Making the transition: Creating a forest of Foresight. An interview with UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies, Sohail Inayatullah
By Fayaz Ahmed and Sohail Inayatullah
Fayaz Ahmed: First of all, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I was born in Pakistan and have lived in Bloomington, Indiana; Flushing, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; Kuala Lumpur; Malaysia; Honolulu, Hawaii; and, Mooloolaba, Australia. I live in Brisbane, Australia.
I did my doctorate from the University of Hawaii, Department of Political Science. I focused on the South Asian Philosopher, Shrii P.R. Sarkar. I examined his theory of history and vision of the future. I compared and contrasted his spiral theory of history with other macrohistorians such as Ibn Khaldun, Karl Marx, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee. This thesis was published by Brill in 2002 as Understanding Sarkar: The Indian Episteme, Macrohistory, and Transformative Knowledge.
With Johan Galtung, I sought to explore and integrate the western notion of linearity, development, with classical, shall we say, Asian positions of the cycle. We explored the theories of the history of twenty grand thinkers from Ssu-Ma Chien to Ibn Khaldun to Arnold Toynbee. This came out in our book, Macrohsitory and Macrohistorians. These grand patterns of social change contrasted with the trend analysis I was seeing in conventional Futures Studies. Trends overly stated continuation, while macrohistory sought to move towards an understanding of the grander patterns, past and future. They add realism – though not with the straight jacket of geo-politics – to scenarios, which while useful in exploring alternatives, can be fanciful.
I also worked for the Hawaii Judiciary for a decade in Honolulu. We developed the Court’s foresight program, anticipating future trends and issues that could impact the courts. We explored the rise of attorneys, mediation, the rights of robots, the use of artificial intelligence in the Courts, the need for a specialized Science Court to address the exponential increase in technologies.
Cover pages of book and article on Judicial futures
Fayaz Ahmed: Please tell us about your role as Chair in Futures Studies at UNESCO and why it was established?
UNESCO has a global chair system, to spread and integrate knowledge. My role as the Chair of Futures Studies is to move foresight from a strategy of planting seeds of change to growing these trees, to creating a forest of foresight. This is to help develop the foresight capabilities of individuals, organizations, and indeed, the planet. Futures literacy is the ability to read the future with greater effectiveness so that tomorrow’s problems can be solved today; so that emergent opportunities can be used to enhance well-being. Prevention of disease, of calamities, of social problems, is crucial in this work.
The notion is moving global, national and organizational policymaking based on anticipatory sciences instead of, as Ian Lowe argues, “organized superstition” – policymaking based on the whims of political leaders. We ask what is changing, what is the same, and what should change, and what should not. Thanks to the intervention of Riel Miller UNESCO has numerous chairs in the field, in Futures Studies, anticipatory systems, organizational futures, futures literacy, and more.
Fayaz Ahmed: In 2010, Shaping Tomorrow Foresight Network awarded you with the Laurel award for all-time best futurist, tell us a bit about this award and why they chose you?
Colleagues were generous. The network chooses colleagues who have made unusual contributions or who are unusual themselves. I believe this was perhaps from research work on
1. Causal layered analysis, a theory of knowledge that assumes four levels of reality. The litany or day-to-day. The system or the next level of causation. The worldview or deeper perspectives of stakeholders (the Chair, the CEO, workers, partners, competitors) or stages of time (ancient, modernity, postmodernity). And at the deepest level are myths and metaphors. This approach ensures there is depth, not just breath to foresight.
2. Macrohistory – the grand patterns of history, as a tool to understand our changing world.
3. Narrative foresight – the use of stories for individual and organizational transformation. It is this latter work that I focus mostly on these days. This is especially satisfying working with individuals. As the world changes, figuring out our role, how to manage this change, flow with this change becomes increasingly difficult. One CEO commented, he no longer knows what is expected of him, how he is to act. Seeing life as a tennis court, he said he was an expert on hard courts, but now when he goes to a meeting he no longer knows which court he is to play on. Is it grass? Is it clay? Will there even be a court? We worked together to develop a new metaphor, storyline – this was the person who could play on many courts. Practically, this meant, learning new skills for a changing world: emotional literacy, technological literacy, and spiritual intelligence.
At another meeting, a young detective described his time on the force as being “an iPhone in a room full of Nokias.” This narrative, unfortunately, while true, set him apart from older detectives. He changed his narrative to the far more useful, “co-designed chip maker.” In this story, he would work with others and co-create strategies using new technologies. This shifted his world from hierarchy and difference to a flatter space of inclusion.
