum; yet without social forum organisers, there could be no social forums under the banner ‘Another World is Possible’. A collaborative field existed between different groups with similar attitudes and values, which generated ‘inter-alternatives’. A key form of agency was therefore collaboration among actors with a broadened conception of what a normative field meant – the aims and visions that guide action.

The actors that participated in the MSF were diverse, with close to 200 organisations, networks and groups. Modes of agency were correspondingly diverse. However, the process of ‘midwifery’ was key, giving space for the community to ‘birth’; bring forth its alternatives, agendas and concerns. In this sense agency was facilitating the collaborative agency of others in enacting change – the meaning of ‘meta-formation’.

Modes of agency could also be distinguished into that which was outer focused (change initiatives enacted on the world), and those that were inner focused, (initiatives that aimed to develop and strengthen collaboration and work between the network of actors). Movement building linked the two modalities of outer and inner focus: building the internal strength, knowledge, and capacity for collaboration, and the diverse modes of action used by networks in the enactment of structural and worldly change. Inner and outer movement building is represented by the subsequent figure 1.

Figure 1: Meta-problem(s) the Development of WSF(P)

Figure 1 shows how the meta-problem represented by the pathologies of neo-liberal globalisation hastened the development of meta-networks of actors, which gave birth to the WSF and satellite forums (e.g. MSF) as ‘referent organisations’. In Trist’s view, the functions of a referent organisation includes, ‘regulation…. of present relationships and activities; establishing ground rules and maintaining base values; appreciation… of emergent trends and issues [and] developing a shared image of a desirable future; and infrastructure support… resource, information sharing, special projects…’ (Trist 1979, 9).

‘Referent organisations’ fill the role of coordinating and holding the space for this new domain of inquiry and action. The diversity represented by the WSF process has confounded many, and yet the domain related meta-problem(s) that actors addressed, however contested and debated, in Trist’s words:

“constitutes a domain of common concern for its members … The issues involved are too extensive and too many-sided to be coped with by any single organization, however large. The response capability required to clear up a mess is inter- and multi-organizational” (Trist 1979, 1).

The forum had modest attendance between 2004 and 2010. Events were held in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, bringing together an average of between 300 and 400 participants, and hosting between 30-50 workshops per event. The initial forum in 2004 was a one day event (which expanded to two days in 2005). In 2006 the MSF ran the G20 Alternative as part of the G20 Convergence (an aspect of the protest against the G20 meetings then). The year 2007 saw the largest MSF event attendance (with approximately 450 participants). This was followed by a mini forum in 2008, and a larger two day forum in 2009. The last MSF events were held in 2010, and the remaining proceeds from the MSF organisation were given to the “CounterAct: Training for Change” project.[1]

Meta-networking and social complexity

Meta-networking engages both epistemic and ontological complexity. Epistemic complexity refers to the diversity of viewpoints, standpoints and worldviews that converge within a process. Ontological complexity refers to the diverse array of organisations and groups and the issues they address that converge as part of a process. This epistemological and ontological complexity exists as part of what social change processes are (the composition of embodied participation), and as part of what social change processes aim to address (the composition of social issues). This can be seen as inner and outer dimensions of social complexity.

Internal composition of field (participants) External composition of social issues to address
Epistemic complexity The array of ideological positions, cultural standpoints and worldviews that exist in the actors and participants that take part in a process or convergence The array of ideological positions, cultural standpoints and worldviews that are projected upon the various issues that actors and participants aim to address
Ontological complexity The array of types of actors, such as social movements, NGOs, networks, ethnic groups, diasporic communities, and people as a convergence The array of issues that actors and participants aim to address, and how they are systemically inter-locked and related

Table 1: Four Types of Social Complexity

In the next section I will describe the inner (epistemological) and outer (ontological) dimensions of this emerging form of ‘prismatic’ work. The inner dimension refers to the thinking, emotioning and feeling that provide the foundations for this kind of practice. The outer dimension refers to the behaviors, structures and systems that these emerging practices employ.

Epistemic complexity and inner dimensions

In the early days of my PhD work I received some criticism from neo-Marxist colleagues. They saw my writing and, to them, it looked confused, without coherence, lacking a tradition. While I agreed with many of the propositions made by the scholars who have pioneered neo-Marxist analysis into contemporary globalisation (Robinson 2004; Sklair 2005), as an organiser working in projects that brought multiple perspectives together, holding a single discourse (as truth) for whatever we spoke about (globalisation, etc.) was unworkable from a practical point of view. Eventually I needed to engage in a dual movement with respect to well-established scholarship and perspectives on globalisation and its transformations. On the one hand I needed to deepen my appreciation of such perspectives, by attending conferences, talking to proponents and through reading. I needed to appreciate where such perspectives made sense and what they explain well. Likewise I also needed to allow myself to settle into a space and an identity that supported openness and curiosity with respect to various discourses and perspectives.

But it was not all about perspectives, and this was where Latour (2005) was crucial. For Latour, understanding the social was fundamentally about how elements associate. For him the researcher-practitioner should try to not impose pre-existing theories or frameworks on an area of observation. What was needed was a way of seeing how ideas, institutions, machines and people all come together to form and reform the social. This kind of post-materialist empiricism was and is central. It transformed the role of discourse and ideas from that which explains reality (e.g. post-positivist), into that which guides actors in their quest to understand and act – discourse / ideas are embodied and mediate people’s strategic action. An idea’s truth lay more in its utility and enabling effective and strategic action, rather than the presumption of universal or historical law.

The transformation of discourse from truth/false to an element in a Latourian assemblage paralleled another shift. My inner perspective as a practitioner could see connections between various modes of analysis and action of the people that I networked with. There existed a field of thinking and activity which had deep relatedness, but which had not yet been connected. I could see the opportunities in this ‘ecology of knowledges’. The idea of ‘meta-networking’ emerged to guide me (Gilchrist 2004). The meta-networker moves across multiple spaces, sometimes a chameleon, listening and looking for connections between various organisations, people, ideas, projects. Opportunistic and restless, to see the possibility of emergence from what currently exists.

Two metaphors also helped guide this. The first metaphor was of the ‘bee and flower’. The bee and the flower both have unique characteristics (one coming from the insect family and the other from the plant family). Yet at some point a reciprocally beneficial relationship developed, as flowers relied on insects (like bees) to carry their creative genetic material, and bees relied on flowering plants for nutrients. While they do not communicate in the strict sense, they express signifiers that allow for a broader process of structural coupling (Maturana 1998). Their ontogenetic differences do not preclude either the codes needed for structural coupling nor a tacit shared interest. I found in my social work that this complex ‘structural coupling’ occurred across ontological diversities (organisations doing different types of work), epistemological diversities (organisations / groups with different worldviews) and thematic diversities (organisations working in thematically different areas), in creating ‘ecologies of innovation’ and the potential for ‘meta-formation’.

A second metaphor also guided me – the bridge builder. The bridge builder works between and across diverse actors and their different ways of knowing, facilitating their processes of building coherent strategies for change. Whereas the bee and flower signifies that it was in-and-across the landscape of systems where creative synergy was to be found, the bridge building metaphor was about the practitioner. It indicated that someone needed to provide the unique leadership to bring different elements / people together. The bridge builder created the spaces, platforms and language for people to relate across their diversities. The bridge builder’s inner resources are key: cognitive mapping, to understand a broader spectrum of commonality that has the potential to connect disparate actors toward common goals and projects. In this regard, the practitioner’s capacity to identify hegemonic and counter hegemonic knowledges is critical.

The diverse field of alternative globalisation actors represented knowledges which have been marginalised or obscured by the dominant and official liberalist discourse on globalisation (as inevitable, necessary, progressive, developmental, etc.). Santos (2006, p. 13) argues it represents an ‘Epistemology of the South’, which expresses the legitimacy of the (multiple) knowledge systems of the world’s marginalised and the social experiences which inform them. Whether they be Latin American indigenous groups struggling against the incursions of trans-national corporations, African peasants struggling against subsidised agricultural imports, Dalit (untouchables) struggling against an Indian caste system, Cuban or Australian permaculturalists, Buddhists teaching meditation for peace, or climate scientists arguing for the de-carbonisation of the global economy, together they represent knowledges coupled to diverse experiences, which challenge hegemonic expressions of neo-liberal globalisation and reality. In short, identifying counter-hegemonic discourse and knowledges was and is fundamental to the bridge building efforts needed to create critically informed social change.

Ontological complexity and outer dimensions

An approach to the practice of meta-networking for social change cannot just rely on inner resources of practitioners, there are also the ontological dynamics and factors that accompany any effort that critically informs strategic action.

In my work I found that the recognition of the dynamics of power was central to informing my own reading of strategy. As the movements for another globalisation are fundamentally concerned with both politicising and transforming power structures (Teivainen 2007), we need ways to think about what structures of power mean in respect to globalisation. For example, in Sklair’s (2002) analysis, the current global system is composed of three main spheres of power, the economic, political and cultural, and through this we witness the emergence of structural synergies of domination. This is carried forth economically through transnational corporations, politically through an emerging transnational capitalist class, and culturally through the ideology of consumerism (Sklair 2005 pp. 58-59). As Mills (1956) explored half a century earlier through his analysis of the circulation of power in the US between economic, military and political domains, Sklair also points out the emerging structural synergies in capitalist globalisation. Korten (2006), in a similar fashion, points out his vision of needed structural (cultural, political, economic) alternatives. In Table 2 I use both Sklair’s and Korten’s distinctions as examples of how alternatives presented within the alternative globalisation movement are structural in nature.

Capitalist globalisation (Sklair) Alternative globalisation in AGM (Korten)
Economic Trans-national corporations and their interests; Local living economies,

Fair share taxation and trade,

Democratising workplaces;

Cultural Culture-ideology of consumerism – worth based on possessions and accumulation; Post patriarchy feminine leadership,

Narratives of an Earth community,

Spiritual Inquiry;

Political Trans-national capitalist class – plutocratic systems of governance. Democratising structures of governance,

Participatory and open media,

Precautionary policy making.

Table 2: Capitalist to Alternative Globalisation, Sklair (2002) and Korten (2006)

I discovered that social alternatives did not exist in the somewhat ambiguous territory of (global) civil society, but are directed at a variety of structures (Sklair 2002 p. 315; Robinson 2005). For counter hegemonic alternatives to have the possibility of becoming social realities, this necessarily required that institutional anchors needed to be created across spheres of power (economic, political and cultural). My traditional role as a culture worker / academic / researcher was being challenged, I would need to engage across both the political and the economic. My reading of power also necessitated a reading of counter power. Counter hegemonic alternatives form through new strategic couplings across these domains, such that a field of self-sustaining counter power may become resilient and influential in democratising core aspects of institutional life. My work became consciously about interlinking social ecologies and meta-networking which facilitated alternative formations of structural power. It needed to express a ‘critical’ methodology in building social capital, by opening up opportunities for interaction, informational exchange and collaboration as a counter point to elite forums of social capital development (e.g. the Davos World Economic Forum) (Gilchrist, 2004 pp. 4-7; Mayo 2005, p. 50). Importantly, the imperative to work across the domains of business, politics / policy, and culture (media / academia) further reinforced the need to integrate the three levels of structural, poststructural and the commons, as social change was identified more concretely with power structures, and yet the discourses across different power structures are diverse, and within this were potentials for identifying commonality and opportunities for collaboration.

Three ‘Ps’ are critical in the practice of meta-networking: processes, platforms and places. When bringing people together across diverse domains of social experience, there needs to be a place that can not only accommodate that diversity, but which can leverage or harness diversity toward mutual recognitions, common themes, strategic opportunities and collaborative action. People need places to meet that are safe and nurturing. Social spaces can be analogised with geographic spaces. Some are fertile ground to plant seeds, while others are deserts. In the early days of my organizing, I was assisted by places like Borderlands, Ceres, Trades Hall, public libraries and other locales, many which had a history of innovating social change and were themselves examples of counter hegemonic alternatives. Later, my projects had to have more systematic approaches to procuring spaces.

