Category: Tools and methods

People develop conscious and unconscious images of the future as a matter of course. They do so for themselves, their families, their country and globally. These futures can be probable, preferred and or simply possible. The images of the future held by individuals are interacting with the present, setting the tone for decision-making with the imagined future influencing what directions are currently taken. In this sense, images of the future are essentially the manifestation of our expectation that transformation is possible. Creating a vision, be it as an individual or organisation, taps into the deepest desires of the people involved and allows them to express how they wish the world to be.

Holding clear images of the future is one way fear and trepidation about complexity can be minimised. Individuals can engage with the complexity through development of futures images, trying out different options for operating, which then allows clear decisions to be taken in the present which otherwise may seem fraught with difficulties. The future becomes a playground in which the boundaries of the present loosen and creativity abounds.

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“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” –Laurence J. Peter

One of my favourite parts of foresight work is the opportunity to work with wicked problems. When a client calls wanting to engage with an issue for which there are no easy answers, my heart soars. The level of difficulty in these assignments is high but the engagements (thus far) have been very positive. Foresight is useful when it comes to engaging with complex problems as it gives you space to consider what ‘better’ actually means in the context of the challenge at hand.

Having spent the best part of a day in the past week engaged in a conversation about a wicked problem, I had cause to reflect on why I enjoy it so much. Part of the attraction is the intellectual challenge, as the navigation of the complexity pushes us to think more broadly and deeply about the issue and the potential actions that could be undertaken. I think the other part of the attraction for me is that there really is no right answer.

To clarify what a wicked problem is the APSC provides a series of characteristics:

  • wicked problems are difficult to clearly define
  • wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
  • attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences
  • wicked problems are often not stable
  • wicked problems usually have no clear solution
  • wicked problems are socially complex
  • wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation
  • some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

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Images – House for all seasons China

This story from Gizmag caught my eye for a number of reasons. Architect John Lin, who is a professor at the University of Hong Kong, has won an award from the Architectural Review in 2012 for his house which has been built in Shaanxi Province with philanthropic funding. It is designed to assist the continued urbanisation of China’s people as over half (51.27% or 680 million) of China’s population now live in cities, which is the first time in that country’s history.(Telegraph). Having seen a documentary recently on the White Horse village and their 4 year transformation from rural subsistence farming to urban dwellers, one of the reflections for me was the shape of everyday life and how our housing choices determine it.

The people of White Horse village were not 100% behind the change that was thrust upon them by central planning authorities. Their way of life changed dramatically, and while most agreed with the direction that China is heading, they were unhappy with the impact on their everyday lives. The traditional rural way of life where there were multi-age households and the elderly are part of everyday life changed when people moved into multi-storey apartments. The day-to-day engagement with their neighbours was gone and may of them struggled to cope.

The other reflection was that whilst the opportunity to make a living increased enormously, so did the costs of living. There were no more market gardens or vegetable plots for self-sufficiency. All the food they once grew had to be bought at the supermarket. This is the same situation in many large Western cities, with people unable to grow their own food, they are forced to buy it. The counter-trend in the West is the growing popularity of rooftop and balcony gardens for food.   Continue reading

An interesting report has just popped out from America. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has just published their Projection of Jobs and Education requirements through 2018. And it is a very interesting read. The report, called Help Wanted, is scathing in its criticism of previous job and education forecasts pointing out that the data is available to make better forecasts but the data is not used.

“Unfortunately, the poor quality of the official projections cascades downward through state and local data systems into the hands of policy makers . .. Ultimately, the official data misinform the educational choices and career plans of individuals. These are the wrong times for inadequate information on jobs and skill requirements… Educational and career planning need to catch up and adjust to this new reality.”

I agree completely with the above sentiments of the report authors but, as a foresight thinker, I disagree with their conclusions. Let me explain.

The report writers find that the historical data back to the 1970s (correctly) shows that jobs requiring post high school education have grown quicker than forecast and that jobs requiring only high school education have disappeared faster than forecast.  Their projection based on this is, of course:

“By 2018, about two-thirds of all employment will require some college education or better “ (in 1973 it was 28%).

The report goes on to say that recessions have been where this shake-out is most stark, because the jobs that disappear do not always return.

“In the past two recessions, the typical job loser was a high school-educated male in a blue collar job, such as manufacturing or construction, working in the middle of the country. In the past two recoveries, the typical job gainer was a female with a postsecondary education who lived on either coast and worked in a service occupation—particularly healthcare, education, or business services. That picture is not changing.”

In that single finding are a world future pain in areas like social cohesion and health outcomes. A future where a previously dominant group lose power, income and social standing is one fraught with turmoil and upset. That is not news. But the clincher for me is that last sentence.  What has happened over the past 40 years will continue into the future. But will it?

