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Futures Ireland: A Case Study in Building Futures Literacy

  • Ecole des Ponts Business School; University of New Brunswick; University of Stavanger
  • National Economic and Social Council, Dublin, Ireland

Abstract and Figures

When an explorer seeks to discover “uncharted” territory or an innovator to invent something so far unknown, they do not know what they will find – otherwise it would not be exploration. But what they do have are tools and methods, ways of guiding their efforts so that they do not wander in circles or “reinvent the wheel”. When thinking about the future, foresight techniques are the equivalent of the explorer’s Mercator projection and innovator’s good research methods. The following case study of the FuturesIreland project offers an example of an ambitious, cutting edge approach to applying the techniques of foresight to thinking about the future of Ireland. At the heart of this exercise in strategic foresight was a collaborative learning process that combined the insights of people throughout Ireland – from government, business and civil society. These people worked together in a participatory, action research process that revealed both the current and emergent anticipatory assumptions – images of the future – that play a critical role in formulating and making policy for Ireland. The future of Ireland project (FuturesIreland) generated new knowledge using effective and familiar scientific methods for accumulating and testing insights into our complex emergent reality.
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Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
FuturesIreland: A Case Study in Building Futures Literacy
By Riel Miller, Larry O’Connell, and Rory O’Donnell1
Section 1 – Introduction: The Challenges of FuturesIreland
When an explorer seeks to discover “uncharted” territory or an innovator to invent
something so far unknown, they do not know what they will find – otherwise it would not
be exploration. But what they do have are tools and methods, ways of guiding their efforts
so that they do not wander in circles or “reinvent the wheel”. When thinking about the
future, foresight techniques are the equivalent of the explorer’s Mercator projection and
innovator’s good research methods. The following case study of the FuturesIreland
project offers an example of an ambitious, cutting edge approach to applying the
techniques of foresight to thinking about the future of Ireland.
At the heart of this exercise in strategic foresight was a collaborative learning process that
combined the insights of people throughout Ireland – from government, business and
civil society. These people worked together in a participatory, action research process that
revealed both the current and emergent anticipatory assumptions – images of the future –
that play a critical role in formulating and making policy for Ireland. The future of
Ireland project (FuturesIreland) generated new knowledge using effective and familiar
scientific methods for accumulating and testing insights into our complex emergent
In particular, FuturesIreland was designed as a strategic policy research project that
integrated into the core of its analytical processes three important hypotheses about the
nature of the changes occurring in the present.
1 Riel Miller is a specialist in long-run strategic thinking, foresight theory and practice. As a global foresight design
consultant he works closely with clients to develop and implement state-of-the-art action-research and strategic decision
making processes. For over twenty-five years his work has concentrated on how to assess and direct the potential for
socio-economic transformation in the private and public sectors. Between 1995 and 2005 Riel worked as a Principal
Administrator in the International Futures Programme at the OECD. In 2005 he launched his own consulting
company, xperidox futures consulting. His clients include governments and multi-national corporations around the
world. He is also a faculty member at the Masters of Public Affairs, Sciences-Po, Paris and teaches regularly in leading
business schools and universities.
Larry O´Connell was appointed Senior Economist to the National Economic and Social Council of Ireland (NESC)
Secretariat in March 2007. His work to date has focused on industrial organisation, innovation and the
internationalization of Irish industry. Larry was formerly head of Research and Policy Development with the National
Centre for Partnership and Performance and Greencore Newman Scholar in Competitive Advantage at University
College Dublin. His work has produced an eclectic and customized account of Irish economic development. He has
looked closely at the role of local and regional clustering, international networks and organisational structures and
practices in key sectors of the Irish economy. In 2001 he received his PhD for his work in this area. Larry is currently
working on the Futures Ireland project.
Rory O’Donnell is Director of the National Economic and Social Council of Ireland (NESC) and Chief Officer of the
National Economic and Social Development Office (NESDO). In his work as Economist and later Director at NESC
he has prepared the analysis that underpins Ireland’s social partnership approach to economic and social policy and has
written extensively on partnership. He was Jean Monet Professor of Business at the Smurfit Business School, University
College Dublin; where he edited a review of Ireland’s first 25 years in the EU, Europe The Irish Experience (Institute
of European Affairs, 2000) and co-authored Europe’s Experimental Union: Rethinking Integration (Routledge, 2000).
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
The first, perhaps least evident transformation is in the theory of knowledge
underlying social science. Recent developments in the theories of complexity,
evolution and even physics open up new ways of thinking about social change.
Research (including by authors in this volume) bringing together methodologies from
the social and natural sciences has sparked new insights regarding the properties of
complex systems. Like the Copernican and Newtonian “revolutions” that transformed
the way people looked at the world and tried to understand it, the current change
may (or may not) take centuries before it completely alters everyday perceptions of
causality and choice. The main point for the design of FuturesIreland was to embrace
from the outset and consistently throughout the process the recognition of the
fundamental indeterminacy of complex system. As Prigogine expressed it: “the
present does not determine the future.”i Serendipity, discovery, inspiration and
creative imagination all unconspire to render each moment distinct and, in many of
its attributes, fundamentally indeterminate until it happens. Creativity is part of our
The second transformation is in the socio-economic context. The financial crisis of
2008/2009 signaled more than the collapse of a series of speculative bubbles; it can be
seen as symptomatic of the difficult process of breaking away from the industrial era.
Nations, regions, even the planet as a whole are beginning to function in new ways.
