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Musings from an antipodean research retreat

by Maja Kuzmanovic & Nik Gaffney. Glenelg, Australia. 020140210 - 02140305

During February 2014 we spent a few weeks on research for Future Fabulators. We wanted to gain a better understanding of the techniques, tools and theories of 'futures studies' and if they could be applied to our work in future pre-enactments. After much practice-based research in future preparedness, we found that a more theoretical underpinning was needed, which meant that our focus was primarily on the literature. We spent the retreat in more or less uninterrupted reading, following interesting leads down often fractal rabbit holes. We attempted to answer questions that had arisen from the last few years of experiments in prehearsing the future. Our starting points were both methodological and philosophical in nature: on the one hand we wanted to know how to improve our practice of scenario building and pre-enacments with new, transdisciplinary techniques, and on the other hand we were wondering what would happen if foresight became a part of everyday life, where uncertainty is not seen as a threat but an opportunity.

To ease ourselves into the researcher's mindset, we began by seeking answers to a number of methodological questions, first related to scenario building, then to inspiration for designing better prehearsals (including improv theatre, role playing games, disaster drills and simulations). We discovered many promising tools that we’re keen to start experimenting with. Through investigating these methods we began to grasp the full shape and size of futures studies as a field: hovering at the edges of a (consulting) practice and an academic discipline, with a strong focus on methodology. We read about the history, current developments and future aspirations of the field and came to the happy conclusion that, from its origins in systems theory and the culture of prediction some fifty or sixty years ago, it seems in part to be converging with our own areas of interest: complexity, experience, awareness, uncertainty, anti-fragility, among others. The final phase of our research focused on these kindred developments in the work of such futurologists as Stuart Candy and Jose Ramos, who merge futures with design, politics and action research. Their writings helped us contextualise our work with experiential futures, understanding what has been done so far and which questions still remain open. By the end of this short period of literature research we feel we stand on much firmer ground, with new potential allies and clearer future directions. What follows is an overview of our process and findings, and can serve as an alternative way to navigate the background material on the Future Fabulators wiki.

garden studio

FoAM's garden research centre

But why…?

Since we began working with what we now call 'speculative culture' (~2009), we have crossed paths with people like Bruce Sterling, Anab Jain, Chris Luebkeman, Scott Smith, Justin Pickard, Maya van Leemput, and Stuart Candy (amongst others) who are more directly involved with futures and future studies, and may even call themselves futurists. We have seen many points of contact (and departure) with their work. Our literature survey has allowed us to see where our own endeavours stand in relation to these and other futurists, situating our practice in the wider context of futures studies. It has helped us understand where we can stand on others' shoulders, and where we have stumbled consciously or unconsciously on possible solutions or new avenues of exploration. It has helped us begin to answer why we might want to work more explicitly with futures, and allowed us to glimpse solutions to such ongoing queries as:

  • how do we foster a sense of agency when faced with volatile, unknowable futures?
  • who are our historical and contemporary peers?
  • how can we enhance a commitment to co-create preferred futures?
  • how can futures work empower people to live abundant, meaningful lives in the present?
  • what are the different forms experiential futures can take?
  • what can we add to our toolbox of methods and techniques?

We began by interviewing each other using the 5 whys technique. From this conversation it became clear that we’re interested in examining the tools and techniques that can help us adapt to uncertainty in its many guises. We believe that a culture where foresight is embedded in daily life would be more adept to living in a world of probabilities without anxiety, away from a rigidly linear 'cause and effect' perspective. Envisioning alternative futures in the present could allow us to embrace uncertainty more easily. It could also open up new possibilities to shake up the currently unacceptable status quo and attempt to steer it towards a future where holistic, inclusive and anti-fragile values prevail. We want to investigate experiential futurism as a way to (re)connect future visions with realities, where humans aren’t separate from planetary 'others'. Our conjecture is that by experiencing what it would be like to be ourselves in a range of future scenarios, we can observe our present situation more clearly, adapt to the world as it evolves, and attain the agency to navigate our present in the direction of more preferred futures.