Fayaz Ahmed: What is very exciting about working as a futurist and what does a futurist do?
We get to help others and in that process change ourselves. We work with different groups of all ages around the world. These include the very important – Prime Ministers, CEOs, Chairs of executive boards, to the powerless, children, and others whose concerns for the future need to be heard, understood and acted on. We always ask in foresight interventions, who is missing in the room, whose voice do we need to hear. And, how can we best listen to the voices of future generations
Futures work has a clear structure. I use the Six Pillars approach. In this we first map out the past and the vision of the future. Then we ask what might disrupt that image. Then we search for the levers of change, how to use change for change. Then we go deeper, moving to the core stories, powerful metaphors of transformation. Then we manage uncertainty through scenarios. Finally, we focus on transformation, on how to make the vision real, how to use the future to change.
Futures work does not get boring because we deal with authentic concerns, real issues humans face. For example, recently at a meeting in a drought infected area, we went through a process that attempted to understand the futures of that area, the Granite Belt.
We first examined the used future of the Granite Belt. This was the view that water was plentiful and that would continue with the same agriculture paradigm. We then explored the disruptions – focusing on a long term drought and a decline in entitlements. From here we explored scenarios linked with guiding narratives. The historical past was the Food Bowl. But climate change was threatening this history. This would lead to the Dust Bowl – the deadening of the region. This would result in an exodus, with the likely future being the begging bowl, with Granite Belt residents leaving the region and moving to Brisbane as climate change refugees. They would be second class citizens there – poorer in need of help, and susceptible to politicians using migrants from other parts of the world as political fodder to divide the community. The last scenario was the Green bowl. This was the preferred future. In the backcasting and next steps part, we worked on strategies including permaculture, water from the air, water efficiency, green design, cooperatives, a federal government where science decided policy instead of, as environmentalist Ian Lowe suggested, “organized superstition.” The session concluded with an inner guided visioning session where individuals focused on their own calling and strategy.
FOUR SCENARIOS FOR THE GRANITE BELTGranite Belt Dustbowl Begging Bowl Green Bowl Traditional agriculture Primary implications of Climate change Secondary implications of climate change Results if action is taken Water everywhere Slow death Second class citizens Green design
What is exciting then is looking at how individuals and communities can create preferred futures. How they can move from the disarray and turmoil of the present to a different world. This is not the search for the utopia, but as my own mentor James Dator has written – the creation of a eutopia, a good society. A good society is aware of its contradictions, understands that each situation, each phase in history creates the seeds of its destruction.
And as Riel Miller has argued, Futures Studies helps us understand novelty, but also contingency. It creates tools and methods to optimize strategy. However, for me, as Miller would agree, visioning or creating the preferred is as important. Indeed, Futures Studies is about challenging today and creating a different tomorrow. It is not just about analyzing reality by mapping the world we see, but changing the world we see, both through epistemology – ways of knowing – and ontology, the world that is, as it is.
Fayaz Ahmed: Why do we need futures thinking and how can this way of thinking help us transform the present as well as the future?
Futures, as I have learned from Michel Foucault and Michael Shapiro, is about creating an epistemological distance from the present. The future helps to see the present anew, it makes the present remarkable. Scenarios, understood in this way, are less about the contingency of clarifying alternatives, and more about transforming today. They help us see what is right and wrong about today, and what a new future can be. The present, as we know, is highly politicized with actors fighting over the present, using fake news, bots, and other weapons of knowledge to allow their interests to win over others. It is a quicksand morass where few come out alive. While we need to be aware of contemporary politics, futures suggest we also need to ensure we are imagining different realities, different worlds.
The three horizons approach is very useful. The third horizon is the long term – the space of visioning the impossible, the truly desired. The second horizon is the space of uncertainty and of creative destruction, where the new emerges and the past is still alive. The Six Pillars approach helps in his space – it maps, anticipates, times, deepens, explores alternatives, and transforms. The first horizon is present and the next few years – this the space of current problems with seeds of change suggesting direction change.
Most recently, working with the Centre for Strategy and Policy Studies, the three horizons were incredibly useful. The first horizon was the reality of young people being employed and leaving the nation for jobs elsewhere. The second horizon was uncertain – could the nation create new jobs in digital and green tourism? Could foreign direct investment create new start-ups focused on tropical innovation? Horizon three was more focused on the implications of robotics and artificial intelligence creating a society where only a few worked or work was just for a few hours a day. We pondered what a universal basic income would look like for the nation. We also asked what would be appropriate bottom-lines for the nation beyond GDP?