Traditional boundaries are blurring as the birth, death, entry and exit of networks -
communities of actors - becomes significantly more fluid. There is also greater
emphasis on strategic experimentation, flexibility and the capacity to both inspire and
use our creativity. There are many signs of new and emergent systems, although the
overarching patterns may not have fully coalesced yet. One of the primary challenges
for FuturesIreland was to offer new ways of making sense of the present by exploring
what and how people imagine the future. FuturesIreland aimed to discover the words,
stories and new ways of understanding systemic emergence and coherence in order to
identify choices based on a deeper understanding of the transformations occurring in
today’s socio-economic context.
The third transformation, shaped by the two preceding ones, is about changes in the
way we think about change. This is a shift from predictive, planning based
anticipatory systems to ones that are more pluralistic (or multi-ontological) – capable
of integrating both deterministic and non-deterministic decision making. In part
FuturesIreland was designed to detect and gain a deeper understanding of emergent
“post-industrial” decision-making systems, many of which take a heterarchical and
creative form that depends on imagination and spontaneity. This means that one of
the main analytical challenges for FuturesIreland was to seek throughout Irish society
for evidence of experimentation, spontaneity and the use of complexity. Planning to
entice the unplanned, FuturesIreland was designed to “walk the talk” of new
approaches to discovery and creative deliberation.
Rooted in an awareness of this threefold transformation, FuturesIreland was also about
building new capacities and skills for thinking about the future by producing original,
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
rigorously sourced research results that provide a richer understanding of Ireland’s
context – locally and globally. FuturesIreland was designed as an innovative process
meant to enhance the capacity to both create the conditions, in terms of new knowledge
and new skills, and make the appropriate decisions that take fuller advantage of the
history, resources and aspirations of Ireland. As an action-research and experimentalist
endeavour FuturesIreland was an inherently ambitious and risky project. To succeed it
had to create a process that met four targets with respect to: legitimacy, rigour,
communications, and capacity-building:
Legitimacy. FuturesIreland could only succeed if it was deeply rooted in the creation of
“collective intelligence”ii – not just the collection of data or a survey of the impressive
acquired know-how of its diverse participants – but a living conversation that
produced new sense making and invention. FuturesIreland had to be able to tap into
and genuinely reflect or represent the practices and experiments, for instance in
heterarchical decision making, that offer evidence of emergent systems. To find
resonance and sustain confidence Futures Ireland had to ‘walk-the-talk’ by being open
in the creation of its role, seeking new and unfamiliar ways of engaging in its work.
FuturesIreland needed to be as fluid and ready to embrace complexity and
spontaneity as the open learning networks it was creating. FuturesIreland addressed
this challenge from the outset, ensuring that in its basic design there was a careful
matching between the appropriate tool (engagement, analytical reflection, debate,
formalization, etc.) and the well-defined tasks (“rigorous imagining”iii and research
based strategic conversations) at each stage of the process.
Rigour. In order to effectively imagine the unexplored potential and patterns of
emergent social orders – FuturesIreland needed to use the latest developments in
social science methodology. Realising the overall objective of knowledge creation
required a combination of elements. On one side there was an important place of for
probabilistic methodologies that when specified on the basis of clear theoretical
assumptions and hypothesis,can use historical data series offer one (extrapolative) way
of imagining the future. On the other side there were creative methods that helped to
address the dual challenge that arises when trying to imagine the potential of the
present: first overcoming the constraints on imagination set by the language, patterns
and assumptions of the past, and second finding ways to develop novel frames that
liberate the imagination without falling into fantasy or extrapolation. FuturesIreland
used a series of creative techniques for facilitating strategic discussions. Careful
attention was paid to sense making processes using methods like “rigorous imagining”
that enrich participant’s cognitive landscape step by step.
Communication. Humans comprehend the world, in part, by telling stories. These are
the narratives told, more or less explicitly, when we wake up in the morning and set
out on our daily routine or when we decide to undertake a course of study or
purchase shares on the stock market or run up debt to buy a house. These stories,
told and acted out in the present, often contain anticipatory assumptions – specific
imagined futures. Sometimes this is a private or idiosyncratic future, but most often
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
the people of a community share common stories, weaving together the same
protagonists and plots. From this perspective one of the keys to the success of
FuturesIreland was generating the research foundations for new stories that speak to
people’s lives. This could not be a single vision or map that imposed one story or
terrain (stage/context for the story). Rather the approach adopted by FuturesIreland
was about producing knowledge, creating the shared elements, the components of
many stories, told at many levels (personal, local, national, regional, global) that could
intertwine and continuously evolve. The stories need to be varied and fluid. They
must also integrate imagination, complexity and, critically, the depth of knowledge of
the variety of communities participating in FuturesIreland.
Capacity building. FuturesIreland, in order to meet its ambitious terms of reference, had
to address the concrete choices faced by Ireland and the world today in the context of
global transformation. These choices were, from the point of view of potential
collective action by a nation like Ireland, largely about building shared capabilities
across organizations and communities (the codes and roads that connect people in
Ireland). Like the diffusion of alpha-numeric literacy throughout society during the
19th and 20th centuries the existence of individuals with such underlying capabilities
alter what is possible, imaginable and doable. Similarly FuturesIreland was designed
to help build foresight capacity within Ireland by detecting the emergent meanings of
the economic, social, governance, ecological, technological, scientific and
organizational challenges. The process was designed to make sense of phenomena not
only at the centre and periphery of current frames but crucially to discover through
invention, creative becoming, novel ways of making sense of the world around us
(exploratory futures, as opposed to contingent or optimization futures).
