Reflections on Futures Work

Foresight Work as Bridge Building: Poetry, Presence and Beyond

Marcus Bussey

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

Wallace Stevens (1982)

In this piece-meal essay I wish to make a case for futurist as bridge builder. By this I mean that the futurist enables those in contexts to begin to move in directions that are optimal vis-à-vis the goals of their organisation or community. The construction of such pathways, as bridges, to the future is a work of hands, heads and hearts and thus requires craft, theoretical knowledge and love. This amalgam comes together and is expressed as a form of practical imagination in which the futurist holds a creative space that enables clients to see things, as the poet Wallace Stevens said, “beyond us, yet ourselves”. It is this seeing things ‘beyond us’ that enables a richer sense making to come into effect and opens up reality to alternatives that generate multiple possibilities and offer a greater level of congruence between aspiration and the everyday.
These reflections are the result of spending three months teaching at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore where I had a wonderful group of strategic foresight students in the IR Strategic Masters program and very supportive colleagues who were working in often narrow disciplinary fields where the ‘real’ was defined via risk and competitive advantage. In this context I felt very much like Deleuze and Guattari’s non-philosopher who is ‘acephalic, aphasic, or illiterate’ (1994, p. 109). Yet I observed, I listened and participated and built bridges between myself and often spaces that seemed quite alien and foreign. In this way I tucked my shadow into my pocket and worked with those in the Prime Minister’s Department and also the Singapore navy and its ASEAN associates.
In all this I felt like I was playing a ‘blue guitar’, but for all that I could see that their tune was as beyond me as mine was beyond them. And in this symmetrical relationship lay the possibility of real encounter. While in Singapore I wrote a number of short papers exploring possible platforms for presenting my foresight work. And much of this paper will draw from two of these but I will open now with a poetic meditation on how I understand my futures process.
Borrowed Eyes
I see the world through borrowed eyes. This is useful as a futurist because I am always in other people’s zones of reference with my own voice harmonizing with others as we collectively weave and construct possibilities, exploring the space between our own absolute relativities (Bussey et al, 2012). Seeing the world through borrowed eyes allows me to be less subject to the demands that perspective places upon the heart and, as a result, the practice of bridge building, which is my chosen path, becomes a little less onerous.
Having borrowed eyes means one does not belong, in the way that someone who has their own eyes does, to a setting, a context in which eyes read text onto their surroundings. Thus there is distance where there might otherwise be presence; and yet being present, which is a valuable state for futurists, must fold in upon distance to create a symmetry of conscious being within a learning field that, once one is simultaneously present and distanced, is layered and rich with multiple possibilities (Bussey, 2009a).
One could ask who have I borrowed my eyes from? Well, my eyes are the product of my culture, they are everyone’s eyes and thus also no one’s. They are the poet’s eyes and the chef’s; the mother’s and the son’s; the sower’s and the harvester’s; the executive’s, the politician’s and the terrorist’s too! The historian Carlo Ginzburg (2002) notes in his book on Wooden Eyes that “familiarity, which is in the last analysis bound up with cultural belonging, cannot be a criterion of what is relevant” (p. xiii). He argues for a practice of reflection that allows “us to discover what image, name and myth, despite their diversity, have in common: the fact that they all lie beyond truth and falsehood” (p. xv).
As a futures practitioner I place my trust in this ambiguity and seek solace in the poet’s vision. Thus for me the following two phrases offer bookends to the human dimension of futures work and set the coordinates for my reflection on my time in Singapore where I worked with people who very assuredly had their own eyes.
Firstly from Muriel Rukeyser (Kaufman, 2005) we have:
All things human clumsy fair
As graceful as loving as stupid as true.

