Linking Foresight and Action

The following is an adapted excerpt from a book chapter written for Rowell, L. L., Bruce, C. D., Shosh, J. M., & Riel, M. M. (Eds.). (2017). The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research. Palgrave Macmillan. The book chapter is entitled: “Linking Foresight and Action: Toward a Futures Action Research”.


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, in the year 2000 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).

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 culturally and systemically different backgrounds, the potential for conflict and miscommunication exists, but likewise a group based inter-cultural understanding can emerge, and this embodied and emergent meta-formation 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.


What does this all mean for practicing foresight?

Good foresight work, in my opinion, needs to be able to straddle a ‘ladder’ of multiple epistemologies, empirical, critical realist, critical, post structural, participatory and action centered. Indeed, advanced foresight work relies on previous ‘rungs’ to make them possible.

  • Systems based work that may evolve into scenarios is only possible when there is a basis in forecasts. Identification of emerging issues and trends forms the ground work by which intentions can be modelled into systems.
  • When systems are modelled, what begins to become visible is that they are projections based on assumption, some cultural, others disciplinary, others institutional. Critical and post-structural approaches help us to move past naive realist beliefs in the ‘one and true’ system, and allow us to see how perspectives and systems are co-constitutive.
  • Whereas in the critical and post structural approaches the idea of multiple ways of knowing is abstract (e.g. multiple discourses frame an issue), in the participatory modality multiple perspectives are embodied. The challenge is to work with the diversity of perspectives as a resource to envision the future with greater depth and power.
  • Finally, in order to move to action, the participatory is absolutely essential. People need to enter into join inquiry across perspectives to come to a co-diagnosis and shared understanding, which can lead to shared commitment for action.

The following chart summarizes this ‘ladder’ concept.

Thus my opinion, all five of these modalities are needed, in different degrees, to do holistic futures / foresight work. Every context is different, but having these five modalities as resources and as a conceptual scaffold can help us to build in robust approaches to foresight and action. To a certain extent each mode is developmental, building on the previous mode. However I need to provide the caveat that this narrative of futures studies is very much from an action research perspective, and there are many that have narrated the fields history with far more detail than here, and in different terms. This version of futures is also an expression of a worldview. I hope that this framework for futures practice is useful. I have begin to use it in my facilitation and practice and it has been useful for my clients. Finally, many thanks to the various people that have informed my thinking over the years, you know who you are!


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

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

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

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