Section 2: The Origins and Focus of FuturesIreland
FuturesIreland had its origin in the final report of the Information Society Commission
(ISC). In that report the Commission proposed that, following its work on information
technology, a wider foresight exercise on the ‘knowledge society’ be undertaken. It identified
a number of factors that should inform such an exercise and a number of themes that
might be explored. These are summarised in Box 1. In the 2006 national agreement,
Towards 2016, the Irish Government stated that a knowledge society foresight initiative,
focusing on Ireland’s advance to the innovation-driven stage of socio-economic
development, would be undertaken by the National Economic and Social Development
Office (NESDO). NESDO began work on this in 2007.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
Box 1
Shaping the Knowledge Foresight Exercise: Information Society Commission
The Information Society Commission made a number of suggestions on factors which
should be taken into account or explored in wider knowledge society foresight
exercise. These included:
Adopt a holistic perspective: The need for a small country like Ireland to view its role in a
holistic way, and to take the longer-term perspective necessary to mobilize and
concentrate resources effectively around a sustainable path of development.
Focus on the capacity to deal with uncertainty: Referring to the work of the German
sociologist Ulrich Beck, it suggested that people and organisations in the twenty-first
century will increasingly require the capacity and confidence to navigate an
environment characterised by ambiguity, uncertainty, unpredictability and
Find new or novel solutions: It argued that many of the more complex issues presented by
the digital era can be understood as problem situations for which solutions lie largely
outside current ways of operating.
Learn continuously: The ISC argued that the challenges the digital era the development
of new know-how, and new models of organisation and ways of learning. It noted that
thriving in a changing environment demands experimentation, learning about what is
effective, and dispensing with the expendable.
Develop full potential: The report pointed to the broader societal implications associated
with the digital era and information technology and the need to develop the full
potential of our human resources as the crucial issue.
Support user-centred learning: It suggested that the challenge of bringing about the
comprehensive availability of personalized (or user-centred) lifelong learning
opportunities is one that will require new ways of thinking and operating, system-wide
innovation, and a wider acceptance of responsibility by all stakeholders.
Capture the changing network relationship between Government, society and economy: Government
and citizens are increasingly operating in a network society in which they are
becoming more and more equal and in which the strength of government is
determined by the delivery of quality and by the joint creation and sharing of policy.
Indeed policy can be said to be a coproduction”.
Source: Derived from Learning to Innovate Repercieving the Global Information Society, pp. 54-55, Information
Society Commission, 2005.
The Distinctive Focus of FuturesIreland
A significant number of ‘futures’ studies have taken place in Ireland over the last 10 years.
Some of these are listed in Box 2. Most such studies identify existing and possible trends
and drivers of change and then use these to generate a number of scenarios. The
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
scenarios shape debate among a range of stakeholders about future possibilities and policy
challenges. A notable feature of many futures studies is that, while they identify three or
four scenarios, they conclude by observing that the actual outcome—and whether it is a
good or bad one for Ireland—will depend on how business, the state and society interact.
Will business be able to draw on individual and collective capabilities formed in society
and the public education system? Will both business and society be able to rely on the
public system to provide order, high-quality infrastructure, good regulation and
responsive policy? Will the democratic and administrative system find individuals, social
groups and economic interests willing to participate and cooperate in making public
choices and producing public goods? Most of the existing scenarios studies finish by
noting the important connections between these three, but were not or are not in a
position to explore them to any great degree.
Box 2
Foresight Work In Ireland
A number of futures studies have been undertaken in recent years. These studies provide
insight into key trends and drivers of change:
Socio-economic scenarios 2025 (Forfás, forthcoming 2009)
Public Service 2022 (IPA, 2008)
Scenarios for Ireland 2030 (DIT Futures Academy, 2008)
Marine Foresight Exercise (Marine Institute, 2006)
Imagineering Ireland: Future Scenarios for 2030 (DIT Futures Academy, 2005)
Rural Ireland 2025 (Teagasc, UCD & NUI Maynooth, 2005)
Engineering a Knowledge Island 2020 (Engineers Ireland, 2005)
Borders, Midland and Western Regional Foresight 2025 (BMW Regional Assembly,
Dublin City Foresight 2015 (DIT Futures Academy, 2003)
Technology Foresight (Forfás, 1999).
Some of these studies have led to important policy decisions. In particular, the
Knowledge Society Foresight, undertaken by Forfas in 1999, led to the creation of
Science Foundation Ireland, which has been a conduit for dramatically increased funding
for scientific research in Irish third level institutions.
Rather than replicate existing futures work, FuturesIreland project sought to build on and
complement these studies in four ways.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
! The point of departure was not particular trends and drivers, instead FuturesIreland
focused explicitly on how people and organizations respond to change and
uncertainty. In particular, the project focused on innovation and learning and how
they occur in the context of uncertainty and ambiguity.
! In particular FuturesIreland was concerned with the interaction between wealth
creation, society and public governance—a theme on which other futures studies tend
to finish.
Two other, methodological, features also distinguished this project from existing futures
and scenarios work:
! Network thinking and analysis were used, reflecting our sense that networks are
increasingly prevalent in efforts to address new and complex problems in a context of
uncertainty and ambiguity;
! It was decided to base much of the work on people’s experience of innovation and
learning in current Irish conditions. This reflected our belief that experience of
problem solving and innovation, and of the challenges involved, would help reveal the
conditions of learning. The idea is that observing and chronicaling current practices
can help insipre the creativity needed to develop new analytical and narrative frames,
which in turn alters the significance of phenomena given the new sense making
This overall approach reflected an intuition that the way we typically describe the
challenges facing Ireland’s public governance—and maybe even the way they are
analyzed and understood—might be refreshed and reframed by taking more account of
what is happening in society and business.
