Futures Studies: Theories and
Futures studies is the systematic study of possible, probable and
preferable futures including the worldviews and myths that underlie each
future. In the last fifty or so years, the study of the future has moved
from predicting the future to mapping alternative futures to shaping
desired futures, both at external collective levels and inner individual
levels (Masini 1993; Bell 1996; Amara 1981; Sardar 1999; Inayatullah
2000; Saul 2001).
During this period, futures studies has moved from focusing on the
external objective world to a layered approach wherein how one sees the
world actually shapes the future one sees (Inayatullah 2002). In this
critical futures approach — the poststructural turn — the external world
is informed by the inner and, crucially, a person’s inner world is informed
by the reality of the external. While many embrace futures studies so as
to reduce risk, to avoid negative futures, particularly the worst case,
others actively move to creating desired futures, positive visions of the
future (Masini 1983). The identification of alternative futures is thus a
fluid dance of structure (the weights of history) and agency (the capacity
to influence the world and create desired futures).
As the world has become increasingly risky — at least in perception,
if not in fact — futures studies has been eagerly adopted by executive
leadership teams and planning departments in organizations,
institutions and nations throughout the world. While futures studies sits
comfortably as an executive function by providing the big picture, there
Blanca Muñoz, Campo magnético triple (detail)
remain tangible tensions between the planning and futures frameworks. Planning seeks to
control and close the future, while futures studies seeks to open up the future, moving from
“the” future to alternative futures.
To understand the future(s), one needs a cogent theoretical framework. Four approaches are
crucial to foresight (Inayatullah 1990). The first is predictive, based on empirical social
sciences. The second is interpretive, based not on forecasting the future but on understanding
competing images of the future. The third is critical, derived from poststructural thought and
focused on asking who benefits by the realization of certain futures and which methodologies
privilege certain types of futures studies. While truth claims are eschewed, the price of
epistemology is not: every knowledge decision privileges reality in particular ways (Shapiro
1992; Foucault 1973). The fourth approach is participatory action learning/research. This
approach is far more democratic and focuses on stakeholders developing their own future,
based on their assumptions of the future (for example, if the future is linear or cyclical) and
what is critical to them (Inayatullah 2007).
While a theory of the future is useful, a conceptual framework for understanding the future is
still necessary. Among others is the Six Pillars approach (Inayatullah 2008). The first pillar is
“Mapping the future,” with its primary method being the futures triangle (Inayatullah 2002;
2007). The second pillar is “Anticipating the future” with emerging issues analysis (Molitor
2003) as the focal methodology. The third pillar is “Timing the future,” with micro-, meso- and
macrohistory (Galtung and Inayatullah 1997) being the most useful “methods.” The fourth pillar
is “Deepening the future” with causal layered analysis (Inayatullah 2004) being the foundation
(even though causal layered analysis is a theory of futures studies as well). The fifth pillar is
“Creating alternatives” with scenario planning being the most important method. The last pillar,
“Transforming the future,” has visioning and backcasting (Boulding 1995) as its most important
From the premodern to the modern
Premodern attempts to understand the future focused on astrology. By and large, the
purpose of astrology was to help individuals avoid dangerous circumstances by providing an
early warning system. However, unquestioned belief in the astrological system was essential
since warnings and forecasts as well as psychological analyses were of a general nature. The
future was not contested. In modern futures studies, questioning and divergent views are not
only incorporated, they are essential to robustness and resilience. In contrast to astrology,
alternatives are embraced.
While recent futures studies includes contesting the views of the future as well as ways of
knowing — the deep cultural myths and metaphors — of researchers and participants, a
generation back futures studies placed a far greater emphasis on forecasting. It was the
technique par excellence of planners, economists and social scientists. The assumption behind
forecasting is that the future can be generally if not precisely known. With more information,
particularly more timely information, decision-makers can make more effective choices. Having
more information is especially important since the rate of technological change has dramatically
increased. However, the need for information, as in times before, is necessitated by a fear of
the future, a feeling of impotence in the face of forces we cannot understand, that seem larger
than us. The unconscious assumption is that through better forecasting, the world, the future,
can be more effectively controlled thus increasing profits or hegemony.
As business-as-usual has disappeared — largely due to a perception that the world is far
riskier (the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Asian Financial Crisis, 9/11, SARS, Bird Flu, the
Global Financial Crisis, climate change, the potential breakdown of the Eurozone) — futures
studies has become more commonplace. Change truly has become the norm. Dramatic
developments in digital, genomic, nano and neuro technologies point to more disruptions. The
Donald Petit, Star trails
rise of Chindia and the relative decline of the USA suggest that the uni-polar world is finished.
In response, governmental, corporate, think-tank and non-government organizations have
embraced the formal study of the future. Some use futurists as consultants who provide market
advice; others use futurists to develop internal capacity through foresight workshops; and still
others have senior executives attend more formal courses in futures studies. This has led to
discussion as to where, within organizations, it is best to house the study of the future. More
often than not, futures studies is housed in the planning department. However, while this may
appear logical, as both deal with forward time, there are significant differences between the two.