Studying Futures

From our rather idealistic starting point, we delved into the literature of future studies, in order to generate more coherent mental maps of the field. This led us down labyrinths of military strategy and around corporate think tanks, with pathways through academic paper factories and glitzy design forecasting blogs leading us towards the future of futures and non predictive strategy. We learned buckets of jargon and came to see that futures studies has many faces, as well as curious histories and promising futures. The field seems somewhat fragmented, comprised of various schools of thought and modes of action (which in fairness, is true of many academic disciplines with one foot in the practice-based). There are some obvious geographic and linguistic differences; the Europeans (in France, Netherlands, Germany, UK) and the Americans (such as RAND or the Global Business Network), some with quite formalised methods designed for policy and strategic planning originating in the (cold) war era of the 40s and 50s and more recently looking at digitally enhanced crowdsourced futures; there is the Pacific strand with the Manoa School in Hawaii and several Australian futurist enclaves, proposing methods that are perhaps culturally and philosophically closer to what we’re interested in (such as causal layered analysis, or integral futures); and finally there's the futurists in Mexico, India, the Middle East, and parts of the Global South, with interesting views on de-colonising futures.

Scenario thinking

The first week of our research was preoccupied with methodology, since many practice-oriented questions emerged from debriefs from our scenario workshops. We had planned to investigate methods from various fields suitable for scenario development and prehearsals, but due to time constraints as well as the vastly disparate literature, we focused on scenario building and its methods. We had previously worked mainly with the double uncertainty method, where four possible futures emerge from two 'critical uncertainties' selected from a range of local factors and macro trends (aka 'drivers of change'). Although this method has proven to work well in a range of situations, we were curious to expand our toolbox, increase our ability to adapt workshops to different groups and topics. After digesting several review articles comparing different methods, we dug deeper into those that resonated with our way of working. For example causal layered analysis suggests ways to have deeper conversation about social causes, worldviews and cultural myths (resonating with Stuart Brand’s pace layers). Basically both Sohail Inayatullah and Stuart Brand talk about different layers that impact change – from the fast-paced and obvious (like fashions and technologies) to more fundamental, but also not easily measurable and often overlooked issues related to culture and nature. Jim Dator, one of the veterans of the futures field, who postulates that 'any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous', has distilled a method called four generic futures. He found that most stories about the future fall into four categories: continued growth, total collapse, a disciplined society and a transformed society (usually through technology). This method provides means for creating more 'extreme' scenarios that can spark interesting discussions. A very different method emerging from astronomy and social sciences is morphological analysis, which looks at futures as a dynamic whole, and works with permutations and relationships between change drivers that can generate large numbers of divergent scenarios and possible paths between them.

Aside from these general methods, there are several specific techniques that we investigated to help us improve aspects of the scenario process. To begin with, we want to be able to ask better questions and encourage an inquiring mind, while being aware of our cognitive biases and emotions. The questioning of questions led us towards action learning and education based on inquiry, but also to Zen Buddhists talking about the importance of preserving a beginner's mind throughout life. We also found some questioning games and tried them out in breakfast meetings. These resulted in much laughter, but also the affirmation that we want to continue scenario workshops that start with participants designing a core question, rather than bringing in a prepackaged 'burning issue’ from the outside that people might not identify with. The next step in a scenario workshop (after coming up with a good question) is understanding the past and the present of the participants' situations. We looked at how we could better structure a discussion about what is known and what is assumed to be the current circumstances. This would allow participants to 'vent' their frustrations and talk about things they appreciate in the present, but also expose assumptions and point towards effective actions. We found interesting possibilities in the KPUU framework, where a discussion is structured around what is known, presumed, unknown and unknowable in the present. A much bigger framework, integral scenario development talks about how to broaden and deepen perceptual filters both of facilitators and participants, with some evocative principles of practice, such as non-exclusion, unfoldment, enactment and uncomfort.

