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Relational Futures work: Reflections on personal and social action


Lads from the Army leading the Rally: Nov 28 2015 Bacolod Philippines


For me the heart of futures work is relationship. This makes futures an intimate experience of intuitive and aspirational foresight that is built in layers up from the ground. The pragmatic nature of relationship provides context and meaning to relationality and is the key to communicating futures.

To paraphrase the Sufi poet Rumi ‘When you close the door on words, you open the window on love’. This of course sounds terribly romantic and out of touch with the pressing temporal and strategic needs of futures but for me it is where I start.

Let me illustrate this with a short narrative. Today I am writing in the Filipino city of Bacolod. I am visiting the well-known futurist Cesar Villanueva.  This morning, at the invitation of Cesar, we went to a 5am open air Mass in support of Pope Francis’ call to action on climate change.

The mass and the walk that followed was a direct action response to Francis’ forceful call to action of climate change expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’. The priest leading the mass gave a powerful talk on the need for action. It was given as a call in which he linked the actions of individuals with community and collective movement.

Priest talk nov 28 2015

The priest spoke mostly in the local dialect but the talk was peppered with English. So I heard words like ‘relationship’ ‘responsibility’ ‘vision’ ‘stewardship’ and phrases like the Gandhi quote ‘Every journey begins with a single step’. The congregation listened closely to all this and seemed quite inspired.

The mass was followed by a day long walk to be done in relays from Bacolod to a local mountain, a distance of some 40 odd kilometers. The walk was a metaphor for the single steps we need to take as individuals to achieve a collective, socially oriented response to climate change that thought not just about now, but as the priest said as he concluded his talk: for future generations.

This event for me symbolises how futures work begins in the powerful and simple weaving of the individual stories of people with larger social projects. It is my contention that we tell many of our most powerful stories with our bodies. This is how culture works.

The intimacy of both the future and the past is on our cultural skin. It is what we see in each other. It affirms who we are, and amplifies who we are through the collective actions we take as individuals.

A girl on the walk today had a T Shirt with the words ‘I am who I am because we are who we are’ on the back. So this meme is out there in popular culture. This relational consciousness is alive and growing. The best futurists I know all intuitively and strategically access this potentiality when working with their clients.


That magic T Shirt

Eco-philosopher Melissa Lane has a written eloquently about ‘norm entrepreneurs’. This is a beautiful term and certainly captures much of what futurists do best. Now a norm needs a cultural home: its own oikos. It needs to grow out of traditions so that people can recognise and respond to it. As all traditions are living, new norms arise out of shifts in past normative orientations.

So Pope Francis draws on the deep tradition of sacral nature and human stewardship that is one thread in the Catholic and Christian tradition. In the Filipino context this is a powerful lever.


Wall mural we passed on our walk!

In materialist cultures however other traditions also need to be marshalled. This new relational norm has a deep encounter with the Humanist tradition so dear to the West. Think Renaissance – think humanists! For instance there is Thomas More of Utopia fame; Miguel Cervantes who gave us Don Quixote; and of course there is the Italian Dante Alighieri who penned the Divine Comedy.

Yet Humanism was much more than a literary movement it had implications for the arts, sciences, politics and theology: just one example is the work of Machiavelli who startled the world with The Prince.

To a norm entrepreneur we can see that there is the possibility for Humanism to be rethought as a Neohumanism of relationality. My futures work continues to explore the possibilities of this encounter. Humanism was a product of Western cultural struggle. Neohumanism is the product of global cultural struggles.

The term was coined by Indian Tantric philosopher and Guru, Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar to capture the essence of a universal ethic based on loving relationship with the Cosmos and all elements of it.

That’s pretty big!

And yet it starts with us and those first steps mentioned by the priest in this morning’s Mass. As I see it, there are Futurists and futurists. Both share a common interest in the future as a calling to action now.

The Futurist however has an orientation that is more self-consciously strategic and pragmatic. She understands the need for cultural and systemic work to build robust and open futures. She is also more professionally and factually focused, moving smoothly from the litany of data to the deeper work of knowledge and metaphor creation.

The futurist on the other hand is led by her heart, by an instinct that it is the future that counts and that each step is a calling in and of itself.

There were not many professional Futurists in the march today but there were many futurists. I think it is time we have a conversation between these two groups. A co-creative moment in which we move towards (e)co-creative possibilities.

Such a conversation starts with Actions that make a difference.

Such a conversation builds communities that are open and conscious of the power of their traditions to offer inspiration and direction into unknown futures

Such a conversation acknowledges that we must talk less and Love more in order to establish a meaningful ‘next step’ towards the Neohumanist possibilities that await us all.

March Nov 28

Marchers for the Environment in the early morning light

This article is dedicated to Cesar Villanueva: futurist and peace builder.

Beyond Used Futures: Challenging the ‘no limits’ mentality

We live in extraordinary times yet we approach the issues these times have generated as the result of increased complexity with eyes attuned to the ordinary.

It is as if we Moderns have been given the keys to the family car whilst the parents are out and in a moment of adolescent exuberance we have pulled out the P Plates and gone for a spin, not simply heedless of risk but actually drunk on it.

Having grown up, for the most part, in the 20th Century we drive the car as if there is no speed limit. Yet limits do exist and they are there for a reason. As we career down the road to the future at full throttle we can hear our parent’s voices saying: Slow down! What’s the rush? Better to be late rather than dead on time. We ignore this voice (of course).

The paradox is that as a culture we are risk seekers yet our institutions seem to be highly risk averse. We have created structures to slow us down yet our desire is for ever more speed. Perhaps this is the pathology of being human? Yet we can opt for wiser slower futures.

Our default future is what eminent futurist Sohail Inayatullah has called a Used Future. It is the fast and furious future of the 20th Century. It laughs at limits and delights in risk. Used futures are someone else’s future. Futures we have admired, desired. Yet they have been transplanted to the foreign soil of our own times. Then they take off like rabbits, foxes and cats did in Australia to become Feral Futures!

The Used Future

Used futures offer us the security of the known. They inform the favoured lines of conservative politicians in which rhetoric carries more weight than substance.

Used futures promise us:

Security. When times get tough the tough get going and so it is with used futures. They demand that we be realistic, that we stick to the script as what work in the past must work in the present wand will work for the future. They use the anxieties experienced in the face of uncertain futures to edit our alternatives and characterise social innovators as idealists and unrealistic. Remember, always be afraid and let the professionals manage our security and our freedoms.

Growth. The economy is all about money isn’t it? Success is all about money too. Growth is the measure of all things and can only be successful by sticking to the script. If we stay with it long enough we too will be rewarded. Failure is due simply to a lack of belief and a lack of fortitude. Remember, stick to the story it is the only thing that will keep us on track.

Reason. Human intelligence has made this world. With it we have conquered nature, ordered the universe and created untold wealth. Our economic theory is rational as is our approach to security. Reason makes order from the crazy mess we encounter in this world. Citizens need to be educated to be rational subjects. They need to be inducted into the cult of speed that citizenship in this world offers us. Remember, it is irrational to hope for alternatives to the real.

Desire. Hope may be irrational but desire is not. Desire is the raison d’être of our Capitalist system. It drives the economy where that fair word ‘confidence’ is treated with deep reverence. Without consumer confidence the future is indeed grim. Desire requires us to submit to the dull monotony of modern regimes of work and spending so that we can play our part in building a strong national economy. Remember, desire is good and should not be moderated by the peevish carping of doomsters and environmentalists.

Beyond Limits – the quest for alternatives

So are limits bad? The adolescent driving the car may, if they live long enough, be grateful for parental exercise of limits. Limits invite a different kind of creative energy into culture. They reframe the used future approach and suggest we take new routes to fulfilling futures.

Sweden has just declared it will be the first fossil-fuel free nation. It is setting aside the used future narrative for richer more sustainable approaches to limits. It is not surrendering to limits and seeking to turn back the industrial clock to pre-industrial hardship. It is seeking to rethink limits given the current suit of emergent technologies.

Is this move unrealistic? Those committed to the used future narrative would certainly see it as such. Yet since when has hope and cultural creativity not been realistic? Were the first industrial innovators of the Lunar Society unrealistic in their hopes? Not at all. They lead the way to the incredible, but unsustainable, industrialised world of the 20th Century.

Currently Australia is resolutely committed to the used future narrative. Could we follow Sweden’s lead? Could we commit as holders of substantial coal and natural gas reserves to a fossil free future? Is that reasonable or rational?

New Rules

If we play by the given rules of the game the answer is no, this is not reasonable, nor is it desirable. Yet we cannot win at this game. We can only keep our heads above water. Rethinking limits means rethinking the rules of the game. Investing in exploring alternative futures.

If risk taking is a pathology of our species perhaps now is time to take some risks and change the rules of the game. We need to write new rules for the four priorities listed above: Long term security; cultural not economic growth; collaborative rather than competitive reason; desire for quality not quantity.

New rules help us play a different game that can, in extraordinary times, ensure us a broader level of security and promise a wider set of possibilities for enriched futures based on innovation, experimentation and collaboration. Why not follow Sweden’s lead?

How do we influence for the future? Quo Vadis Futures?

Recently my students here in Singapore’s NTU Centre for Excellence in National Security have been asking about the impact of futures work. Essentially futures work is measured by its effects – positive outcomes in terms of policy, business trajectory, increased security and resilience and most importantly the sense of agency and increased range of possibilities. At another level futures work is also a cultural project. Thus the work of Emmelie do Forest and Professor Sohail Inayatullah are both futures oreinted. One might ask how are they different? Both are sowing/promoting ‘new’ memes in the cultural sphere. Both are harnessing the media to further their projects and both are seeking to impress the need for change on listeners. Of course de Forests message is an old one – Remember Bob Dylan’s “How many times…?” Inayatullah’s is both old and new – the elements have been with us for a long time yet the layering is new: an expression of both the compelxity sciences and the multidisciplinarity inherent to futures work in a post-postructural world where structure and pos structure have come to some kind of hybrid working agreement.

Some of my students sugegst that the media is all about mass distraction… not mass enlightenment. For them the future lies somewhere else as yet undefined. For me of course they are the future (whether they like it or not). In working with them I am seeking to foster skills and knowledge that will enable them to influence their worlds for more inclusive, more sustainable futures. How successful am I at this remains to be seen as the human project is not so easily measured/quantified. Central to this is the frisson that comes with the workd of de Forest and Inayatullah and any other thinker/social actor who sows hope and possibilitiy when the death eaters (thanks Harry Potter) would have us give up and accept the trans of the permanent present. Influence is real – it is mimetic, visseral and also empathic – a wonderful chemical/metaphysical thing.

This brings me to the work of John Paul Lederach – his lovely book The Moral Imagination. He maps out (page 34ff) four dimensions of this imagination: Sense of Relationship, Paradoxical Curiosity, Creativity and Risk. One of the key elements of this thinking about imagination is that it is open ended and always grounded in context. This brings an intimacy to futures work where self and other, agency and structure cease to be definitional of our humanity but contextual markers in a cosmos rich in multiple zones of being. As Lederach notes: “…the moral imagination [is] the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (p29). I have seen this possibiity emerge again and again when people ‘suddenly’ see that they are not trapped on a one way street. Recently in the Philippines town planners suddenly saw that they were thinking about traffic all wrong. The issue was to help the public move from being careless (as drivers) to car-less (becoming commuters). Rather than better roads they needed better public transport. It was that easy.




The Transdisciplinary World of Futures

Transdisciplinary Map

This is a very interesting image developed by a team of researchers and included in an article that came out in 2009 in PLoS ONE 4(3) on high res maps of science. They describe how they trawled the interenet for searches (click stream data) and were able to see how much interdisciplinary work was going on. Lots as this map makes clear.

Inter disciplinarity – transdisciplinarity, multi-disciiplinarity – are essential for effective foresight work which relies on a mix of quantitative and qualitative research to develop robust and plausible images of our complex and mulitlayered futures.

The tendency of people is to want an ordered universe in which uncertainty is kept at a minimum. The reality is that uncertainty is all around us and that it is managed more by habit and custom (lenses that edit perception) than by intention and the systems we create to buffer us. I like this map as it shows the complex nature of knowledge interactions. I also like that it is elegant and inviting. Good futures work and the social changes it is inviting in work best when served with a good dose of attractiveness:)

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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Presence in Foresight Work

Beyond a Politics of Surprise: Rethinking the Present
Dr Marcus Bussey
Visiting Fellow, Centre for Excellence in National Security
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

One of the chief drivers of the security environment might be termed the ‘Politics of Surprise’. Recently we have been ‘surprised’ to witness the toppling of long stable Arab regimes, the opening up of Myanmar to democracy and the global spread of the ‘Occupy’ citizen-driven economic protests that began in Wall Street. Such surprises generate endless commentary and feed the media machine that perpetuates the image of ongoing socio-economic and political upheaval and the drama of crisis that this entails. Keeping one step ahead of such drama is core business for security analysts. However, the level of currency this necessitates can overlook or sideline longer term developments and, to use Francis Fukuyama’s term, blindside us to the deeper processes at work both locally and globally .
When context is dominated by a politics of surprise social resilience is reduced because shock is actually perceived as being an inherent element of socio-political process. Thus Fukuyama opens his book with a litany of surprises:
‘The collapse of communism, the rapid emergence of China and India as major economic powers, the September 11 attacks, the appearance of relatively new diseases like HIV/AIDS and H5N1 bird flu, Hurricane Katrina—the past decade and a half has demonstrated that nothing is as certain as uncertainty in global politics.’
To work beyond the litany of surprise is the purported job of strategic forecasters. In an environment of uncertainty they draw on history, a range of theoretical models, statistical trend analyses and social-psychology to develop the necessary depth of perception to anticipate not specific surprises but general surprises and the conditions that foreshadow these.
Increasingly such work is seen as necessary but not the totality of strategic foresight. A quality of perception is being called forth by the convergence of global political, economic, social and ecological processes. To think and act effectively in such an expanded and expanding environment requires an expanded sense of presence for analysts and those engaged in strategic policy development. 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. 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, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt today. Yet, in itself, self interest is not a bad thing. All foresight and futures work has self interest at its heart. Strategic foresight is partisan by nature and seeks to optimize advantage for those who apply it to their context. The counterbalance to this partisanship is an ethical commitment to inclusivity, open-endedness and (in the best of best worlds) social and environmental justice.
This sensitivity to presence suggests another necessary shift in the security environment: a balancing of risk assessment with opportunity enhancement. This reorientation is inherent to forecasting which is anticipatory in nature. Anticipation implies a sense of openness to the future that risk assessment denies. To challenge the framing of risk and warning fostered by a politics of surprise will take determination on the part of security analysts.
Stanford University’s Thomas Fingar identified this imbalance when asked to lead the development of a National Intelligence Priorities Framework in 2008. He describes how his team had to ‘winnow’ a set of 2300 ‘issues’ so that the number was both credible and useful to the Intelligence Community. Thus Fingar observed drily:
“Doubtless reflecting a widespread conviction that it is more important to identify and prevent bad things from happening than to find opportunities to effect positive change, the process used to winnow requests to a manageable number focuses more attention on threats than on opportunities. The resultant guidance to collectors and analysts has real world consequences for what is targeted, what is collected, what is processed, what is analyzed, and what analysts look for. The net effect is that opportunities receive less attention than do threats.”

It is this insight that needs to be unpacked. The inability to recognise opportunities when they present themselves has real world impacts on the adaptive capacity of states and their institutions. I argue that awakening to presence leads to adaptation in response to the environmental conditions that constantly reinforce the logic of present centredness, structure and risk. Adaptation seeks to maximize advantage for the natural or social systems that take it up. 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.
Timing positive futures needs to become a core element of national security thinking and analysis. Such timing depends on an expanded sense of what foresight offers the security environment. It also demands an expanded sense of security to include possibility in the positive sense. To return to the South African example – it was necessary for the apartheid government to reframe the risk of cultural annihilation and imagine an alternative future which was inclusive of their fears but also of the possibilities that lay beyond these. In this the importance of both de Klerk and Nelson Mandela cannot be underestimated. Yet, behind them stand many who invested in this possibility and did the hard yards to enable the aspirations that these leaders stood for.

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