PLANNING, POLICY AND FUTURES STUDIES
When compared to planning, the futures approach:
1. is longer-term, from five to fifty years (even 1 000 years) instead of one to five years;
2. links horizon three (20–30 years) with horizon two (5–20) and horizon one (the present to
3. is committed to authentic alternative futures where each scenario is fundamentally
different from the other. When planners and economic forecasters use scenarios, they
are often mere deviations from each other;
4. is committed to multiple interpretations of reality (legitimating the role of the
unconscious, of mythology, of the spiritual, for example, instead of only views of reality for
which empirical data exists);
5. is more participatory, in that it attempts to include all types of stakeholders instead of
6. consciously uses different ways of knowing, from drama or postcards from the future to
various games (for example, the Sarkar game [Hayward and Voros 2006], or the CLA game);
7. is more concerned with the futures process, which is as important as the elegance of the
strategic plan itself, if not more so;
8. although a technique, is also very much action-oriented, more concerned with creating
the future than simply predicting it; and
9. is as much an academic field as it is a participatory social movement.
Futures studies creates alternative futures by making basic assumptions problematic.
Through questioning the future, emerging issues analysis, and scenarios, the intention
is to move out of the present and create the possibility for new futures
From the view of the planning discourse, the foresight function is merely one approach
among many necessary to create a good plan. For planners, futures studies is useful as long as
it aids in planning for the future and does not make planning or policymaking problematic.
Futures studies can be disruptive, challenging the current framework instead of seeking to
make strategy more effective. For futurists, disruption through methods such as emerging
issues analysis (popularized in Nassim Taleb’s work, The Black Swan, 2010) and scenario
planning in fact enhances strategy effectiveness by ensuring that the plan is more robust and
The growth of futures studies is also a result of the desire of government to find information
that can aid in making better policy. Futures studies, along with systems analysis, is used to
better understand the second and third order effects of specific policy decisions. For many,
futures research is merely long-term policy analysis or research and should not be seen as a
separate field or discourse. However, there are real and important distinctions between futures
research and policy research/analysis. The most significant is that futures studies creates
alternative futures by making basic assumptions problematic. Through questioning the future,
emerging issues analysis, and scenarios, the intention is to move out of the present and create
the possibility for new futures. Policy analysis is concerned with analysing the viability of
particular policies, not calling the entire discussion or the framework of decision-making into
In general, in planning and policy analysis, the future is often used to enhance the
probability of achieving a certain policy. This is often phrased as “preparing for the future,” or
“responding to the challenge of the future.” The future thus described is singular and more
often than not it is a given. The future becomes an arena of economic conquest and time
becomes the most recent dimension to colonise, institutionalise and domesticate. Futures
research, however, intends to liberate time for strict technique, from instrumental rationality. It
asks: what are the different ways one can “time” the world? How, for example, do different
cultures, groups and organisations imagine time? It is not “preparing for the future,” but by
challenging the orthodox future, it opens up the possibility of alternative futures. Once
alternative futures are created, then futures studies as practice seeks to develop individual and
organizational capacity to invent the desired future.
Of course, policy analysis itself is a dynamic field. For example, new models of policy
development have attempted to move beyond muddling through (as needs or problems come
up), rational-economic decision-making (material goals) and satisficing (doing what you can given
political and budgetary limitations), arguing primarily that these strategies are not useful during
times of rapid change and dramatic crisis. Muddling through, in particular, is not useful during
times of turbulence since incremental policy change does not help the organisation or nation
transform to meet dramatic new conditions. The rational-economic model is useful at setting
and achieving objectives but it does not take into account extra-rational efforts. It is overly
dependent on quantitative factors; it reinscribes self-interest and national self-interest (balance
of powers). Satisficing, while excelling at implementation, does not ask whether the job was
worth doing. Interest in finding ways to include the possibility of discontinuous change, of
forecasting trends before they emerge, has been a natural progression in the evolution of the
policy sciences. Futures studies fits well into the effort of finding better ways for government
and business to incorporate the unknown into decision-making.
While policy researchers would prefer an investigation into the future that was more short-
term, immediately beneficial to the organization, and framed within the language of the
organization, by and large, futures research is often less concerned with predicting the future
than with attempting to envision novel ways of organising how decisions are reached and who is
eligible to participate in these decisions. It does this by asking participants to envision their
ideal organisational world and then it aids in creating strategies to realise that world.
Moreover, from a critical view, to suggest that policy futures statements must be clear to the
policymaker is at some level just banal. Institutions create obscure language because that
language serves particular interests. It is the analysis of those interests (and the mechanisms
they employ to seek and maintain power) that becomes the vehicle for investigating what
images of the future are possible and which are likely to become reality. In this sense, how to
make better policy or more future-oriented policy without investigating the political interests of
certain policies is equally banal. Organizations stay focused in the present as bureaucrats and
others are served by the current structure. Attempts to create new futures can undermine
present power structures. Administrators agree to consider the future only to gain new political
alliances or to achieve modernity (gain funding or prestige) but rarely to make structural or
Engaging in futures studies thus requires at least a gloss of theoretical accounts as to the
nature of the real and the true. In this sense, it is useful to envision policymaking, planning and
futures process as having four dimensions or types: predictive, interpretive, critical and action
EPISTEMOLOGY AND TYPES OF FUTURES STUDIES
In the predictive, language is assumed to be neutral, that is, it does not participate in
constituting the real. Language merely describes reality serving as an invisible link between
theory and data. Prediction assumes that the universe is deterministic, that is, the future can
be known. By and large this view privileges experts (planners and policy analysts as well as
futurists who forecast), economists and astrologers. The future becomes a site of expertise
and a place to colonise. In general, the strategic discourse is most prevalent in this
framework with information valued because it provides lead time and a range of responses to
deal with the enemy (a competing nation or corporation). Linear forecasting is the technique
used most. Scenarios are used more as minor deviations from the norm than as alternative
In the interpretive, the goal is not prediction but insight. Truth is considered relative with
language and culture both intimately involved in creating the real. Through comparison, through
examining different national or gender or ethnic images of the future, we gain insight into the
human condition. This type of futures studies is less technical, with mythology as important as
mathematics. Learning from each model — in the context of the search for universal narratives
that can ensure basic human values — is the central mission for this epistemological
approach. While visions often occupy centre stage in this interpretive view, the role of structures
Donald Petit, Star trails
is also important, whether class, gender, or other categories of social relations. Planning and
policy analysis rarely practise an interpretive cultural form of goal setting or impact analysis.