Platforms are structures that allow participants of a particular process to cohabitate for a time. Platforms are by design and can be created for a number of different purposes. They can be both live and / or online, and ideally both. In my work with the MSF, we took the lead from the global organisation and followed the open space method (Owen 1997). The open space method allows participants to design and develop their own thematic ideas and sub-processes. It is less programmatic and more diverse and divergent than traditional conference processes. Using open space we would host about 300-400 participants and approximately 30 workshops, mostly developed by participants. Participants would choose which workshops they wanted to attend. While open space helped to accommodate diversity and make critical connections, it did not necessarily facilitate collaborative or strategic action across the whole. Platforms are in a sense a convergence of a space and a method for people to come together in a particular way. Online platforms have developed substantially over the last 10 years, and there are now many options.

Process and methodology, which is entangled with both space and platform, is still an important distinctive element. Action researchers have developed a wide variety of approaches to large scale group intervention, such as search conferences, as a way of engaging in large-scale and systemic collaborative inquiry and action (Martin 2001). Recently methodologies include Collective Impact, developed in the United States (Kania 2013), and Living Labs, developed in Europe (Beamish et al 2012). These various approaches recognise that beneficial social change and innovation must connect across diverse sectors, harness and leverage diverse participants perspectives, capabilities and resources, and build common ground for collective action and collaborative innovation.

When working with social complexity, I have learned that understanding the nature of the social complexity, the amount of time people have to come together, where they come together, and under what explicit or implicit motivations people come together, all matter. This requires preparation and a willingness to explore and research various participants and their backgrounds, and to begin to build the groundwork for a process that will genuinely serve the interests of people who engage, and which will create the possibility and opportunity for collaboration and innovation. These three ‘Ps’, processes, platforms and places, are all of fundamental concern in building meta-networks for positive social change in conditions of systemic complexity.


In my own work an approach that posits the structural and post-structural as opposite binary positions is less useful than one which brings them together toward building common ground (the commons) toward critically informed social change. An approach that recognises the legitimacy of a diversity of viewpoints and discourses is an important aspect of social and community work in the 21st-century. We live in a world in which more people from different backgrounds are coming together at various scales and geographies. Increasingly we work across multiple cultural reference points. At the same time, the idea of ‘wicked problem’ has taken root, and we understand that the most intractable issues cannot be solved by solo stakeholders who are isolated from the vast majority of people and actors who inhabit those same ‘wicked systems’. We need well developed practices of meta-networking that can build common ground between diverse actors to solve complex social problems. We need a whole of system approach that brings people together from across the systems in need of change. While this is very different from traditional service delivery modes of engagement, deeper change requires systemic inquiry and action. Given the cultural and structural complexities we are increasingly engaged with, poststructuralist approaches and perspectives are needed to engaging with multiplicity, transforming diversity into a resource for systemic and collaborative innovation. At the same time, however, differing perspectives are necessarily mutually exclusive. There is the relational in-between – our commonness, common humanity, participation in a commons and the active development of common-ground through the practice of meta-networking.


Beamish, E. McDade, D. Mulvenna, M. Martin, S. Soilemezi, D. 2012, Better Together – The TRAIL User Participation Toolkit for Living Labs, University of Ulster

Bergmann, V. 2006, ‘Archaeologies of Anti-Capitalist Utopianism’ in Imagining the Future: Utopia and Dystopia, edited by A. Milner, Ryan, M., Savage, R., Arena, Melbourne

Briskman, L. Pease, B. and Allan, J. 2009, Introducing critical theories for social work in a neo-liberal context in Critical Social Work, edited by J. Allan, Briskman, L., Pease, B., Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest

Bollier, D. and Helfrich, S. ed. 2012, The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, Levellers Press, Amherst, MA

Carley, M., Christie, I. 1993. Managing Sustainable Development. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Castells, M. 1997, The Power of Identity, Blackwell, Mass

Chisholm, R. 2001, ‘Action Research to Develop an Inter-Organizational Network’ in Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (ed.) Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, Sage, Thousand Oaks

Gilchrist, A. 2004, The Well Connected Community, The Policy Press, Bristol

Hamilton, C. 2007, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, Black Inc., Melbourne

Hansen, M. 1997, ‘Antonio Gramsci: Hegemony and the Materialist Conception of History’, in Macrohistory and Macrohistorians, edited by J. Galtung, Inayatullah, S., Praeger, Westport

Ife, J. 2012, Human Rights and Social Work: Towards Rights-Based Practice, Cambridge University Press, Mass

Inayatullah, S. 1998, ‘Causal Layered Analysis: Post-Structuralism as Method’, Futures, vol. 30, pp. 815-829.

Kania, J. and Kramer, M. 2013, ‘Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity’, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Stanford

Korten, D. 2006, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, Kumarian Press, Bloomfield

Latour, B. 2005, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Martin, A. 2001, ‘Large-group Processes as Action Research’ in Handbook of Action Research, edited by P. Reason and H. Bradbury, Sage, Thousand Oaks

Maturana, H, Varela, F. 1998, The Tree of Knowledge, Shambhala, Boston

Mayo, M. 2005, Global Citizens: Social Movements and the Challenge of Globalization, Canadian Scholars Press, Toronto

Mills, C. W. 1956, The Power Elite, Oxford University Press, London

Owen, H. 1997, Open Space Technology: A Users Guide, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco

Ramos, J. 2010, Alternative Futures of Globalisation: A socio-ecological study of the World Social Forum Process, PhD, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane

Robinson, W. 2004, A Theory of Global Capitalism, John Hopkins University Press, London

Robinson, W. 2005, The Battle for Global Civil Society [Online].

Santos, B. 2006, The Rise of the Global Left: The World Social Forum and Beyond, Zed Books, London

Sklair, L. 2002, Globalisation: Capitalism and its Alternatives, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Sklair, L. 2005, ‘Generic Globalization, Capitalist Globalization and Beyond: A Framework for Critical Globalisation Studies’ in Appelbaum, R., Robinson, W. (ed.) Critical Globalization Studies, Routledge, New York

Teivanen, T. 2007, ‘The Political and its Absence in the World Social Forum – Implications for Democracy’, Development Dialogue – Global Civil Society, pp. 69-79

Trist, E. 1979, ‘Referent Organizations and the Development of Inter-Organizational Domains’, Academy of Management (Organization and Management Theory Division) 39th Annual Convention, Atlanta, Georgia.

  1. See:


Linking Foresight and Action

In 2016 I decided to contribute a book chapter on a futures studies perspective on participatory action research, in an ambitious project led by Lonnie Rowell, Catherine D. Bruce, Joseph M. Shosh, and Margaret M. Riel. It was quite a journey. I want to specifically thank them and those futurists that helped me by responding to some survey questions: Luke van der Laan, Ruben Nelson, Anita Kelliher, Tanja Hichert, Robert Burke, Mike McCallum, Aaron Rosa, and Steven Gould. Of course thanks to many many other people who are part of this general movement – people I’ve worked with and learned from who are woven through this text. This is a pre-print draft, and citation of final publication is as follows:

Ramos, J. (2017). Linking Foresight and Action: Toward a Futures Action Research. In The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research (pp. 823-842). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.



For over a decade I have been involved in a unique enterprise, to explore, document and integrate Action Research approaches with Futures Studies. This rather obscure endeavor, which from the outside may seem arcane, for me is core to addressing the great social and ecological challenges we face today. Because of this inner direction, I continue to develop this confluence into hybrid approaches to human and social development.

After a degree in comparative literature and on the back of the experience of globalization living in Japan, Taiwan and Spain, I entered a Masters degree in ‘Strategic Foresight.’ What excited me was the emphasis on systems analysis, visioning, and social change. I was attracted to the idea that a group of people could envision a future they desired and then potentially create it. I entered the Futures Studies field with a desire for transformational change.

Futures studies gave me critical thinking and tools and frameworks for exploring the long term, however a ‘discrepancy’ emerged. Futures Studies clarified the sharp challenges faced by our planetary civilization over the long term. The challenges we addressed were large scale and historical in dimensions, what Slaughter (2002) referred to as a ‘civilizational crisis’: long term climate change, casino capitalism and rising inequality, profound shifts in technology, and other issues. The gap for me related to a question of empowerment. Where and how do we discover agency in creating the world we want? Futures Studies gave me knowledge for forecasting, deconstructing, analyzing and envisioning our futures. But I needed to know how to create change.

Intuitively, I began looking for approaches that would address this gap. When I found action research, I was immediately inspired by the diversity of thinking, approaches and case studies and began playing with the potential overlaps and fusion between the two areas (Ramos, 2002). I also interned with Dr. Yoland Wadsworth, involved myself in the AR community in Melbourne and began to find synergies and opportunities to express the logic of foresight coupled with action through a variety of projects. This work has continued to guide a wide variety of current projects. This chapter details this journey.

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).

Figure 1: evolution of futures studies from an AR perspective

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 (e.g. 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.

Situating Foresight Work In The Action Research Tradition

The distinction between First, Second and Third person action research, originally developed by Reason and Bradbury (2001a) and Torbert (2001), and now widely adopted in the action research field, is used here to explain the nature of the synthesis of action research and futures studies and helps provide outlines for a proposed Futures Action Research (FAR).[1]

According to Reason (Reason, 2001b), First Person AR concerns a person’s self-inquiry, self-understanding and self-awareness in a research process “to foster an inquiring approach to his or her own life (p. 4)” … and by extension, practice. Second Person AR involves inter-personal inquiry, where people create learning with each other, and is “concerned with how to create communities of inquiry” (p.4). Third Person AR engages in processes for developing co-inquiry at a-proximate scales which may be “geographically dispersed” (p.5) and impersonal.

First Person Futures Action Research

A first person action research approach to futures research entails questioning and transforming one’s own assumptions about the future, as well as one’s practice. As researchers we hold assumptions about the future that, when we engage in fieldwork with others, are likely to change. ‘Data’ here entails documenting and explicating one’s assumptions, intentions and experiences. This can be done for oneself to facilitate self-learning, but also for a project reference group as an aspect of double and triple loop learning (Torbert, 2004). Documenting the revolutions in our own thinking about the future is a critical aspect of any futures research. And, as practitioners engaging in social change experiments with others, we can learn what worked well, not so well, and how we might improve our own practices.  

Developmental psychology is employed by Slaughter (2008) and by Hayward (2003) as a way of shedding light on practitioner disposition, and to help practitioners to engage more effectively with the breadth of developmental orientations. Inayatullah (2008) uses the Jungian inspired work of Hal and Sidra Stone (1989) to shed light on the critical factors driving the behavior and psychology of practitioners. Kelly (2005) developed one-on-one reflective processes using student journaling with first year engineering students to facilitate sustainability consciousness and global citizenship (Kelly, 2006). Inayatullah (2006) has been exemplary in generating self-understanding within futures studies.

Second Person Futures Action Research

The second person dimension is the inter-personal experience of a group of people inquiring into and questioning the future together, in a process that leads to actions / experiments that drive further learning and knowledge. Groups will inquire into the nature of the social changes (trends and emerging issues) that may impact them, create shared visions for change, and develop strategies and plans to enact this. When visions, plans and strategies are enacted, effects can be observed and documented (what happened, whether they worked or didn’t, etc.), the experience of which is leveraged to generate new understandings and new actions. ‘Data’ here includes what people express together (e.g. workshop notes) when questioning the future, as well as the documentation of plans, actions and effects that arise from such inquiry.

There are a number of foresight practitioners who have worked with organizations engaging in ‘full cycle’ processes of research.[2] Some of the best examples include the work of Inayatullah (2008), List (2006 ), Stevenson (2006), Kelleher (2005), and Daffara and Gould (2007).

Third Person Futures Action Research

The third person dimension reflects the dynamics of a larger community of co-inquiry. Large-scale processes are used to facilitate and capacitate co-inquiry and action for communities or networks that can involve hundreds or even thousands in inquiry into the future that leads to various types of actions ( e.g. innovation, policy making, art, design and media).

