Navigating Change in the 21st Century: AAA Governance in the Union and Labor Movement 

In 2021 we were commissioned to do research on  AAA Governance in the Union and Labor rights movement. In 2023 ILO published the report “Trade Unions Navigating and Shaping Change” from the research.

The Need for Unions and Labour to Navigate Change  

Unions and the labor rights movement worldwide have been responsible for some of the most fundamental advances in human wellbeing and dignity over the past century. This has included the right to rest (the 40 hour work week), occupational health and safety standards that have saved countless lives and limbs, the right to fair dismissal, the right to organize, not to mention the struggle for fair wages that have lifted countless people out of poverty. The living standards of millions of people worldwide owe much to the work of unions and the union movement in challenging labour exploitation and pushing for better outcomes for workers. 

Over the past 40 years many of these gains have been eroded or even destroyed. Starting with neoliberal privatization in the 1980s, deregulation and deindustrialization, jobs were lost and strong unions suffered membership losses. This overlapped with the rise of the dotcom ICT industry boom which has historically been hostile to unionization. In addition to this trend, unprecedented challenges face a number of industries. Workers in the mining, mineral and manufacturing sectors face the pressures of climate change and the challenge of a just transition to a post carbon world. New technologies are allowing businesses to automate, putting the futures of work in a dozen sectors in question. The future for millions of workers is at a crossroads, and unions and labour rights organizations are at the intersection, confronting the challenge of navigating change in this new context of uncertainty and disruption. 

This is why The Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV) has taken a keen interest in the fields of foresight, innovation and experimentation. ACTRAV promotes the interest of workers and workers’ organizations within the International Labour Office. They are committed to the support, defence and promotion of workers’ rights, working in coordination with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Governing Body. Given the emerging body of theory and practice in foresight around the world, ACTRAV has developed an interest in how foresight and related approaches can support unions and the labour rights movement in navigating the turbulent and disruptive changes happening around us and into our futures.  

We were therefore commissioned by the ILO in late 2021 to do research on unions, labor rights organizations and other labour affiliated entities (e.g. networks, coalitions, platforms) that were using foresight and other approaches to navigate change. Working with Rafael Peels, Senior Specialist in Workers’ Activities at the Bureau for Workers’ Activities, we did a global scan of work being done or completed, and emerged with 20 short case studies / examples, which are detailed in the ILO report. The report was recently published in May 2023. This is a short explainer on the research and report process and contents. 

Part of the theme of the ACTRAV research focus in the ILO is on trade unions navigating change. “Navigation” is a rich metaphor and encompasses more than envisioning or forecasting change. It also includes sense-making and path-making, the ability for an organisation to make sense of a changing world / context and then to take and make new paths. To this end we used a novel research framework which we called “Triple A Governance” (Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive Governance).   

Anticipatory, Agile and Adaptive Governance

Triple A Governance was an idea that emerged from work with UNDP Vietnam (Ramos, Uusikyla & Luong, 2020). UNDP has been on a sustained program to develop anticipatory governance capabilities. They had articulated the AAAs as a way to include responsiveness and experimentation with foresight. In this research project we further elaborated the triple As, as per the following distinctions.  

Anticipation is the capability to understand the dynamics of change that may have an impact in the foreseeable future. It allows organizations to be prepared for change by reducing “blind spots” in relation to issues that could have a major impact and by helping them to leverage change so as to take advantage of the opportunities that it creates.

Agility is the capability of an organization to change its mindsets in the light of new information about how the world is changing. Organizations, as everyone knows, are made up of people. Each of these people has a mental image of the future, of how the world is or ought to be. While in most organizations these images will be diverse, together they often make up a shared narrative or model.

Adaptation is the capability to translate shared notions of how the world is changing into actions that will promote the success and viability of the organization. These may be conventional actions, such as implementing strategic plans and human resources / workforce planning. They may also include pilot projects and experiments which allow new ideas for change to be tested and scaled up into working innovations, alongside other reorganization activities such as service (re)design.

The underlying principle within the Triple A Governance concept is that these three form an ecosystem of capabilities that are required to navigate change. There are often people within an organization that are aware of oncoming change, they may even be rigorously informed. Unfortunately many of these people unwittingly become “cassandras”. People who are aware, sensitive, even outspoken about future changes and challenges to an organization’s environment, but they are not listened to or taken seriously. This is why agility as a capability is so fundamental. Agility is the speed and adeptness by which an organization can shift its shared mindsets in the face of new knowledge and information about the future.   What is the point of foresight if new knowledge or vision isn’t translated into organizational learning and new mindsets? This was one of the central concerns of Senge (2006) in his book The Fifth Disciple. 

Equally, navigating change also requires that new organizational learning and mindsets are translated into new activities that allow the organization to adapt. Activity is defined broadly, this can be a social or technical innovation, a new work program, new workforce skills and knowledge, experimentation, campaigns, etc. Again, what is the point of new organizational learning (about the futures) and even new mindsets, if this does not lead to new actions that help the organization to be viable in the changing environment? We therefore consider the underlying principle in the Triple A concept to be the relational dynamics between the three As. This also echoes the work of Stafford Beer and others who have elaborated on the Viable Systems Model, in particular relation to where foresight fits in an organisation (Hayward 2004). 

Two archetypes of change

We also considered the dynamics of the operating environments for unions and labour rights organizations and came to the conclusion that there was a great variability in the conditions unions operate in. There are industries and sectors that are stable and experiencing continuity. Then there are industries and sectors experiencing turbulent and rapid change. We felt that these differences needed to be accounted for, mainly because trade unions use different strategies to navigate change depending on the dynamics of the operating environment. Drawing on the complex adaptive systems research of Gunderson and Holling (2002), we simplified their more complex model into a research framework that distinguished two archetypes:

  1. Growth, stability and conservation – for instance, the long-term stability in energy and mining sectors that are increasingly challenged by climate change and energy transition needs. Our examples show unions using anticipation capabilities and, in some cases, methods to anticipate change and avoid rigidity.
  1. Rapid reorganization and redesign – for instance, in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Our examples show unions rapidly adopting technologies and new modes of engagement during the crisis.

These two archetypes try to capture the how the dynamics of the operating environments union exist in can be different, and which require different strategies to navigate. For example in the mobility / transport sector, new technologies disrupted the taxi industry, more often than not ushering in unwaged / commission based and underregulated workers. Any organization in this disruptive environment (archetype 2) is dealing with rapid changes that require unique strategies, especially if we are considering how they apply foresight or even Triple A Governance. 

Many other sectors and industries are in a conservation phase (archetype 1), but there may be a tsunami lurking on the horizon. The oil, coal, mineral and gas exploration sectors are well developed with a relatively stable business model. But the threat of climate change and challenge of decarbonization implies a radical energy transition. This has implications for millions of workers in these sectors and for how a Just Transition for union workers, not just a green transition, can be achieved. 

Snapshot of the Cases 

The 20 cases are divided into the three categories of anticipation, agility and adaptation. Examples that were explicitly and formally associated with strategic foresight methods were documented in the anticipation section. This includes cases on the South African Typographical Union, the Italian Confederation of Trade Unions, the International Federation of Professional Footballers Associations, and the European Trade Union Institute. 

The capability of agility, which focused on organizational learning and the ability to socialize foresight and shift mindsets may or may not use explicit foresight methods, but they are implicitly about translating knowledge about future change into a future ready culture and outlook. This section included cases on the Singapore National Trade Union Congress, Congress of South African Trade Unions, IndustriAll Global Union, the Georgian Trade Union Confederation, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and some related campaigns that aimed to shift public awareness. 