Section 3: The Futures Literacy Approach and the Organization of
As already noted both FutureIreland’s focus and its approach to foresight were built on
the foundation of past practices, in Ireland and elsewhere2, as well as several recent
advances in methodology and project design. The Futures Literacy approach that was
adopted to guide design and implementation of FuturesIreland was based on a successful
and recognized track record for the “hybrid strategic scenario” method3. The HSS
method builds Futures Literacy by mixing learning-by-doing with intensive use of cutting
edge social science. The HSS method is “hybrid” because the specific way of engaging in
strategic foresight conversations or bringing research into the process is adapted to the
specific context, the specific participants and tasks. One of the reasons for using a Futures
"!E.g. Norway and New Zealand.
3 Riel Miller, “Futures Literacy: A Hybrid Strategic Scenario Method”, Futures: the journal of policy, planning and
future studies, 39, Elsevier, Pp. 341-362, May 2007 and “From Trends to Futures Literacy: Reclaiming the Future”,
Centre for Strategic Education, Seminar Series Papers, No. 160, Melbourne, Australia, December 2006.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
Literacy approach was that it addressed the limitations, particularly for policy making, of
foresight processes built around divergent probabilistic and/or normative scenarios.
The trouble with stories about the future, based either on trends or a range of good to
bad normative outcomes, is generally twofold. First stories of “likely futures” often take
existing sense making frames or models as given and use them to produce extrapolations
of the past and present. Typically the future is a “better”, more efficient version of the
present. For instance a future that is “green” because CO2 emitting technologies have
been replaced by non-CO2 emitting technologies – everything else remains pretty much
the same. This can be useful for a number of planning or optimization purposes, but
tends to either obscure or simply miss the challenge of reframing or providing a different
basis for making sense of the present. Little explicit consideration is given to the one thing
we know for certain: that there will be changes in the conditions of change (i.e. in the
frames/models we use to make sense of the world around us).
The second problem, compounded by the first, is that divergent probabilistic and/or
normative scenarios are usually built, more or less explicitly, using a variety of models or
disciplinary perspectives. This is considered appropriate because it offers a more
“realistic” story of the “highly complex” future. Unfortunately what this often translates
into in practice is a confused narrative, where different, at times incompatible models,
assumptions and levels of analysis are assembled into an intriguingly rich set of scenarios.
Only the result is frequently unintelligible for decision making or policy analysis. Here
again the failure to explicitly address the challenge of changes in the conditions of change,
i.e. the invention of new sense-making models/frames, impoverishes the foresight exercise
and makes it more difficult to build explicit bridges to the discourse of policy and the
imperatives of decision making.
FuturesIreland was designed from the outset as a rigorous exploratory research exercise
based on the Futures Literacy (FL) approach and HSS method noted earlier. FL is an
overarching design framework that helps to guide customisation at each step in the
process in order to construct and then connect imaginative, analytically coherent strategic
scenarios to policy discourse and decision making processes in the present. The findings
and methods of scientific research are the source of both the design principles and content
of a FL approach. Table 1 outlines, very succinctly, the general framework of a FL
process, one that is simultaneously an action-research methodology and a capacity
building exercise.
By taking a carefully selected, diverse set of participants through an FL learning process
FuturesIreland used the in-depth knowledge of participants to co-produce a clearer
picture of both current and alternative anticipatory assumptions about Ireland. As leading
researchers and decision makers worked their way through the challenges posed by
FuturesIreland using an FL approach they at first expose and then co-produce the way
they both think about and use the future in order to understand and make choices in the
present. Jointly they construct a shared understanding, a way of making sense of the
future that respects their knowledge of specific subjects and places while also finding
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
common threads and systemic coherence across disciplines4. Such sense making, or
mapping, is a technique for detecting emergent and systemic changes in complex
evolutionary organisations like Ireland and the society in which it operates.
However, this cognitive developmental process, even when able to capture a wide range
of phenomena and generate highly creative/imaginative conversations, is not sufficient.
Two critical ingredients are missing. The first is the need in the context of a foresight
exercise for more explicit treatment of the future as a multidimensional reality (multi-
ontology) and of the distinct anticipatory systems (epistemologies) used to generate
inevitably imaginary futures. The second is the construction of non-ergodic sense-making
frames – or ways of thinking that take the point-of-view of a world already changed by
changes in the conditions of change. This latter challenge is about thinking in terms of
systemic discontinuity. Yet doing so in ways that remain comprehensible to the policy and
decision making realities of the sponsors and participants in the foresight exercise. This
was one of the foremost design challenges for FuturesIreland. A challenge that the
Futures Literacy approach addresses explicitly and which FuturesIreland successfully
tackled with, as discussed below, the forumlation of a specific theoretical framework for
making sense of the result of the cognitive processes.
The FL action-research process goes through three phases of jointly produced learning-
by-doing. FuturesIreland was designed to move participants through these different
Level 1 FL activities build awareness using custom-built catalysts that summarise the
latest research assessments (horizon scans) of key phenomena as well as the absence of
phenomena (what does not happen is often as important as what does). Participants in
FuturesIreland shared their expectations and aspirations by projecting themselves into
Ireland’s future.
Level 2 shifts the process of sense making into a more explicitly creative but still
rigorously structured phase. In Level 2 participants deepen their Futures Literacy by
combining inputs that summarise leading edge policy analysis/goals with social science
theories/evidence to create the parameters for imagining distinctive and operationally
detailed scenarios of future outcomes. These models use technically exacting, research-
based specifications of key descriptive variables and metrics. The models are produced in
an iterative manner, on parallel and inter-acting tracks, that include a broad cross-section
of innovators, researchers and practitioners. Out of this process participants developed
stories, imaginative outcome scenarios5 of Ireland, that move beyond extrapolative
5 These scenarios avoid the pitfalls experienced by many such exercises by subjecting the analysis to stringent analytical
parameters that exclude futures that take the forms of: good versus bad versus muddling through; high versus medium
versus low rates of growth in key or dominant variables; and path a, path b, path c, etc.. These Level 2 strategic
scenarios are descriptive (not causal), comparative static, iso-probable and iso-desirable; hence they are on a common
basis of comparison and are solely differentiated on the basis of operational (institutional, behavioural, cultural)
grounds. Subjecting the scenario exercise to these analytical constraints is critical for ensuring a tight connection to both
the findings and methods of social science as well as the technically sophisticated discourse of policy making.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
anticipatory assumptions to explore emergent alternative systems. These rich strategic
scenarios set the stage for the policy debates of the next phase of the “futures literacy”
Table 1. The Three Phases of a Futures Literacy Process.