The biggest and most unwieldy task in scenario building is identifying and presenting (interactions between) drivers of change (aka macro-trends). We looked at different methods that are used in what is known as horizon scanning or environmental scanning: basically ways of continuously reviewing various media for signals that something is changing in society, technology, the economy, etc. The signals can be weakly emergent or well-established trends that are waxing, waning or remaining constant. Obviously, in a world as complex and fast as ours, scanning needs to be a continuous practice, but there are many ways to do this more effectively, including different online, crowdsourced or expert services. Once the things that influence change are identified, the interesting part begins: like in a story where change drivers are characters, the next step is finding the relationships between them, and events that have emerged or might emerge from them. There are many ways to visualise these relationships, such as the futures wheel, trend impact analysis or field anomaly relaxation. Many of these techniques might sound complicated when described in writing, but we’re keen to try them out in practice.


The question how to construct rich scenarios led us deeper into the territory of axes, branches, layers, fans and cones (no specialist field is complete without a working vocabulary) - all of which can represent different relationships between aspects of possible, probable or preferred futures. Interestingly, several researchers warn that different methods will produce different types of future scenarios. This is something that we intuitively grasped after facilitating several workshops. The research confirmed that we have to be very careful not only of the methods we use, but also of our influence as facilitators on the process and outcome of the scenarios. A lot of the integral futures research talks about the inclusion of the practitioner as part of scenario creation. Our personal development, history, worldview, and other factors all have an impact on the content and process of the workshop. This made us search for different ways to ask questions during the construction of scenario skeletons that could lead to different answers and therefore different stories, rather than if we just asked the questions that interested us alone.

What we have previously called 'retrocasting' or 'scenario testing' (probing the paths from 'here' to various projected futures) goes by several names in the futures field, the most widespread being 'backcasting' or 'incasting'. The difference between backcasting and retrocasting (if we understood this correctly) is that backcasting envisions a preferred future and asks what would have to be done in the present to get to that future, while incasting looks at finding signals of emergence different possible or probable futures (preferred and otherwise).

Exploring each of these methods and techniques has of course revealed many promising leads, some of which have been left unexplored for now. However, our initial collection of scenario methods is now more extensive and has already sparked ideas about how we could use or adapt some of them in our work.


Experiential futures

As we were approximately knee-deep in futures research methods, Justin Pickard diverted our attention to Stuart Candy’s thesis, 'The Futures of Everyday Life'. Written in 2010, his work provides a strong theoretical and practical grounding for what he calls 'experiential futures', a term that we’ll happily adopt as it seems to better describe what we're doing in our future pre-enactments than say 'design fiction' or 'speculative design'. Candy's thesis begins by outlining ways we can move beyond the usual polarisation of utopian and dystopian futures, with the status quo sitting somewhere in between. One such approach is the four generic futures that Candy used to design experiential scenario experiments for Hawaii in 20150.

A second issue identified in the 'The Futures of Everyday Life' is the experiential gulf between thinking or talking about future scenarios and actually experiencing them. Candy calls for an integration of futures research and experience design to allow different modes of knowing to penetrate our futures awareness. From this effort at reuniting body and mind he proceeds to discuss the unification of futures and design with politics, and looks at some principles upon which experiential scenarios could be built. Going beyond controlled exercises in workshops and gallery spaces, he talks about guerrilla futures, or futures in the wild, where an unsuspecting public encounters speculative artefacts from a future scenario embedded in the spaces of daily life. Three examples of guerrilla futures he mentions are the New York Times Special Edition of the Yes Men, The Blue Line Project and Found Futures Chinatown. It was interesting to note the author's reflections regarding the effectiveness and ethical issues of such interventions (such as potential distress and the misleading of an audience caught unawares), as well as his conclusion that the alternative – continuing to approach scenarios on purely analytical and intellectual levels – isn't acceptable.