The capability of adaptation, again as defined in our report, is about translating organizational knowledge and learning about the future (new mindsets) into actions and activities that make the organization viable and successful into the future. Most of these don’t use formal foresight methods at all, but express creativity and innovation in bringing forth new capabilities for unions. This is often through the ability to experiment, employ new technologies, create innovations in governance, engage younger workers, and create new connections and networks. Cases in this section include UNI Global Union’s Young Workers Lab,, actionnetwork and, the Palestinian General Confederation of Trade Unions, Prospect Union, Building and Woodworkers International, Unidapp Colombia, and a number of tech prototyping and innovation initiatives. 

Together, the 20 cases provide a rich overview of how different unions are navigating change through anticipation, agility and adaptation. They provide examples that other unions and labour rights organizations can draw from and learn from. 

Insights from the Report 

Despite the dramatic changes and great challenges facing unions and the labour rights movement, there are only a handful of unions and other organizations employing foresight methods. In addition to this most of the organizations that did employ foresight methods reflected the first archetype of change, they existed in a relatively stable sector where changes are more gradual. They were therefore using foresight to disrupt and challenge themselves as a preparation for the future.

This makes sense from our experience in the field of organizational foresight, as organizations that are beset by disruption become too mired in reacting to change to think long-term. This again highlights the need for unions that consider themselves in stable environments to question how long that stability may last, and to use the opportunity of that stability to think long-term and prepare for the future. 

We also saw that as industries shift, trade unions are being challenged to reconsider their identities, and what kinds of new members might form that union. The skills of agility, being able to question the future and identity of an organization, the ability to rethink the story or narrative of an industry or organization, and the ability to dialogue and create meaning out of the complexity of a situation, these are essential capabilities in an era that is demanding greater flexibility and responsiveness. 

On the other hand, when beset by disruption after disruption, we witnessed how unions and labor rights organizations used the capability of experimentation, prototyping, service design, networking and the employment of new technologies to solve the practical dilemmas and challenges they faced. Sometimes we just need to be nimble and creative in the moment.

Concluding Thoughts

Our hope is that the Triple A Governance concept is useful in showing how there is a logical continuity between anticipating change, organizational learning and mindset shifting, and acting that generates new outcomes and future viability. We see this continuity as an important part of navigating change in the 21st century. The report and the cases do not necessarily show unions expressing all three of these capabilities at once. But in showing that all three are in effect in different circumstances and contexts and unions, there is an opportunity for unions and labor rights organizations to design more deliberately for future viability and success by bringing them together.

To this end, we conclude the report with an overview of methods in the three categories of anticipation, agility and adaptation, that organizations can review and combine to find the right mix that will support them to navigate change. We understand that trade unions, labor rights organizations and other types of organizations exist in very different circumstances, so this mix between anticipation, agility and adaptation will be different for every organization. But understanding the contextual conditions and dynamics of change, and putting in place the mix of capabilities to navigate these changes can make for a world that is better for workers and for all people. 


Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (Eds.). (2002). Panarchy: understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Island press.

Hayward, P. (2004). Facilitating foresight: where the foresight function is placed in organisations. Foresight, 6(1), 19-30.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Broadway Business.

Ramos, J., Priday, G., Browne, R., Chimal, A. (2023). Trade Unions Navigating and Shaping Change, International Labour Organization and Bureau of Workers’ Activities (ILO/ACTRAV)—ed_dialogue/—actrav/documents/publication/wcms_872819.pdf

Ramos, J., Uusikyla, I., & Luong, N. T. (2020). Anticipatory Governance: A Primer. UNDP Viet Nam (blog), 18. 



Design is Dangerous

The design professions have exploded onto the world scene over the past decade, ushering in a new trans-disciplinarity which is increasingly applied in many contexts. And yet, design is dangerous. Designing in an unconscious way, without understanding or challenging our own design assumptions or biases, or exploring the potential consequences of design decisions, means that we can create legacy systems that create more harm than good and that can be hard to undo. Think of the design of (some) urban infrastructure, cities like Los Angeles that have been perpetually locked into unsustainable transport models, or the farm chemicals industry, which has been complicit in the degradation of natural ecosystems and soils.

I don’t really want to go through the litany of problems, as we have all heard them already ad-nauseam. In fact we have become a bit calloused to the problems, there are just so many. A more productive angle is to look at the underlying dynamics that drive the system and the worldviews and perspectives that underpin design practices and behaviours.

Humans are technological beings. From our very first beginnings we experimented with and created artefacts and methods for transforming the world around us, or for organizing ourselves. But we are also in a technological crisis. Many of the technologies that we brought forth in the 20th century, nuclear technology, pesticides, combustion automobiles, were driven and developed with an incredible over-confidence, naivety and ignorance to the consequences that they entailed. Underneath this was a mechanistic and materialist worldview. People acted from the assumption that we are not deeply interconnected, that we are just a set of disparate elements in a static system.

Many dangerous assumptions have been part and parcel in the design of everyday life. The way in which the systems and algorithms of the big tech platforms drive an attention economy, commodify data, in primary service to corporate shareholder profits. Is this seriously how we are playing with the minds of our children? But this too is an expression of underlying assumptions, that whatever we find in front of us can be exploited and commodified for profit. The symptoms of this we call “social externalities”, but it is more specific to talk about the PTSD that Facebook moderators experience, or widespread screen addiction among our children… let’s try not to mince words.

Even social constructions, ways of organizing social life can be understood as aspects of design, and imbued with assumptions. The time and motion studies that accompanied the emergence of industrial production and factories, Taylorism, on one hand created remarkable efficiencies, and on the other hand infantalized workers, turning them into repetitive automatons. It was not until Edward Deming when this logic began to be fundamentally questioned.

So we need to find a way to question our design assumptions, and bring the future into our design logics, so that instead of creating social externalities (unconscious harm), we are creating generative value (conscious benefit). Decades ago the Australian designer Tony Fry articulated this by talking about “defuturing”. He argued that so much of what we call design reduces the scope of our futures, making our future less and less viable and possible. And through a new design philosophy, we might be able to use design to re-future. Or as Sohail Inayatullah might say, if we want design to be different it needs to be an epistemological intervention, design needs to come from a new set of assumptions and perspectives that will make the future more viable.

The major shift in worldview and perspective we have seen in the emerging practices, such as futures studies, action research, human centered design, etc., has been from a mechanistic to living systems based understanding of reality. Today we see the emergence of such a life centered worldview, in which we can appreciate our deep interconnectedness with the many living systems around us. We increasingly understand how the health of our living systems translates to our health. Or how the dynamic balance within our planetary ecosystems is a prerequisite for the integrity of our societies and our future generations. This is the way that many indigenous cultures have seen the world for a long long time. This is also a critical way to think about how we need to reimagine design in the context of our future challenges. We need a life centered perspective and vision to come forth as a primary driver and holder for the space of the way in which design needs to take place.

And if new selves help support new methods, we need a life centered self, with a deep appreciation for our interconnectedness, a great compassion and empathy for all of our living systems and beings, to guide our journey. We can already see this in many areas, the development of regenerative agriculture, community approaches to mental health and well-being, the platform coop movement, and climate restoration space, and many other places.

But design is also dangerous for another reason. Design has the power to make existing systems obsolete. And by virtue of this design is a threat to incumbent systems, cultural norms, political configurations and economic vested interests. To design with integrity can also mean to challenge existing unsustainable forms of everyday life, and to enter into the space of power and politics. This requires the deep skills of the social innovator, social entrepreneur, systems navigator, political operative, and life-centered empathic leadership.

Incumbency is seemingly all-powerful. As we’ve seen for decades, the fossil-fuel and mineral industry lobbies have held the response to climate change hostage. Backroom manoeuvring, misinformation and bogus reports shaping public perceptions, and a host of other ways of holding onto power. Buckminster Fuller said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” I want to say, yes but… the actual application of these new designs, solar energy etc., was a journey of a thousand miles.

But he is still right. The future starts in seed form. It begins in the womb of the world, the glimmer in the eye, the daydream, the fantasy, the imagination, the model and the spirit of possibility.

So design holds this very special potential. In its most conscious manifestation it is an epistemological intervention, it can be dangerous to incumbent systems that are unsustainable or harmful. It can bring forth forms that can lead to a much better world. Design can be conscious disruption. It can be done to create breakthroughs that make existing models obsolete, and create new generative forms of life and living.

There is a double loop here. The future is implicated in what is designed – as a design is a potential seed of a different future. However, the images of the future people hold serve as “meta-assumptions” that form the boundaries and limits of what is seen as possible and desirable in what we design. To design differently we need to imagine differently and hold different assumptions about the future. The future and design form a complex interplay of imagination and cascading consequences. All of which is a very dangerous.


Join us for our introductory course, which will cover these ideas and more: Undesign: practical futures tools for anticipation and conscious design



Undesign: the power of conscious imagination

I’m going to invite you to take a moment. Look around.  Notice your surroundings. Take it all in. Close your eyes and notice the sounds, smells and maybe tastes, all the sensations associated with where you are right now. You’ll be reading this from some sort of device. How does it feel to touch? What emotions arise when you look at it? Does it hum? What sounds does it make when you tap a key or touch the screen?

Time to go on a journey. Imagine being in this same spot 30 years ago.

What was different? What would be the same?

30 years is, roughly, when design thinking became a term with a common meaning. Since then we’ve added human centred design, just in case anyone was in doubt who the design was for. How is your designer world? Everything that’s different in those thirty years that is by human design, has been designed for you.

Let’s go forward the same amount of time, the trick here is to think of an event or events that are important to you in about 30 years’ time; maybe a significant birthday, birth of a grandchild? Take a moment to breathe and slow yourself down. Let the chatter die away. When you are calm, close your eyes, let yourself travel to that time and place. Let the event unfold, the sights, sounds, smell. Look around what are the changes to technology, clothing social norms and anything else that comes to mind.

Hopefully, you had an immersive experience of an imagined future. If not don’t give up it can take a bit of time to get right, relaxing is the key. Imagining the future like this uses some of our highest brain functions. It can be integrative, being together different ideas in a more holistic way. There are limitations, usually we’re limited to a few changes, many things stay the same.

Thinking about your imagined future and the changes, where do did the ideas for the changes come from? For example, perhaps you imagined holographic people at the event attending remotely? Where did that image or idea come from? Maybe it’s like, but not identical, to a scene in a film? Resembles a passage in a book you read last week, or article or a picture?

This is a cycle. Society develops ideas about the future, and they are shared as artefacts. These take hold subtly in our minds and influence us, whether we are using human centred design thinking or some other form of design. This is not necessarily a bad thing; bold inspiring images move societies. If they are unquestioned and unconscious, the hidden image of the future lurks in the background, hand on the tiller, plotting the course.

When futures meet design, we can make conscious the images that guide us, critically evaluate them and make conscious decisions. We can undesign from the unconscious and redesign with the future in mind.  Want to know more about undesign?

The Action Foresight team are excited to announce our upcoming course, “Undesign: practical futures tools for anticipation and conscious design”.

We’d love you to join us on this journey. Book tickets here. Early bird tickets are available and are expected to sell fast.

Systemic Leadership and Strategic Foresight

Action ​F​or​esight​ ​will be running a​ course​ titled​ Systemic Leadership and Strategic Foresight in January 2020.
The course aims to help people develop “Anticipatory leadership (leadership ​through future awareness) ​and ​”​Systemic leadership​” (​leadership through alignment between personal, organisational and societal futures). The course helps participants to use the future to be able to tackle problems creatively, develop flexible mindsets and solve problems as an ecosystem (a systemic solutions space). 
Date: 16-17 January 2020
Hours: 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM each day
Facilitators: Dr. Jose Ramos and Gareth Priday
For enrolments please contact us
It is a two day course that covers: ​
  • Leadership / alignment with values
  • Basics of foresight
  • Anticipating / Navigating change
  • The “systemic leadership triangle”
  • Elements of the Six Pillars method
  • Elements of the 3 horizons method
  • Elements of Anticipatory Experimentation
  • Using the future as a resource
​The course is highly interactive and is run through: ​
  • Action learning​ / project based​ ​collaboration​
  • ​Cross disciplinary teams
  • ​Fun activities, e.g. games, experiential learning 
  • Participation​, reflection, imagination
Day 1:
  • ​Futures consciousness – finding power and hope
  • From cognition of the future to action
  • Alternative futures archetypes
  • Human blindspots and challenges in thinking about the future
  • Mapping change and anticipating change
​Day 2:
  • Three horizons ​method
  • Challenging the used future
  • Envisioning the preferred
  • Exploring transitions and wicked problems
  • Designing an experiment / intervention


Leapfrogging Sustainable Development: Exploring the strategic futures of production and policy through cosmolocal and commons-based design

A cosmolocal and commons based design course was held 0n September 20-21 2019 at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, entitled: “Leapfrogging Sustainable Development: Exploring the strategic futures of production and policy through cosmolocal and commons-based design”

The philosophy behind cosmolocalism emphasizes documenting innovation and keeping this knowledge open, so that it can be relocalized in other contexts and geographies around the world. It envisions a world in which each community’s innovations work is documented and remains open – so that we create a world of open designs and solutions. This becomes a resource for all of humanity to use for enhanced livelihoods and production within planetary ecological boundaries.   

The course was a collaboration between Dr. Jose Ramos (Action Foresight), Dr. Raji Ajwani (IIT Mumbai and Centre for Policy Studies) and Professor Shishir K. Jha (IIT Bombay and Centre for Policy Studies) and Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation) and began with conversations initiated in September 2018, between Raji and Michel. The course was designed and delivered by Jose with the support and sponsorship of Raji and Shishir.    

Many countries are looking for new development pathways that can address systemic poverty and a host of sustainability and development challenges, including but not limited to the SDGs. Development strategists are increasingly keen to avoid “used futures” for development that perpetuate the development mistakes of the last few decades (large scale modernization projects with little sensitivity to local knowledge and needs, little regard to ecological boundaries, technological gigantism, etc.), and keen to find new approaches that work from community strengths, culture and needs while leveraging technological potentials. 

The workshop attracted a diverse group of people, from the UNDP, local NGOs, PhD students and others interested in learning about the commons and cosmolocalism. 

As a prototype, the workshop combined knowledge of a variety of cases (listed below), commons and cosmolocal concepts, together with a foresight to experimentation methodology called the Anticipatory Experimentation Method (AEM). The content and method used is documented here so that others can adapt either in their own contexts. We encourage others to use and adapt this to their own context – so that you can run something in your own community. We do ask that credit is given to the content developers in any reuse.  

Day 1 

Day one was a content heavy day, with the introduction of ideas and many cases. 


Introduction by Shishir Jha and Jose Ramos  Audio:

Cases by Jose Ramos  Slides by Jose

Audio presentation by Jose

Cases by Raji Ajwani  Slides by Raji

Audio presentation by Raji

Presentation by Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation) 
Presentation by Andrew Lamb (Field Ready) 
Presentation by Gabor Kiss (Envienta)  


Links to cases 


Here are two presentations, one by Michel Bauwens and another by Andrew Lamb – both are excellent. Michel discusses many thing, but he goes into the importance and role of the urban commons – examples from Ghent and Bologna.



Michel Bauwens – P2P Foundation from Jose Ramos on Vimeo.




Andrew Lamb – Field Ready from Jose Ramos on Vimeo.


Day 2

Day two was the design day, where we ran the Anticipatory Experimentation Method, and 3 groups worked on developing project ideas: 

The ideas included: 

  • Addressing drought among rural villagers 
  • Addressing the need for a policy innovation lab 

Because there was so much content, the time needed to flesh out ideas wasn’t available. This is something that needs to be better balanced in future. 

Explanation of Anticipatory Experimentation Method 


For an explanation of the method see this article on medium –


Concluding Reflections 

  • What was clear was that the content resonated with people. There was a natural energy and eagerness to delve into the domain and also to be creative.
  • Also clear was the need to lean into the commons as a domain of knowledge and practice. Distributed manufacturing alone, technology alone, will not work to address the challenges people faced. Deep mutualization and commons governance (urban, digital, resource, etc.) are all needed. 
  • The conversation on enterprise cosmolocal quickly bled into a conversation on political economy. It was a natural progression because it is political economy that is the next frontier in terms of enablement. This is the partner state conversation and bootstrapping micro-political economies via the urban commons.
  • Too much space was devoted to cases. It made the whole process feel a bit stifled. Next time more space needs to be devoted to the design process. It might be good to lay out some design principles first, so that we don’t have to go through endless cases to get the point across. As well, a cosmolocal canvas could be useful so people can explore a bit easier.
  • It was a modest beginning. The whole thing felt a little rough around the edges, but it was also a prototype. So it was good to give it a try and get the experience. The next versions can build in the learnings.

I hope this content and documentation is useful in helping others use and adapt this in other contexts. Contact me if you need any advice in running this on your own.

And finally here are some photos for your enjoyment.







Leapfrogging Sustainable Development: Exploring the Strategic Futures of Production and Policy through Cosmo-local and Commons-based Design

Two aspects of my life are coming together for the first time. My work with a number of collaborators (Michel Bauwens, Sharon Ede, etc) to conceptualize and articulate cosmo-localism, plus my work over the past decade to meld foresight and action through action research approaches. The result is a course on cosmo-local design. We will use anticipatory innovation processes to develop cosmo-local strategies that can address development challenges in new ways, through a new lens.

In the spirit of cosmo-localism, I’m making all the content for the course open access, so anyone can adapt, facilitate and teach it in whatever locale is desired. More post to come with content.

Thanks to Raji Ajwani, Prof. Shishir Kumar Jha (Indian Institute of Technology) and Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation) for making the connections to make this course happen.


20-21 Sept 2019
Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai

A new way of thinking is emerging for developing strategic pathways for local to planetary economic and ecological viability. This way of thinking centres around the ideas of “peer to peer production”, “the commons”, and “cosmo-localism”. This course will give participants emerging strategies to address critical development challenges using new cosmo-local and commons-based production strategies and thinking. Cosmo-local development describes the process of bringing together our globally distributed knowledge and design commons with the high-to-low tech capacity for localized production and self-organization. It augurs in an era in which the legacy of human creativity is at the disposal and service of those with the most needs, and in which our systems of production can be sustained within planetary ecological boundaries.

Over 15 cases will be presented on a variety of topics and themes, including:

– Examples in agriculture, for examples Farm Hack, Le A’terlier Paysans and FarmBot
– Examples in manufacturing, including Open Motors, AbilityMade and OpenROV
– Examples in medicine and health, including Fold-it and the Open Insulin Project
– Examples in housing construction, including Hexayurt and Wikihouse
– Examples in the circular economy, including Precious Plastic
– Examples in urban development, including Fabcity and Ghent city as commons
– Examples in water management, including Hack the Water Crisis (Stop Reset Go)
– Examples in crypto-programming, including Holochain
– Examples in disaster response, including Field Ready

The course is run in the format of ‘action learning’. This means that participants will form into groups (5-8 people) based on topics that are meaningful to them, and will engage in a problem solving (anticipatory innovation) process through-out the course. Participant will be introduced to the key ideas and guided through the problem solving in a step by step format, so that the ideas are applied in the context of real development challenges. The course is a unique offering combining anticipatory innovation and systemic futures design thinking that will give participants renewed leverage in generating ideas for positive social change.

Objectives of Course:

– Learn from 15+ examples and cases
– Learn concepts in
– Peer Production
– The Commons
– Cosmo-local production
– Understand cosmo-localism as both
– A seed form that can be applied and scaled from social enterprise
– A political economic vision which provides new policy pathways
– Develop networks and connections with others that carry forward momentum
– Develop process skills in applying these models in the context of specific development and organisational challenges

Expected Outcomes of Course:

– A new set of concepts and understanding for development
– An understanding of how these strategies are applied
– A set of examples and cases that clarify how they function
– Ideas developed in the workshop that can be carried forward into the world
– Inclusion in an extended network of people interested in these new development strategies
– A cosmo-local production design canvas that will provide a template for applying the ideas elsewhere (this will be a simple to use canvas that can be printed in an A2 or bigger paper that will be linked to the course content)

The course is being run by Dr. Jose Ramos (Action Foresight), in conjunction with Prof. Shishir Kumar Jha and Raji Ajwani (Indian Institute of Technology – Mumbai) and Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation).

Workshop Schedule

What is cosmo-localism?

Cosmo-localization describes the process of bringing together our globally distributed knowledge and design commons with the high-to-low tech capacity for localized production. It augurs an era in which the legacy of human creativity is at the disposal and service of those in need within ecological planetary boundaries. It is based on the ethical premise, drawing from cosmopolitanism, that people and communities should be universally empowered with the heritage of human ingenuity that allow them to more effectively create livelihoods and solve problems in their local environments, and that, reciprocally, local production and innovation should support the wellbeing of our planetary commons.

“Cosmo-localization is a new paradigm for the production and distribution of value that combines the universal sharing of knowledge (cosmo), but the ‘subsidiarity’ of production as close as possible to the place of need (‘local’), essentially through distributed local manufacturing and voluntary mutualization. The general idea is not to impede technological progress though intellectual property, in an era of climate change where we cannot afford the 20-year lag in innovation due to patents; and to radically diminish the physical cost of transport through local production. Cosmo-localization is based on the belief that the mutualization of provisioning systems can radically diminish the human footprint on natural resources, which need to be preserved for future generations and all beings of the planet.” Michel Bauwens

“what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global, while what is heavy (machinery) is local, and ideally shared. Design global, manufacture local (DGML) demonstrates how a technology project can leverage the digital commons to engage the global community in its development, celebrating new forms of cooperation. Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, the DGML model emphasizes application that is small-scale, decentralized, resilient, and locally controlled.” –Vasilis Kostakis and Andreas Roos, Harvard Business Review

Links to cosmo-localization:

Peer Production and the Commons

From redistributive urban commons to cosmo-local production commons

Cosmo-Localization And Leadership For The Future

Click to access J5.pdf

Cosmo-localism and the Anthropocene





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.


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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.

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Anticipatory Innovation

Innovation is an obsession in our current society. We are enamored with technological innovations, we celebrate innovators. We want to be them. And yet when you look closely at the various crises and risks around the world, it becomes clear that the human propensity for innovation is again and again repeatedly at the heart of our collective crises. Innovation in broad terms is responsible for the decline of critical ecosystems, the production of an unsafe climate, and an unprecedented level of risk that human beings face today. Nuclear weapons, which the US used against Japan to bring it to its knees and end the war, led to the Pandora’s box of weapons proliferation. Now US foreign policy is obsessed with the problem, involving North Korea, Iran, and the detente with Russia. The use of fossil fuels and the combustion engine, brought us among other things motorized vehicles, of course transformed our ability to travel. At the same time it is fundamentally complicit to air pollution in cities and carbon emissions, and of course automobile traffic!

Do not get me wrong I am actually a technological optimist! But my optimism does not come from thinking about the next great product, the next innovation. It comes from thinking about how as human beings we can change our consciousness, culture, worldview, our orientation towards how we interact with the world. So at the heart of innovation is a fundamental contradiction that as human beings we are being fundamentally confronted with today. Innovation and our capacity to transform the world around us is fundamental to our prosperity, our capacity to communicate with each other, indeed now it has become fundamental to the transformation of human knowledge. And at the same time it is brought an unprecedented scale of crises, risk and unintended consequences.

The solution is not to disown innovation, pretend that the 20th century didn’t happen. The solution as well is not to deny that innovation has a shadow – that it has contradictions. The solution is to engage with this contradiction actively and inquire into its transformation, the possibility of an integration, of a transcendent position that can hold the complexity of the contradictions we experience today. For thinking about our future, our shadow is our friend.

This is what I hope to develop in this talk. To do this we need a method like Causal Layered Analysis to help us go down the rabbit hole from symptoms to systems to epistemology and to core metaphors that help us understand our human predicament. So let’s begin.


The most basic symptoms that we see today are what most concerns us. A recent report highlighted the decline in insect numbers around the world. We see the collapse of bee colonies in many parts of the world. There is now a Great Pacific Garbage Patch that swirls around in the ocean, with the plastic slowly breaking down and filtering into every ocean-based ecosystem. And most reports on climate change are now saying that 1.5° to 2° warming is a conservative estimate, and when we look at the actual implications of 2° to 3° warming they are profound and disturbing. There are otherwise sane people talking about civilizational collapse. But, if we look at a deeper level, however, we begin to see that these are all symptoms of a system that ‘intentionally’ produces this as an outcome.


For example economies today are interlinked in a grand drama of industry, innovation and competition. This industrial innovation system is supported by every major player that is part of it. In the US this is largely funneled through the defense industries, which act as a subsidy for commercial applications. In Japan they have the ministry of industry trade and innovation. The EU has its own system. The field of foresight actually got its start supporting the industrial innovation system. I’ve call this the STIF model. Science technology and innovation foresight. Through futures research, research institutes identify the growth industries, technologies and opportunities, which helps governments to prioritize research areas, then the money funnels through. The system has been working for well over 70 years, at least since the 1950s. As R&D gets funded, the prototypes move into commercial application, driving industrial transformation. This has basically been the formula for the dramatic technological revolution that we have experienced over the last 70 years.

And yet, as the sociologist Ulrich Beck argued, the same system has produced risk at a grand scale – he defined this as the “global risk society”. Rather than some kind of fluky happenstance production of risk – his argument is that it is actually a systematic production of risk. And if we look at the complicity of this system in our most pressing challenges today, this becomes very clear. Today we see new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which herald an age of robots-as-servants. But it also has brought us into the potential death spiral of autonomous military robotics. We have systematically designed our global economic system to produce risk.

This of course was coupled with the growth mindset coming out of the 1940s and 50s. As a bulwark against communism, the West adopted Keynesian economics, with its emphasis on economic growth. Of course this economic growth was to be built on the back of this technological revolution, productivity gains and more jobs. And so we not just designed a global economic system to produce risk, but also to produce an unsustainable trajectory of economic growth, given the carrying capacity of our ecological systems. Current estimates show we are well beyond 1.5 planets of carrying capacity. A recent report shows that our capacity for resource extraction far outstrips the earth’s long term carrying capacity. We now have an “earth overshoot day” dedicated to highlighting this. We now use one Earth’s worth of resources in 7 months. The other 5 months are “deficit” or “loan” months – it will need to be paid back. And can I just add that eco-futurists and ecological economists like Hazel Henderson, Herman Daly and Donella Meadows have been talking about this since the 1970s! For 50 years!

Then there is capitalism. Now I am not going to argue here that markets and competition are not needed. I believe markets and competition are fundamentally needed. When I choose a cell phone provider I want to have some choice, and I want one group to be competing against another to provide me with the best service. When I want to go down the street and buy some bread, I don’t want to be limited to one business, whether private, public or otherwise. I want some choice where I buy my bread. I’m gonna buy my bread from the people that are friendliest to me and whose bread is the best and the tastiest. So we’re not talking here about markets and competition. But I am no Milton Friedman.

In simple terms capitalism is a system of accumulating value – by shareholder to accumulate value. This hasn’t changed much in about 400 years of history. The Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company, for example practiced this through a variety of methods. They were backed by their shareholders, their investors and they were tasked with bringing back / accumulating more value. The problem is having been removed from the source of where that value was coming from, terrible things can happen – the company takes land, kills, even enslaved people. We know this from the history of mercantile colonialism.

But the core capitalist logic has not changed much. So when you look at an operation like Facebook, we say okay Facebook is different. It’s connecting all these people, it’s making all kinds of things possible. But capitalism creates social externalities. In the process of accumulating value for shareholders, the company creates a problem somewhere else. So for example now we see a lawsuit against Facebook by content moderators, who are arguing that they experience severe psychological trauma for having to moderate disturbing Facebook content for hours on end – they have posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s like that scene out of the Mexican sci-fi film the Sleep Dealer. Technology has replaced human labor but it hasn’t replaced human exploitation.

And this is not to mention the way in which Facebook has driven social polarization. To be fair it’s not just Facebook but it’s a whole suite of social media platforms. But research that has come out recently essentially argues that the way in which content gets contained within filter bubbles, and the algorithms that govern the content that we see produces a web of self-referentiality – people are more and more exposed to the same or similar ideas reinforcing their thinking, indeed making their thinking more entrenched and extreme. And it’s not in their interest to give you content that’s going to contradict your worldview. Why would they? They just want you to spend more time in front of the screen so they can sell you more advertisements. If you get confused, experience cognitive dissonance and then have to work this out, that is not more advertisements for them. So we have Trump and we have Bolsonaro… and other countries where, the social externality of capitalist driven social media is social polarization. If you ask me this is a very high price to pay. So at a deeper level we have innovation and technology embedded in political economy.


But I want to take us one step deeper and explore something else. And this is that there’s been a fundamental disconnect in the way that innovation and technology have played out in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with respect to our understanding of ecological systems. It is a remarkable fact that in the West the systems literature only really emerged in the late 60s and 70s. Somehow in the madness of progress and modernity something profound was lost. There were presumptions about the distinction between man and nature. “Nature” is out there somewhere – “man” is here. I use the word MAN deliberately this distinction emerged in a patriarchal era.

The fundamental premise here is that human beings are at the center of the world context. We can shape the nature to the will of the human. We can pour pesticides and fertilizers onto soils with abandon. We can divert water systems any way we want. We can operate as masters and controllers. Its humanity with a God complex! But in fact this worldview has fundamental blind spots. This is the same worldview that empowers a company like Monsanto to super-sell Glyphosate to farmers as a way to kill weeds. The only problem is, the glyphosate also kills farmers. So in the US today there is a case in the upper courts where farmers are suing Monsanto for the effects of glyphosate. And it’s been implicated in colony collapse disorder. And what do farmers and bees have in common? Besides being very busy? They are both living systems. Glyphosate is both one of the key contenders as the culprit of colony collapse disorder, it is also a key contenders for a cause of cancer in humans.

Myth and Metaphor 

This then brings me to the core premise of this talk – a fundamentally unprovable hypothesis, but to me it makes sense. I believe that hardwired into the human psyche is a technological bias. From our origins it was technology that became the success formula for our species. If wanted to defend ourself from lion, before technology we had our bare hands.

Some anthropologists argue that the physiological transformation of hominids was driven by the invention of cooking. By being able to cook raw food we were able to eat food quicker and digest faster – we were able to consume more calories. They argue that the evidence shows that the invention of cooking coincides with a rapid expansion in the size of the human brain, essentially that the capacity to absorb more nutrients through cooking was reflected physiologically. This might explain why cooking shows are so popular.

And this brings me to the wonderful image and metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. When the proto-human throws the bone into the air, it flies up and spins and becomes a space station. And we are projected hundreds of thousands of years into the future, to the year 2001 – (which for us has passed but those in the 1960s it was the future). The significance of this image cannot be understated. For me it is nothing less than the affirmation of who we are as technological beings. Humans don’t do technology – we are technology. But as we saw with the tragic unfolding in 2001 a Space Odyssey, the film itself, technology and innovation can have some unintended consequences. The artificial intelligence that ran the ship – Hal 9000 – went a little crazy.

And so embedded in our dreamscape of who we are is also a nightmare. I believe films speak from the collective unconscious. It’s an idea from philosopher Susanne Langer. And I believe what the collective unconscious is saying is that at a certain level of awareness we know here is a fundamental contradiction, and this unease, this terror, expresses this feeling in our relationship to technology – indeed who we are as technological beings. Humanity’s disowned self is speaking to us through the medium of collective dreams and nightmares – film. And this gets reiterated in film after film after film. We see this in films like Terminator, in Ex Machina, in so many films.


So now this is a very good place to come back to the core idea for the talk – that we have a problem with innovation. But that there are some solutions. And so I want to provide a few design principles that we might think about in terms of solving the problem of innovation – in the way that it “defutures” to use Tony Fry’s terminology – in its current manifestation, and how it might “refuture” in its next manifestation.

So innovation that refutures – that gives us a future rather than taking it away – this is anticipatory innovation. It is not the next cool gadget for the future. Because as I discussed the cool gadget of the future, whether it’s an iPhone or a plastic bottle or artificial intelligence or whatever, it is an expression of humanity’s ingenuity but also its shadow, it is contradiction embodied.

But innovations that that come from an an awareness of this contraction and which “refuture”, this is anticipatory innovation. It is not really a new idea. People like Bucky Fuller, Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Hazel Henderson, many others articulated similar and profound sentiments decades ago.

So drawing from this conversation there are four design strategies for anticipatory innovation here:

  • Piecemeal amelioration of symptoms
  • Cosmo localization
  • Understanding the web of life
  • Owning our shadow as technological beings

Piecemeal amelioration

At the most basic level, at the level of symptoms, we need lots of projects and lots of new technologies. Let’s clean up the great Pacific Garbage Patch. We need renewable technologies, we need low carbon technologies. We need to sequester carbon as quickly as possible.

Cosmo localization

But at the level of political economy we have to do something completely different. Instead of designing and producing something in two different parts of the world, meant to compete with each other, proprietary and un-shareable, producing as many problems in the long-term as it solves, we need to mutualise the production of value for mutual sustainment. This is Cosmo localization (also known as “Design Global Manufacture Local“), a political economic vision shared by a number of people around the world.

The basic idea is that we are in the era of planetary challenges that have local manifestations. To solve local problems we need to enlist a globally distributed community which can pool knowledge, expertise and resources. In biological terms this is called “stigmergy” – whereby as a global community we build on each others work toward shared goals and outcomes. Thus a “planetary stigmergy” is the mutualization of value, designs, knowledge and strategy at a globally coordinated level. Cosmo-localism entails developing such planetary contributory systems, meaning that for any one problem or challenge, local or distributed, people contribute to the problem solving from everywhere.

Michel Bauwens argues that “cosmo-localization is a new paradigm for the production and distribution of value that combines the universal sharing of knowledge (cosmo), but the ‘subsidiarity’ of production as close as possible to the place of need (‘local’), essentially through distributed local manufacturing and voluntary mutualization. The general idea is not to impede technological progress though intellectual property, in an era of climate change where we cannot afford the 20-year lag in innovation due to patents; and to radically diminish the physical cost of transport through local production. Cosmo-localization is based on the belief that the mutualization of provisioning systems can radically diminish the human footprint on natural resources, which need to be preserved for future generations and all beings of the planet.”

Cosmo-localization describes the process of bringing together our globally distributed knowledge and design commons with the high-to-low tech capacity for localized production. It is based on the ethical premise, drawing from cosmopolitanism, that people and communities should be universally empowered with the heritage of human ingenuity that allow them/us to more effectively create livelihoods and solve problems in their local environments, and that, reciprocally, local production and innovation should support the wellbeing of our planetary commons.

Likewise, Vasilis Kostakis and Andreas Roos argue “what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global, while what is heavy (machinery) is local, and ideally shared. Design global, manufacture local (DGML) demonstrates how a technology project can leverage the digital commons to engage the global community in its development, celebrating new forms of cooperation. Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, the DGML model emphasizes application that is small-scale, decentralized, resilient, and locally controlled.”

And thus Cosmo-localization is a conscious twining of a consequentialist cosmopolitan ethics with technology. It takes the view that technology is not value neutral, but rather proscribed by discourse, culture and worldview. The same cultural milieu that gave us “disruptive innovation” is one that is premised on individualism, disrupt or be disrupted, and lacks a concern for the social implications and applications for technology – and reflects an unconscious stance toward technology, as something “out there” rather than as an integral part of what human beings are.

This twining of a planetary ethics, with the emerging potential of open source design and the new localized production technologies being born augurs a transformation. A new universal human rights and ethics applies to the right to the human legacy of designs – a global design commons; This global design commons needs to be directed toward the production of goods and services within planetary boundaries; And thus a planetary contributory system emerges where people coordinate in solving shared problems. Problem solving is localized while simultaneously being supported by a global web of solidarity.

Understanding the Web of Life 

At another level, though, we need to innovate with a clear understanding that we are embedded in the web of life. We are not masters of it, we are not controllers of it. In fact we emerged from it. In our DNA and in our physiology is the legacy of 4 billion years of evolution. So we need to innovate with a clear understanding of ecological principles. These principles can’t be covered here in great depth because it’s actually quite complex – there are many context and there’s a lot going on. There is permaculture, Panarchy, Regenerative agriculture, biomimicry, and a whole number of strategies and frameworks that can help us innovate using principles for ecological resilience.

For starters we need to understand that our fundamental life-support system is this complex living system which is our planet. This is the fundamental unit. At a bioregional scale we need to really understand the complex and nuanced interactions between species. At the level of the human body we need to see ourselves as living systems. Whatever we put into the environment will become us – whether it’s pollution or pesticides or radioactivity. And at the microlevel we need to understand the complex dynamics that provide the foundations for resilience – the health of soils, microbiological dynamics and what it means to have healthy gut bacteria flowing through our body. We are part of the web of life.

Already there’s plenty of projects that take ecological principles into account. The literature around the circular economy is inspired by how the web of life works – nothing is wasted, every output is an input for another process. And much of this also can be found in premodern systems of production. In Edo period Japan there were a very well developed systems of what we would call today a circular economy to deal with human waste in urban environments that was then used in rural farming, and how they had a complex artisanal system of repairing broken items. So today we also have the right to repair movement.