Level 1
Temporal awareness, shifting both values
and expectations from tacit to explicit –
builds the capacity of participants to define
and refine the specific topics for
Level 2
Rigorous Imagining (RI) involves two
distinct challenges – imagination and
rigour, the former in order to push the
boundaries and the latter so that what is
imagined is “scientific” and intelligible
Level 3
Strategic scenarios aimed at questioning
the assumptions used to make decisions in
the present, not as targets to plan-by but to
provide new insights into actions that
might alter the potential of the present
Level 3 builds directly on the insights of Levels 1 and 2 to bring forward the similarities
and differences across the range of anticipatory models being used to make decisions in
the present. In this phase, once again, the refinement of ideas and insights through
structured deliberative processes is a critical part of the action-research methodology and
the development of Futures Literacy. Thinking through the implications for policy at this
stage in the process calls for a consideration of the nature of collective choices outside the
existing systemic anticipatory assumptions. And indeed, as the final report of the
FuturesIreland process shows, the conclusions deal extensively with aspects of governance
that go beyond what has historically been considered the means and jurisdiction of “the
state” or “the individual”.
Level 3 is also designed to produce innovative propositions about the ways in which the
questions “what do you expect” and “what do you desire” influence what is imaginable
and doable. This allows for a reconsideration of the discussions that occurred at Level 1
and helps set the stage for a debate about what is policy relevant. Level 3 closes by
developing more than an imaginative set of scenarios, it offers ways of distinguishing
initiatives (policies) that address change in its intra-, inter- and extra-systemic dimensions.
This put FuturesIreland in a good position, in its final report, to present robust and
innovative findings that addressed the question of the future of Ireland with a greater
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
awareness of both the anticipatory assumptions that set many of the parameters for
choice and the range of potential initiatives that serve as the menu for action.
FuturesIreland: Organizational Attributes
FuturesIreland was a learning-by-doing process, made up of series of structured and
cumulative research steps. FuturesIreland created a community of researchers and
decision makers, who took a voyage of discovery together. This means that as an
exploratory process FuturesIreland could not pre-judge its findings. Rather, participants
discovered the attributes of systemic change and the features of complex, evolutionary
emergence that are pertinent to Ireland.
FuturesIreland had a three part organizational structure – two types of deliberative bodies
(the National Advisory Panel and the Consultative Panel), a panel of international
experts, and an analytical and logistical team that provided the inputs, collected findings,
authored papers, and attended to the organizational parts of the process. The Steering
Committee’s role was to ensure: a) the integrity of the process with respect to scientific
standards and methods; b) the effective representation of the views of Irish society; and c)
the diffusion of the findings. The Consultative Panel undertook an action-research
Futures Literacy process. The panel of international experts contributed key aspects of
the (re)framing for the different stages of the process. The Analytical and Logistical Team
pulled it all together, an ambitious process like FuturesIreland required a clear, efficient
and managerially effective organisational structure and secretariat.
National Advisory Panel. The 23-member Advisory Panel consisted of high-level actors and
leaders drawn from across the Irish economy, society and the public sector. It was chaired
by Peter Cassells, Chairman of the National Centre for Partnership and Performance
(NCPP) and former General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Reflecting
its composition, it focused on the national dimensions of the work and possible
implications for national policy and development. On several occasions, it discussed the
evidence generated in the Consultative Panel and the ideas emerging from the work of
the international experts.
The Consultative Panel. The 170 members in the Consultative Panel were chosen because of
their track-record and creative ideas about life and work in Ireland. They were selected
from all areas of Irish society: business and technology, education, health, environment,
community groups, the arts and young people. Members of the Advisory Panel helped to
identify innovative actors who might participate and others were identified through desk-
research. Each of the 170 people on the Consultative Panel contributed three days to the
International Experts. Four international experts worked on the project at various times. Dr
Riel Miller, an economist and consultant in the design of strategic foresight, served as an
independent consultant throughout the project. Professor Carlota Perez, of the Judge
Business School in Cambridge University, and Professor Yochai Benkler, of Harvard Law
School, advised the project team on technological trends and the associated changes in
organisation, regulation and public policy. Professor Perez’s contribution included a
public lecture in April 2007, held in Trinity College Dublin, and a workshop with the
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
project team and a number of members of the Advisory Panel. The fourth international
contributor was Professors Charles Sabel, of Columbia Law School. Professor Sabel
advised on the design of our third round of inquiry with the Consultative Panel (described
below) and participated in the four days of data gathering, discussion and analysis.
Clearly the selection process for each of the key bodies in the FuturesIreland played a
fundamental role in the kinds of knowledge and interaction that occurred. This is where
the role of key initiators of the process was central: Peter Cassells, Chair of the National
Advisory Panel and major player on the Irish political field; Rory O’Donnell, Chair of the
National Economic and Development Office, a powerful thought leader and the head of
secretariat; Maureen Gaffney, Chair of the National Economic and Social Forum and a
leading thinker in Ireland, she led the input from the international expert panel; and
Paula Carey, who played a critical role in seeking out members of the consultative panel,
connecting them to the process, analysing the results of the conversations and sustaining
the learning process throughout.
Beyond the diffusion of process and content knowledge that was integral to
FuturesIreland as action-research there were a number of ways in which FuturesIreland
was designed to disseminate and encourage the use of the project’s results. One was by
including a certain number of opinion leaders, journalists, artists and other
communicators within the process. Naturally they contributed to the deliberations but
were also able to help craft the messages and carry the stories that emerged from
FuturesIreland. Another was that FuturesIreland was conceived from the outset as a
social networking process and used internet based mechanisms to enhance
communication and deliberation, as well as providing content and examples for both
specialist and more general audiences.
This also meant that FuturesIreland had to be designed with effective knowledge
management principles from the outset. At each stage in the process the questions,
debates, hypotheses, contradictions, and insights had to be accumulated, refined and
given a sense that made the created knowledge useful both for the process and for
dissemination. This type of careful knowledge management put FuturesIreland in the
position to spark some “viral” communication, giving rise to memes that flow through the
noosphere. Finally, of course, there are the manifold meetings and documents that were
generated by FuturesIreland and serve as direct vehicles for the dissemination of research
findings and policy conclusions.
Section 4: FuturesIreland: Recounting the Case Study
In its early meetings the Advisory Panel identified a range of economic, social, cultural
and political challenges likely to confront Ireland in the years ahead. It highlighted the
need to both draw on past Irish experience of managing change and to develop new
thinking to cope with greater levels of complexity and ambiguity. Among these was the
need to combine democratic decision making and accountability with effective
governance of complex policy spheres and services in which expertise is a key factor.
Members suggested that Ireland was at a turning point, moving from a familiar
economic, social and policy context to a much more uncertain, and possibly less benign,
combination of economic, social and political factors.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
In the first round of work with the Consultative Panel, in December 2007 and January
2008, participants in the process were asked to describe in detail their experience of
innovating and achieving change in an uncertain environment. The approach was based
on an appreciative enquiry technique (Elliot 1999). The discussions took place in small
groups that were professionally facilitated. The evidence generated by these sessions was
used extensively for developing the frames and analysis throughout FuturesIreland.
However, two features are important for understanding the work process. First, in telling
their stories, the participants in the Consultative Panel frequently made reference not
only to the institutional or organisational context in which they worked, but also to the
nature and quality of inter-personal and professional relations, and to ‘self-knowledge’,
‘self-development’ and personal identity. Second, in many of the cases reported,
innovation and problem solving involved seeking alliances, resources and ideas from
individuals and organizations in surprisingly different spheres of work. These two
features of the early evidence led the NESDO secretariat, at the next meeting of the
Advisory Panel, to propose an analytical framework for making sense of the findings of
the FuturesIreland action research processes (described in more detail below).
In the second round of work, the members of the Consultative Panel were asked, first, to
describe their connections and networks in greater detail and, second, to imagine how
Ireland might be different in 2030. Participants were set the challenge of thinking about
three particular aspects of an imaginary Ireland in 2030: health and well-being, enterprise
and wealth creation, and education and learning. To support this, a case study was
created based loosely on the proposed Grangegorman regeneration project in Dublin.
The result was a picture of Ireland in 2030 which emphasised prosperity more centred on
quality of life and well-being, widely available information technology, more local
decision making, new forms of community involvement, preventative medicine, tailored
services available to all who need them, and experiential learning. It was notable that this
vision of a desirable future differed little from that envisaged by the members of the
Advisory Panel.
But the evidence gathered revealed a major disjuncture—between the widespread
disposition to be flexible and to learn from experience, on the one hand, and the near
despair about the limits of learning in collective endeavours, on the other. Indeed, this
disjuncture was a thread that ran through much of the evidence heard in the Consultative
Panel and became a central subject of discussion in the Advisory Panel. In May 2008 the
Advisory Panel discussed this disjuncture and explored in some detail what it would look
like to have a system that, on the one hand, allowed actors working in concrete contexts
to identify opportunities and threats and, at the same time, find a way of learning from,
and generalising, what actors close to problems are doing. Drawing on their extensive
experience at high levels in business, public policy and administration, social
organisations, the arts and academic life, the members of the Advisory Panel
acknowledged the limits of traditional command and control, but also that alternatives
are poorly defined. They emphasised the need to think deeply about the nature of
leadership, better forms of accountability and real responsibility. The members also
discussed the importance of emotional competency and the personal motivations behind
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
In order for senior actors to work out a new approach at the ‘centre’ they required a
clearer view on what is needed to achieve more learning and innovation at ‘local’ level.
Higher levels of innovation and learning seem to require greater discretion and flexibility
at the level of delivery and implementation. They also seem to be associated with an
anxiety about how to ensure compliance with legitimate standards and resources
constraints. Much discussion of how to balance the requirements for discretion with the
need for compliance proceeds from the top down: beginning with high level policy and
accountability, moving to organisational structuring and, finally, considering local
delivery and learning. For a number of reasons, the NESDO Secretariat proposed that
we should work in reverse order: explore first and foremost what local innovation and
learning look like in business, society and the public system, only then considering what
this might imply for organisational structures and accountability, and touching only
lightly on implications for broader policy, participation and democratic legitimacy.
This led the Advisory Panel to discuss the challenge of quality, standards and
accountability in systems that might empower local decision making and learning. A
recurring theme was how local learning and experimentation might be made accountable
to others. For this reason, the Secretariat decided that learning and accountability—and
the related sets of routines, arrangements, norms and practices—would be the central
focus of inquiry in the third round of the Consultative Panel meetings.
Given these orientations, the approach was to design a set of instruments and a procedure
which would gather evidence to throw light on the subject of innovation and learning in
the context of ambiguity, which was at the heart of the project, and, in particular, the
questions posed by members of the Advisory Panel. In designing the third day of
Consultative Panel work, the secretariat was informed by recent international thinking
and evidence on learning and the settings which support it. Important bodies of research
in business, public administration, regulation, law, European integration and economic
development draw attention to new approaches in which organisations of diverse kinds
handle the limitations of their own knowledge and their need to cooperate with others in
contexts of pervasive ambiguity (Gunningham, Grabosky and Sinclair 1998; Sabel 2004;
Power 2007; Sabel and Zeitlin 2008).
The aspect of this work that was of most immediate relevance in designing our work with
the Consultative Panel was the distinction between ‘compliance monitoring‘ and
‘diagnostic monitoring’ (see Box 3). Professor Charles Sabel, of Columbia University,
worked closely with the Secretariat to develop the questions and also participated in the
four days work with the 170 members of the Consultative Panel.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
Box 3
Compliance Monitoring and Diagnostic Monitoring
With compliance monitoring it is assumed, by an individual or an organisation that a
good understanding of the process exists and that, if properly executed, it will produce
the desired goal. It is also assumed that this goal actually serves the purpose to which it is
dedicated. Under those circumstances monitoring occurs by checking what is expected
at each step in the process, and ensuring people do what their instructions prescribe.
Typically, an incentive system is created that rewards people for fulfilling their
instructions and penalizes them from deviating from it. Hence the term compliance
Diagnostic monitoring is used when there is less certainty about the process by which to
achieve outcomes and/or when even the eventual outcomes are not always clear at the
beginning of a project. It requires monitoring on an ongoing basis to ensure that review
and learning, which can be described and demonstrated, are a constant feature of what
people at a local service delivery level do. This form of diagnostic monitoring and review
is increasingly prevalent. Business firms have found that they cannot ensure quality and
safety purely by writing rules; instead they insert quality and safety in the design of
products and processes and monitor closely their achievements and failures in each
phase of production and marketing. As a result business makes extensive use of range of
tools that support diagnostic monitoring— benchmarking, simultaneous engineering, six
sigma and lean, back to basics reviews, stage gates. These tools in various ways allow
business to probe for the root cause of what works and does not work, both in the
context of existing processes and new product, service or process development.
In simultaneous engineering, all parts of new design are discussed concurrently so that
the connections between the parts are adequately understood and changes made to one
part are immediately examined for their affect on others. In problem solving a
technique called 5 whys is often employed to understand or diagnose the underlying
causes of failure of underperformance. For example:
Why is machine A broken? Because no preventative maintenance was performed.
Why was the maintenance crew derelict? Because it is always repairing machine B.
Why is machine B always broken? Because the part it machines always jams.
Why does the jam recur? Because the part warps from heat stress.
Why does the part overheat? There is a design flaw in this part.
To fix the broken machine it is necessary to redesign the part in another part of the
factory, so that the repair people will be able to allocate their time in a way that allows
them to perform the preventive maintenance necessary to keep the system going. It
would have been impossible to have anticipated this, even with considerable engineering
expertise. It is likely that more than one person would be necessary to solve this problem
to get to the root cause. It might, for example, require a team that searches through the
possible explanations.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
The members of the Consultative Panel were asked to describe approaches to review,
monitoring, diagnosis and learning that they had used or seen in the course of their work.
They asked whether existing systems of review and evaluation were sometimes used as a
means to avoid or delay action. Finally, a number of questions were posed about the
capabilities, roles and responsibilities involved in their approach to review, distinguishing
between organisational, inter-personal and intra-personal levels.
Mapping and Discussing the Evidence
As noted above, a key way in which the FuturesIreland project sought to add value and
make sense of the evidence being produced by the deliberations was by exploring ways in
which three spheres—public governance, wealth creation and society—interact, since this
is identified as critical in existing futures studies. The work with the members of the
Consultative Panel highlighted a second dimension, namely the interplay between
personal experience and identity, inter-personal relations and institutions in creating the
context for innovation and learning.
In order to explore these two dimensions we adopted a simple framework, represented in
Table 2. This provided a useful way to catalogue, discuss and analyse the stories told by
the participants.
Table 2. Framework for Mapping and Discussing the Evidence.
Integration and
Although the visual presentation of the analytical framework distinguishes between
societal factors, public governance and wealth creation, it is not intended to suggest that
they are separate spheres. There is a significant sense in which markets and parts of
public governance are embedded in society (Granovetter, 1985). As the project
proceeded the focus was increasingly on the nature of the interaction between the three
spheres—a form of interaction that we labelled cross-fertilisation. The lines between the
spheres are deliberately broken in order to focus attention on what flows between them.
In the diagram public governance is placed in the centre of framework, reflecting the
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
importance for FuturesIreland of exploring whether changes in society and business can
help us rethink the challenges facing public governance.
On the vertical axis the identification of three levels—institutional, inter-personal and
intra-personal—reflects the content of the stories told within the Consultative Panel.
Almost invariably, the stories of innovation included reference to personal factors (e.g.
passion, self belief and self-understanding), inter-personal factors (e.g. relationships and
contacts) and institutional factors (e.g. willingness to challenge accepted routines, norms
or practices). Indeed, in many of the stories the dynamic combination of capabilities at
these three levels—and between social patterns, public governance and value creation—
that was cited as critical in achieving innovation and learning. In addition, where these
connections were absent, or ineffective, this often emerged as a key factor inhibiting
innovation and learning.
The central argument to emerge from FuturesIreland was that Irish people—in business,
society and public service—are ready for much greater innovation, more widespread
learning and richer accountability; but the capabilities and practices that support these
are inhibited by some features of our organisational system. This argument has
significant implications for how Ireland addresses the current acute crisis and how it lays
the foundations for future prosperity and social cohesion. The work highlighted, that as
in the 1950s and 1980s, Ireland is once again at a turning point. While there are, of
course, reasons to fear that Ireland is moving to a more uncertain and less benign
context—economically, socially and in public policy—the FuturesIreland work lends
support to a more positive view of the turning point we are in and the transition we might
This perspective on Ireland’s ability to create a learning society is derived from the four
main findings of the project.
Finding 1: New forms of cross-fertilisation between the economy, society and public
governance are increasingly evident, enhancing the ability to learn and innovate;
Finding 2: Innovation and learning are systematic, almost always combining initiative,
disciplined review and a willingness to confront challenges at three levels—institutional,
inter-personal and personal;
Finding 3: Systematic review provides the basis for both innovation and accountability,
allowing us to combine stability and radical change which is particularly relevant in a
period when we seek both stability and radical change;
Finding 4: The kind of innovation and learning we have found cannot flourish, and cannot
yield their full harvest, without profound change to our organisational systems,
particularly our systems of control and accountability.
These findings are based on evidence gathered from 170 innovators from business, social
and cultural organisations and the public service. One-hundred and sixty people told
their story in the course of the project. They included doctors, business people, parents,
teachers, university professors, inventors, students, care workers, community volunteers
and farmers.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
The evidence documented in the FuturesIreland work shows people from all sectors of
Irish life innovating in practical ways and solving problems despite numerous difficulties.
The breadth of evidence heard demonstrates that operating in this manner is possible
within many different sectors. In summarising the evidence, the FuturesIreland work
illustrates that common assumptions—about the flexible business world versus the rigid
public sector, or rigorous public organisations versus flaky NGOs—are confounded.
There were exemplar cases in business and industry, but also among people working in
education, health, planning and the arts.
Conclusion: What Does FuturesIreland Tell Us?
Can we infer from FuturesIreland? This is an incisive and valid question. Amongst the
many answers, perhaps the most telling is about innovation and learning. As was made
clear above, the group of 170 innovative actors in the Consultative panel was not a random
sample. They were selected precisely because they were people who had achieved
change and improvement in the sphere of their work. The sample selection was based,
not on drawing from across the population, but among innovators, drawing from across the
spheres of business, technology, voluntary work, culture, social organisation and,
importantly, care and public service. The hypothesis to be tested was not that everyone
is innovating and learning. In the first instance, the hypothesis was the innovation in
business and technology differed from improvement in NGOs and the public system.
More generally, the null hypothesis was that innovation, learning, autonomy and quality
of the kind achieved by modern firms are impossible, especially in Ireland’s public
system and among community and voluntary organisations. Against such an
hypothesis—swans cannot be black—finding one black swan is a real surprise and telling
Irish development is a story of black swans disproving prevailing beliefs about things
being impossible in Ireland. Nineteenth century history seemed to prove that it was
impossible to imagine Ireland being industrialised. An earlier generation of
developmentalists proved that wrong. There was good reason to think that the
voluntarist and adversarial system of industrial relations made it impossible to stabilise the
economy and handle distributional conflict. Social partnership proved that wrong. Even
in the 1980s, there was reason to believe that, while Ireland’s people are a creative and
fun-loving, it is impossible to imagine them running high technology industries. Yet a
generation of Irish engineers and agencies, working with leading firms, made Ireland a
significant centre of software and process engineering.
The current generation of impossibility beliefs are very much centred on the public
system. It is impossible to imagine Irish regulation ensuring standards and constraining
bad behaviour; or it could only do so if it severely limited discretion and innovation. It is
impossible for Irish public services to tailor what is offered to the diverse needs of citizens.
It is impossible to imagine public sector organisations undertaking intense review of day-
to-day work with a view to continuous improvement. It is impossible for voluntary
providers and local social organisations to conduct themselves in a way that bears any
resemblance to how good firms are run. The black swans who participated in the Futures
Ireland have proven each of these beliefs to be wrong.
Forthcoming: Mika Aaltonen,
Robustness: Anticipatory and Adaptive Human Systems, Spring 2010.
Of course there is still the over-arching belief that, while the Irish have surprised
themselves by being capable of using high technology, and confirmed a self-image by
continuing to create culture, the same cannot be true of organising a decent, devolved,
public system. In today’s Ireland the most prevelant hypothesis may be that it is
impossible for the centre to do what even the Government wants: to move from input
control to outcome monitoring. Although FuturesIreland does not offer definitive
evidence to the contrary, everything in the project, and indeed the world in recent years,
tells us to expect to be surprised.
i I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature, Free Press, 1997
ii See Wikipedia: George Pór, author of The Quest for Collective Intelligence (1995), defined this
phenomenon in his Blog of Collective Intelligence as "the capacity of a human community to evolve
toward higher order complexity thought, problem-solving and integration through collaboration and
iii “Futures Literacy: A Hybrid Strategic Scenario Method, Version 1.3, May 2006: Level 2 FL futures
literacy is the capacity to overcome the limitations imposed by values and expectations on thinking about
the future. It is a technique for conducting the potentially paradoxical task of “rigorous imagining”. This is
a crucial and challenging step in opening up new insights into the nature and determinants of today’s
potential. Rigorous imagining depends on carefully and consistently distinguishing possible, probable and
preferable. Such distinctions are necessary for rigorous imagining because the task of imagining possible
futures is logically and practically prior to the assessment of probabilities and preferences. Prior from a
logical perspective because preferable and probable futures are subsets of the possible. Prior from a
practical perspective since as already pointed out consideration of preferences and probabilities constrain
the imagining of possibilities.”
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