The final chapter of the thesis was quite encouraging for us. It talks about different ways of infusing foresight outside expert fields, moving toward what Stuart calls a 'futures-oriented social ecology'. One of the tactics he calls 'future shock therapy' and the other 'ambient foresight'. Future shock is a tactic deployed by guerrilla futurists and Hakim Bey's poetic terrorists. On the other end of the spectrum, 'rather than demanding attention with fireworks, an “ambient” future awareness is gentle, or perhaps almost invisible'. Ambient foresight 'nudges' people towards developing their futures skills, as do for example prediction markets and alternate reality games such as Superstruct. We had a couple of inspiring conversations with Stuart and uncovered many common threads, which we hope will eventually result in some form of collaboration.

Finding ourselves on more familiar transdisciplinary theory, we continued collecting references to design fiction, a field that has gained traction in recent years for merging design and foresight to create objects, spaces and experiences as futures prototypes. Alongside (the now usual suspects) Bruce Sterling, Superflux, and Dunne & Raby, The Extrapolation Factory are people and works spanning arts, games, movies and architecture, such as Nelly Ben Hayoun, Natalie Jeremijenko, Atelier van Lieshout, Angelo Vermeulen, Adrian Hon and others. We haven’t spent too much time perusing the many new and interesting projects but it is something that could benefit from further study, conversation, comparison, pattern-finding, etc.

Another interesting marriage of disciplines emerged as action foresight, combining action research and futures studies into anticipatory action learning. One of the inspiring proponents of this field is Jose Ramos, who carries out his work on the edges of (critical) futures, activism, open democratic processes and community development. This work is particularly relevant given our concern to create change in the present, as we’re still gradually formulating ideas around possible futures parallel presents and non predictive strategy. We are interested in finding ways to thrive in turbulence, including strategies for antifragility, doing democracy and perhaps even a touch of rewilding etiquette. Further research and/or practice required.

What next?

Our explorations in the realms of experiential futures are all presently geared towards prehearsing the future, improving our prehearsal pocket guide, and designing the futurist fieldguide. In the three short weeks at our disposal we only began to scratch the surface of the many different prehearsal methods. There are several threads on improvisation that we'd like to follow up, including various experiments from 'Impro' by Keith Johnstone, and ideas on incremental prehearsals that we discussed with Sarah Neville during a follow up of her Weather Lore residency.

Our next steps will be translating some of our research into practice. We're designing a series of scenarios about the futures of food for the LateLab in Edinburgh. Aside from food, we're keen to prehearse the futures of doing nothing, but we're still searching for the right scale and venue for this. We'll be conducting a scenario workshop for one person, Michka Melo, as part of his macrotransiency at FoAM in Brussels, and in Linz a collaborative session with Time's Up on combining prehearsals and physical narratives. Talks are underway about facilitating four days of visioning and futuring with the PULSE transition network for culture, and long-form prehearsals for the Future Fictions from the Present exhibition at Z33 in Belgium. We will experiment with the short-form prehearsal at xCoAx, together with our fellow Future Fabulators. Last but not least, we're putting together a list of potential contributors and guidelines for the Futurist Fieldguide, FoAM's FFab publication slated for distribution in early 2015.

As our current research phase comes to an end, we can conclude that we've found a fertile ground with many background threads to continue following. We're looking forward to sharing our findings at the Data Ecologies: Experience 2014 symposium, hoping to encourage other Future Fabulators, and anyone else interested in these subjects, to continue feeding these pages with interesting, relevant and/or surprising information and insights.


globalwarmingfuturist's blogpost inspired by these musings:

“A journal style article I came across was Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney sharing their experiences in finding an understanding of futurism through an Anitpodean Research Retreat. In this written work Kuzmanovic and Gaffney exemplify the importance of culture as being an overwhelming notion in predicting the possibilities of what the future may behold. These comments and observations by these two journalists enlightened me into predicting the possible circumstances of an overwhelming single worldwide culture, which could potentially be perceived as a more peaceful outcome in the future.”

future_fabulators/antipodean_musings.txt · Last modified: 2018/09/04 14:13 by maja