This is the challenge for futurists to keep their feet on the ground while avoiding, like Odysseus did, the lure of the Sirens singing Truth from the deadly rocks of certitude. Now Odysseus heard the song of the Sirens, that dreadful haunting beauty that captives our soul, yet he had himself tied to the mast (the pragmatist’s compass needle) of his ship. Of course this ship was one of those beautiful triremes with those unseeing wooden eyes. In this way Odysseus sailed past the temptation to commit Truth. All things we deal with are beautiful in their own way as Rukeyser reminds us; it is the poet’s privilege to see beyond relativities while simultaneously playing with the everyday; thus all songs have meaning when sung by the devotee – even songs of terror and violence have their own aesthetic orientation beyond which lies oblivion and shame.
Now singing a similar song we have David Rowbotham (1994) who experiences the struggle to articulate his inner song as a work with dust. This is the struggle to rise above absolutes and reach a happy finitude. So he cries:
Dust in my throat dries song to a croak. Pray speak beauty. But dust first spoke.
In his words I hear the human longing for resolution while understanding that in process work all is dust. Thus I find in the dust the orientation to my futures practice, the practice one might say of breathing in and out. This is a question of the dust that lies before and after the beautiful. Process is the pragmatist’s mill; while life is their grist. For me all futures work is pragmatic and therefore futurists – foresight practitioners – are all pragmatists. Philosophically, pragmatism accepts both the limitations of structure and the possibilities of human action and works between these two to improve the human condition. This of course is a philosophical proposition just as Rowbotham’s statement is a philosophical proposition. Such work meets in those doing it. Thus my body – as embodied locus of action – becomes the bridge par excellence (Bussey, 2008).
Similarly, Rukeyser deploys her body as the site of all encounters, all learnings, all philosophy and all questions and weaves grace into the mix:
My questions are my body. And among this glowing, this sure,
this fact, this mooncolored breast, I make memorial.
To remember myself and to acknowledge my borrowed eyes somehow liberates me from practice while allowing me to be present to it as practitioner. In this remembering past, present and future converge. It is in this confluence that I situate my teaching, often telling students that futures thinking draws on foresight, anticipation and emergence; is located in the present; leverages the best of tradition while working from the present to foster optimal plural futures for all. When faced with complexity and the disorder this seeks to mask – the happy face of Chaosmos – this formula enables a degree of participatory distance from which sense making can become less grand and more grounded in the patterning that humanity constantly projects onto the worlds they create. So, once again drawing on the poetry of Rukeyser, I end this preamble declaring:
My body is set against disorder. Risen among enigmas,
Time and the question carry a rose of form,
Sing a life-song.

In the following section I lay out a map for thinking about and validating presence as the ground for futures work. This was written for students in my Strategic Foresight course and shared with colleagues in Singapore. Before continuing, however, I must confess ambivalence over the term ‘Strategic Foresight’ even while I use it as a ‘handle’ for the work I was doing at this point. My ambivalence is born of a healthy suspicion of terms like Strategic Foresight that inflate or evoke status and power. For me it is a self important and unnecessarily grandiose term. My gut feeling is that foresight is always strategic; so why the tautology? Furthermore, it is important to recognise that strategy without ethics can be amoral and self seeking. Yet under the banner of strategic foresight my students and I generated a space of inquiry and mutual respect in which co-creativity and co-learning were the hallmarks of our class.

A Reflection On Presence
How states and their governments manage complexity and its contingent risks tells us a lot about the assumptions and values that sustain and drive them. The more resistant to change they are the more vulnerable they are as there is a direct correlation between resistance and vulnerability. From a systems perspective risk increases exponentially when foresight is limited to managerial measures that seek to shut out, or suppress, the disturbances in a system. In this the understandable desire to keep the system closed, and therefore manageable, competes with the reality that systems are embedded in systems and that the appearance of ‘closed’ is illusory (Berkes, 2003). To survive and thrive in a complex and dynamic system requires different skill sets than the managerial competencies that strive for order in a complex world.
Of course, good management is essential but it is no longer the prime determinant of security, growth and resilience; if it ever was. To think and act effectively in an expanded and expanding system requires an expanded sense of presence for analysts and those engaged in strategic policy development (Senge, 2004). In such a system the informational flows are layered and multiplicit, the possibilities for hybridity and surprise exponential and the speed of learning and change accelerating. Such a space has always been part of the human condition but its intensity and complexity is at an order of magnitude today that a qualitatively different level of foresight is called for.
Expanded Strategic Foresight
Foresight, that human quality that has been the handmaid of innovation in all civilisations, must now become a sophisticated tool for sense making in a complex environment (Slaughter, 1995). This expanded sense of foresight emphasises the anticipatory nature of futures thinking and foresight work which offers a counter balance to much of the anxiety driven, stress laden, risk and warning work that understandably dominates the security environment. A shift to anticipation in security work enables greater depth of resilience in the system. This is a subjective shift which allows for sense making that is open ended and entrepreneurial in nature.
Such a shift is a prerequisite for any expanded sense of presence. I see presence as a quality of self awareness in context. Presence thus is a measure of strategic readiness which buffers the context from reactive responses to a shock or surprise. Presence helps us see the present and the immediate future with new eyes. It is a necessary condition for social innovation. For example, F. W. de Klerk and others in the South Africa of the early 1990s saw a new way forward for their country.
This shift came as something of a surprise for those in power who awoke to a present in which the unsustainability of a political trajectory was suddenly apparent. Following this ‘opening’ de Klerk, and others with him, recognised alternatives in the present previously edited out of the script for action by ideology, habit and fear of the unknown. Anticipation, combined with political will and courage, opened the present to presence: The awareness that there is no one present but that the present is plural, multiple and experienced differentially according to where one sits within it (Nandy, 2007). With this recognition the wicked problem before the apartheid leadership suddenly evaporated and it became clear what needed to be done.
It is easy of course to project such a reading onto the past. We can ask about the mix of self interest in such transitions as those in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the years leading up to South Africa’s own coming out. Similarly, we can wonder about the changes afoot in Myanmar today. Yet, in itself, self interest is not a bad thing. All foresight and futures work has self interest at its heart. Futures thinking is partisan by nature and seeks to optimize advantage for those who apply it to their context (Hines & Bishop, 2006). The counterbalance to this partisanship is an ethical commitment to inclusivity, open-endedness and (in the best of best worlds) social and environmental justice.
Challenging the Logic of the Present
Awakening to presence leads to adaptation in response to the environmental conditions that constantly reinforce the logic of present centredness and structure. Adaptation seeks to maximize advantage for the natural or social systems that take it up (Bussey et al, 2012). It is, in the foresight context, a form of social learning and in the context of National security it is a necessary condition in a complex and uncertain environment. To engage in strategic foresight thus demands of us that we rethink the present. This banal statement hints at some highly significant but often undervalued dimensions of social and personal learning.
For a start, we need to rethink the categories of memory and imagination. Both are embedded in the present and both sustain current trajectories. Yet both are powerful drivers for anticipatory action and the learning and innovation they can trigger. To return to the example of South Africa, the narrow linear and race dominated memory of apartheid needed to be reassessed, challenged, and deconstructed to make way for an inclusive memory that was plural in nature, layered, co-creative and punctuated with discontinuities. This work involves struggle at the intellectual and political levels but also requires an emotional context that allows for pain and grieving. Thus the intellectual and political projects must also be embodied and owned by individuals. To fail to do so creates a shadow memory which will haunt all future attempts as social renewal.
When memory is freed from a singular anchor point imagination is set free. The anticipatory nature of imagination in the context of community and state building can allow for alternatives to emerge. This is a practical and process oriented imagination. Futurists who work in the arena of strategic foresight and warning are adept at deploying tools such as scenario development, causal layered analysis and back casting to further this process. Yet all tools are only processes that enable the deeper conversations communities and organisations must engage in to foster resilience and develop the skills that foster practical imagination.
Foresight for risk assessment and horizon scanning in a complex and uncertain environment thus becomes a tool for social learning. It is a process that ultimately involves both the expert and the citizen in a rethinking of the present; to challenge the present’s ‘concreteness’, is core business for strategic foresight practitioners. This anticipatory work opens the future up to alternatives while fostering the resilience necessary for social systems to respond proactively to the surprises and shocks that inevitably punctuate social evolution.
Some assumptions exert strong gravitational fields that can distort an area of inquiry. This was the case I encountered when faced with the need to develop a shared language around maritime security and sense making. The assumption I am referring to, i.e. that there is only one ‘real, sat like the proverbial elephant in the room and no one would look at it for fear that it might tread on their toes. Thus there was a need amongst participants to have answers and make sense of complex issues via linear and manageable engagements with the real. Rukeyser, speaking as the sphinx of old, thus notes:
They ask for answers, they starving eat their shadows.
The beginning is always here.
This shadow eating tends to be compulsive. This is so because though one is perpetually hungry on a diet of shadows, there is comfort in repeating an habitual action. So the beginning is with the hunger and the compulsion. We must begin where everyone is at: maritime security demands this of us, yet the mandate is to ‘play things beyond us’ and in this lies the imaginative challenge. The bridge building approach I took was to weave a hypothetical around piracy. The following section seeks to develop a foresight logic in which sense making is opened up to multiplicity. I introduced the hypothetical by reflecting on the normative nature of security problems.
It goes without saying that piracy is a maritime security issue. From a strategic futures perspective the eradication of piracy is a normative security goal (Coates, ND) as it is in all sovereign authorities’ interests to eradicate piracy. Normative goals focus on the interests of a local and particular context. With this in mind and with the intention of beginning a discussion on sense making in the security context the following hypothetical is presented.