The Anticipatory Democracy projects in the 1970s, which engaged citizens in large scale futures exploration and political / policy change processes across a number of US states (Bezold, 1978) provided early examples of the third person dimension. More recently, select governments have invested heavily in inter-departmental foresight systems that link hundreds of people in foresight informed policy development (Habegger, 2010). Transition Management is exemplary in bringing together long-term sustainability thinking with innovation oriented alliance building across government, business and community. The iteration cycles described in transition management are similar to cycles of action research.

Figure 2: Transition Management Cycle based on Loorbach & Rotmans (2010)

Most recent are web-based / network form approaches to facilitating large scale participatory futures inquiry (Ramos, 2012). These are newer and hold promise in their ability to create large-scale social conversations and interactions concerning our shared futures and challenges. The vision for a ‘Global Foresight Commons’ is another example, where a planet wide conversation about our shared challenges and issues is created that fosters globally networked collaborative projects for change (Ramos, 2014).

Integrating First, Second and Third person modes

According to Reason, these distinctions should not be seen simply as ways to categorize action research practices, but rather as interacting dimensions of these practices that, when used together, make it holistic (Reason, 2004). There are two main avenues for integration. First, we can use the distinctions when making sense of research data, as a method of triangulation. Secondly, the three categories provide a generative dynamic for action research projects to evolve and develop (Reason, 2001b).

Figure 3: ‘Triangulating’ futures action research

Triangulating futures research across these three domains of experience entails observing and noting patterns, connections, synergies and contradictions in the ‘data’ between the distinctions. As action researchers, we should not just be looking for second and third person support for ideas and assumptions by ignoring contradictory empirical or testimonial evidence. This requires critical subjectivity and self-questioning, looking for how second and third Person dimensions may contradict our first person assumptions, imaginings and intuitions about the future, not just support them. This type of research then allows each of the three dimensions to transform the other. Second and third person modes can challenge the inner narrative / assumptions / image of the future of the researcher. First and third person modes can challenge our engagements with others, what questions we ask, what processes we run, and how we interpret what others are saying about the future. First and second person modes can challenge our engagement with the literature on the future, and help guide us in new directions, or to address gaps in the literature.

Synthesis of Action Learning and Futures Studies

Burke, Stevenson, Macken, Wildman, and Inayatullah (with numerous other collaborators) initially pioneered Anticipatory Action Learning (AAL) (Ramos, 2002) . They were steeped in participatory development traditions, as well as humanistic and neo-humanistic Futures Studies. Their vision for this fusion was to bridge a transformational space of inquiry, the long term and planetary future, with the everyday and embodied world of relating and acting. Arguably, their agenda was to engineer a new modality for local and planetary transformation, opening the structural (long term and global) to the question and indeed praxis of participatory action and agency.

Figure 4: Positioning AAL in knowledge traditions (Inayatullah 2006)

Inayatullah (2006) AAL is described as originating from three influences:

  • Development oriented participatory action research
  • The work of Reg Revans (2011)
  • Futures Studies

Inayatullah modified Reg Revans’ formula of learning from ‘programmed knowledge + questioning’ to a future-oriented ‘programmed knowledge + questioning the future’.

Questioning the future entails unpacking and deconstructing the default future, or what has been described in this chapter as a ‘used future,’ our unquestioned image or assumption of the future, whether for our world, organization or ourselves. Challenging this default future, we are then able to imagine and articulate alternative and desired futures. Questioning the future entails a variety of categories – possible, probable and preferred futures – and lays the foundations for discovering collective agency, the future people choose to create. Agency also means that expert knowledge and categories for the future are not automatically privileged; participants can draw from experts, but equally use their indigenous / endogenous epistemologies / ways of knowing as pathways toward creating authentic futures (Inayatullah, 2006, p.658).

AAL represents an evolving and mature theory and practice, with a growing body of practitioners. One of the most important expressions of AAL has been through the development of the ‘Six Pillars’ methodology, a structured yet participatory format for exploring the future. Its strength lies in its simplicity. It features easy to use tools that the non-initiated can easily grasp, and follows a logical sequence that moves participants through various stages: “mapping, anticipation, timing, deepening, creating alternatives and transforming” (Inayatullah, 2008, p. 7). Participants can decide to re-order the tools, even modify them. However, they provide a basic scaffold for what is otherwise a complex and challenging undertaking. Making the exploration of change both enjoyable and empowering should be seen as a significant achievement. Six Pillars can be seen as a ‘practitioner action research’ project where Inayatullah and colleagues experimented and developed approaches over several decades with thousands of people, looking for and discovering what works with groups (Ramos, 2003).

Anticipatory Action Learning’s Disruptive Role

One of the key features of anticipatory action learning is the importance of post-structural and critical theory in the practice of ‘questioning the future.’ One of the central principles is that ‘the future’ is often the site of a hegemonic discourse, that is, ‘the future’ may be an instrument or artifact of power. Thus one of the critical questions asked in conversations is ‘Who is privileged and who is marginalized in a discourse on the future,’ or ‘who wins and who loses in that future’ (Inayatullah, 1998). This follows an argument made by Sardar (1999) that the future has already been colonized, by which he meant that most people’s image of the future has already been set and shaped by powerful interests. These ‘used futures’ maintain their power by virtue of never being questioned. Discovering agency therefore begins with a de-colonization process, where the constructs of the future people unconsciously hold can be questioned and people can generate new, more relevant, intelligent and more authentic visions that empower and inspire. Good futures studies therefore follow what Singer (1993) described as philosophy’s central role: challenging the critical assumptions of the age.

Contemporary Issues in the Confluence of Action Research and Future Studies

In writing this chapter I have consulted with some of the practitioners and networks in the field combing action research and future studies.[3] The following is not a comprehensive list, however, here are some of the critical issues emerging among those at the crossroad of these approaches.

Foresight Tribes

As described in this chapter, the shift from the future as ‘out there’ (the positivist / post-positivist notion of temporality) to the future as ‘in here’ (a constructivist idea of foresight) is a foundational shift in epistemological orientation. Participatory workshops and engagements which begin with questioning the ‘used future’ and exploring peoples not-so-conscious assumptions embark us on a new path of exploring and understanding the embodied and associational dimensions of how we collectively hold visions of change. In my research I have identified distinct ‘foresight tribes.’ Foresight tribes are features of a network society dynamic, where ideas and images of the future are held trans-geographically and a-synchronously (Castells, 1997; Ronfeldt, 1996). Contemporary popular visions are associated with globally distributed communities, where language emerges into patterns for cognizing change. Foresight tribes are both embodied and virtual communities that produce and reproduce particular outlooks, language and images of the futures. Some, like ‘re-localists’ approach the future through the lens of peak oil, an unsustainable global financial system and the looming threat of environmental collapse. They argue we need to begin to build resilience into our locales, relocalize economic processes, governance and culture. Other tribes like ‘transhumanists’ believe we are on the cusp of transforming the very definition of humanity, as artificial intelligence, biotechnological enhancements, and cybernetic augmentation become prevalent. Through my research I have studied and documented over a dozen ‘tribes,’ and have come to appreciate how what is conventionally understood as ‘the future,’ is rather an image of the future held by a community and an expression of associational embodiment and cultural dynamics (Ramos, 2010).

Figure 5: Social change and cognition analysis framework

Actor Network Theory (Latour, 2005), which has strong resonance with Action Research, has been an important methodology I’ve used in decoding discourse within tribes. Discourses can hold notions of temporality, both of the past (how we got here) and future (where we are going). A discourse also holds key notions of structure (what is real and enduring) and agency (who / what has the power to create change). Underpinning both is an epistemological dimension, who and what is legitimate in respect to knowledge of social change. These different discourses give rise to distinct notions of strategic action. Thus, theories and discourses for change do not necessarily explain reality; they explain what ideas are held by people that guide their notions of correct action – why they act in particular ways. As Van der Laan (Personal Communication, October 2014) remarked ironically, “Action is based on deep assumptions which create systems of the future” – rather than explaining the future, these discourses generate modes of strategic action that help to shape the future.

Narrative Foresight

People’s experience of reality is mediated through myth, metaphor, story and narrative (Inayatullah, 2004; Lakoff, 1980; Thompson, 1974). In this regard, supporting change requires helping organizations and communities to generate new narratives. For Inayatullah it is an essential step, where participants use ‘causal layered analysis’ to deconstruct existing (static) narratives and develop new (empowering) narratives for themselves. Some are using the new field of ‘trans-media storytelling’ to engage participants in co-creating narratives within a developed story space for many types of contemporary media (von Stackelberg, 2014). Other practitioners have been inspired by the archetypal work of Joseph Campbell in developing participatory foresight processes and workshops (Schultz, 2012). Another emerging practice in the field is called ‘experiential foresight’ and ‘design futures,’ where practitioners provide living and embodied narrative contexts, complete with stage craft, actors and scripts, that participants inhabit for a period of time and which provoke them into questioning the future(s) (Candy, 2010; Dator, 2013). Milojevic (2014) combines narrative therapy and foresight approaches.

Drama and Gaming

Drama is one of the oldest forms of story telling and narrative, with myriad traditions across many civilizations and cultures. In the action research tradition, Moreno’s foundational work developing psychodrama, and Agusto Boal’s (1998) development of socio-drama have inspired many around the world. Following suit, in futures studies new approaches have emerged which draw participants into dramaturgical situations and games. Head (2011) developed an approach called ‘Forward Theatre’, a method for exploring alternative futures through drama, to encourage debate and dialog on hypothetical possibilities embodied through well-crafted narratives and performances. For education purposes in the context of foresight and leadership, Voros and Hayward (Hayward, 2006) developed the ‘Sarkar Game.’ Based on a critique of the Indian varna (caste) system, participants embody one of four roles: Worker, Warrior, Intellectual, and Merchant, interacting using the macro social cycle framework developed by P.R. Sarkar. Inayatullah uses the game in workshops to deepen participants understanding of social dynamics, and the potentially progressive and regressive aspects of each archetype. The Sarkar game is “intended to embody the concepts being discussed…to move participants to other ways of knowing so that they may… gain a deeper and more personal understanding and appreciation of alternatives futures” (Inayatullah, 2013, p.1).

Experiential foresight in the ‘design futures’ tradition also combines drama and gaming in innovative ways. Interrogating the power dynamics inherent in communications technologies, in 2012, Ph.D. students and faculty of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies (HRCFS) (Dator, Sweeney, Yee, & Rosa, 2013) employed a live gaming platform involving over 40 participants from around the world, interacting in a geo-spatial game-world twining virtual and physical interactions:

At the heart of the game’s content were four alternative futures … using the Mānoa School scenario modeling method. Utilizing four ‘generic’ futures from which to construct scenarios that ‘have equal probabilities of happening, and thus all need to be considered in equal measure and sincerity,’ the content for Gaming Futures evolved into a creative exercise in how to apply gaming dynamics … which required building complex, yet accessible, scenarios within a plastic gaming platform” (Dator et al, 2013, p121).

Gaming futures was preceded by work in experiential foresight, within which participants can inhabit and interact within artistically rich yet sociologically plausible alternative futures (Candy, 2010). The scenario sets are created to be subtle, subversive and fundamentally disruptive of participant assumptions, and they act as provocations for further questioning and action. Rosa has developed ‘Geo-spatially Contextualized Futures Research,’ dramaturgical games which twine ubiquitous / ambient computing / augmented reality with physical interaction. He sees Alternative Futures as a collaborative resource:

The PAR [participatory action research] framework lends credence to the idea that participants are co-researchers, actively engaged in the adaptation of the research itself. As our foundational medium of futures research is the alternative scenario (experiential, interactive, immersive), we must design systems that can be changed, taught, and augmented (Rosa personal communication, October 2014).

Dialogue of Selves

Narrative, drama and role-playing, arguably, engage ancient aspects of the human psyche. We respond to particular roles played unwittingly by those around us and by those actors with greater skill. Two approaches with Jungian origins have strong and useful connections with archetypal notions of temporal consciousness. The first is the work of Hal and Sidra Stone, who have developed a psychological system called ‘voice dialogue.’ The central proposition in their work is that the psyche expresses a multi-vocality of being. Different ‘selves’ have different roles and functions, and depending on the context, some are dominant and some are disowned. Their work is employed by practitioners in visioning processes to deepen and provide more holistic approaches (Stone, 1989). Inayatullah (2008) finds that some groups, when conducting visioning processes, disown key elements, making visions less robust and tenable. For example, a group may envision a strategically robust but pragmatic future, but disown what authentically inspires people – that the vision makes rational sense but will not motivate. Alternatively a vision may be deeply inspiring, but if it disowns the planning, control and financial dimensions of a community or organization, it may be un-operable. The goal then is to create visions that integrate multiple selves: the planner, the artist, the servant, the dreamer, the manager… toward the development of holistic visions that are operable – that is, fulfill needs at multiple levels. In this line of thinking the facilitator invariably invokes or provokes what they disown, ‘the Other,’ and it is the challenge of the facilitator to embrace the Otherness of the moment, as an invitation to learn and develop more fully (Inayatullah, 2006).

Anticipatory Design and Co-creation

In my work I have been guided by a passion and vision to link strategic foresight and action research. In the past, this was conceptualized through the idea of ‘anticipatory innovation,’ and use of existing action research approaches (Ramos 2002, 2004b, 2004c). Later, activism and ethnographic foresight became important manifestations to critically question and revision discourse and strategy (Ramos, 2010). Most recently, the link between design thinking and foresight has become prominent.

A new generation of design thinking is emerging, trans-disciplinary, engaging across art, science and technology, commons-oriented and deeply collaborative and participatory. Service design thinking has become an important approach in the interface between creative industries, enterprise creation and social innovation. Service design both incorporates the use of foresight as leverage in conceptualizing services and innovations in the context of social change, and incorporates a participatory and (design) ethnography orientation so that design is tightly coupled with the needs of end users (Stickdorn, 2012).

The Futures Action Model

I created the Futures Action Model (FAM) over a ten-year period (2003-2013). It was a product of my passion to link present-day action with foresight, and of the many conversations, collaborations and opportunities I’ve had with colleagues and clients / students (Ramos, 2013).

FAM was created as a scaffold to facilitate social innovation and enterprise creation in the context of our awareness of social change and alternative futures. It emerged from the realization that problem solving was not linear, and that a non-linear but logical approach that coupled action and foresight was needed. I wanted to clarify the link between foresight and action, but more importantly facilitate an approach by which people could do both simultaneously, and where one activity complemented the other. I also wanted to de-mystify the process of foresight informed innovation and make it easier to generate breakthrough ideas.

FAM is a nested system that posits four interrelated aspects in the foresight-action nexus.

Figure 6: Basic Futures Action Model (FAM)

The largest (sociological) context is called ‘emerging futures.’ This is the space of social change (emerging issues, trends, scenarios), and from a progressive / activist perspective, the challenges we face.

Within this, the next layer down are the various proactive responses from around the world to that challenge. Thus, if rising economic inequality is the challenge and emerging issue at the top layer, approaches that create economic opportunity for the dis-enfranchised would go in the next layer. The key metaphor here is that we now live in what can be called a “global learning laboratory.” Whereas in the past both the problems people faced and the solutions created may have seemed disconnected, suddenly, in a matter of decades, we are interconnected by problems that look similar or have strong thematic overlaps underlying the processes of globalization.

In the third layer down is the ‘community of the initiative,’ which are the people, organizations, projects, etc. that participants using the futures action model can potentially partner with. They are real people and organizations that may have something to offer the start-up.

The final layer contains the core model of the initiative, this is a solution space where participants can explore the purpose, resource strategy and governance system of an initiative that can effectively address the issue or problem. This is the ‘DNA’ of the idea. An initiative will also reflect a new ‘value exchange system’ between stakeholders that may not have been connected before. This is the ecosystem of partners that makes an initiative viable. The new relationships are facilitated by the initiative – as the initiative pioneers have a ‘systems’ level mental map and understanding – they can see how different organizations and people might connect and exchange value in new ways – or they have an intuition about what relationships might be generative – even though they may not know the exact outcomes.

Futures action model has been used in facilitating youth / student empowerment and enterprise programs, for scaffolding anticipatory policy development processes, personal post-graduate coaching of project development, facilitating enterprise development, and facilitating community based social innovations.

Co-creation Cycle for Anticipatory Design

In addition to the futures action model, the most recent manifestation of my thinking to link design and foresight is a conceptualization of an action research cycle that is specifically tailored to a new generation of social innovators, social entrepreneurs and participatory designers. Reflecting on the often confusing cacophony of my own projects and work, both paid and unpaid, as well as those of colleagues, I began to search for commonalities and elements. This led to the development of an action research / action learning cycle similar to the fast cycle development process of agile software development (SCRUM). The context for this finding included a number of factors: the emergence of the network forums that amplifies idea exchange and opportunities for peer-to-peer collaboration, the experimental dynamics of colliding / integrating fields in science, art and technology which produce hybrid and often chimeric innovations, and the need to seed ideas even while maintaining a pragmatic stance toward earning an income. In this iterative process, ideas foment quickly and furiously, prototypes are developed and tested, connected with potential users who are expected to teach and lead innovators, so that ideas can be adapted and evolved or discarded for better ones.

Figure 7: Co-creation Cycle for Anticipatory Design

 Anticipate is about the great idea, the what if and what is possible. It is not necessarily about anticipating the big future (futures of society) through scenarios. It is more about what would be great, possible and socially needed now and in the emerging futures (future fit), what can be done with existing and emerging resources / technology, and the kind of future people want to live in (preferred future and values / ethics based).

This leads to the Design, conceptual or physical, of an artifact or model. For example, if dealing with a product, it can be conceptual design, graphic or technical design, or an actual physical prototype. Or if concerning a business, it can be the conceptual business model, or it can be the basic minimum scale of the business in actual form (the Minimum Viable Product offer).

The next phase is Connect, where the design, in whatever its stage, is shared and connected with intended and unintended users. Critical issues focus on usability, value, utility, inspiration and interest by the people who would use the design. Do people like it, want to share it, how well does it work? Connect is similar to David Kolb’s stage of ‘experience’ where the planned experiment is applied and experienced / observed. Because of network society dynamics, however, connect takes on much more meaning, as an idea, design or model can be distributed within a much more dynamic and complex space of engagement. A crowd funding campaign, for example is a typical mode of ‘connect’ in this Anticipatory Design space.

Evolve is the impetus to change the design and offer, try something new, or make adaptations to the existing design. It stems from the experience of connecting, what users of the design (program, project, product, or model) want and need. Depending on the nature of the connecting, the innovators may or may not know what are the best ways to change, improve or adapt it. Learning is critical here – ways that connect the innovator and user – and bring them together into a virtuous cycle of co-creation.

Conclusion: Toward a Futures Action Research[4]

It is in the interest of our many communities and humanity as a whole to develop effective action research and participatory action research approaches to engage in empowering inquiries into our futures. As can be seen from this overview, the outline of such a Futures Action Research (FAR) is still emerging. What we have at the moment are strong overlaps, with a handful of more exemplary and coherent approaches.

Addressing the great challenges we collectively face will require more than just piecemeal innovations. We need to foster a whole-scale social reorientation, whereby taking response-ability for our futures at personal, organizational and planetary scales becomes commonplace. This chapter, hopefully, is a small step in this direction, toward a more coherent and resourced understanding of a FAR approach that offers effective means of transformation in many domains.


Bell, W. 1997. Foundations of futures studies Vol. 1. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Bezold, C. 1978. Anticipatory Democracy: People in the Politics of the Future. NY: Random House.

Boal, A. 1998. Legislative Theatre, Routledge, New York.

Candy, S. 2010. “The Futures of Everyday Life: Politics and the Design of Experiential Scenarios.” Ph.D., Political Science, University of Hawaii.

Castells, M. 1997. The Power of Identity Edited by M. Castells, TheInformation Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Mass: Blackwell.

Dator, J., Sweeney, J., Yee, A., Rosa, A. 2013. “Communicating Power: Technological Innovation and Social Change in the Past, Present, and Futures.” Journal of Futures Studies 17 (4):117-134.

Gould, S. Daffara, P. 2007. “Maroochy 2025 Community Visioning ” 1st Interational Conf. on City Foresight in Asia Pacific Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 5-7 September 2007.

Habegger, B. 2010. “Strategic foresight in public policy: Reviewing the experiences of the UK, Singapore, and the Netherlands.” Futures 42:49-58.

Hayward, P. 2003. “Facilitating Foresight: where the foresight function is placed in organisations.” Foresight 6 (1):19-30.

Hayward, P., Voros, J. . 2006. “Creating the experience of social change.” Futures 38 (6):708-714.

Hughes, B. 1985. World Futures: A Critical Analysis of Alternatives. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Inayatullah, S. 1998. “Causal Layered Analysis: Post-Structuralism as Method.” Futures 30 (8):815-829.

Inayatullah, S. 2004. The Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) Reader: Theory and Case Studies of an Integrative and Transformative Methodology. Taipei: Tamkang University Press.

Inayatullah, S. 2006. “Anticipatory action learning: Theory and practice.” Futures 38 (6).

Inayatullah, S. 2013. “Using Gaming to Understand the Patterns of the Future – The Sarkar Game in Action.” Journal of Futures Studies 18 (1):1-12.

Inayatullah, S. 2008. “Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming.” Foresight 10 (1).

Inayatullah, Sohail. 1990. “Deconstructing and reconstructing the future : Predictive, cultural and critical epistemologies.” Futures 22 (2):115.

Kelleher, A. 2005. “A Personal Philosophy of Anticipatory Action-Learning.” Journal of Futures Studies 10 (1): 85 – 90.

Kelly, P. 2006. “Letter from the oasis: Helping engineering students to become sustainability professionals.” Futures 38 (6).

Lakoff, G., Johnson, M. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford Oxford University Press.

List, D. 2006. “Action research cycles for multiple futures perspectives.” Futures

Loorbach, D. Rotmans, J. 2010. “The practice of transition management: Examples and lessons from four distinct cases.” Futures 42:237-246.

Meadows, D, Meadows, D., 1972. The Limits to Growth. London: Pan Books.

Milojevic, I. 1999. “Feminizing Futures Studies.” In Rescuing all our Futures: The Future of Futures Studies, edited by Z. Sardar, 61-71. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Milojevic, I. 2014. “Creating Alternative Selves: The Use of Futures Discourse in Narrative Therapy.” Journal of Futures Studies 18 (3):27-40.

Moll, P. 2005. “The Thirst for Certainty: Futures Studies in Europe and the United States.” In The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies: Professional Edition, edited by R. Slaughter. Brisbane: Foresight International.

Ramos, J. 2002. “Action Research as Foresight Methodology.” Journal of Futures Studies 7 (1):1-24.

Ramos, J. 2003. From Critique to Cultural Recovery: Critical Futures Studies and Causal Layered Analysis In Australian Foresight Institute Monograph Series edited by R. Slaughter. Melbourne Swinburne University of Technology

Ramos, J. 2004a. Foresight Practice in Australia: A Meta-Scan of Practitioners and Organisations. In Australian Foresight Institute Monograph Series edited by R. Slaughter. Melbourne Swinburne University of Technology

Ramos, J. 2013. “Forging the Synergy between Anticipation and Innovation: The Futures Action Model.” Journal of Futures Studies 18 (1).

Ramos, J. 2014. “Anticipatory Governance: Traditions and Trajectories for Strategic Design.” Journal of Futures Studies 19 (1):35-52.

Ramos, J. 2006. “Action research and futures studies.” Futures 38 (6):639-641.

Ramos, J. 2010. “Alternative Futures of Globalisation: A socio-ecological study of the World Social Forum Process.” PhD, Department of Research and Commercialisation, Queensland University of Technology

Ramos, J. and O’Connor, A. . 2004b. “Social Foresight, Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship: Pathways Toward Sustainability.” AGSE Babson Conf. on Entrepreneurship Melbourne, Feb.

Ramos, J., Hillis, D. 2004c. “Anticipatory Innovation.” Journal of Futures Studies 9 (2):19-28.

Ramos, J. Mansfield, T. Priday, G. . 2012. “Foresight in a Network Era: Peer-producing Alternative Futures ” Journal of Futures Studies 17 (1):71-90.

Reason, P, Bradbury, H. 2001a. “Introduction: Inquiry and Participation in Search of a World Worthy of Human Aspiration.” In Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, edited by Bradbury H. Reason P, 1-14. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Reason, P. 2001b. “Learning and Change Through Action Research.” In Creative Management edited by J. Henry. London: Sage.

Reason, P., and McArdle, K. . 2004. “Brief Notes on the Theory an Practice of Action Research.” In Understanding Research Methods for Social Policy and Practice, edited by S. & Bryman Becker, A. (Eds.)(2004), .: . London The Polity Press.

Revans, R. 2011. ABC of Action Learning. Burlington VT.: Gower Publishing.

Ronfeldt, D. 1996. Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks: a framework about societal evolution. Santa Monica, CA. : RAND.

Sardar, Z. 1999. “The Problem of Futures Studies.” In Rescuing all our Futures: The Future of Futures Studies, edited by Z. Sardar, 9-18. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Schnaars, S. 1989. Megamistakes: forecasting and the myth of rapid technological change. New York: The Free Press.

Schultz, W., Crews, C., Lum, R. 2012. “Scenarios: A Hero’s Journey across Turbulent Systems.” Journal of Futures Studies, September 2012, 17(1): 129-140 17 (1):129-140.

Singer, P. 1993. How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest, . Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Slaughter, R. 2004. Futures beyond dystopia: creating social foresight. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Slaughter, R. 2008. “What difference does ‘integral’ make?” Futures 40.

Slaughter, R. 1999. Futures for the Third Miillenium. St Leonards, N.S.W.: Prospect Media.

Slaughter, R. 1995. The foresight principle,. Westport, CT: Adamantine Press, .

Slaughter, Richard A. 2002. “Futures Studies as a Civilizational Catalyst.” Futures 34 (3-4):349.

Stevenson, T. 2006. “From Vision into Action.” Futures 38 (6):667-671.

Stickdorn, M. and Schneider, J., ed. 2012. This is Service Design Thinking: Basics, Tools, Cases: BIS Publishing.

Stone, H., Stone, S. . 1989. Embracing Our Selves. Novato Calif.: Nataraj.

Thompson, W.I. 1974. At the Edge of History. New York: Lindisfarne Press.

Torbert, W. 2001. “The Practice of Action Inquiry.” In Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, edited by P Reason, Bradbury, H., 250-260. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Torbert, W., Cook-Greuter, S. . 2004. Action Inquiry: Berrett-Koehler.

von Stackelberg, P., Jones, R.E. 2014. “Tales of Our Tomorrows: Transmedia Storytelling and Communicating About the Future.” Journal of Futures Studies 18 (3):57-76.

[1] Kind thanks to Margaret Riel for offering FAR as a potential name.

[2] I conducted a survey of practitioners in the field in two major foresight networks (the World Futures Studies Federation and the Association of Professional Futurists), asking for survey responses from those who explicitly work across the action research cycle and incorporate various elements of action research. Responses came from Luke van der Laan, Ruben Nelson, Anita Kelliher, Tanja Hichert, Robert Burke, Mike McCallum, Aaron Rosa, and Steven Gould. Much gratitude goes to them all.

[3] This chapter was enhanced from responses to a survey I sent practitioner colleagues in September of 2014.

Liquid Democracy and the Futures of Governance

This is a book chapter entitled “Liquid Democracy and the Futures of Governance“, which I published this year in a book edited by Jenifer Winter and Ryota Ono, entitled The Future Internet (Springer).

The chapter is a synthesis of my research in Germany in 2013-2014 on Liquid Democracy, exploring questions regarding the significance of Liquid Democracy in broader transformations in democracy and governance, and exploring the role of web technology in creating fundamentally new potentials for social interaction and decision-making among diverse social actors. A new generation of Web technologies, accompanied by new political cultures, portends an ushering of radical transformations in democratic decision-making. This is a broader theme which I explore in the web blog site

The contribution this chapter makes to the overall literature is in clarifying the significance of such political innovations experiments. In particular how they prefigure two things: new political contracts and new political cultures.  

Some of the key insights from the research and study include the following:

  • We are witnessing a shift from the statist system of representative (republican) democracy that emerged from the enlightenment, toward new (post-republican) possibilities signified by the movements for participatory democracy and the emerging possibilities of the World Wide Web and network-enabled collaboration.
  • Experiments with Liquid Democracy / transitive voting are indicative of this shift, through the experiments conducted through Liquid Feedback and Adhocracy software, and other systems.
  • These experiments highlight the distinction between shallow political participation and deep democracy—and augur both new political cultures and political contracts where they can be enacted.
  • The diversification and fragmentation of existing systems of governance provides the basis for a number of possible future scenarios—with implications for how the state is engaged with governance of shared commons and emerging transnational governance systems, to name a few.

On the back of the in depth research project in Germany (over 50 interviews), the paper is organised as a strait up futures research exposition. I used the Futures Triangle and Integrated Scenarios method of Sohail Inayatullah, and Elina Hiltunen’s weak signals analysis.

A number of possible scenarios emerged from the study:

  1. possible “Liquid Revolution” where online governance has transformed democracy;
  2. “Steady-state Oligarchy” where pseudo-representative and oligarchic powers persist;
  3. “Partner State” where representative and online variegated governance is blended; and
  4. “War of the Worlds” where statist and variegated governance online systems aggressively compete for power.

Please contact me, would love to get feedback and also keen to collaborate with others on this important and critical dimension in our wellbeing.

Cosmo-localism and the futures of material production


Photo By Nicholas Zambetti – BY-SA 3.0

This essay posits the idea of ‘cosmo-localism’ (or ‘cosmo-localization’) as a potentially useful concept in both explaining a new economic model and in formulating sustainable development pathways. It is a thought stimulation exercise that invites us to join a conversation about the design of a new political economy.

The essay begins by providing an overview of the idea for cosmo-localism. Then, following the Futures Triangle template developed by Inayatullah (2008), identifies 1) drivers of change potentiating cosmo-localism, then identifies 2) the obstacles and weights of history impeding cosmo-localism, and finally ends with an exploration of 3) the emerging images of the future that connect with cosmo-localism, in particular by using Dator’s (2009) four archetypal futures images as a scaffold.

Cosmo-localism draws from previous work on alternative globalization pathways, in particular popular discourses articulating relocalization, the global network society and cosmopolitan transnational solidarity (Ramos 2010), as well as the work of Bauwens and Kostakis (2014) in articulating commons-based peer production and Kostakis et al (2015) in developing the Design Global, Manufacture Local model (DG-ML). Finally, there are projects emerging around the world that exemplify cosmo-localism, such as the Fab City initiative.


In very basic terms cosmo-localism describes the dynamic potentials of our emerging globally distributed knowledge and design commons in conjunction with the emerging (high and low tech) capacity for localized production of value. It already exists today in many quickly maturing forms such as with Maker Bot’s Thingverse and the Global Village Construction Set, as well as medicines under Creative Commons licenses (which are then manufactured). Cosmo-localism takes place when easily accessible designs are paired with localized and distributed production capabilities using new breakthrough technologies that facilitate local manufacture / production.

As an emerging issue, cosmo-localism augurs an inversion. Traditional manufacturing and production located intellectual property within (usually) a single company, manufactured a product in a (relatively) centralized place (even if the raw materials were from elsewhere), and then exported this nationally or globally. The neo-liberal turn (starting in the 1970s) saw the emergence of the Global Factory; yet even with the globally distributed corporation, intellectual property is (usually) housed in a corporation (or sometimes licensed), and even while production can straddle a number of countries, assembly centers will then export their products nationally or globally. Cosmo-localism represents an inversion of this logic of production. With cosmo-localism, the intellectual property is available globally for all to use (or can be a Peer Production license). And distributed production centers utilizing new production technologies allow enterprises to manufacture and produce such items locally for local markets and specialized purposes.

cosmolocalism - logics table
Comparative logics  – current production and cosmo-localism

The normative impetus for cosmo-localism is based on a number of as-yet unproven assumptions:

  1. that cosmo-localism can help drive the development of localized circular economies / industrial ecologies that can reduce or eliminate waste;
  2. that the localized production of critical products can make a city or region more resilient in the face of financial and environmental shocks;
  3. that cosmo-localism driven import substitution can generate local jobs and expertise and provide new development pathways;
  4. and that the reduction of imported goods from far away places will also reduce carbon and environmental footprints.

Such assumptions, if and when they are proven to be correct, will also represent potential benefits of cosmo-localism.

Theoretically, cosmo-localism draws strongly from Bauwen’s (2006) long held argument that in today’s networked world, our economies falsely treat immaterial resources (knowledge / designs) as if they were scarce through restrictive global intellectual property regimes, and treat material resources (minerals, soils, water) as if they were abundant. Instead, Bauwens argues that immaterial resources can be shared at close to zero cost, boosting global knowledge and design capabilities, while material resources need true costings in the context of global to local sustainability challenges.

This can be extended through cosmopolitan theory, whereby a global justice imperative is applied to the heritage of the world’s knowledge and designs. If, as  Hayden proposes (Hayden, 2004, p. 70) ‘all human beings have equal moral standing within a single world community’ the global design commons should be a human right, critical in addressing poverty, sustainability challenges, addressing social challenges and empowering grassroots enterprise and entrepreneurship. And likewise in the context of global citizenship it is our responsibility to extend, support and protect our global knowledge commons.

Secondly, cosmopolitan theory also posits the idea that, as we belong to a global community that shares the same global future (e.g. climate change will affect different nationalities differently – but all will be affected), we need to create new transnational governance structures and regimes that will ensure our global mutual wellbeing (Held 2005). This second strand puts forward the need for political projects to ensure the protection of global commons. In this way, we need transnational governance structures that protect and extend global knowledge and design commons, as a key pillar in addressing our shared sustainability challenges.

Finally, cosmo-localism draws from, but also critiques and extends relocalization theory. Relocalization advocates argue for the need to eliminate imported goods and relocalize trade and production for a variety of reasons (Hines 2002; Cavanagh and Mander, 2003). First, because of transport costs and associated high carbon / environmental footprints, secondly the need to decouple from what is seen as an unstable, volatile and predatory global capitalist market system, and finally as a way to prepare for what is seen as an inevitable energy descent (the end of fossil fuels) and deal with the effects of climate change. They also argue relocalizing economies (e.g. through sharing systems) can build community solidarity, knowledge and rebalance the effects of consumer homogeneity by cultivating local culture and connection, making communities more resilient (Norberg-Hodge, 1992).

As a counterpoint, I argue that we have emerged into a global knowledge laboratory, where millions of communities are experimenting with change initiatives and sustainability efforts, and that we need to leverage off each other’s experiments and successes, often applying one community’s innovations into a new context. Decoupling from a global knowledge / design commons would therefore be fundamentally detrimental to the very goals of localized sustainability efforts. A relocalization which does not draw from a global knowledge and design commons and which is relegated to only local knowledge can at best produce ‘life boat’ relocalization and at worst will not produce basic sufficiency. Secondly, the systems and structures that allow for a healthy subsidiarity (devolution of power to the local) are mediated at state levels, nationally and through global trade regimes, and therefore the very goals implicit in the relocalization agenda require political and social action at national and transnational scales.

Drivers of change enabling cosmo-localism

In this next section I discuss the critical drivers of change enabling the potential for cosmo-localism:

1.     Global knowledge and design commons

2.     Consumer manufacturing technology

3.     Maker movement

4.     Urbanization and mega-city regions

5.     Economic precarity

6.     Resource impacts, scarcity, and circularization of economies

Knowledge and design resources for a variety of critical support systems are now available in the distributed web under open licenses (creative commons / gnu / copy left), which include: pharmaceutical drugs, food production systems, machinery, automobiles, 3d printed products, robotics, and in many other areas. Literally millions of designs are available under open licenses that allow people to do local 3-D printing, build machinery, robotics and micro-controller systems (Arduino and Raspberry Pi), and food production and agricultural systems, medical applications and medicines, and even the building of electric cars, for example the farm hack project.

A second driver of change potentiating cosmo-localism is the reduction in costs of certain manufacturing equipment. Technologies such as 3d printers, micro-controllers (Arduino/Raspberry Pi), laser cutters, and CNC Routers, that have traditionally been too expensive for individuals to own have more recently become affordable. 3D printing has gone from an expensive hobby that would have cost someone $30,000 ten years ago, and $4000 three years ago, to about $500 for a home kit today. The same cost shift is happening with other machinery. The underlying technologies that drive these machine applications are microcontroller systems, which are now cheap and accessible (also central to emerging Internet of things). While currently we can only do 3D printing with relatively small objects, there are already a number of large-scale 3D printing systems for printing houses and other items. In China inventors have 3D printed houses in under a day. And Wikispeed have developed new ways to produce open sourced cars. Enterprise 3D printing is well-established with the printing of space modules as well as engine aircraft parts. Finally new advances in distributed energy production and storage mean that cosmo-localism may locate across urban, peri-urban and rural forms.

A third factor driving the potential for cosmo-localism is the maker movement. The maker movement is a very broad church and includes everything from preindustrial handcrafts such as jewelry making (e.g. the Etsy marketplace), textile making to well-established industrial crafts such as metal foundry work, power-based woodwork and welding, but also straddling the high-tech end of the spectrum. The grassroots maker movement has a strong commitment to open source and knowledge justice approaches, localization, community learning and sustainable closed loop / circular economy strategies. Reuse, repair, repurpose are common words. The potential of the maker movement for cosmo-localism lies in this broad church beginning to learn from each other’s knowledges and capabilities and to collaborate on the design and manufacturing of things that require a high level of coordination or organization. At the moment the maker movement is a fluid network, dynamic, creative and explosive, but not yet coordinated toward mainstream material production. To make things for commerce requires disciplined coordination, organization and capital, more typical of industrial models.

The fourth major factor driving the potential for cosmo-localism is rapid urbanization, and along with this the emergence of mega-city regions. The rise of mega-city regions potentiates cosmo-localism, because cities are locales of diverse production capacities, knowledge / expertise, human, natural and built resources, as well as diverse needs and markets. Mega-city regions have scales which allow for localized production capacities to cater to large populations. Because of proximity, a city can develop circular economies and close resource and waste loops easier than perhaps far flung regions (however acknowledging that regionally disparate locales can still be critical in closing resource loops). Cities would not be able to produce all the things they need, and many things would still need to be imported through trade and the global economy. Yet emerging creative industry and demands for urban sustainability and economic inclusion may drive cities and especially mega-cities as locales where cosmo-localism is developed.

Economic precarity has hit many countries, for example Argentina after their 2001-2002 financial crisis, the US after the Global Financial Crisis, the Eurozone after the Eurozone crisis, Venezuela today and in many other regions. This has had a particularly devastating effect on young people. Where people are excluded from the dominant market system, they must create alternative subsistence systems. Castells sees the emergence of ‘new economic cultures’ from populations which, in addition to looking for ways out of the dominant economic system, simply cannot afford to consume goods from the dominant system. In terms of cosmo-localism, both values and need drive a new type of social actor which can leverage the global design commons and community maker space-based production in ways that can produce agency, empowerment and livelihood for people in need. Cosmo-localism potentially creates enterprise opportunities for those people out of work to create livelihoods, or at least to begin to experiment with new production potentials. To the extent that cosmo-localism is seen as a way to support citizen livelihoods, we may see cosmo-localism taken up as state or city supported process.

The final factor that potentiates cosmo-localism relates to ecological crisis and the need to create breakthroughs in innovating closed loop and waste eliminating modes of production. As resources become more and more scarce into the future we will need to become much more adept at upcycling and repurposing things in general. Mapping, collaboration and sharing platforms are helping localities to develop exchange ecosystems which provide new foundations for localized resource exchanges, the development of ‘circular’ economies and more ambitiously industrial ecologies. Cosmo-localism includes the potential to map and activate local resource ecosystems and combine new production capacities with urban metabolic flows that can reduce or eliminate waste. Localized industrial-urban metabolisms may be key to generating environmental integrity outcomes.

Weight of history and obstacles to cosmo-localism

In addition to drivers potentiating cosmo-localism, there are equally powerful ‘weights of history’, legacy systems, cultural factors and other obstacles to cosmo-localism. These include:

1.     Platform oligopolies

2.     Economic incumbents

3.     Intellectual property regimes

4.     Consumer culture

Platform oligopoly is the first challenge to cosmo-localism, the power of the big Silicon Valley enterprises to monopolize and potentially suppress the potentials for cosmo-localism. Big platforms, like Facebook and Google, but now sharing platforms like Air BnB and Uber derive value from our practices of relationality. There is great value in the things that they have innovated, and yet the monetary value generated by users on these platforms through their sharing and interactions are not shared for social reinvestment back to the user’s communities. Michel Bauwens calls this ‘netarchical capitalism’, whereby platforms get wealthy at the expense of contributors, who enter into a form of economic dependence / precarity with such platforms. Cosmo-localism relies on supporting a global knowledge / design commons while supporting investment in localized maker enterprises. Cosmo-localism based on extractive platforms would be stunted, as cosmo-localism requires systems for localized re-investment that are now being discussed as platform cooperativism.

Another major obstacle is political in nature. What we consume is based on the legacy of industrial production, and there are many economic incumbents that do not want to lose business. As with resistance to AirbnB and Uber, incumbents may lobby governments vigorously to make life more difficult for cosmo-localism start up enterprises. In the US, policymaking has been co-opted by moneyed interests, to a large extent. For cosmo-localism to work it has to go beyond the local, and the state should not be abandoned as a locale in the adjudication of power. To counter this, there will need to be alliances of commons-based enterprises that work together to form cosmo-local public advocacy that is able to create favorable policy conditions for it. Bauwens has argued we need to create a “partner state” model where governments actively support localized commons-based peer production and cosmo-localism. Recently he has pioneered such a model through the FLOK project in Ecuador.

The third obstacle relates to intellectual property. The global policy pushed through the WTO TRIPS and now the Transpacific Partnership all have a common aim of enfolding joining nations into the Western European intellectual property regime based on positivist law. Positivist law in the most basic terms is simply contractual law. It does not acknowledge contextual, ethical, cultural or historical dimensions in the use or possession or governance of a thing; it simply says, if you signed a contract – hand it over or else. This is why when certain companies can buy a life support resource from a government, such as when Bechtel bought Cochabamba’s water supply, and then hike the price for water for locals. Buying and selling life support systems is perfectly ‘just’ within the framework of positivist law, but it is often in contradiction to the living conditions and needs of people. Today there are people dying from diseases around the world because they cannot get access to cheaper versions of the medicines that would cure their diseases. This is because certain intellectual property regimes do not allow people to produce local versions. A global neoliberal push that envelops the world in an intellectual property regime that treats knowledge as scarce, and based purely on the logic of investment and return, will harm the possibility of cosmo-localism. We need to normalize knowledge and design commons through our own work, and develop knowledge / design sharing and licensing systems that frees knowledge to transform the world in positive ways. As Kostakis & Bauwens argue, “the commons [need to] be created and fought for on a transnational global scale” (2015, p. 130).

The last weight of history is the cultural pattern of consumerism. It has been deeply engrained through the last century, whereby people have been taught and have learned a number of ideas and attitudes. That our self worth is based on what we own and consume. That it does not matter where a product comes from and where it goes after use. That other people make things for us, and we just make the money to buy those things. That if something breaks it is better to just buy a new one rather than fix the old one. Cosmo-localism is antithetical to consumer culture, and requires people to be willing to learn how to make things, be willing to tinker and fix things (or know others who can!), to get lost in problem solving and be patient enough to wade through, to work with people and share and learn, and to care where something goes and something came from, ultimately to close resources and waste cycles.

Images of the future

To conclude this exploratory essay, there are a number of images of the future that connect with cosmo-localism. To structure this I use Dator’s four archetypal images of the future, as a starting point, with an acknowledgment that deeper scenario work still needs to be done.

Continued growth: cosmo-localism co-opted

In a continued growth future, we would likely see the big players in networked capitalism, the platform oligarchies of Google, Facebook, Apple, (possibly Maker Bot) and other netarchical capitalist forms, play a key role in capturing (and stunting) the potential for cosmo-localism (e.g. Google Make ™ and Facebook Fabricate ™)

In this scenario, fabrication spaces could be put into a franchise model, whereby, given the corporate form’s adept talent at systematizing profitable models, pop up everywhere, disrupting industries connected to material production. As platforms, similar to the AirBnb and Uber models, people can put their designs up on the platform to be used, but the platform would take a large percentage of the profits of their use. Design contributors make a subsistence income (as with Uber or Taskrabbit), but never enough to finance and develop a robust self generating business, and creating a dependence relationship.

Because the corporate form survives and indeed prospers by finding cost saving loopholes (tax havens, sweatshops) and by virtue of this creates social and ecological externalities, it is unlikely that such franchises and systems would have a commitment to developing circular economies and industrial ecologies that address our real sustainability crisis. While initially these franchises could create jobs (while disrupting others), much like Uber’s plans to utilize self driving cars, Google Make ™ and Facebook Fabricate ™ type enterprises could eventually be fully automated.

Ultimately the promise of the global knowledge / design commons has been transformed into the ‘poverty of the commons’ – whereby capital preys on and reproduces itself through the generosity of contributors worldwide.

Collapse: cosmo-localism as civilizational boostrapping  

A collapse scenario, arguably, creates the fastest road to empowering a cosmo-localism process, but not without many problems. In such a scenario, whether because of massive environmental, economic or political disruptions, societies are thrown into ‘life-boat’ systems of survival. Without globalization, without income or with hyper inflation, food shortages, water shortages, energy blackouts, and the like, cosmo-localism becomes an important survivalist / prepper strategy.

Communities and cities would need to quickly develop basic self sufficiency, and no doubt would leverage cosmo-localism to make this possible. Key would be knowledge of machines, medicines, food production, water systems, building, vehicles, etc. How would people access these, however, if there were no trans-national systems and structures to maintain a globally distributed web, cloud services, regulatory agencies, maintenance of satellites, and cooperative systems for dealing with web security (e.g. hacking)?

In such a scenario, access to a global knowledge / design commons would not exist, or would be limited or impaired. Instead it is likely that people would form mesh networks, use slow sync cloud systems to deal with frequent service or access disruptions, would experience severe hacking and web virus disruptions, and would struggle just to maintain local basic infrastructure while globally the web is plunged into anarchy.

Breakthroughs in local fabrication technologies a distant memory, such communities would struggle to maintain a survival-tech level of productive capacity, reliant on whatever global knowledge resource can be accessed or salvaged.

Over time, however, cosmo-localism might support a civilisational bootstrapping, as trans-regional networks and value exchange systems widen, allowing a DGML economy to work.

Disciplined descent: League of cosmo-localized city states 

In a disciplined descent scenario, cities, in particular mega-cities linked through transnational networks, play a critical role in navigating escalating ecological, resource and political challenges. Globalization was another era, and in this scenario people live in the era of trans-city alliances.

Disrupted trade and shipping costs may prompt cities to play critical roles in cosmo-local production of basic necessities and goods. Because of fiscal constraints cities might create city-wide sharing economy and solidarity systems, whereby all able bodied citizens are asked to provide a quota of time-banked support, or else publically shamed / punished. Resource, energy and waste limits force cities to create circular economies that close resource loops. This transformation from cities of waste to cities of social and ecological discipline requires revolutionary zeal, and non-conformists are dealt with harshly, or banished to the peripheries. (See the sci-fi story “The Exterminator’s Want-Ad” by Bruce Sterling in Shareable Futures, for an example of this.)

Because cities have scale, knowledge, resources, markets and human resources, they are able to implement cosmo-localist initiatives to make them as self-sufficient as possible. Cities, in particular large cities and megacity regions, produce their own vehicles, food production systems (for use in cities and rural areas), computer systems, machinery, textiles, and many other goods. To do this, cosmo-localism plays a critical role in allowing cities to access knowledge and designs being produced worldwide, and in particular by other cities endogenizing production. Technology continues to advance and be shared, in particular to support the viability of urban centers. (See FabCity as early examples).

Intercity credits allow for value exchange within the city and between peripheral cities. Trans-city credit systems allow value exchange between large cities globally, greasing the process of cosmo-localism by allowing non-material value exchange (ideas / designs) using the global design commons primarily driven and run by city alliances, and supporting critical non-cosmo-localist trade.

Transformation: Transnational commons economy

A transformation scenario is one where cosmo-localism is supported by a ‘Partner State’, as articulated by Bauwens, and in which cosmo-localism has genuinely made a big impact in addressing local to global sustainability and social justice challenges. In the Partner State model, the state plays an important role in investing in commons based peer production, and the capacity for citizens and people to utilize open knowledge to empower themselves and produce for their communities. From a cosmo-localism perspective, the state would also support grassroots efforts to empower localized designing, making, and sharing efforts.

Because the state’s strategy is explicitly the grassroots empowerment of maker enterprises, it is assumed that in a transformation scenario, communities and people would be able to make great strides in eliminating poverty and addressing sustainability challenges. Empowered with a knowledge and design commons, state support and new technologies allowing localizing manufacturing and production, people would have new possibilities to shape their worlds.

Another aspect of a transform scenario is the elimination of manufactured goods with high waste by-products, leveraging the potentials of additive manufacturing techniques, and radical reductions in pollution related to global transport (assuming a process of import substitution). This transform scenario would require some kind of localization strategy. Here this is imagined as ‘micro-clusters’ of new cosmo-localism ecosystems.

Industrial clusters and corridors have been well established for decades, but are large scale and require intensive capital investment. Cosmo-localism technologies and the geography of mega-city regions would allow for micro-clusters to emerge quickly and fluidly. The following may be features of such cosmo-local micro-clusters:

  • The development of community and worker owned and run maker enterprises (in line with Open Cooperativist principles) with high tech fabrication equipment, initiated by community but supported by the state;
  • Micro-cluster coordination: local enterprise ecosystems instantiated through sharing and exchange platforms (software systems) with human supported administration and support that do resource and needs matching, fulfilling the possibility of circular economic / closed loop production;
  • Micro-clusters are made up of enterprises using Open Value Network (OVN) principles, which provide social inclusion at a community level, endogenize peer produced value into cooperative enterprises, while exogenizing design and knowledge value to the global commons;
  • New systems for capital investment that, while not following the Silicon Valley venture capital model, allow maker enterprises to scale quickly, in conjunction with the use of Commons Based Reciprocity Licenses (CBRL) that provide an economic engine for commons oriented open cooperatives;

Reduction in the costs of start ups, lower risk and lower barriers to entry, allowing regions to target imports for substitution, and to export knowledge and design as resources using CBRLs.

Local and Global online and cyber currencies / credit systems may play a major role in cosmo-localims, facilitating the exchange of economic value and investments across space and time in ways that are not constrained by traditional currency capital flows, some which may incorporate CBRL principles (a credit system for open cooperatives). These may combine with OVN architectures such that commons-based peer to peer production is nurtured and supported at the macro-economic level (via CBRLs) and micro economic (OVN based enterprises). Finally, cyber and online currencies may play a major role in allowing for exchange between micro-cluster regions, Phyles and Transnational Economic Collectives – such that trade facilitates and enhances localized production rather than just displacing non-local goods and the jobs based on them.


Cosmo-localization is not a silver bullet for solving the world’s challenges, or the ills of globalization. It provides an opportunity, which will play out differently depending on the alternative futures we encounter and help create. As an emerging issue and opportunity, it is important for us to consider its limitations, potential for co-option, abuse and indeed its capacity to transform. In the coming years we will be pressed to make bold decisions and experiments that help us address our social and ecological challenges, decisions and experiments which need to be guided by a robust understanding of cosmo-localism potential benefits and potential shadow. I hope this essay provides one useful stepping-stone on this path. I invite us to join a conversation about what cosmo-localism may mean for  the political-economy that we want to create for our shared and common futures.


Bauwens, M. (2006). The Political Economy of Peer Production. Post-Autistic Economics Review (37).

Cavanagh, J., Mander, J. (2003). Alternatives to Economic Globalisation. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Hayden, P. (2004). Cosmopolitanism and the need for Transnational Criminal Justice: The Case of the International Criminal Court. Theoria (August ).

Held, D. (2005). At the Global Crossroads: The End of the Washington Consensus and the Rise of Global Social Democracy? Globalizations, 2(1), pp. 95–113.

Hines, C. (2002). Localization: A Global Manifesto. UK: Earthscan.

Kostakis, V. & Bauwens, M. (2014). Network society and future scenarios for a collaborative economy. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

Kostakis, V. Niaros, V. Dafermos, G. & Bauwens, M. (2015) Design global, manufacture local: Exploring the contours of an emerging productive model, Futures 73 (2015) 126–135

Norberg-Hodge, H. (1992). Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. San Francisco: Sierra Book Club.

Ramos, J. Bauwens, M. and Kostakis, V. (Forthcoming 2016), P2P and Planetary Futures, In Carson, R. (Ed.), Critical Posthumanism and Planetary Futures, Springer, Zurich.


Dr. José Ramos is a social change researcher, trans disciplinary collaborator and advocate for commons oriented social alternatives. His focus is on supporting breakthrough  design and social innovation through his practices Action Foresight and FuturesLab and in leading and supporting a wide number of high impact social change projects. He is originally from California from Mexican-American heritage, now living in Melbourne Australia with his young family. 


Intuition and Foresight: The Inner Game

For years I’ve benefited greatly from the work of and association with teachers and friends in the  domain of foresight and futures studies who have brought intuition into the field. There are too many to name, but have spanned at least 3 continents!

Just recently Oliver Markley edited a special symposium of the Journal of Futures Studies on Intuition in Futures Studies that I was able to contribute to. Writing the essay allowed me to reflect on my own journey and the place of intuition within what I consider to to be the social science field of futures studies. The essay is titled The Inner Game of Futures. Here is an introduction to the essay:

“This essay details my own learning and experiences with respect to intuition and futures
studies. The essay is in part an auto-ethnographic narrative that attempts to situate my own
personal experiences in a broader cultural context. It also describes intuitions’ pivotal role
in both bringing me to futures studies and guiding me within futures studies. I employ the
voice dialog perspective of Hal and Sidra Stone (1989) to shed light on intuition’s place in
an ecology of ‘inner’ selves, and I also employ the action research framework developed
by Reason and Bradbury (2001) to make sense of intuition’s place in an approach to
triangulation for futures research.”

Many thanks to all those that have contributed, friends and teachers that have formed the supportive community that has helped to bring this forth.

Anticipatory Governance: Traditions and Trajectories for Strategic Design

In 2012 I was invited to set up a “foresight for public policy” course at the Lee Kuan Yee School for Public Policy (at the National University of Singapore). As part of this job I did a review of as much public policy and governance lit as I could in the area, in an attempt to make sense of it all and present something coherent to students (we all learned how to use the RAHS system / software as well, which was valuable). What emerged was an understanding of 7 key traditions and trajectories for anticipatory governance. Initially course material for the unit, it took me a while to bring it together into an article. But here it is finally, hot off the press.

The hope is that this will assist foresight practitioners, management science, governance and policy designers to get a quick grasp of the available strategies, and bring these together into context appropriate designs to embed foresight functions into governmental and other organizations. Here is an overview of the paper:

Over the course of the last half century, a number of practices were developed that connect foresight with governance. From the early development of technological forecasting and anticipatory democracy, to municipal and regional (local) approaches and futures commissions, to the more recent development of transition management, integrated governmental foresight, and to the cuttingedge in networked/crowd sourced approaches, traditions and discourses that link foresight and governance have evolved considerably. The purpose of this article is to review these various traditions and discourses to understand the context within which different approaches can be valuable, and expand the basis by which we can develop Anticipatory Governance strategies. Not all strategies are appropriate in all contexts, however, a major proposition in this paper is that we can design strategy mixes that can combine a number of traditions and discourse in creative ways that allow practitioners to address complex, fuzzy and wicked challenges that singular approaches would have a harder time addressing successfully.

Access here:

This research was funded by the Singaporean government in conjunction with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. I would like to thank colleagues and that made this research possible. I would like to thank the two reviewers for their feedback, as well as Professor Jim Dator, who provided valuable suggestions.

The (evolving…) Futures of Power in the Network Era

As Edward Snowden spends yet another night in the limbo of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport (as I write this), one flight away from returning to his homeland to be drawn and quartered, one flight away from potential asylum with a country ready to risk the wrath of Imperium, and Julian Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London one step away from a US Grand Jury, it is indeed a good time to reflect on the evolving nature of power in the modern world.

Contemporary societies are undergoing fundamental transformations and disruptions related to the emergence of the network form. Following on the back of my thesis work, my interest in the circulation of power, and the evolution of power in the modern era,  still incomplete…  I wanted a way to understand and articulate how the network form transforms and disrupts power dynamics, and to tease out some of the emerging threats, opportunities and strategic issues that we are all facing.

The culmination of this is an article in the Journal of Futures Studies titled “The futures of power in the network era“.  It is an exploration and analysis of evolving power dynamics related to the network form across two critical axes of change: network politics and network economics. As such it is a kind of futures oriented exploration of political economy, with the emphasis squarely on the influence and dynamics of the network form.

More critically, I posit 2 struggles for power across these axes of change. For network politics: Will wikileaks and the anonymous millions tame governments, breaking through the veils of secrecy, forcing these institutions to reckon with a knowing public? Or will governments with sophisticated surveillance apparatus tame citizens, using big data to neutralize dissent before citizens even know they oppose the state? For network economics: will the netarchical giants like Google and Facebook capture all the potentials of the postindustrial sharing and making  economy, or will citizen driven peer-to-peer enterprises prevail?

While I am squarely on the side of an empowered public creating transparent institutions and the victory of community driven peer-to-peer enterprises, my own estimate of their chances is tempered by the magnitude of the challenges and by history. While the National Security Agency (NSA) and other bureaus and departments practice widespread surveillance of citizens (which has been known and documented for many many years), countries like China already use such surveillance technology (sometimes aided by US internet companies) to repress those in their own country who aim for nothing more than social justice.

This is my very small contribution to this ongoing challenge and process. If we are to find a way to overcome power with impunity, and reclaim our capacity to come together in dynamic and strategic solidarities, then we really do need some strategic understanding of the landscape of change that we inhabit. These 4 scenarios offered here: Caged Chickens, Peer-to-Peer Patriots, The Republic of Google, and finally…  The Federation of the Commons, each have their attendant strategic pathways and indicators.

But my real intention here is to start a debate about the futures of our society and the evolution of power in the network era. I by no means think that I have the futures figured out! Indeed I think exploring and understanding the futures is about fostering collective intelligence among peoples and citizens in every part of the world, so let the conversations begin!

I hope you enjoy the article and feel free to post comments on twitter @actionforesight


The article “The Futures of Power in the Network Era” can be found HERE.

Rising to the challenge of the 21st century: the role of futures research and practice

This short essay is adapted from a short piece I wrote during my time as Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, for their publication Global-is-Asian.