As you dig further into the report you find findings like these:

Hundreds of thousands of low-skill jobs in manufacturing, farming, fishing, and forestry have been permanently destroyed because the recession has further prompted employers to either automate those positions or ship them offshore to take advantage of cheap labor. Overall, we project 637,000 jobs in the Manufacturing and Natural Resources industries will meet such fates by 2018.

And where will the new jobs be appearing?  “The most intense concentrations of postsecondary workers are in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Education, Healthcare, Community Services, Arts, Managerial and Professional Office Occupations.”

In the 21st century, computers and related inventions are transforming the U.S. economic landscape—boosting productivity so companies can produce more with less and spurring an economic shift from Manufacturing to Services. That is why, when old-line Manufacturing and Natural Resources jobs disappear, they often don’t come back.

So the thrust of the report in simple terms is Primary and Secondary sectors jobs will continue to disappearing and the growth will be in the Tertiary sector. The historical data supports this, the logic says that this is valid and thus our future projection is a certainty.  This is about the place that a foresight thinker is looking for the exit from the theatre.

This is an utterly safe, logical, rigorous and evidence-based piece of policy analysis that makes perfect sense … and wait for it … only if the assumptions of the single scenario world of 2018 come true. And what are those (unstated) assumptions? They are quite simple really – in the future we won’t need to worry about growing, digging and chopping things up and then turning those resources into physical things because in the future it will be cheaper for someone else to do that for us. It’s all about cheap energy stupid, we have had lots in the past 40 years and we will continue to have lots into the future.

I’ve looked long and hard to find those assumptions stated in the report but I can’t see them. I guess the writers and the readers don’t need to be aware that other scenarios are possible.  It’s safe to assume that things will remain the same.

The future doesn’t always cooperate with those who play it safe. Billy Joel’s song Allentown described the young of Pennsylvania whose predecessors’ ‘safe’ future didn’t actually work out

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown

For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved.

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real

If you are looking for a contemporary image of how the future might play out when the ‘safe’ scenario doesn’t work out then check out Howard Kunstler’s post peak oil novel – The World Made by Hand which includes this memorable exchange between a young ‘tertiary  educated’ male whose education didn’t fit a low energy world that needed primary and secondary sectors skills rather than the safe future tertiary ones  and an older male whose life had spanned both worlds – pre- peak  energy and post-peak energy.

Shawn limped slightly.

“Did you hurt yourself?” I said.

“I fell off Mr. Schmidt’s barn roof.”

“What were you doing up there?”

“Fixing it. What do you think?”

We walked a ways in silence. I hadn’t known him to be so irritable before.

“It’s been might hot lately,” I said.

“It’s not just the heat . Jesus, Robert, look how we live? I’m practically a serf. You know what a serf is?”

“Of course I do. I went to college,” I said and regretted it right away. “You know, Shawn, even back in normal time’s people got down and depressed. In fact, you could argue that people are generally better off now mentally that back then. We follow the natural cycles. We eat real food instead of processed crap full of chemicals. We’re not jacked up on coffee and television and sexy advertising all the time. No more anxiety about credit card bills –“

“I don’t want to debate.”

“I bet its true, though.”

“Find someone else if you want to have a debate.”

“It’s just conversation.”

“Whatever you call it, quit trying to persuade me that everything is great okay” he said and stopped in his tracks. I stopped too. His face was red and tendons stood out in his neck. He was a large young man, and he looked a little scary.

“You frustrate the hell out of me son,” I said.

“Do I? I work like a dog. Harder than this dog. From sun up to sundown, like a medieval peasant.  I do it with hardly any sense of a future, and the last thing I need is a lecture from the generation that screwed up the world.”

I can imagine all the safe reports that preceded that exchange between the past and the future. All the rigorous and evidence based data that was used to create a better future. Safe and sorry.

When I meet someone who calls themselves a ‘strategist’ I often remark “then we are in the same business, I help them work out where they want to go and you help them work out how to get there”. Sadly, my attempt at bonhomie often fails and I often get a blank look and then a short time later I’m not talking to anyone at all.

As a futurist I am not impressed by strategy that fails to make an explicit link with the intended future that the strategy is meant to bring about. Strategy that fails to make such a link I call ‘cookbook strategy’.  Do this first, then this next and finally this and bingo, there is your future.

Now cookbooks are very useful and when you discover a favourite recipe then you just know that when you apply the correct ingredients in the correct sequence that the yummy future your desire will eventuate. And even if you haven’t cooked the dish concerned for a long time you know that you can always go back to those favourite cookbooks again, repeat all the steps and the desired future emerges again.  If only real life worked liked a cookbook.

In real life if you follow a strategy cookbook – whether it be diamond shaped or involve 5 forces – add all the recipe ingredients to get your favourite banana cake and while you were not looking the future adds some minced steak and a kilo of hot chillies and it also changes the oven to run 100 degrees hotter or colder than the dial says. And when you get to the future you get the shock of your life; “I didn’t order this!”

Imagine my delight when I went to a recent presentation by the writer of a leading strategy text book, Bob de Wit (Strategy Synthesis), and in his opening he described strategy as a “dialectic approach between two irresolvable paradoxes”.  Now that sounds like a strategy approach that is nothing like using a cookbook.

Bob de Wit sees strategy as managing rival tensions with there being a multitude of positions that offer distinct resolutions but never a perfect answer. One such tension is the strategic balance between shareholder value (profitability) and stakeholder value (responsibility). Whatever strategic response is chosen (maximise profit) has consequence upon the other dimension of the paradox (minimise responsibility). This is not a simple binary opposition but there are an unlimited range of synthetic options available – hence the dialectic. His book outlines ten such paradoxes that organisations face.

This did seem like an interesting approach to strategy and one that seemed to integrate with our ideas about ‘using the idea of the future’. I began to wonder how we could use the future to assist organisation’s manage their paradoxes?

The first obvious way is to use the future as the design space within which to prototype future synthetic resolutions of the paradox. Create a synthetic future model that maximises both dimensions of the paradox (responsibility and profit) and thus you have your desired future and hence your strategic direction.

I then saw parallels in our approach called Actionable Foresight. The phase we call Present Need is where the paradox(es) are identified and Pathways Thinking and Option Generation are where the multitude of synthetic positions are explored. And finally Goal Commitment is where we settle on the best resolution of the strategic tension. Not a solution but the best tradeoff we can build commitment to. And as we move towards the commitment future then we scan the state of the paradox, where is the pressure building and where is it lessening, always seeking for new and innovative combinations that provide a synthetic resolution of the tension.

So when we say hope – what do we mean? This isn’t the hope that is expressed when looking for a car park or trying to win a lottery. This hope is all about having a goal, working out how to achieve it and staying the path until you get where you are going. Hope Theory developed by Prof CR Snyder shows us how to develop this capacity within ourselves.

Coming out of the positive psychology domain, Hope Theory is a cognitive theory developed over the last 30 years by Prof CR Snyder. It has been rigorously and widely tested all over the world, and has been shown to positively affect life and health outcomes in children, adolescents and adults. “Hope is an active, learned process – a way of thinking that activates an ensuing set of behaviours.” (p3)

Hope Theory outlines a goal setting process that includes evaluating pathways thinking (‘waypower’) and ‘willways’ or levels of empowerment to reach those goals. High Hope thinking will result in better outcomes than will low Hope thinking. Hope levels can be influenced by ‘learning Hope’.

In developing images of the future, we are asking people to develop goals, either at their individual level (personal futures) or at a societal level (social futures). This goal setting is best done when buttressed with pathways and willways thinking. Those studying Hope Theory have developed a number of processes through which this type of thinking can be supported.


Once shared images of the future have been developed by a group, especially those which are reflecting a preferred future, a number of questions can be asked about the image and action plan to ensure that it is a ‘High Hope’ image.


  • Is the goal (image) clear and well-defined?
  • Is it a long or short range goal?
  • Is the goal large or small?


  • Can the goal be broken down into small steps?
  • Can the person (with or without help) identify the large and small steps to the goal?


  • How much does the person really desire the goal?
  • Can the person imagine themselves achieving the goal?

Having the participant answer these questions will help them tease out the differences between the image (goal), pathways to achieving it and the level of empowerment they feel.

If the goal is ill-defined, focus can be put towards re-defining or better explaining the goal which has been set. If it is too nebulous or difficult to attain, then small sub-goals should be set.

If pathways thinking is lacking there are a number of strategies that can be used to build it. Knowing what to look for is important, hence high ‘waypower’ in  characterised by:

  • Breaking large goals into small parts
  • Asking for help
  • Self initiated skill building
  • Being willing to bend
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Willingness to rehearse

If these pathways thinking skills are not evident, they can be learned through behaviour modelling.

If willways thinking is missing or weak this can be tackled through a combination of praise and empowerment techniques. Issues such as a person’s family environment, health and self confidence will affect their ability to feel empowered about achieving goals. Negative self-talk is one of ways that willpower is destroyed, so teaching people to identify and combat negative self talk will help them build their willways levels.

One of the main ways Hope can be taught is through stories and narratives. These can be done either through the way in which goal selection and setting are done, and the language used by people when working together, or by utilising stories written for the purpose of illustrating High Hope behaviours and thinking.

Source: McDermott, D and Snyder, CR (2000) The Great big Book of Hope, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland.