Futures studies: Crystal ball gazing or disciplined scholarship?

Michael Green, Australian National University

Richard A. Slaughter, Futures for the Third Millennium: Enabling the Forward View Prospect Media, 1999, (381 pp). ISBN 1-86316-148-1 (paperback) RRP $40.00.

Richard A. Slaughter (ed.), Gone Today, Here Tomorrow: Millennium Previews Richmond Ventures, 2000, (145 pp). ISBN 1-8631-6122-8 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

The ability to see the future is one of the most fabled and desired mythical powers, yet futures research is neglected. Our governments are shortsighted, unable to see much beyond the next election. The market might trade in 30-year bonds and futures, but it is rooted in the immediate.

With Futures Studies, Richard Slaughter aims to develop a coherent approach to the future; not as an empty space to be colonised or a single fate towards which the wheel of fortune inexorably turns, but as a realm to be mapped. Slaughter argues that humanity needs to find a way out of ‘the global problematique’, which comprises ‘a late industrial system, classical economics, international trade, “trickle down” development, the mechanistic world view and a deteriorating environment’. He believes Futures Studies can help by being a ‘seed bed’ for ‘social and methodological innovations’.

Traditional societies could educate their members in the ways of the past, confident of their value for a future similar to the present. But modern capitalism, with its ‘creative destruction’, its continuous revolution of technique, and its accelerating pace of change makes conscious engagement with the future a necessity. We need to ‘steer’ into the future with great care. Why do we teach our children so much about the past, Slaughter asks enviously, when it is the future they will inhabit?

Despite the precarious state many historians believe their discipline to be in, they need not jump to the barricades. History is essential for futures work to go beyond mere speculation. Slaughter acknowledges the need to ‘look back and develop a view of the “historical trajectory”’, to ‘understand the present in depth’, and to assess ‘historical continuities’. Indeed, history appears to be the paradigm discipline underpinning Slaughter’s conception of futures scholarship.

But if history remains important, Slaughter thinks we face perhaps unprecedented challenges. Human activity is having measurable impacts on the major ecosystems that sustain life-as-we-know-it. The natural lags of large-scale systems like the atmosphere and the oceans together with the lead times for change in our values and institutions make it a matter of survival that we look far ahead and take precautionary action. Slaughter’s ‘200-year present’ stretching a lifetime into the past and a lifetime into the future symbolises the perspective he believes we need to take on the significant issues confronting us.

Futures for the Third Millennium is aimed at practitioners and students of Futures Studies. Its programs include educational projects from school through to graduate programs that seek to engage students in thinking seriously about ‘futures’, activities to engage corporate and government leaders in thinking about the longer term in a systematic way, facilitated by futures professionals, and critical futures research and ‘institutions of foresight’. But above all, Slaughter wants to inject discipline and a critical theoretical perspective into a field hitherto ‘inhibited by inadequate methods, superficial language and a lack of commonly accepted standards and foundations’. So, aside from his other ambitions, Slaughter hopes to bring a new meta-discipline into the academy and establish its respectability.

We need critical futures work to get our bearings, because our view is distorted by popular culture and limited concepts of 'progress'.

Why meta-discipline? For one thing, Futures Studies relies on the outputs of many other fields of practice, scholarship and research. Its methods range from trend extrapolation to world-systems modeling, from ‘futurescan’ workshops to scenario building, and from metaphor analysis to critical theory.

Slaughter identifies two major conceptual barriers Futures Studies needs to overcome. First is the notion of the future as ‘empty space’ that in one view doesn’t exist and in another is a place to locate our hopes and fears. To counter this, we have the obvious human capacity of ‘foresight’ and the demonstrated capacity for technoscientific prediction of the stars and many other things. Second are the notions of fate, inevitability, and determinism, which construct the future as determined by god(s) or by ‘laws’, whether they be laws of technological progress, of evolution, of economics, or of history.

Slaughter’s answer is the metaphor of the future as a map, with specific terrain that constrains us, surveyed by ‘futurescan methods’ and critical Futures Studies. This terrain gives us many choices and possibilities as we move through it. I like the map metaphor. It gives a sense of some options being easier than others. Surely, the highways on the map of the future are the path of least resistance; the short cut is the road to ruin; and the road paved with good intentions the hard road, the long road and the narrow way. Rather than plodding forward head down, Slaughter would have us look up to the horizon and look around for other roads we might take or make. And he would like to see animated discussion at intersections along the way.

Slaughter’s map has continuation of the current consumer-capitalist society—hooked on technological advance and increasingly devastating the ecosystems of the planet—as the path of least resistance. Futures Studies, he hopes, will help us realise this is the road to ruin and motivate us to turn off, to travel the road paved with good intentions from which we climb onto the hard road of consciousness transformation that leads out of the ‘global problematique’ to a sustainable society.

But we need critical futures work to get our bearings, because according to Slaughter our view is distorted by popular culture and by our limited concepts of ‘progress’. Twentieth century classics like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 have so shaped our ideas of what is to come that it is difficult to escape their influence. Orwell’s surveillance society overseen by Big Brother provides the premise of the most successful new television format of recent times. And how much of the bipartisan opposition to human cloning stems from Huxley’s image of a production line of babies in bottles at the beginning of Brave New World and the genetically determined society he imagined?

Slaughter acknowledges that Futures Studies has its own problems and failures to overcome.

Mass media constructions of the future envision societies almost identical to our own, except for their more sophisticated technology. Star Trek is a typical example. Others depict a catastrophe or a dystopian nightmare unleashed by technology-out-of-control. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, in which genetically engineered humanoid cyborgs seek emancipation while specialist termination agents hunt them in a seamy and decayed technopolis, is an exemplar of the genre.

Our thinking about the future is also prescribed by the modernist idea that progress consists of advances in science and technology. This shrouds fatalistic cultural traditions in a fog of pseudo-rationality to form a mountain of ideology that prevents us from seeing a wider horizon.

And, Slaughter acknowledges, Futures Studies has its own problems and failures to overcome. First, an American school largely concerned with the interests of big business and government and wedded to conventional notions of progress through science and technology dominates Futures Studies. This school promotes ‘business-as-usual’ futures like those depicted in the popular 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, where futuristic technologies go hand-in-hand with unchanged and unexamined social relations and institutions. These kinds of futures dominate popular culture, including TV shows like Catalyst. They also prevail in the science, technology, and other professional communities.

Second, he examines a range of ‘institutes of foresight’ including Australia’s erstwhile Commission for the Future, finding them ‘under-designed and under-equipped’. Slaughter argues that they fail to produce work of the requisite quality to raise their status and give them legitimacy—consequently, they are largely ignored. None, for example, is as well known or influential as any number of economic think tanks, or even the newer and more radical outfits based on ecological disciplines. Slaughter believes that staffing with trained Futures Studies professionals would improve the performance of institutes of foresight. However, Joseph Coates, writing in Slaughter’s edited collection Gone Tomorrow, Here Today, rejects the standards and professionalisation agenda, arguing instead that ‘the best test of a futurist is the intellectual, practical and public market place’.

Third, Slaughter regards popular futures writing, such as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends, as superficial.

Slaughter places considerable faith in the practical techniques of Futures Studies such as ‘futurescan’ and the ‘transformation cycle’ through which organisations can construct their own map of the next twenty years or so. He represents these techniques as departures from conventional strategic planning, but they appear to have more in common with it than not: I wonder whether the average middle manager participating in such an exercise would notice the difference.

At the core of Slaughter's work is his conviction that if we continue on our present course, we are headed for disaster.

Adam Kahane provides one of the more inspiring pieces in Gone Today, Here Tomorrow. Kahane describes his personal journey from corporate scenario planner at Shell, though his role in the Mont Fleur scenario team that developed some concepts and language for thinking about the future of the new South Africa, to a Columbian scenario project. In the process, he leaves behind the intellectually challenging but inauthentic life of the corporate planner and develops a much more emotionally engaged approach that embraces the opportunity to make the world a better place. His four lessons are to let go of the arrogance of knowing, to relinquish control and secrecy in favour of openness and influence, to engage the heart and spirit, not just the mind, and to move from adaptation to the world to creating a better one.

Dipping into Gone Today, Here Tomorrow, I couldn’t help wondering what insights its contributors had had into issues that have since come to prominence. Geoff Mulgan’s investigation of the centrality of ethics to global businesses is brought into sharp focus by the almost instant evaporation of the Andersen partnership in the wake of the Enron collapse. He counters business leaders who only think about management, marketing, and trading with a prophetic rejoinder:

in an interconnected global economy it should be apparent that ethics are simply part of the environment … If you’re dealing with very different markets, very different governments, then one of your most valuable assets is your trustworthiness. Lose that and soon you can lose everything else.

Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia analyses the challenges confronting us in genetic research. He argues that we need to choose actively to ensure that the Human Genome Project contributes to advancing the human rights of all individuals: ‘we must have the will to do something and not simply drift’. In Kirby’s view, this will require co-operation between nations and between scientists and political, social, and legal leaders.

Jerome Glenn and Ted Gordon identify fifteen issues for the 21st century, including the threat posed by terrorism. In 1997, they recommended that (among other things) ‘governments, with some leadership from the UN Security Council, should expand co-ordination and co-operation among nations (especially among those who might not normally co-operate) regarding information, early warning, apprehension and punishment of terrorists’.

There are also pieces by Barry Jones on work and by Richard Eckersley on progress, to name a couple more of the many Australian authors included in this collection.

While Here Today, Gone Tomorrow illustrates the wide range of futures writing, it does highlight some problems. Too many authors appear to invoke a very broad-brush, almost cartoon-like notion of history. Geoff Mulgan, for example, explains the (putative) poor performance of governments in dealing with ethics and transparency by saying ‘governments … have their origins in warfare, in top down command’. There are the usual caricatures of the industrial revolution and countless simplistic generalisations. Futures writers seem to favour a kind of abstract systems history, disconnected from the nitty-gritty of events and personalities.

At the core of Slaughter’s work is his conviction that if we continue on our present course, we are headed for disaster. This is given substance by drawing on Meadow’s world systems modeling, first brought to world attention as the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report. Slaughter’s answer is ‘critical Futures Studies’, built around ideas drawn from critical theory and philosophy. The path to redemption lies in Habermasian ‘emancipatory knowledge’ and Ken Wilbur’s spiritual renewal and transformed consciousness. He hopes to unify a school of Futures Studies around these ‘critical’ ideas and to disseminate them through a range of educational, organisational change and research projects.

Slaughter presents a worthwhile survey of his field, and his emancipatory ideal is admirable. However, he has some more work and some deeper thinking to do to integrate Habermas, Wilbur, and Meadows into a coherent meta-discipline able to cut the mustard in the academy. How might the transformative possibilities of emancipatory knowledge and spiritual renewal be included in world systems modeling? What role would world systems modeling play in helping to develop an authentic public sphere? How are the conflicts between the professionalisation of Futures Studies and an emancipatory approach to the future to be resolved?

But perhaps the most significant omission from Slaughter’s framework for Futures Studies is the absence of any but the most superficial engagement with economic ideas. The key contrast to be resolved is as old as economics itself. Meadows and other world systems modellers are heirs to Malthusian deterministic analysis of the impact of human activity on the physical environment, and the limits it imposes. Their more sophisticated, computerised techniques based on finite global resources lead to pessimistic conclusions that update Thomas Malthus, but are not different in character from those he derived from the finite supply of land. Malthus’s conclusions are what gave economics its pejorative nickname ‘the dismal science’. Adam Smith, in contrast, famously believed that self-interested exchange in markets resulted in efficient production and distribution, through the operation of the ‘invisible hand’. Smith also saw changes in the way things are produced—such as the specialisation of labour—as contributing to fundamental changes in productivity. He was optimistic that innovation, trade and markets would transform the wealth of nations.

The experience of mass affluence in the West is widely seen as repudiating Malthus, while Smith’s heirs reign supreme in the academy and in corporate, national, and international policy-making. Slaughter needs to bend his considerable energy to engaging and—if possible—resolving these two contrasting philosophies of economics if future studies is to influence established planning and policy frameworks.

Dr Michael Green lectures in engineering at the Australian National University .