What is Futures Thinking?

I am often asked what is futures thinking and Futures Studies. For me futures thinking is an approach to the present that reframes issues in the light of future possibilities. Such possibilities lie inherent within the present but are often obscured by habit and conditioning. The present however is richer and less stable than we take it for and when futures thinking is activated we can find great resources in ourselves, our communities and organisations, and our cultures and civilisations.

Activating these resources is the goal of futures thinking. Futures Studies is the applied knowledge field futurists are developing in order to enable futures thinking and futures activism. It is a combination of practical activities (tools and techniques) with philosophical and theoretical insights (concepts and ideas). It is informed by case studies, reflection, participatory and anticipatory action learning and the research methods that underpin and inform this learning.

Some practitioners are inclined to describe Futures Studies as a discipline in the same way that history, sociology and mathematics are disciplines. I am reluctant to do so, preferring Futures Studies to remain less defined and more mobile. Certainly it relies on a new, futures, orientation as the place to start new thinking but it is highly transdisciplinary and this is to its advantage.

For me Futures Studies is a pragmatic approach to the present that relies on a hands on approach to structure while working beyond structure with the longings, yearnings, myths, histories and aspirations of people.

Here are some important insights into futures thinking for you to consider:

  • Futures thinking is designed to help us rethink the present.
  • Futures thinking is not intended to help us predict anything.
  • Futures is designed to help us creatively rethink the present in the search for ethically and humanly sustainable outcomes.
  • Futures work is about relationships across scales and between systems of being.
  • Futures thinking helps us understand relationships between temporal zones; geopolitical identities; modes of being (such as nature, modern, human, non-human; etc…); our various selves within person and culture.
  • Futures thinking helps us find alignment across these relationships to greatly increase our capacity to work with the world without being overly defined by it.
  • Futures thinking works with structure in order to allow us greater flexibility in shaping structure.
  • Futures tools are designed to open up structure to inquiry that builds capacity.
  • The tools themselves are the product of structure and like structure should be understood as simply a tool that is more or less useful for a task.
  • Structure on its own is a shell – yet many people accept it as reality and thus deprive themselves of agency.
  • They are prisoners of temporal habit – the dullness of the present bounded by a conditioned experience of the past.
  • The cultural work at the heart of good futures however is attitudinal and values oriented – it is about active ethics.
  • Futures thinking is about alternative lines of flight towards human and natural conditions which are optimal and therefore sustainable for the long term.
  • Futures thinking is partisan in that it is always focused on maximising the capacity of those in context to achieve their desired goals – this partisanship needs to be tempered by a relational ethics that seeks to maximise the fulfilment of the potentiality of the collective and its individual members rather than working for the narrow interests of a group.
  • Thus Futures thinking is all about moving from the probable, to the possible to the preferable.
  • The world we live in is completely new in so many ways – the future cannot be a repeat of the past. The conditions of human existence are such that we face entirely new challenges and we therefore need new social learning skills to negotiate our way into this fascinating yet dangerous period.
  • Futures thinking should build the psychological and emotional resilience to cope with the challenges and obstacles of the present so that we feel hopeful rather than overwhelmed by the prospect of the 21st Century and our effective place within it



Great Article on Education and the Rhizome

Rhizomes meet Student as Producer:

Deleuze and Guattari and Media Practice

Rob Coley, Dean Lockwood & Adam O’Meara


  1. Introduction: Educating for an Alternative

One of the exemplary writings for Student as Producer is the essay ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934) by Marxist thinker, Walter Benjamin. In that essay, Benjamin argued that, in times of great urgency, well-meaning political correctness on the part of authors is utterly inadequate. The revolutionary author must innovate technically, must be willing to experiment with form towards the functional transformation of the organization of production. Benjamin conceived a ‘meltdown’ of forms, of machines and apparatuses into an ‘incandescent liquid mass from which the new forms will be cast’. And this must occur as a function of a community.

This insight can fuel the urgent task of transforming the production of knowledge in the context of higher education.  The agenda must be no less than the functional transformation of education for an alternative society. In the terms of the business logic which is the conformism of current university culture, the student is cast as a consumer, an appendage to the process of knowledge production. Inspired by Benjamin and others, Student as Producer urges collective, social teaching and learning which contributes to the experimental production of something that we will not be able to know ahead of time; that is, the production of the new. The organizing principle of Student as Producer is collaboration of student and lecturer together in the production of the new. The individual teaches and learns for all.

Let’s put this bluntly in relation to our own specific case. In the study of Media Production , fostering Student as Producer must mean overpowering the conformism that serves the exigencies of the so-called Creative Industries. This brings us to the pulse of Student as Producer – it is about nurturing a community that is willing and able to seize the potentialities of the current situation and challenge the notion that… There Is No Alternative.

It is our contention that Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome is entirely consonant with this agenda and these principles; indeed, it may assist in developing it in new directions.

  1. What is the Rhizome?

The rhizome is variously an image of thought, a conception of knowledge, a model for a society or culture or an attitude or strategy. Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus (originally published in 1980), propose it in order to start to break away from the traditional hierarchical Western image or model, which they say can be understood in terms of ‘tree-logic’ ( or ‘arborescent culture’). When we think in a tree-like way, we tend to organize thinking in terms of a clear genealogical development. Our thought evolves vertically as a fixed, upright trunk from a single point of origin (just like the oak tree grows from the acorn), and it can be clearly separated from the world around it. The tree stands proud. Tree-logic predisposes us to think in dualistic terms, in binary oppositions. The tree ‘proceeds by dichotomy’. Tree-logic encourages us to think in terms of an image or a model as a representation of the external world (the thought as mental image representing some aspect of the world) or reproduction of already given internal structure (the mature tree reproduces a genetic blueprint already contained in the acorn).

Even if the tree seems to stand alone, it is bound up with the world around it in a myriad of ways. It is indissociable from an ecological assemblage.  It is part of the transformative all-connectedness of the world, but this is often obscured. It’s true that things – thoughts, images, societies, cultures, subjects, objects – can be closed off, disconnected, but also a sure bet that they cannot remain so, that they will open out, or be opened out to the world, or the world will break in and they will be forced, perhaps violently, to connect again and undergo transformation.

Deleuze and Guattari propose the image of the rhizome as one which foregrounds connectedness. They urge not to ask what things mean, but to ask rather about their function, how they ‘form a rhizome with the world’. Connectivity is the first principle of the rhizome. A rhizome is a flat, horizontal system of roots (eg. Grass roots) growing beneath the surface of the ground. Crucially, it doesn’t have a centre and it doesn’t have fixed boundaries. It is not organized according to a hierarchical principle. It is always spreading, sending out new shoots from its nodes. ‘The tree imposes the verb “to be”, but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, “and…and…and…”…Where are you going? Where are you coming from? What are you heading for? These are totally useless questions’. Useless because they pre-empt experimentality, they tie you to what is already made, what is already the case, to what is merely possible; whereas the rhizome opens up access to the impossible, the production of the new.

A related principle is heterogeneity. Connection is a sideways, ‘transversal’ movement that creatively brings areas that don’t have anything to do with each other into an encounter. Nodes are relatively independent, they follow no plan: ‘any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be’.

Multiplicity is another rhizomatic principle. The rhizome is irreducible to the One, but also irreducible to the multiple. It must be understood rather as a singular multiplicity, a ‘self’ which ceaselessly self-differs, ceaselessly exceeds and spills over its own boundaries, necessitating their reshaping. Note that breakage of a rhizome’s lines doesn’t cripple the whole, instead it creates opportunity for new growth: ‘A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines. You can never get rid of ants…’

As the rhizome grows it does not reproduce itself. In encountering the world, it is transformed by the world and transforms the world in ways which rule out reproduction. The rhizome and what it encounters each take on aspects of the other (they ‘capture’ each other). A rhizome doesn’t express a deep genetic structure, doesn’t live out a destiny of any kind. That would be what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as ‘tracing’: ‘All of tree logic is a logic of tracing and reproduction’. Tree logic reproduces what is already there to begin with, tracing a line which is ready-made. Deleuze and Guattari favour ‘mapping’ instead. Mapping is productive rather than reproductive:  ‘What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real’. The map, however it manifests (’It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation’) is open, it is constructed on the basis of fostering new connections. This is the rhizomatic principle of cartography. To trace is to pursue a given pathway from beginning to end, but to map is to proceed from anywhere, to pick up from the middle and to create a path or multiple paths. The example of decalcomania is mentioned by Deleuze and Guattari.  This is a surrealist technique (developed by Max Ernst and others) in which ink or paint is sandwiched between two sheets of paper or perhaps paper and glass. The resulting blot on one’s paper is transformed by the artist – it’s a matter of imaginatively exploiting the propensity of the encounter, mapping the tendencies in the way the paint has blotted. Although decalcomania literally refers to a ‘tracing mania’, it is not a case of reproduction. Nothing is reproduced, nothing is represented. Decalcomanic mapping is itself a creation of terrain, a world in the process of emerging. In the decalcomanic encounter, when tutor and student, student and student, pedagogical community come into contact with each other like the paper on paper with paint sandwiched between, each takes on or captures, maps, aspects of the other in a process of ‘becoming’.