And in Mexico City, there is the precolonial legacy of Tenochtitlan. A city that, at the time of the conquest, had a larger population than any European city, and sustained itself through a complex system of what we would now call aquaponics. I don’t want to over-romantisize the Aztecs, but the main idea is that we can learn a lot from history – many of the “new” ways forward are embedded in the past.

The Commons 

At the most fundamental level we are grappling with who we are as technological beings. Really until we fully accept the shadow of our technological self, we will continue to produce crisis after crisis, externality after externality. So the last key idea is the idea of the commons. I have defined the commons as that which we mutually depend on for our survival and wellbeing, such that we are implied into new systems of collaborative governance of these commons. And when we look at what this is, there is a lot there – we depend on:

  • Healthy soils
  • A safe climate
  • Water
  • Honest media
  • Good systems of governance
  • The list goes on…
From Bauwens 2015

So when we think about our technological shadow, well indeed, we can also see that this is part of the commons. We need to innovate in a way that creates a future rather than takes it away – we need anticipatory innovation. We need to make sure innovation creates less risk and not more. And so, anticipatory innovation as a practice is part of our commons.

And indubitably, when we realise that we are mutually implicated in something that we mutually depend on for our survival and wellbeing, well, that then is our call to action, that we need to engage in the governance of this, the management of this, that we become active shapers of it, rather than victims of inaction. This is “commons governance”, which has a rich literature, and as David Bollier and Silke Helfrich argue, means we become “commoners” and practice “commoning”. In practical terms this means applying the precautionary principle more actively, as a partnership and political contract between citizens, the state and commercial sectors.


If we bring on board these design principles, we can create innovations that refuture, rather than defuture. We can practice an anticipatory innovation that can make our world a healthier and safer place for all of us.

I use a technique called the anticipatory experimentation method, that helps to challenge “used futures”, create new ones, to bring the preferred future into the present through experiments that can scale for impact. It’s a methodology for anticipatory innovation.

The great futurist Hazel Henderson talked about our entire planetary existence is one great laboratory of learning. The challenges we face collectively are like a planetary classroom. We are being asked to learn something fundamental about ourselves, about how we behave in the world, about a new level of thinking.

We can take the crises we face as a signifier of many different things, how terrible the human species is, how difficult the challenges is …. There are some lazy ways of thinking that lead to fatalism.

I prefer to take our current dilemma as a way to frame humanity’s evolutionary leap. We need to ask “what is this planetary era asking us to learn collectively today?”

If we can use Henderson’s metaphor, then the lesson plan for humanity becomes pretty clear.

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.


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[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.

Mutating the Future: the Anticipatory Experimentation Method

We human beings for most of our history have solved the problems of the present. Problem arises, people respond. See problem, act on problem. But now we find ourselves in a new context, beset by not just the problems of the present but as well of the future. These include automation and robotic’s impact on jobs, climate change, potential pandemics, energy transformations, youth bulges, the list goes on…. That golden or peaceful time, if it ever existed, when we could just pretend that the future would take care of itself is long gone. Today this attitude is tantamount to negligence.

So, today we need to solve the problems of the future — we need anticipatory action. This is new, and we are just beginning to get our heads around what this actually means. The fields of foresight and futures studies would seem a logical place for addressing this. But my own journey in futures studies, in this regard, started with some disappointment. Back in 2000, as a masters student in my early 30s, I noticed a disconnect — that futures studies and futurists were teaming with long-term speculations, forecasts, scenarios and the like. There was a lot of future-philia, but the present seemed to be disowned. Some futurists talked about how the future should be a principal of present action, but there were very few tangible methodologies that truly explicitly connected the future with present day problem solving.


In these early days I was inspired by people like Robert Jungk who developed an early participatory futures workshop for citizen empowerment. I also got inspired by action research in general and began exploring how one might use or comingle an action research approach with a futures studies approach.

Anticipatory Action Learning was a wonderful development in this regard, and its mature expression through the Six Pillars method of Sohail Inayatullah. Fast forward almost 20 years and today there are a variety of ways developed which links foresight and action in powerful ways.

My own modest contribution to this about a decade ago was to develop the Futures Action Model as a nonlinear research and development framework for how global foresight may inform localized action.


Feeling powerful?

When I’m with students, clients or just colleagues and friends, the question consistently arises, how can we have some agency, power, in this context of seemingly overwhelming change? We are beset by what seems like overwhelming complexity, overwhelming speeds of change, and overwhelming scale in the challenges.

A major concern for me has been how we recover a sense of agency and power in order to navigate these challenges we face. A sense of confusion or ambivalence or distraction or apathy or despair that many of us experience with regard to big problems are mind-body phenomena that stop people, stop us, from fully participating in the transformations or transitions our world needs.

If we each knew that we have the power to engender transformations and breakthroughs that our communities and societies need, then we would not hesitate to jump right in and begin doing so. It is this very mind-body phenomena, expressed as a sense of powerlessness, that acts like a suppressant on our capacities to jump into projects for change that indeed can change the world.

Creating social change is a social technology. Humans are unique in our adeptness and attachment to technology. From the most basic tools that we created over millions of years, a rock blade for cutting animal skins, or a basket woven from the long grasses around us that can hold and store food, we excel at technologies for transforming our environment.

Today we have a variety of social technologies developed to engender positive social change, from the many varieties of Action Research to Collective Impact, and many other methodologies, all of these in one way or another addresses questions of our power and capacity to navigate and engender the changes that we want and need to create. But can these empowering social technologies be bent toward addressing anticipated challenges?


Acting Out Used Futures

There is a big problem with action that does not reflect on our assumption about the future. We live in a social context in which we are being told repeatedly to innovate, innovate, innovate, to be social innovators, to be technical innovators, to be anything innovators. I remember at a conference in 2016 at Tamkang University, Taiwan, in a debate with Jim Dator where he stopped the room when he said (paraphrasing) ‘we’ve got too much innovation already — we need less innovation!’. When we got through the initial confusion and shock of the statement, we learned that he meant that all too often our practices of creativity are locked into yesterday’s thinking. We fetishize innovation without considering the underlying patterns of creativity being expressed.

Alvesgaspar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

If we create ideas, designs, enterprises and other innovations from the uncritical or unconscious ‘used future’, as Sohail Inayatullah puts it, we will simply perpetuate and even exacerbate the problems that we are dealing with today. It reminds me of a recent article I read. Engineers had a ‘great idea’ to create little drone bees to replace the ones that are dying off en mass due to colony collapse disorder. Cue forehead slap. It is this instrumental mindset that created the problem in the first place. That nature is replaceable. A lack of fundamental understanding of the complexity of biological systems. An inability to see humans as part of the web of life rather than engineers on it or masters of it. It’s the old story of the lady who swallowed a fly. She swallows a spider to get the fly, she perpetuates a used future, I guess she’ll die! We do actually know why she swallowed the fly, the spider, bird, etc etc… because she never stepped back from action to see the world in its systemic complexity, she just acted out her unexamined assumptions and misguided confidence that the easy and simple way to solve the problem was to do what she had always done — and each time she does this the problem gets worse.

That is why it is so critical to unpack and challenge the used futures and to create alternative futures that expand options, and to create a new vision before even entering into the space of ideating action, be they ‘designs’, ‘models’, whatever. We need qualitatively new responses to the problems of the future. That old expression that one cannot solve today’s problems with yesterday’s thinking applies but needs updating too: ‘We cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with today’s thinking!’ Which does sounds a little absurd, given that all we have is the present, really. But we might say more accurately that we cannot solve tomorrow’s problems until we challenge today’s thinking, our assumptions and images about the future and our vision of our options.

             Don Quixote, by Gustave Doré [Public domain]


Some metaphors and a framework

I’ve been at this for almost two decades. Sometimes I have felt like Captain Ahab chasing the white whale, obsessed with the prize. At other times I have felt like Prometheus, searching for the secret of fire. And at others Don Quixote, chasing windmills. None of these stories ended well!

These myths, however, symbolize some big lessons. First, we learn from Melville, practice non-attachment — or we’ll get sucked into the vortex of our obsession. Secondly, from the Greek myth, that any invention has a cost — something that is hidden or disowned, with unintended consequences. Creativity is a two way street. Thirdly, from Cervantes, we are all limited in our imagination by the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, the used future — our actions are often just expressions of old patterns of thinking from days gone by — but the context has changed. What all of these myths are collectively saying are to take a step back from action itself and reflect upon the nature of being and thinking in the world — if we are to be action oriented — then we must marry agency and action with philosophy and reflection.

And so, two years ago, from the depths of reflection sprang the next iteration in this journey for me. It emerged from owning a new metaphor of the self. This new metaphor had the logic of life, of living systems.

In one manifestation it was the seed from the tree, or inversely the tree that is born from the seed. It is the logic of birth, growth, propagation, and mutation. It showed nature’s way of doing experiments, through variation. And how the future is enfolded into the present as possibility through the logic of the ‘seed form’ (see the Action Foresight logo as an example).


In another manifestation it was a solar system in its infancy, where one small intervention could have profound long term implications. This represented that our work today is on behalf of future generations. And intuitively, from the metaphors came the framework.
The method brings together three key dimensions and influences. The first two parts of the Bridge brings in futures studies as a major dimension, especially the work of Sohail Inayatullah with his emphasis on critical, deconstructive and integrative foresight. The keystone of the Bridge brings in my emphasis over many years on ideation of initiatives and enterprises, expressed through the Futures Action Model. And finally the last two steps in the Bridge express action research as a fundamental influence.
AEM / Bridge Method


Practically the method entails five stages:

  1. Challenging the used future

2. Developing a preferred future and open ended narrative

3. Ideating a number of prototype ideas from the vision or narrative

4. Choosing which prototype ideas to experiment with and running real-world experiments

5. Scaling and investing in the experiments with the best promise


First, the ‘used future’ must be challenged, as invariably we hold presumptions about the future that are uncritically held or untested. If we act from the used future we perpetuate the problems associated with such perspectives. This follows the age old adage that one cannot add anything to a cup that is already full. We can think of the metaphor of the teacup which is completely full. Nothing can be added to it. It is only when we empty the cup when we can add something new. Likewise we must empty our assumptions to renew our understanding and vision for the future, so as to not be hostage to old patterns of thinking, unconscious assumptions, and so that new ideas can emerge. As well, as we learn about the emerging issues, trends and weak signals that are transforming our social horizons, new and alternative images of the future emerge. This ensures that visions and pathways for the future are informed by an empirical understanding of change, not just unexamined assumptions, and that multiple possible futures inform action.

Secondly, we develop an integrated vision and a transformational futures narrative. Integrated visioning, first developed by Inayatullah, is a way to do visioning with a particular sensitivity to our psychological blind spots. It is often the case that our visions, whether idealistic or pragmatic, disown key aspects of what we need. Integrated visioning is a way to develop visions and pathways that are more holistic and, because they take a fuller account of an organization’s dimensions, are more likely to align across it and therefore succeed. Then we create an open ended narrative, the movement from our past to present to preferred future. This needs to articulate the way in which the world participates in its fulfilment, a call to action for others to work with us to create this future. This open ended narrative addresses the false presumption that an individual or single organisation can create the future on their own, and acknowledges that it is actually an ecosystem of coordinated actors (organisations, communities, networks, etc.) that are able to create the future together.

Thirdly, I use the Futures Action Model to bridge the preferred futures and narrative with ideation. The Futures Action Model (FAM) is a “keystone” method that integrates all phases of the Bridge, by providing a way for problem-oriented thinking to relate with solution-oriented thinking in a futures-oriented way. It relates foresight research and knowledge with identification of pioneer projects and responses from around the world, to the “design ecosystem” (stakeholders critical in the development of the initiative), and finally provides a space for articulating the bare bones DNA of an initiative. FAM can include the use of an interactive role-playing game, an R&D process, and workshopping. The output of FAM are initiative ideas that are deeply grounded across multiple critical spaces: empirical evidence on social change, real world pioneer examples from around the world, and present day stakeholder considerations.

Fourthly, ideas that emerge need to be vetted and selected for experiments. The experiment is that small piece of the preferred future we are bringing into the present. Experiments make sure that as individuals or organizations, we limits the scale and the risk to us, a tolerance zone for experiments that allow them to fail safely. They provide ways of testing the assumptions embedded within them, to make sure learning happens that builds in systemic capacity for renewed experiments.

Finally, experiments can be evaluated to see which ones showed the most promise and are best aligned to enact the vision or pathway. If an experiment holds little promise, it can be discarded. Or it can be adapted if it showed some promise. If it is demonstrated to work it can then be upscaled and invested in, in a way appropriate to the resources and risk tolerance of the organisation. This ensures that experiments can scale for impact when they and the organization driving them are ready. (Many thanks to my colleague Gareth Priday for helping me to see this importance of this last step).

In summary, first we must challenge the used future and deconstruct the unconscious patterns that dictates our awareness and images of the future. Otherwise we act out used futures. This then creates the space for new visions and preferred futures, and the new narratives that express this. And on the back of these new narratives and visions we ideate — we create ideas for change. Let’s have fun and let’s be bold. As we have deconstructed the used futures and created new visions, our ideas for change are bound to be interesting, different, potent. Then, filled as we are with these ideas for change we can choose one or some to bring into the world, through real-world experiments that will drive learning. These experiments will be the appropriate size, they will be safe to fail, they will be the seeds of the new. And finally, based on this learning and the evaluation of these experiments we can adapt, we can discard and we can scale them for impact.


Giving the baby a name

We can call this the Anticipatory Experimentation Method (AEM) or ‘Bridge Method’. It is a method for bringing the preferred future into the present through experiments that can scale for impact. It is a bridge between a preferred future and real-world experiments that bring that future into being. It combines a visioning approach with an ideation method that can bridge future vision with specific and implementable ideas, which culminate in experiments.

The method focuses on bringing a preferred future into the present, by running experiments that have maximum alignment with the enactment of the preferred future. Why do an experiment that is not aligned to our preferred futures? Let’s experiment with that which is going to get us there. Experiments are a vehicle for enacting new futures because they are “small pieces” of the preferred future brought into the present. Experiments are also time and resource savers because, rather than commit a whole organization or community to a new path (which is both risky and potentially costly), experiments are small scale and cost effective ways of testing a new direction. If some experiments show promise they can be scaled and invested in, accelerating organizational momentum toward enacting the vision. If experiments don’t work, the investment was limited and the risk was measured, people can still learn a great deal and nonetheless develop confidence in the experimentation process.

How do we respond, indeed create breakthroughs or transformations within a variety of domains of social life, where change is needed? There are many methods for social change, and as a student, practitioner and teacher of futures studies and foresight I have a deep appreciation for the variety of complex ways our societies change. There is no one size fits all. It is my hope that the Anticipatory Experimentation Method (AEM) or ‘Bridge Method’ adds meaningfully to the capacity for us to respond to our shared and emerging challenges, as anticipatory experimentalists, playfully yet purposefully to be in the service of long-term global foresight and the well-being of future generations and life on earth.

José Ramos is director of the botique consulting / research / facilitation business Action Foresight.