More than ever, futures research is needed to support people’s critical understanding of the challenges we face in the 21st century, and support the development of actionable responses through public policy and social innovation. The field has evolved since the 1950’s through differerent stages, a linear / predicticive modality, systems thinking and the birth of alternative futures, critical futures studies, and participatory and action oriented approaches. The key issues in applying futures studies include the need for depth exploration, links with effective communications strategies, and the actionability of foresight through policy development and social innovation.


The age of ad hoc and naïve long-term thinking is over. While humanity stumbled through the 20th century, through two catastrophic world wars and a cold war that led us to the brink of annihilation, and unbridled industrialization with profound ecological impacts, we will not have such wriggle room in the 21st century. The megacrises we face now require us to proactively identify and address a myriad of emerging issues using rigorous futures research, empowering and inspiring proactive anticipatory policy development at every level.

The need for rigor and credibility arises from the inherent slipperiness of the future as a domain of inquiry, too often exploited by quacks with either grandiose claims which pander to bias or predictions that leave people with a false sense of certainty. Credible futures research does not carry the pretenses of iron-clad certainty, but through analysis reveals the potential implications of social and ecological change, and what public policy responses (and flexibility) this demands from us in the present.

By anticipating emerging issues, we can proactively address emerging issues rather than become the proverbial “boiled frog”. Arguably, a litany of frogs are already in the pot, either simmering away or already at full boil: from issues such as climate change, sustainable food production, water management and equity, peak oil, and population growth, to digital surveillance / souveilance, nano-medicine, life extension, neuro-enhancement and designer-human technologies, robotics, alternative currencies, peer to peer production, augmented reality and intelligent cities, runaway financialization, globalization driven social strategification, urbanization and slums, threats to indigenous cultures, virtual education, potential technological singularities (e.g. artificial intelligence), militarization of space, super-power re-alignment and regionalization, shifting expectations for political expression and finally …. the urgent need to understand and care for the many aspects of our global commons.

Rather than boiled frogs, futures research can help us become “leaping frogs”. People need grounded yet inspiring visions of sustainable and empowering futures in every aspect of life, to motivate and empower change, and counter the paralysis and escapism caused by fatalism. Futures research can help us to leap creatively toward proactively addressing our challenges. If our guiding visions in the 20th century revolved around industrial and technological advancement, 21st century visions must also include and emphasize ecological, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual / moral development.

A futures research synopsis

Visionaries, prophets and Cassandras have been with us from the beginning. Systematic futures research, however, is only approximately 60 years old.

In the post WWII context, the emphasis on planned development in both Western, ex-colonial and Socialist states drove the development of new research tools, for example trend extrapolation and statistical modeling. Future oriented research began through the disciplines of planning, statistics, econometrics and the policy sciences. Generally speaking, futures research in this period assumed the future could be predicted based on existing trends and the application of institutional policy mechanisms.

The next stage in futures research, based on systems thinking, emerged in the early 1970’s. The limitations of forecasting-as-predication, and an appreciation of the complex interactions between multiple trends / variables in a system began to emerge. Trends could no longer be naively extrapolated into the future, what about their interactions? Drawing on pioneers in systems dynamics at MIT such as Jay Forrester, The Club of Rome’s produced their groud-breaking study, the Limits to Growth, which was followed by a host of other systems modeling efforts, which revealed alternative development paths. New distinctions emerged, for example the difference between probable, possible and normative (preferred) futures, wildcard (low probability but high impact) events, and a new acknowledgement of the human capacity to envision and create change. With scenario building as an important new tool “the future” became the plural “futures”.

The next stage in futures research, termed “critical futures studies” emerged in the mid 1980’s. Richard Slaughter in his 1984 PhD incorporated how perspectives condition and frame futures studies and research. Futures research is fundamentally skewed if it ignores how language and discourse frame an issue. Research on global futures by the RAND corporation differs from the Tellus Institute, not by a matter of degrees but by a matter of discourse. What is rational and valuable from one vantage point may be insane (or inane) from another. And, power permeates our visions, images and articulations of the future. The vision for large scale industrial modernization had led development efforts, but who or what have been left out  of this image of the future? Critical futures encourages us to ask: ‘Who is written out of the future?’ Women, children, community, the poor, indigenous people? And how can they be written back in? Ivana Milojevic, for examples, argues that because futures research is dominated by men (much like the field of planning has historically been), futures research outcomes and strategies have reflected men’s interests: technology, economic growth, innovation. A feminized futures research would be geared toward community, child care, education and relationships. As futures research may be gendered, it may also have cultural, ideological and discursive blind spots. How then do we reflect on and break out of the limitations of our perspectives? Sohail Inayatullah created the tool Causal Layered Analysis to explore how unexamined discourses, worldviews, ideologies, myths and metaphors underpin conceptions of we hold about the future, and to provide a way to discover alternative vantage points that lead to alternative futures. Zia Sardar argued, in the domain international development, our futures were already colonized, and Ashis Nandy asked, what do our utopias (our preferred futures) disown?

Finally and most recently, from the mid 1990’s, the field has developed participatory and action-oriented futures approaches, strengthening its capacity to engage a wide variety of stakeholders from across various parts of a social system to create common ground and common vision, and enable actionable outcomes for policy development. Many call this actionable and organizationally embedded style of futures research ‘strategic foresight’.

These four levels in the development of futures studies and research are not mutually exclusive, but rather integral to the continuing maturation of the field. A holistic approach incorporates each of them depending on the contextual requirements of the research and public policy development requirements.

Using futures research for empowerment

There are a variety of ways to employ futures research, however I’d like to highlight three key aspects: exploration, communication and action, all of which require well developed strategy.

Exploration in futures studies means expanding our awareness in relation to an issue. This requires environmental scanning to explore signs of change and innovation (via emerging issues analysis). As William Gibson is said to have said (although I have no proof of this!), “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Exploration implies understanding change, deepening our awareness of how our perspectives shape our research, and developing alternative futures via scenarios.

Communication in futures studies is critical. In a classic sense this means knowing how to frame futures research for a particular audience to have maximum impact, for example drawing on George Lakoff’s cognitive linguistics. In an educational setting it can mean giving students the tools of critical media literacy, to enable our youth to critically examine popular images or narratives of the future which may be fatalistic and energy-sapping; or like futurist David Wright, to teach students to create media about the future, using the tools of the social media revolution. It also means developing communications platforms that allow groups to harness their collective intelligence in thinking about futures, an example being the Institute for the Future’s “Foresight Engine”, a massively multiplayer online scenario gaming system.

Action in futures studies means linking an organization’s or community’s vision with its strategies and day to day work. Re-freshed visions for inspiring futures need to be linked with viable strategies, social innovation and action. Futures research needs to be concretely linked with policy development and social innovation, such that deepened strategic understanding and envigorated vision become resources for how we live in the present. Finally, action also means embodying our preferred futures by following Gandhi dictum to “be the change we want to see.”

Today more than ever we need empowering approaches to our global and local futures. Futures research offers some approaches that, in tandem with other disciplines and perspectives, help us address our world’s challenges. Futures research forms an important ingredient in the recipe for empowering people in the present to create inspiring futures in many aspects of life. It is not a promise or guarantee, but with a bit of love and care, from little seeds come the alternative futures we seek.

Foresight, Innovation and Enterprise Modeling – A 10+ Year Journey

This draft paper, titled “Foresight, Innovation and Enterprise Modeling” (downloadable HERE), is the culmination of a decade long journey in attempting to link our evolving knowledge of emerging futures with present action, through a variety of means, innovation and enterprise development, design, activism, policy development, meditation (yes that is correct – doing absolutely nothing is a form of action;) and the like.

When I first got into futures in 2000, I was inspired by the eclecticism and range of thinking, profound, far reaching, visionary – and very much in Zia Sardar’s words I was both inspired and disturbed. And yet something was missing. I wanted a connection with our human capabilities and commitments in the present moment – what could we do today? What seeds could we plant? How do we trim the tabs, so to speak? Hence the very idea for “Action Foresight”, linking knowledge of emerging futures with empowered, intelligent and wise actions.

So I began in earnest to conceptually and practically link futures with present action. First I explored and developed ways of linking futures research with action, which emerged via the confluence of futures studies and action research / learning. I became a more committed activist and did work with the World Social Forum process and produced documentary media – my interest in Foresight Communication grew.

Another important stream was the importance of innovation, hence the idea for “Anticipatory Innovation“, and along side this futures informed enterprise development. This particular stream of my work is very dear to me, and has continued to evolve. I was fortunate to meet Adam Leggett at a birthday party for Peter Ellyard (thank you Peter) way back in 2001, and I began working on a pilot program Adam was initiating at Melbourne University called Univator. Later, from 2003-2005 I did some great research with Allan O’Connor on linking foresight and innovation, which culminated in a paper on empowering entrepreneurship and another on innovation for sustainability, and we ran a 5 day workshop for Questacon Smartmoves. All the while the thinking and practice continued to develop. In 2008 Peter Hayward invited me to write up an undergraduate unit for the school of business at Swinburne University of Technology on social enterprise, where I built in the methodology and further refined it. Most recently, 2012, I used this basic framework for the foresight methods course I taught at National University of Singapore, LKY School of Public Policy, where I developed an anticipatory policy development framework.

So it has been a long, winding and fruitful journey, and it’s not over! The paper is a “draft for comment”, and I’d like to keep the conversation open to facilitate a kind of ‘open source’ development of the methodology so anyone who adopts it can be more empowered in innovation and enterprise development that addresses the deep challenges of the 21st century.

Comments welcome here or via twitter @actionforesight

Deep democracy, peer-to-peer production and our common futures / Syvädemokratia, vertaistuotanto ja yhteiset tulevaisuutemmemore

Earlier this year Dr. Vuokko Jarva, a futures scholar who works on consumer education to promote future consciousness and planetary responsibility and is developing new narrative approaches in futures studies, invited me to write an essay for the Finnish journal Futura (a publication of the Finnish Society for Futures Studies). The special edition of the journal was concerned with what in Finland is termed “close democracy”. From what I understand from Vuokko, this is not quite what is termed in English “participatory democracy”, it is more hands on, more involved, more peer to peer. I get the feeling that the Fins are way ahead of everyone else in pioneering democratic avenues of expression.

For my contribution, I decided to explore the connection between participatory democracy, peer production, the global movement for change and the commons. As it was exploratory and building the relationships between elements, it was more about understanding the connections in the emerging landscape of counter-hegemonic change. The essay is titled “Deep democracy, peer-to-peer production and our common futures / Syvädemokratia, vertaistuotanto ja yhteiset tulevaisuutemmemore“. Here is a general introduction to the themes:

In this essay I discuss an emerging perspective in the counter-hegemonic project to create social and ecological justice from the local to the global. This perspective is based on the idea that social innovators, connected within collaborative networks of social change, are the pre-figurative elements for a new type of social system to cohere and emerge. These collaborative networks are seed-beds of change and transformation, and are the foundations for emerging global movement(s) and projects for change. They are networks of people creating social alternatives, some already embodied in practices and enacted and others imagined and articulated. They have been most visible through the hundreds of social forums and the recent citizen uprisings held around the world, described by Paul Hawken as the greatest movement ever seen (Hawken, 2007). They are made up of a complex myriad of groups, networks, organizations, communities and movements, with diverse political and social views, that come together in the common struggle against political-economic corruption, and for social and ecological sustainment (Ramos, 2010). Paul Raskin (2006) considers these collaborative networks to be the foundation for building a pluralistic global citizen movement for the 21st century.

And here is an intro:

At first it was just a trickle, and then a torrent. At first a few experimented with carving our social life outside the dominant industrial system. But as the system began to capsize on the rocks of ecological and social ruin, it became an exodus. Necessity was the mother of invention, and people began to find their power by co-creating new ways of being and living, relating and transacting. People became new producers in an ecosystem of collaboration: cultural, political and economic. People began to join this new movement and create and demand the innovation of a multitude of deeply democratic social processes and institutions for the protection and production of the commons. Another World is Possible was no longer a slogan, but increasingly created in our life worlds, from the personal to the political.

I would appreciate any feedback / thoughts here or via twitter @actionforesight – many thanks!

Download the article HERE