In all of this, it should be understood that the relationship between rhizome and tree does not constitute a new binary, a reversion to dualism. The rhizome isn’t the opposite of the rooted tree – rather, they coexist, are within each other, or comprise two different strategies. It can be considered as a question of speed or movement – the rhizome moves, it flows, it is fast, but it can slow down, become static and solidify into fixed and rooted tree form. The rhizome is the desire that moves, that ‘puts the tracing back on the map’, as Deleuze and Guattari say, just as tree logic arborifies and obstructs the rhizome, solidifies it and roots it on the spot. It is a restless forming and undoing, both processes caught up together, which Deleuze and Guattari refer to as ‘deterritorialisation’ and ‘reterritorialisation’.

The tree grows from its seed, it traces a pre-given form, genetically coiled in the seed. The rhizome constantly changes, a multiplicity which thrives on alliances of the heterogeneous. Fractally, we are composed of rhizomes, we are ourselves rhizomatic, and the communities in which we are nodes are rhizomes.


  1. Rhizomatic Media Education

In the Rhizomes project with our group of level 2 Photography students, we have been clear that we are not looking for ‘acorns’. We don’t have to start from scratch. Rhizomes don’t have a simple starting point or a central idea that kicks everything off, they mean always beginning in the middle. That means always picking up from situations, events, phenomena that are already happening. We’re looking for situations that we can hook up with, burrow into, and try to transform (and, conversely, allowing them to, as it were, burrow into and transform us). What is important is to think and feel what’s going on, to respond to, and cartographically become with, the contact and impress of our myriad everyday decalcomanic encounters.

Photography has long had an intimate relationship to power, it’s used to record and classify the world, and for surveillance of the people in it – to pin down the world, pin down people, organize it and them.  But we might start to think about photography not as representing and documenting the world out there, as part of a reproductive apparatus, but as something we can connect up with, becoming part of its movement, interfering with and creatively transforming the world, contributing to its life as process. Not representing the world, but encountering it anew and being part of its process. Photography not as fixing things, but rather as freeing things up, sending out new shoots, new probes, joining things up that weren’t joined up before, getting inside things and showing how messy and changeful they are rather than static, separate and ordered.

In the scheduled sessions and also on the blog we have set up for the project we have introduced the concept of the rhizome and some associated ideas, introducing further information at certain moments as a spur, including examples of interesting photographic practice. We have sought to allow open discussion, encouraging students to think about who they would like to speak to, where they would like to go, what they would like to look at. We have encouraged them to think about what critical engagement (politics) might mean in a rhizomatic context, how they might collaborate together and with us. Our role, we have suggested, is to introduce, to try and show possible points of entry, but never to say we are the beginning and the end, the destiny of the project. A blog has been central to the project so far, a common place where students can identify their semi-independent projects (solo or in small groups) and discuss each others’ ideas. We think the next stage should probably involve a big mapping event, perhaps a cartographic symposium of sorts over a day or two (to which we can also invite interested parties outside of the immediate project).

In addition, we have begun to look for previous examples of pedagogy that have drawn upon rhizomes. There isn’t a lot. Dave Cormier’s 2008 article, ‘Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum[1]’ is interesting. For Cormier, the traditional curriculum is planned by experts from beginning to end, and foregrounds the acquisition of an independently verified body of knowledge. It is extremely arboreal. He insists that rhizomatic education would involve a constant tutor-student negotiation of the curriculum and of what constitutes knowledge. His ideas are similar to ours, but the critical, political pulse of Student as Producer is largely absent. Cormier is also complacent with regards to new media as a tool. He argues that the rhizome is especially relevant today when the canon has become fluid because of new communication technologies working at greater speeds. He argues that these same technologies also foster a communal negotiation of knowledge (as in the phenomenon of wikis), but we would have some reservations about this. Having worked on some issues around network politics, we are more sceptical of claims for an inherently emancipatory, rhizomatic digitality. This is precisely something to be struggled for, part of what is at stake. Cormier’s approach lacks a sense of the intransigent ‘capitalist realism’ (‘You’ll just make things worse…you’ll end up with chaos’) that characterizes our contemporary media and cultural context.

Where we are agreed, however, is that a rhizomatic model of education would be based on the principle that ‘the community is the curriculum’.

“Franny is listening to the program on wolves. I say to her. Would you like to be a wolf? She answers haughtily, ‘How stupid, you can’t be one wolf, you’re always eight or nine, six or seven’.” (Deleuze and Guattari).

The community-curriculum spontaneously maps its knowledge, constructing its own connections, creating its own space. What is useful information, useful material, what counts as knowledge? The answers to these questions constitute new nodes from which further lines will shoot. Rhizomes might quicken the pulse of Student as Producer, sensitize us to the importance of speed and flow. The rhizome can have all the intensity of Benjamin’s incandescent meltdown.

A parting note of caution: The rhizome is beyond good and evil. Capitalism responds with its own rhizome. But, despite what its minions say, ‘be the evils what they may, the experiment is not played out yet’ (Stengers and Pignarre, after Dewey).




March 2011



[1] Innovate: Journal of Online Education, v4 n5 Jun-Jul 2008

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