In the critical, futures studies aims not at prediction or at comparison but seeks to make the
units of analysis problematic, to undefine the future. For example, at issue are not population
forecasts but how the category of population has become valorised in discourse: for example,
why population instead of community or people, we might ask? The role of the State and other
forms of power in creating authoritative discourses is central to understanding how a particular
future has become hegemonic. Critical futures studies asserts that the present is fragile,
merely the victory of one particular discourse, way of knowing, over another. The goal of critical
research is to disturb present power relations through making our categories problematic and
evoking other places, other scenarios of the future.
Critical futures studies draws its inspiration from poststructuralism. The task in critical
futures studies is to make the universal particular, to show that it has come about for fragile
political reasons, merely the victory of one discourse over another, not a Platonic universal. To
do so, one needs discursive genealogies that attempt to show the discontinuities in the history
of an idea, social formation or value. Through genealogy and deconstruction, the future that
once seemed immutable is now shown to be one among many. As such it is replaceable by
other discourses. Deconstruction then becomes a method of unpacking a text (broadly defined)
and showing the discourses that inhabit it. Deconstruction moves beyond relativism by asking
what the price of a particular discourse is. What future is put forth? What future is silenced?
Genealogy historically traces how a particular discourse has become dominant at the expense
of other discourses. The shape and type of future (instrumental versus emancipatory, for
example) is often different in each type of discourse.
As important as genealogy and deconstruction is “distancing.” Distancing differentiates
between the disinterest of empiricism and the mutuality of interpretative research. Distancing
provides the theoretical link between poststructural thought and futures studies. Scenarios
become not forecasts but images of the possible that critique the present. Scenarios make
the present remarkable, thus allowing other futures to emerge. Distancing can be
accomplished through utopias as well, as they function as “perfect,” “no,” or far-away places
— other spaces.
Ideally, one should try to use all three types of futures studies. If one makes a population
forecast, for example, one should then ask how different civilisations approach the issue of
population. Finally one should deconstruct the idea of population itself, defining it, for example,
not only as an ecological problem in the third world but relating it to first-world consumption
patterns as well. Empirical research then must be contextualised within the civilisation’s
science from which it emerges and then historically deconstructed to show what a particular
approach is missing and silencing.
In the fourth type, participatory action learning, the key is to develop probable, possible and
preferred estimations of the future based on the categories of stakeholders. The future is
constructed through deep participation. The categories employed are not given a priori but
rather developed as cooperative practice. The future thus becomes owned by those having
interests in the future. Moreover, there is no perfect forecast or vision. The future is
continuously revisited, questioned.
In the first type of futures studies (most comfortable to planners and policy analysts), by and
large, techniques such as linear regression, multiple regression, factor analysis and
econometrics are used. All these assume that the future is based on the linearity of the past.
They also assume that the empirical world can be known and that the universe is fundamentally
stable, with reality primarily sensate. But given that specific events can throw off a forecast,
empirical futurists have re-invented Delphi, or expert event forecasting. Delphi polling is done in
many rounds so as to gain consensus and done anonymously so as to reduce the influence of
a particular opinion maker. More recently through crowdsourcing, Delphi has taken an even
more dramatic twist becoming not an oracle of the expert priest (futurist, economist, scientist)
but a representation of the most up-to-date perspective of the user. While in Delphi and other
similar systems, hierarchal expertise is primary (one expert or multiple experts in anonymous
dialogue) in new peer-to-peer systems, information of the future is derived through the wisdom
of the many, argue Michael Bauwens, Elina Hiltunen (2011) and Jose Ramos (2012). Moreover,
the wisdom of the many is not only derived through rational means, but as Stuart Candy (2010)
suggests, through direct immanence, wherein a possible scenario of the future (an ecotopia) is
enacted in a public space.
A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR FUTURES STUDIES: THE SIX PILLARS
Futures studies has often been criticized, and quite rightly so, for lacking a conceptual
framework, a foresight process. However, in the last decade a number of frameworks that are
inclusive of strong theory and practice have been developed. These include Voros’ generic
foresight process framework (2003) and the Six Pillars approach, which is derivative of Dator’s
Manoa school (Dator 1979).
The Six Pillars provide a theory of futures thinking that is linked to methods and tools, and
developed through praxis. The pillars are: mapping, anticipation, timing, deepening, creating
alternatives and transforming. They can be used as theory or in a futures workshop setting. In a
workshop setting, they can be used in a linear sequential sense, that is, from mapping (using
the futures triangle) to transforming (via visioning and backcasting) or by the workshop director
selecting a particular pillar to focus on.
In the first pillar, past, present and future are mapped. By mapping time, we become clearer on
where we have come from and where we are going. Three tools are crucial.
The “Shared History” method consists of having participants in a futures workshop write
down the main trends and events that have led up to the present. A historical timeline is then
constructed up to the present. ”Shared History” asks: What are the continuities in our history,
what is discontinuous? This opening tool creates a framework from which to move to the future.
In a research setting, the history of the issue is articulated either via empirical (historical data
points) or interpretive frames of reference (the meanings individuals give to the data points).
The futures triangle maps today’s views of the future through three dimensions. The image
of the future pulls an organization forward. Each organization or institution has contending
images of the future. At the global macro level, while there are many images of the future, five
or so are archetypal. These are: 1) evolution and progress — more technology, man as the
centre of the world, and a belief in rationality; 2) collapse — a belief that man has reached his
limits, indeed he has overshot them: world inequity, fundamentalism, tribalism, nuclear
holocaust, climate disasters: all point to a worsening of the future; 3) Gaia — the world is a
garden, cultures are its flowers, we need social technologies to repair the damage we have
caused to ourselves, to others and to nature, becoming more and more inclusive is what is
important. Partnership between women and men, humans and nature, and humans and
technology are the next evolutionary jumps; 4) globalism — barriers between nations and
cultures can be eliminated once we move to a free market system. Technology and the free flow
of capital can bring riches to all. Traditional isms and dogmas are the barriers stopping us from
achieving a new world; and, 5) back to the future — we need to return to simpler times, when
hierarchy was clearer, when technology was less disruptive, when the rules of hierarchy were
clear. Change is overwhelming; we have lost our way and must return.
Along with images are the pushes of the present. These are quantitative drivers and trends
that are changing the future: the obvious ones are an ageing population, mobile Internet
penetration, climate change, and the number of women in higher education. There are also
weights. These are the barriers to the change we wish to see. Each image has differing
The Six Pillars provide a theory of futures thinking that is linked to methods and tools,
and developed through praxis. The pillars are: mapping, anticipation, timing,
deepening, creating alternatives and transforming
weights. Those who imagine a globalized world are weighed down by nationalists and
protectionists. The Gaian (Lovelock 2006) image is weighed down by the dominance of
hierarchy — male, empire or expertise. By analysing the interaction of these three forces, the
futures triangle helps develop a plausible future. Strategies can then be articulated as to what
is required — greater emphasis on the pull of the future, the weight of the past, or the push of
The second pillar of futures thinking is Anticipation, with emerging issues analysis (Molitor
2003) as the main method (see Figure 1). Emerging issues analysis seeks to identify bell-
weather regions, where new social innovations start. It also seeks to identify issues before they
become unwieldy and expensive, and, of course, to search for new possibilities and
opportunities. Emerging issues include disrupters such as: Will robots soon have legal rights?
Will meditation be part of every school curriculum? Will we develop pharmacies in our bodies?
Will the smart toilet help us with early diagnostics? Will the slow cities movement redefine the
24/7 world? Will smart bots (eco, health) create more fuel- and health-efficient persons,
houses, communities and businesses? Will eating meat be illegal in the long run and in the
short run seen as a kind of child abuse?
Figure 1. Emerging Issues Analysis
While solving emerging issues leads to little political pay-off — i. e. voters will not reward the
leader for solving tomorrow’s problems — they can help minimize harm and indeed help
individuals and organizations respond far more swiftly to emerging challenges.
Emergency issues/weak signals
Timing the Future
The third pillar is Timing the Future. This is the search for the patterns in change, the stages
and mechanisms of long-term change. Macrohistorians (Galtung and Inayatullah 1997) posit
that a number of patterns are critical if we wish to understand the shape of time:
1. The future is linear, stage-like, with progress ahead. By hard work, we will realize the good
future. Foundational writers include Auguste Comte (1875) and Herbert Spencer (1973).
2. The future is cyclical; there are ups and downs. Those at the top will one day find
themselves at the bottom. Because they are on the top, they are unable to adapt and
adjust as the world changes. Their success was based on mastery of yesterday’s
conditions. Few are able to reinvent their core stories. Foundational writers are Ssu-Ma
Chien (Watson 1958), Ibn Khaldun (1967) and Oswald Spengler (1972). Related to the
cycle is the pendulum, developed by Pitirim Sorokin (1957). In this approach, nations and
organizations tend to oscillate between extremes of two poles (centralization or
decentralization, modernity and religion, or civilian and military rule). Knowing where one
is in the pendulum can lead to more effective strategy, helping to decide how and when
3. The future is a spiral: parts are linear and progress-based, and parts are cyclical. With
leadership that is courageous and has foresight, a positive spiral can be created. The
dogmas of the past are challenged but the past is not disowned, rather it is integrated in
a march toward a better future. The foundational thinker for this approach is P. R. Sarkar
4. New futures are more often than not driven by a creative minority. They challenge the
notion of a used future. Instead of imitating what everyone else is doing, they innovate.
This can be social, political, cultural, spiritual or technological innovation. These change
agents imagine a different future and inspire others to work toward it. When there is no
creative minority, instead of sustainable systems what result are bigger and bigger
empires and world-states. Power and bureaucracy continue unchallenged, charisma
becomes routinized and the hunger for something different, something that can better
meet human needs, drifts away. Size or growth takes over; inner and outer development
disappears. The work of Arnold Toynbee (1972) and, to some extent Vilfredo Pareto
(1968), is foundational to this approach.
5. There are hinge periods in human history, when the action of a few can make a dramatic
difference. It is in these periods, especially, that old ways of behaviour are no longer
helpful: what succeeded before no longer works. We are likely in this phase now. This
approach is generally favoured by most transformational futurists — Alvin Toffler, Oliver
Markley, Duane Elgin, P. R. Sarkar, Riane Eisler, Ervin László, Hazel Henderson, James
Dator, James Robertson and many others share this framework.
At a meso-institutional level, there are three contrasting positions as to the nature of
institutional change. First, real change comes from those who live in institutions. It is not from
changing the external world but either by changing how we see the world — appreciation,
gratitude, looking for the positives in every situation, in the now (Tolle 2003) — or by deep inner
meditation that leads to consciousness change (Sarkar 1987). Once we become different the
nature of reality changes.
Second, real change is not consciousness but institutional change, changing the laws that
govern society, the rules and regulations. Taxation, legislation and incentives to lead societal
change, as Singapore can attest to.
Third, real change comes from new technologies. They change how we do what we do. As
Marshall McLuhan argued, we create technology and then it creates us (1962). For example, we
create the Internet and now we define how we work (flexible but 24/7), how we play (gaming),
and even how we meet partners. Technology creates new economies and the tensions result
when society lags behind, when power relations do not change.
At the meso-organizational level, Jenny Brice, formerly of Fuji Xerox, and Patricia Kelly provide
useful theories of change. Using the virus as an analogy for social change, they argue that the
goal is not to transform the entire organization but merely to find the champions, these
generally account for 10 percent of the organization’s staff. In this quest, it is crucial not to lose
focus by fighting with the resisters, also around 10 percent. Rather, they are transparently
quarantined. Early adopters account for nearly 40 percent and they are to be supported — with
incentives and increased importance — while the remaining 40 percent tend to be bystanders,
not overly concerned with organizational dynamics as long as their basic needs are met.
Finally, there is microtiming, or the biography of change. There are two aspects here. First,
futures thinking differs depending on what stage of life one is in. For example, the future of a
teenager is likely to be shorter-term oriented (because of brain development) than that of an
adult. Vulnerability is likely to be more of a factor for the elderly than for a young adult.
Second is the microhistory that frames life stages. Here, the guiding question is how one
sees the stages of life: the traditional birth–student–work (one job)–retirement–death structure
or an alternative rendering, for example, student–work (multiple and portfolio careers), mentoring,
spiritual life, death and then conscious or unconscious rebirth. Many other patterns are possible,
including the transhumanists who see the stages as birth–student–work–retirement and then
endless life through technological life extension. This biography of life thus is the unconscious
structure to how we imagine our lifecycle. At issue is this: as the world dramatically changes
— living longer and the move to a grey future — will the classical biography still hold? Or will new
patterns of life be invented?
Timing the future thus focuses on the wise use of macro-, meso- and micro-patterns of
change to better influence social reality.
Donald Petit, Star trails
Deepening the Future
Pillar four is deepening the future. One method is foundational: causal layered analysis
(Inayatullah 1998, 2004). Causal layered analysis (CLA) seeks to unpack, to deepen the future.
It has four dimensions. The first is the litany, or the day-to-day future: the data, the commonly
accepted headlines of the way things are or should be. Solutions to problems are at this level
are usually short-term oriented. The second dimension is deeper, focused on the social,
economic, political causes of the issue: the systemic. The third dimension is the culture or
worldview. This is the big picture, the paradigm that informs what we think is real or not real,
the cognitive lenses we use to understand and shape the world. The fourth dimension is the
myth or the metaphor: the narrative. Metaphors are often the vehicles of myths.
Levels 1 and 2 are most visible; levels 3 and 4 are broader and deeper and more difficult to
identify. Outsiders to the institution or organization are far more effective in discerning these
levels of reality.
If we look at health care, we know that there is a high rate of medical mistakes leading to
serious injury or death. At level one, the solution is more training for health practitioners,
particular doctors, as policymakers focus on people generally. At level two, we search for
causes for these mistakes. Is it lack of communication between health professionals? The
state of the hospital? Hospital design? Lack of understanding of new technologies? Incorrect
diagnosis? Wrongly prescribed medicines? Systemic solutions seek to intervene by making the
system more efficient, smarter, ensuring that all parts of the system are seamlessly connected.
Hospitals are redesigned for safety especially for an ageing society (to minimize the risk of falls,
But if we move to a deeper, worldview level, we see the problem may in fact be the paradigm
of Western medicine itself: its reductionism, its focus on technique and the disowning of its
softer and more holistic potentials. The doctor remains far above, the nurse below and the
patient even lower. It is the hierarchy of knowledge that is the root problem at this level. Merely
instituting more training or more efficient systems ignores power. The solution is to empower
patients (listen to them from their interpretive perspective, their views of healing and the
future), or a move to different health systems — complimentary health systems, for example.
Certainly, alternative health is the disowned self of modern medicine. Many researchers are
integrating opposites — using modern and ancient medicine to develop better outcomes.
At the myth level, the deeper problem is the notion that “doctor knows best.” Patients give
up their power when they see medical experts: patients enter the hospital system and
immediately regress to their child selves. Doctors resort to expert selves — and with
dehumanized bureaucracies ensuring a focus on efficiency, mistakes continue to occur.
CLA seeks to integrate these four levels of understanding (see Table 1). Each level is true
(at its level), internally consistent, and solutions need to be found at each level. Litany
interventions lead to short-term solutions, easy to grasp, packed with data. Systemic answers
require interventions by efficiency experts. Governmental policies linked to partnership with the
private sector often result. Worldview change is much harder and longer term. It requires
seeking solutions from outside the framework in which the solution has been defined. And myth
solutions require the deepest interventions, as a new story needs to be told, rewiring the brain
and building new memories for the personal and collective body.
Table 1. Causal layered analysis — levels, problems and solutions
CLA Level Problems and Solutions
Litany High rate of medical mistakes
Solution: More GP Training
Systemic causes Audit on causes of mistakes: communication, new technologies, administration
Solution: More efficient, smarter systems
Worldview Reductionist modern medical paradigm creates hierarchy
Solution: Enhance power of patients
Solution: Move to different health systems
Myth/metaphor “Doctor knows best”
Solution: “Take charge of your health”
CLA asks us to go beyond conventional framings of issues. However, it does not privilege a
particular level. For example, with respect to the global financial crisis (Inayatullah 2010), one
can read this narrowly as a mortgage or banking crisis, or more broadly as a decline of the
West and the rise of Chindia, or even more broadly as the end of the industrial era and the
need for a global green economy. Each reading has its own metaphors and myths. If the
narrative is the mortgage crisis then the solution is a move from “I shop therefore I am” to “I
live within my means.” If a geopolitical shift, then it is from “limits of the West” to “peaceful
rise of Asia” (Bajpai 2012: 12–37; Inayatullah 2012). And if it is truly a foundational shift, the
narrative moves from “growth and progress forever,” to “Gaia”: moving up and down layers, and
horizontally across discourses and worldviews, increasing the richness of the analysis.
CLA thus leads to depth. For example, in policing, it means moving from the litany of more
police to solve crime and safety issues to systemic change wherein cities and communities are
redesigned for safety (via lighting, via community policing, via surveillance cameras) and then to
worldview changes (Inayatullah 2012; IEET). At the worldview level, the hierarchical military
structure of policing is transformed to one where security is co-produced with multiple
stakeholders (citizens, communities, private security firms) from exclusionary hierarchy to flatter
inclusionary cultures. Finally for any changes to be successful, the core narrative of the “thin
blue line” must be challenged, where police are special and know everything. Community
policing or broader safety strategies will not succeed unless a new narrative defines who the
police are. Without narrative and worldview changes, a focus only on litany and system will
create a reality where “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
CLA can also be applied to the self. One could, as participants from around the world have,
investigate the litany of the self (how do I represent my self to others); the system of the self
(is there one self; a tri-self of id, ego and super-ego; or a multiplicity of selves searching for a
gestalt); the dominant worldview in terms of how my mind is organized — a democracy, a
dictatorship, chaos; and finally, what the core metaphors of the mind are. Is my mind like a to-
do list? A highway, with the ego as a driver? Is it a river ecosystem with many tributaries? The
CLA process begins with the self as is, moves to multiple selves and then challenges the core
story (stories) of the self and seeks to transform it (them) (Stone 1993).
After the future is deepened, we can then broaden it, using the fifth pillar.
The fifth pillar is focused on methods to create alternative futures. The most important method
in this pillar is scenario planning. Just as every futures project needs to have engaged in a
futures triangle (an environmental scan), emerging issues analysis (what is likely to disrupt the
map) and CLA (what the competing narratives are), it must also include alternative futures.
Scenarios are the tool par excellence of futures studies. They open up the present, contour the
range of uncertainty, reduce risk, offer alternatives, create more flexible organizational mindsets,
and even better, they predict.
There are many scenario methods. The first is the multi-variable. This is derived from the
futures triangle and emerging issues analysis. Based on the images or the drivers or the emerging
issues, a range of scenarios or stories/pictures of the future are created. From a workshop on e-
health futures in Bangladesh (Inayatullah and Shah 2011) based on the drivers of the proliferation
of mobile technology, demographic shifts (more young people), the traditional role of women and
microcredit, increasing costs of ageing and the high costs of hospitals, four futures resulted.
These were “the Leapfrog,” the “e-health car,” “Cloud 2025” and “Co-payment 2025.”
First, “the Leapfrog.” In 2025, the smart use of technology through low-cost diagnostic
devices such as medical apps and bio-sensors create a dramatic transformation in health care.
The traditional (modern Western) health system is leapfrogged. Individuals throughout
Bangladesh gain access to inexpensive interactive technologies. The e-health infrastructure is
developed from the bottom up. The Ministry of Health provides the standards and other rules to
ensure integration and interoperability” (Ibid., 15).
In the second scenario, the “e-health car,” continuing the traffic metaphor, the Ministry of
Health Information Systems successfully drives Bangladesh to this future. While all
stakeholders are important, in this metaphor the owner is the government and the navigator is
the entire healthcare system, but the driver is the Ministry. Individual, tailored solutions are
developed for patients in rural and urban areas.
In the third future, “Cloud 2025,” cloud computing provides health information and
diagnostic applications ubiquitously to all. The “cloud” is a public space; however, for
administrative purposes health is organized through upazilas or sub-districts (currently there are
500 in Bangladesh). The Cloud health network begins through tracking of the birth of every child
in Bangladesh. Once the births are registered then their health life cycles can be tracked,
monitored and their life stages health-enhanced.
In the fourth future, “Copayment 2025,” the primary question is the payment mode of future
systems and their financial viability. This future is centralized with individuals provided with
financial incentives to stay healthy via public disbursements. Thus, prevention as a worldview
becomes primary. Donors and insurance agencies, along with the government and health
professionals play a decisive part in this future. Information is not just one way, i. e., giving
citizens health education, but it becomes a two-way street through financial incentives and new
mobile technologies. Citizens use new digital devices or work with local health caseworkers to
enhance their own understanding of their personal tailored health futures. As citizens become
more empowered, health costs are likely to decline.
While there is considerable similarity in the scenarios, the level of authority of the Ministry of
Health is crucial. The second differentiation is the level of technology; is it the cloud or less
integrated tablets providing information to doctors in the main city?
The second scenario technique — the double variable method — identifies the two major
uncertainties and develops alternatives based on them. This method, among others, has
been developed by Johan Galtung (1998; see also www. transcend. org). In the Bangladesh
e-health case study, it was used to identify the key uncertainties. The two drivers chosen for
this method were “system structure” and “politics.” The extremes for “system structure”
were labelled “centralized” (run by the central government) and “decentralized” (run by
multiple stakeholders), whereas those for politics were labelled “hostile politics,” meaning
resisting participatory mobilization and empowerment and “viable or amenable to change,”
meaning fostering participation and engagement. Four scenarios were created. These were
1) ministry-run, hijacked by politicians; 2) ministry-run, but projects succeed as there is no
political interference; 3) market- and multi-stakeholder e-health sabotaged by favoritism
(read: corruption); and 4) market- and multi-stakeholder that succeeds because of
technological and social innovation by participants. Government mainly plays the role of
setting the standards.
In this project, the scenarios developed in the multi-variable method were tested by the
double variable method.
Figure 2. e-health futures: the double variable method
The double variable method is excellent for strategy development; however, it is crucial to
debate the key variables. Its weakness is that no outlier scenario is developed.
The third scenario method is developed by James Dator. It articulates scenario archetypes
(Dator 1979). These are:
•Continued Growth — where current conditions are enhanced: more products, more roads,
more technology, and a greater population. More growth is considered the solution to every
•Collapse — this future emerges as “Continued Growth” fails. The contradictions are too
great: between the economy and nature; between men and women; between the speculative
and the real economy; between religious, secular and postmodern approaches; and between
technology and culture.
•Steady State — this future seeks to arrest growth and find a balance in the economy and
with nature. It is a balanced, softer and fairer society. Community is decisive in this future.
Steady State is both back to nature and back to the past. Human values are first here. Endless
growth — cities, an expanding population, technology — is often seen as the problem.
•Transformation — this future seeks to change the basic assumptions of the other three.
Transformation comes about either through dramatic technological change (artificial intelligence
eliminates the bureaucracy and many forms of governance; genetics changes the nature of
nature, for example) or through spiritual change (humans change their consciousness through
experience of deep transcendence).
PROJECT THAT SUCCEEDS
MINISTRY–RUN E-HEALTH PROJECT THAT IS
HIJACKED BY POLITICIANS
MARKET AND PUBLIC–LED E-HEALTH
THAT SUCCEEDS. GOVERNMENT SETS
MARKET–LED E-HEALTH PROJECT WITH POLITICS
SABOTAGING LONG TERM BECAUSE
This approach is easy to use as the assumptions of the future are provided; one only needs
to fill in the details of the scenario for the nation, institution or organization in question.
Developed by Peter Schwartz (1995; 1996) of the Global Business Network, the fourth
model of scenario writing is focused on the organizational. The scenario structure is composed
of four variables: best case (what the organization aspires to); worst case (where everything
goes bad); outlier (a surprise future based on a disruptive emerging issue) and business as
usual (no change). This model is best used when working in a particular organization, where
there is a shared culture.
In a recent workshop for a Malaysian university, the business-as-usual scenario involved
funding by the government with a curriculum developed by the professors. In the worst case,
because of globalization, the university becomes irrelevant and closes down. In the best case,
the university becomes the preferred technical university, the MIT of the nation with community,
industry, academics, staff and alumni all engaged stakeholders. In the outlier scenario, the
university ceases to be government- and academic-run but rather becomes more à la carte,
The fifth scenario technique has four dimensions: the preferred, the world we want; the
disowned, the world that we reject or are unable to negotiate; the integrated, where owned and
disowned are united in a complex fashion; and last is the outlier, the future outside of these
categories. Continuing the Malaysian university example, the preferred was an Integration of
University and Industry, seen by many as “The Way.” The disowned was the individual and
competition, or “Separate ways.” The Integrated was “Our way,” wherein one plus one equals
three. Industry and university create interdependence, needing each other they create a new
way. In the outlier scenario, there is economic collapse, as everyone moves to survival mode. It
is “no way” (see Table 2).
Table 2. Schwartz’s scenario model
Scenarios Preferred Disowned Integrated Outlier
Description Economic growth Economic decline Economic transformation Economic collapse
System Seamless system Antagonistic systems Synergy between stakeholders System disintegrated
Worldview Interdependence Independence Integration Survival
Metaphor The way Separate ways Our way No way
Transforming the Future
The final pillar is Transformation. Three methods are crucial: 1) visioning; 2) backcasting; and
3) transcend — resolving conflicts between visions. In transformation, the future is narrowed
toward the preferred. Which future do individuals desire? Which futures do organizations, cities
and nations desire?
Visions and visioning are foundational to the field. Visions work by pulling people along. They
give individuals and groups a sense of the possible. They also inspire the noble within each
person by calling individuals to sacrifice the short term for the longer term, for the greater good.
Finally, they help align individual goals with institutional goals. An organisation or nation or
civilisation without a compelling vision of the future and a conviction that agency is possible will
decline, argues Fred Polak in his The Image of the Future (1972).
To develop a vision, there are three methods: analytically through scenarios, via questioning,
and through creative visualization.
In the scenario process, the preferred future is the best case. In the questioning process,
individuals are interrogated as to the nature of a preferred day in their life in the future. They
might be asked: What happens once you wake up? What does your home look like? What type
of technologies do you use? Who do you live with? What is the design of your home? What
types of building materials were used? Do you go to work? What does work look like? What do
you eat? These questions force individuals to think in more detail about the world they would
like to live in.