Fayaz Ahmed: But if futures thinking is so important, why don’t more people do it?
There are numerous reasons:
1. Our brains are wired for the past, we have to train the brain to understand possible and emergent futures.
2. Futures literacy takes time and effort as any skill. We do not invest in this skill. Schools are already busy teaching too many subjects.
3. It could be that we are still collectively in the “rush.” By this I mean we are like teenagers, unable to deeply reflect, looking for the latest high, not responsible, broken up into tribes. We are not adults who have learned from the past, who have a developed brain, who take prevention seriously. We do not have global governance structures where anticipation is built into what they do. And,
4. Finally, the education level of many leaders is low – they are in power not because of their understanding of science and possibility, but because they use fear to stay in power. Ivana Milojević has been doing cutting edge research in this area, called Futures Fallacies.
Ivan Milojevic. Picture by Sohail Inayatullah. Brisbane, March 2019.
Fayaz Ahmed: Yes, that makes sense. So what then are the basics of futures thinking.
In my work, there are a number of core concepts. These are:
1. The used future – what we are doing that does not work but we continue to use it. Used futures are built into our ways of thinking and institutional practices. They ensure failure. For example, the factory model of education where surveillance and standardization are primary, instead of the co-creation of knowledge. They also keep the system safe from innovations that may doom.
2. The disruption – what is likely to change. For example, the implications of artificial intelligence on work and the futures of work
3. Scenarios or alternative futures. Given the rise of AI, what are our teaching and learning futures we can ask? In scenario one, the no-change future, we can teach and train for the 1950s. In scenario two, the marginal change scenario, we engage in catching up – learning to code and learn a few more languages. In scenario three, the adaptive future, we scan the changing world and develop national or organizational strategies to adapt and lead, for example, energy solutions, in 3D printing, in peer to peer energy platforms, in therapeutic robotics, in aged care, and in conflict resolution skills. In the last scenario, the radical future, we explore a world after work – how to do we teach and train for a world where jobs have practically disappeared because of technological disruptions.
4. The preferred future – which future do we truly want.
5. The supportive narrative – what is the metaphor that will align with the strategy to help create the desired vision. For example, one employment agency had as its metaphor – bludgeoned by the present. They were so caught up in the day to day – horizon one -they could not see the future. They changed their metaphor to a flock of eagles. Within this narrative, they could see emerging opportunities and are now playing a national role in the conversation and strategy around work futures.
Fayaz Ahmed: What then are the main tools and methods needed for structured futures thinking?
As discussed above, I use the Six Pillars approach. In the mapping phase, the most useful is the futures triangle. The triangle has a quantitative aspect (the pushes of the present), a qualitative aspect (the weight of history) and a visual aspect (the pull of the preferred future).
In the anticipation phase, my preferred method is the Molitor s-curve or emerging issues analysis. Instead of focusing on the current problem or trends we focus on disruptions, emerging issues. For example, twenty-five years ago, while most researchers were focused on over-population, we were writing on de-population in European and East Asian nations as well as the anticipated dramatic shift in the worker-retiree ratio in China. In the 1980s, we explored the rise of China to the number one status by 2020. In the 1990s and early 2000s, we were exploring the shift from traditional meat to the new meat (in-vitro meat, cellular agriculture). Of course, with emerging issues analysis insofar as the issues explored have low supporting data points one can easily be wrong, and if policymakers act in a preventive way, they can ensure that the issue does not become a trend and problem, i.e. they can solve tomorrow’s problems today.
In the Timing phase, the best tool is macrohistory less as a theory of time, but as a diagnostic, asking which parts of the organization are exhibiting linear patterns, which part cyclical, which part pendulum and is there the possibility of spiral transformation, where progress plus tradition are critically combined. I also use the Sarkar game, a process invented by Voros and Hayward based on the work of P.R. Sarkar. In this game, we explore how power is used and attempt to have actors create a successful society by working with each other and by developing leadership skills where they serve others, are protective, create novel ideas, and use finances for the good of all.
Image based on the work of Peter Hayward and Joe Voros (2006).
In the Deepening phase, I use Causal layered analysis. We dig deeper beyond the headlines and attempt to understand the core issue for the organization. We then move into the transformation phase, creating the new metaphor. For example, with many energy organizations, they know well that they need to begin to understand the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. CLA has helped energy companies in Europe, Africa, South-East Asia, and Australia make this transformation. Here is an example of CLA in action from five years ago.
By executives at a course on Futures Thinking and Strategy Development, Melbourne, September 2016
In the CLA process, while all levels are important, the metaphor is crucial in ensuring that there is an overall story that can drive the organization. One large corporation seeing the need for flexibility in the energy markets argued that today they were like a rusting tanker and in the future they wished to be like Optimus Prime – a flexible and adaptive leader.
Another suggested that there were now the pretenders, with great visions that no one believed in. In the future, they wished to be like an energy genie, anticipating and delivering on the changing needs of citizens.
By participants of futures of energy workshop, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 15, 2018
The key, however, is to link the new story with a new strategy. In this CLA done recently in Brunei, participants imagined a new health future for themselves. The burning platform was the rise of obesity in the country.TODAY 2030 LITANY The second most obese nation in the region. A regional leader in health indicators – Number 1. SYSTEMIC High standard of living with plentiful food.Subsidized rice.Dormant lifestyle. Taxation on sugar and oil and a reduction of rice subsidies. Incentives to grow one’s own food. Move toward plant-based diet and reduce meat-eating. Encourage natural and organic foods. WORLDVIEW Rice culture Health centric-culture MYTH-METAPHOR
CLA by participants at Center for Strategy and Policy Studies, Brunei, February 29, 2020. Picture by Sohail Inayatullah
The CLA process works at the external level, but equally so for inner development. Recently a marketing executive used the process to transform his life story. He wrote:
“The rebel archetype has permeated my sense of self as far as some of my earliest childhood memories. I have always felt the “Abrahamic tension” of a man going against the world to eventually change it. That was my metaphor until I engaged in the CLA of the self process. I learnt that a better, more realistic yet hopeful alternative was possible. That was when I realized that interdependence with like-minded individuals and organizations was a more viable path. That was also when, to my son’s delight, I decided to become one of the Avengers – the rebel yet heroic spirit enabled by fluid partnerships. It’s been over a year since my encounter with the inner CLA process, and the metaphor has since materialized. I’ve changed and the world around me has changed with that.”
Another person used the CLA process to explore his/her health. That person changed the life story from feed chicken to fighting chicken.TODAY NEW FUTURE LITANY表象層 I am a healthy person (with a little higher blood sugar).我是一個健康的人 (只是血糖偏高) I know how to control my blood sugar to keep myself in healthy condition.我曉得如何控制血糖以維持自己身體的健康 SYSTEM系統層 I have maintained good health by some exercise (hiking and walking) and light dinner (only vegetarian foods).我透過適度的運動及蔬食的晚餐來維持目前的身體健康 People with high blood sugar should have different diets (low-carbohydrate diets and sufficient water) and more exercise. 高血糖者有不同的飲食習慣 (低碳水化合物飲食 + 充分的水) 及更多的運動 WORLDVIEW世界觀觀 Moderate exercises and a balanced diet can keep one person in good health. People should not be picky eaters. Having delicious foods is one of the joys of life.適度運動與均衡飲食是維持健康最關鍵的要素人不應該偏食美食是人生樂趣之一 Patients should follow doctors’ advice: picky eating is a must for patientsI’d rather give up some delicious foods to avoid taking medicine. Delicious foods can be explored. Exploring delicious foods for high blood sugar people can be a new joy of life.病人必須聽醫生的話：病人必須偏食我寧可少吃點美食，也不想吃藥美食是可以開發的，開發高血糖者的美食可以成為人生的新樂趣 METAPHOR隱喻隱喻 Feed Chicken 飼料雞(Eat to die) Fighting Chicken 鬥雞(Fight to Live – fighting against diabetes)
Another person in the midst of a cancer diagnosis changed her story from “life is like a black hole” to “life is like a shining light.”
In the Creating Alternatives phase, we develop scenarios. While there are many scenarios methods – bivariate, organizational, archetypal – the one I use the most is integrated. With Jose Ramos and Rob Burke, we have developed this extensively.
Robert Burke, Melbourne Business School. September 17, 2018. Photo by Sohail Inayatullah
The first scenario is preferred. The second scenario is the disowned, what one cannot see, what one has pushed into the unconscious. The third scenario is the integrated – this united the first and the second. The last is the outlier scenario. One policy advisor, for example, used this to explore regional futures. In her preferred future, there is a considerable investment, population shift, and economic growth in regional centers in her state. However, as she discussed this with workshop participants, it became clear that most prefer to live in city centers – jobs, economies of scale, global airports, and cultural diversity make the center far more inviting. Her preferred future seemed more like a pipe-dream. In the integrated scenario, she focused on “Leadership through stars” that is, choosing a few regional cities to focus her funding on. Once these were successful, then she could move to finance the entire region. Her last scenario was “Ghost towns” i.e. climate change and other factors making living in regional areas impossible. She, of course, could have focused on the opposite i.e., because of 5 and 6g, true population distribution could result in everyone working remotely.
The last pillar is Transformation. In this, we develop a shared vision and use backcasting to create it. Along with backcasting are action learning experiments. For example, an organization may have a new vision. However, the transition to that vision can be difficult. Action learning takes a few experiments with real funding and develops those experiments. They become the bridge to the new future. Action learning works well as change is within one zone of control, in areas one can make a difference. Having a backcast where all change-events external – market crash, a war, a technological breakthrough – is interesting but not overly useful for creating plausible change. Backcasting creates the bridge between today and tomorrow.
Backcasting at Melbourne Business School, December 2019.
The final step is the inner visioning. In this process, we take individuals and have them meet a mentor from the future or their future self. This self gives advice, offers gifts, and guides the person from the desired future to the present.
With all these processes, the goal is to make the desired future, more real and lived.
One senior government executive told me recently, a decade ago, they would send Ministers and policy researchers around the world to see what were the latest innovations. For them, seeing was believing. Now that they were the world’s number one, believing was seeing. There is nowhere to visit, but their imagination.
I have recently been writing on a stage theory of foresight – to meet the person where they are at. For example, I find that if a group feels disempowered, then visioning or metaphors will feel like fairy tales. It is first important to use CLA to unpack power and possibility. Action learning processes that enhance power – that moves from fatalism to anger that creates change – are equally powerful. Once this is done, then organizations prefer to about risk mitigation – how do they keep their new found power or wealth. Tools like emerging issues analysis are excellent here. From disruption, we can move toward scenarios which can enhance opportunity creation. Once we have done this, then I can move toward directionality, where do we wish to be. I then move to make the vision real – through backcasting and action learning. Then I find the supportive metaphor. The narrative helps in making a supporting reality. Finally, I use the CLA of the self process to aid in personal transformation. Recently, using the work of the late Dada Prana, I use sacred sound or mantra to help create a metaphor that represents the deepest part of the psyche.
Fayaz Ahmed: Given that the future of the world is inseparable from the future of energy. What role can futures thinking play in developing a new energy development model, compatible with environmental and climatic goals?
As with the examples above, futures thinking is crucial as an asset to help in the energy transition. As Sohail Hasnie paraphrasing Sheikh Yamani has said, “it is not due to a lack of stone that the stone age ended”. Yamani could see the end of the oil era, not necessarily the end of oil. Similarly, for futurists, we are likely at the end of multiple eras – the end of patriarchy, the nation-state; fossil fuel; meat; American-centrism; and one way of knowing. Instead, we see the possible transition to 1. A global governance system certainly a planetary wide anticipatory system. 2 A shift from meat to protein. 3 A move toward gender partnership; 4. A move toward Asia as the center and 5. And the possibility of neohumanism, or identity that is planetary, not ego or nation or religion-based.
However, as we know from Sorokin there are pendulum swings, fight-backs from the old era. In one nation, when we were working on the national energy plan, it became clear we needed to shift from nuclear and fossil fuel to solar and wind. And then develop continent-wide peer to peer solar energy sharing platforms. The project had excited everyone, however, the CEO was soon indicted for corruption for allegedly taking bribes from the nuclear industry. And as the previous head of the European Parliament stated – we know what the right thing to do is – with respect to climate change – but we can’t get elected on it.
I am confident we will make the transition. Not making it, is too horrible to contemplate, as we are seeing today with the global rise of fascism.
We must imagine and create a different future. Futures Studies can assist in this process.
About the Authors
Dr. Sohail Inayatullah is a Professor at Tamkang University, Taiwan; Adjunct Professor, the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia, and Associate, Melbourne Business School, the University of Melbourne, Australia; Director www.metafuture.org. He can be contacted at [email protected]
Fayaz Ahmed is an energy engineer, PMI, Lausanne, Switzerland. He blogs at fzahmad.com/blog.
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