The Piracy Hypothetical

A group of naval analysts gather to consider the problem of piracy in regional waters . They engage a strategic foresight practitioner to run a sense making workshop. They work from the problem as perceived by the media and their own political and administrative bosses. At this level pirates are bad news, bad for business, a political embarrassment!

They then ask what can we as a system do about it? There is clearly the need for a systems response so they brainstorm a set of appropriate responses that include greater levels of surveillance, review of international and maritime laws, improved and diverse range of vessels, social and economic support and intervention in pirate ‘hot spots’, greater cooperation between neighbouring states and so forth.

Then they are invited to think beyond immediate reactive responses to the problem and consider the life-world that creates a context for piracy. Thus they look at social injustice, centralised as opposed to decentralised governance and economic assumptions, violence as a tool in economics and politics, the way their own systems of command and control create contexts in which piracy is a legitimate enterprise, the diverse normative contexts of the pirates themselves and so on.

Finally, they look even deeper into the problem and consider the global and local cultural expressions that offer narratives in which piracy is a legitimate activity when certain undesirable conditions prevail. Thus narratives of criminality, good and bad, lawful and unlawful can all come into question along with histories both local and national and even popular stereotypes and myths.

This digging down allows analysts to make sense of piracy not simply as a ‘problem’ but as a set of layered reactions to a complex context in which many variables are at play. Sense making (Dervin, 1999) enables deeper reflection and empowers strategy by reframing contexts that were previously considered in a simplistic manner. Now a fuller picture emerges in which indicators, interventions and also transformations become possible.

Strategic Foresight

The foresight practitioner engaged in this work is drawing on a set of concepts and tools that enable them to lead specialist groups through a range of reflective processes that allow them to question their context and examine dominant assumptions about issues (Inayatullah, 2007; R. A. Slaughter, & Bussey, M., 2005). It is important for specialists to be able to step back from their working context and explore strategic possibilities inherent to it. Such possibilities may be overlooked in the day to day hurly burly of work. This ability to distance from context is a key element of strategic foresight work.

Strategic foresight is concerned with making sense of emergent environments characterised by uncertainty and complexity (Bezold, 2010; Schwartz, 2007). In this the goal is specifically normative in nature as it clearly seeks to advantage a certain position vis-à-vis others. Thus strategy in itself is an empty signifier as it represents a nexus of self interest, the short, medium and long term goals such self interest holds dear, and a set of ‘rational’ processes to maximize success vis-à-vis these goals. Given this is the case strategy, and by extension strategic foresight, must always be understood as partial, limited and flawed. For strategy to come to terms with this vulnerability requires reflexive thinking on all involved. Reflexivity – self awareness and presence in the midst of the pressure of the real – will undoubtedly foster more resilient and robust strategy.

Sense making is a necessary feature of strategic foresight as it makes explicit the human dimension of understanding the world. As an approach to knowledge creation sense making is at one level a purely intuitive process but in the strategic environment this intuition needs to be supported by an approach to knowledge that is shaped, but not bound, by the needs of the organisation.

Beyond this normative role lies the alternate responsibility to challenge the conditioning that context exerts on us all. To avoid what Nassim Taleb (2007) calls ‘black swans’ requires another level of strategic awareness needs to come into effect. This is where strategic foresight comes in: strategic foresight accommodates the normative needs of context while entertaining a range of alternative futures. For me this means that good foresight work combines both the normative needs of context with the transformative possibilities posed by optimal future environments (Kicker, 2009). Thus the emphasis in security work and strategic analysis should be equally on risk detection and mitigation on the one hand and opportunity enhancement on the other .

Back to the Hypothetical

The goal of the strategic foresight sense making exercise in this hypothetical is to reframe piracy and our responses to it. It does so by challenging assumptions and exploring alternatives. The deeper reflection engaged in by our hypothetical group of analysts allows for piracy not to be simplistically characterised as a problem for which there might be a silver bullet nor to have it cast in stone as an insoluble wicked problem. The goal is to transform the parameters that frame meaning so that alternatives to dominant solutions can be explored (Bussey, 2009b).

So to continue this hypothetical the navy analysts see they can operate increasingly effective surveillance of pirate hot spots and also look at possible permutations to pirate activity as security increases. Strategic foresight can generate a series of ‘Piracy Indicators’, it can also anticipate future ‘Hot Spots’ based on these indicators. Beyond this it can also explore the possibilities of eradicating the causes of piracy rather than simply suppressing the activities of pirates. In other words it should also look at reframing ‘piracy’ as an indicator of social ill (Lakoff, 2005).

With this in mind they develop some strategic responses based on indicators, interventions and transformations. In summary these might look like the following:

Piracy indicators include: weak central governance; local not national identification; endemic poverty and disadvantage; militant ethnic or religious groups; weak navy; inefficient decision making processes; over bureaucratisation; ineffective leadership; poor sense making mechanisms; short termism; institutionalised corruption.

Piracy interventions include: increased naval presence; bolstering weak regimes; increasing local enterprise and economic capacity; discrediting of violence as an economic and or political tool; training analysts in strategic foresight; adopting long term thinking; ending corruption as a legitimate mode of institutional process.

Piracy transformations include: rethinking justice and the rule of law; re-enacting international maritime law; social and economic rehabilitation/reintegration of pirate areas and ‘pirates’; inclusion of peripheral groups in democratic and economic processes; rethinking of economic systems that replicate rapacity and violence (i.e. acknowledge the shadow of Capitalism); employ reintegrated pirates in the tourist trade as part of the emergent ‘Dark Tourism’ market ; or even more dramatically allow them to take tourists through the ‘pirate experience’ .

None of this is ‘rocket science’ yet it moves the problem of piracy from a managerial and normative one of “Get rid of pirates” to a transformative one of “Reframe piracy”. Such a shift moves the onus for finding a ‘solution’ away from a single agency and initiates a broader kind of thinking which is social in nature. Piracy is no longer seen simply as a law and order issue but as a social indicator for which there are social responses. This shift also takes the pressure off the navy to be policemen and allows it to engage in more worthwhile and fulfilling work.

Sense Making

The process of sense making allows us to appreciate the social nature of understanding and interpreting our world. Thus it takes a problem such as piracy and helps us reframe it as an expression of complex social, historical and cultural trends. It points to the social reality in which knowledge making occurs (Knorr Cetina, 1999). It alerts us to the fact that our values, our assumptions and our actions act as filters in the process of sifting data and establishing useful knowledge from endless flows of information (Bussey, 2010).

This kind of sense making has a specifically strategic focus. It is sense making aimed at better understanding complex and uncertain environments. In this it draws on foresight concepts and tools and the futures thinking that underpins these. Because it aims to increase the effectiveness of those in context it can also be described as a form of adaptive learning and seen as an important dimension of the adaptive capacity and resilience of any organisation.

Returning to our Hypothetical

The navy can deal with pirates but it cannot deal with the context that creates pirates. So our group of analysts continue to explore the question of piracy though the strategic foresight inquiry they initiated. They engage in an iterative series of gatherings that deepen the sense making around the question: What are the futures of Piracy? As they do this they deepen their general level of futures thinking by exploring the temporal, systemic, cultural and subjective contexts for piracy and, by extension, for the naval response to piracy.

In this they are not trying to predict the future of piracy. Futures thinking is not about prediction but about deepening capacity and developing the learning climate that fosters ongoing, open ended and creative thinking around an issue. It enables those wrestling with a problem to gain critical distance from it by challenging the habits and conditioning that blindside them to other possibilities (Fukuyama, 2007).

In reflecting on this hypothetical we can see a nested series of processes in action. The issue of piracy brings a group of analysts together. They engage a strategic foresight practitioner to help them deepen their sense making around the issue of piracy in local waters. By drawing on foresight tools the analysts develop a set of adaptive learning strategies that enables them to reframe piracy. By stepping back from the need (almost compulsion) to find a solution they free themselves to think about piracy in open and innovative ways. This in turn allows them to develop a general level of strategic readiness that increases the resilience of their own organisations.

Thus we move from a problem to the necessary sense making around the problem. To critically inform this sense making we turn, as in Figure 1, to strategic foresight and the futures thinking that underwrites this.

Figure 1: Situating Sense Making

Futures thinking involves an approach to the present that takes the future into account. How the future is perceived has a strong impact on how we act today. Thus assumptions about reality reflect assumptions about the future and beliefs about the past. Historical consciousness is therefore as important as futures consciousness here. Futures thinking takes the world to be real but read dynamically through our relationship with it. Thus it works equally with trend analysis and subjective process (Inayatullah, 2008). Yet it is a core commitment to thinking beyond dominant horizons that bind imagination and edit out real alternatives that makes futures thinking an exciting activity. At its best this approach to sense making releases creative energy and pushes the limits of plausibility freeing analysts to explore a wide range of possibilities.
The Essential Pragmatism of Strategic Foresight
Strategic foresight allows for multiple levels of attention to emerge from a fixation on a single issue. In a complex and intimately engaged world there are no single issues. Yet single issues can demand our attention and act as a catalyst to both action and reflection. To make sense of this process we need to understand that we are actors in the process and that we can be either reactive or proactive. Futures thinking and strategic foresight enable us to be the latter when context nearly always drives us to be passive and thus reactive.
When our hypothetical group of analysts come to understand that they are part of the complex interactive processes that bind them to the problem of piracy and therefore to the pirates themselves they come closer to understanding the intimate and personal dimension of sense making. At some point each analysts must ask themselves: What would it take for me to become a pirate? Thus sense making allows us to take both the present and the multiple futures we face personally. This at times can make the process highly uncomfortable, but it also allows for a level of freedom and creativity previously denied us.
When we take the future personally we come to recognise the common bonds of our humanity. For analysts trained in distancing this might come as a shock, but it is a useful and necessary awakening to greater levels of sense making. It is also the source of the pragmatism of strategic foresight in which we work between the normative demands of our contexts and the transformative possibilities inherent to these. The practical imagination this demands is collective in nature as it is through working on the issues analysts face – ultimately human issues – that the circles of our moral and ethical worlds are enlarged.
By seeing the world through borrowed eyes and renouncing the proprietorial need to own imagination I become a cipher in collective encounters where a shared imaginary space is evoked. In this way I am able to approach others in all their alterity as a promise and an invitation to transform contexts and release both individual and collective potential. My body – my being in time yet paradoxically aphasic and acephalous – acts as bridge upon which curiosity, need and anticipation grow like barnacles upon a jetty’s moorings. In all this I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1994) ‘body without organs’ in which desire, its projection and annihilation, inscribes itself on the subject. And the bridge, over, between, rising and falling and always becoming, sits between the subject and the object as a third space in which being is transformed into becoming and the anticipatory plays snakes and ladders with those who seek answers.
The bridge is liminal space, and who is the bridge builder? Is he or she like the boatman on the River Styx? Not sure really, but these are good questions because when the foresight practitioner enters the space where they perform their own specialist magic they cease to be themselves and become a cultural and institutional agent in a dynamic field of possibility. They receive the crown and the poisoned chalice as simultaneous benedictions from the crowd. So to end this reflection with lines again from Rukeyser, a pause in the inquiry into practice, only a pause:
Simply because of a question, my life is implicated:
My flesh and answer fly between chaos and their need.

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Author: rhizomicfutures

Educationalist and futurist who teaches world history and futures thinking at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.

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