The preferred future can also be discerned through a process of creative visualization. In
this process, individuals are asked to close their eyes and enter a restful state. From there, in
their mind’s eye, they take steps to a hedge or wall (the number of steps is based on how many
years into the future they wish to go). Over the hedge is the preferred future. They walk into that
future. The facilitator asks them for details such as: Who is there? What does the future look
like? What can you see, smell, hear, touch, taste? This exercise articulates the future from the
right brain — it is more visual — accessing the unconscious.
The three visioning methods — the analytic scenario, the questioning, and the creative
visualization — are then triangulated to develop a more complete view of the future.
The vision can then be backcasted. Developed by Elise Boulding (Boulding and Boulding 1995),
backcasting works by moving individuals into the preferred future — or any particular scenario,
for example, the worst case. We then ask, in the instance of the preferred, what happened in
the last twenty years to bring us to today? What were the trends and events that created today?
Backcasting fills in the space between today (the future) and the past. Doing so makes the
future far more achievable. The necessary steps to achieve the preferred future can then be
enacted. This can be done via a plan or via action learning steps, where a process of
experimentation begins to create the desired future. This can be a budgeted-for transition
strategy or a full-scale reengineering.
Backcasting as well can be used to avoid the worst-case scenario. Once the steps that led
to the worst-case scenario are developed, then strategies to avoid that scenario can be
Conflict between visions
What happens, though, when there is conflict between visions of the future? Johan Galtung’s
transcend method (1998) (Figure 3) is an excellent way forward (see www. transcend. org). It
focuses not on compromise, or far worse, withdrawal, but on finding win–win solutions. To do
so, all the issues that are contested in the two visions need to be spelled out. And then
through a process of brainstorming, creating alternatives, new ways to integrate the visions can
occur. In one city case study, one stakeholder group desired a green sustainable city; another
Donald Petit, Star trails
group, a far more exciting modern, international and glamorous city. Through the transcend
method, the greens understood that their city would become boring. They thus realized that the
glamorous vision was a way to recover that aspect of their disowned personalities, but also that
the modern dimension of the city could help them innovate. The modernists understood that
without sustainability as a guiding principal there would be no way forward for anyone: each
aspect of the vision needed the other. A more integrative vision was articulated, using this
method, from which strategies could be developed.
Figure 3. The Transcend method
QUESTIONING THE FUTURE
The Six Pillars process can also be reduced to the following simple questions. The questions in
themselves are a method: a way to question the future. They can be used to help individuals
and organizations to embark on transformation.
1. What is the history of the issue? Which events and trends have created the present?
2. What are your projections of the future? If current trends continue, what will the future
3. What are the hidden assumptions of your predicted future? Are there some things taken
for granted (about gender, or nature or technology or culture)?
4. What are some alternatives to your predicted or feared future? If you change some of
your assumptions, what alternatives emerge?
5. What is your preferred future?
6. How did you get here? What steps did you take to realize the present?
The final question is based on CLA:
7. Is there a supportive narrative, a story? If not, create a metaphor or story that can
provide cognitive and emotive support for realizing the desired future.
Withdrawal Green City
Sustainable and Innovative
To conclude, futures studies — research — is concerned not only with forecasting the future,
interpreting the future and critiquing the future, but also with creating not just the possibility but
the reality of alternative worlds, alternative futures. Through structured methods, the emergence
of new visions and strategies result. The Six Pillars approach provides a conceptual and
methodological framework for this journey.
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FROM A FOCUS ON PREDICTING THE FUTURE,THE MODERN DISCIPLINE OF FUTURES
STUDIES HAS BROADENED TO AN EXPLORATION OF ALTERNATIVE FUTURES AND DEEPENED
TO INVESTIGATE THE WORLDVIEWS AND MYTHOLOGIES THAT UNDERLIE POSSIBLE,PROBABLE
AND PREFERRED FUTURES. THIS CHAPTER PROVIDES A CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR THE
STUDY OF THE FUTURE. CASE STUDIES DERIVED FROM ORGANIZATIONAL,INSTITUTIONAL
AND NATIONAL FORESIGHT STUDIES ARE USED TO ILLUSTRATE THEORIES AND METHODS.
Professor Sohail Inayatullah is a political
scientist/futurist at the Graduate Institute of
Futures Studies, Tamkang University, Taiwan;
and the Centre of Policing, Intelligence and
Counter Terrorism, Macquarie University,
Sydney. He is also an associate with Mt
Eliza Executive Education, Melbourne
Business School, where he co-teaches a bi-
annual course entitled, “Futures thinking and
He is one of the 2010 Laurel award
winners for all-time best futurists as voted by
the Shaping Tomorrow foresight network, an
association of 2900 foresight professionals.
He received his doctorate from the University
of Hawaii in 1990. In March 2011, he
received an honorary doctorate from the
Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.
He has worked with hundreds of
organizations and institutions throughout the
world including the Government of Malaysia,
Ministry of Higher Education; the Australian
Government, Department of Agricultural,
Fisheries and Forestry; Samsung Press
Foundation; BRAC Bangladesh; the
Australian Federal Police; and Health
Professor Inayatullah has
authored/edited thirty books (with titles
such as Questioning the Future; The
University in Transformation; Youth Futures;
Macrohistory and Macrohistorians; and
Alternative Educational Futures). He has
written journal special issues, CD-ROMs and
over 350 journal articles and book chapters,
as well as contributed to the Oxford
Encyclopedia of Peace, the Routledge
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Macmillan
Encyclopedia of the Future and the Unesco
Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems.