What good is scientific rigor when nobody gives a shit?

This note is based on a Twitter thread I wrote while attending a futures studies conference.

My eternal question to academic futures studies: What good is scientific rigor when nobody gives a shit? I’m not asking you to give it up but rather that you put as much effort into having an actual impact.

Futures play too much of a central role in society to leave the public discourse around them to the trend gurus, tech evangelists, and advertising agencies.

At the moment, there seem to be two poles in futures work: on the one end, you have the academic futures studies focused on scientific rigor. On the other end, you have the design-thinking-ish workshop-driven futuring approaches (lots of canvases). Both have little impact for opposing reasons.

I’m interested in the space in between. I want to do deep work routed in theory and proper methods, combining it with participatory and critical approaches while minding the politics from the beginning with the goal of as much impact as possible.

One exemplary expression of that: Can we teach students foresight methods and, simultaneously, prepare them for the backlash and politics they will experience once they try to apply future thinking in their future work contexts?

This text is a seedling, which means it is an unpolished thought or idea that will grow and mature over time. For this purpose, it has been planted in the garden. Let me know your questions and thoughts via email.

Polak‘s Pull from the Future

The Dutch sociologist Fred Polak was one of the most important driving forces behind European futures studies in the mid-20th century.

He published his essential work ‘The Image of the Future’ in 1955 in two volumes in Dutch, before Elise Boulding translated it in 1961 and then published it again in 1973 in an abridged version. The Image of the Future examines social images of the future throughout history and their influence on cultural development.

Fun fact: The abridged version is freely available as a PDF. But it seems to be based on a bad OCR scanning with lots of errors. The world is still waiting for a hero to find one of those rare print versions and do a proper scan.

Polak’s starting thesis in ‘The Image of the Future’ is the ability of human beings to live mentally in two worlds: the experienced present (“the self”) and the image of the future (“the other”).

All of man’s thinking involves a conscious process of dividing his perceptions, feelings, and responses and sorting them into categories on the time- continuum. His mental capacity to categorize and reorder reality within the self (present reality) and in relation to perceptions of the not-self (the Other) enables him to be a citizen of two worlds: the present and the imagined. Out of this antithesis, the future is born.

But human beings do not only live with this dualism because the future emerges from the dynamics between these two worlds. From Polak’s point of view, human beings can readjust their perception of the present by imagining the future and change their actions accordingly:

Man’s dualism is thus the indispensable prerequisite to the movement of events in time, and to the dynamics of historical change.

For Polak, however, not all members of a society are equally involved in this process. Instead, he sees the ability to receive images and ideas in dreams, visions, and other “imaginary encounters with the Other” only among elites. According to Polak, to broadcast the images of the future to the masses, they have to be translated. Legends, myths, and art play a significant role here.

Even the past can become a future imagination if it is imagined as an unattainable ideal:

The aching nostalgia for the time of unspoiled beginnings represents a kind of vision of the future—an image of unattainability.

Nevertheless, Polak sees the decisive reference point of Other in the future. For the future is the great unknown. And for Polak, exploring the unknown results from the primal instinct of human beings to survive and reproduce.

This spiritual overstepping of the boundaries of the unknown is the source of all human creativity; […] crossing frontiers is both man’s heritage and man’s task, and the image of the future is his propelling power.

Van der Helm summarizes Polak’s findings as follows:

[…] the present and past are no longer the predecessors of an unknown future, but on the contrary, the future is to a large extent the shaping source of the present and the past. The future pulls past and present as a magnet towards its realisation. The essence of man, therefore, has to be found in his ability to continuously renew his images of the future, which will push culture to move forward.

van der Helm, R. (2005). The future according to Frederik Lodewijk Polak: finding the roots of contemporary futures studies. Futures, 37(6), 505–519.

Herein lies the revolutionary understanding of the role of images of the future in his time. The general understanding to this day is that the future is formed from the past and the present. This is the basis for forecasts and scenarios and most other methods for dealing with an open future.

Polak, however, propagates a reverse understanding. In his understanding, the images of the future are the shaping force. They pull the present into the future.

It should be noted that Polak did not derive this understanding of the future from empirical studies but rather acquired it primarily through (historical) philosophy. Furthermore, in ‘The Image of the Future’ he focuses on images of the future in society:

We do not discuss private images of the future, but only shared public ones, not because there is a difference in the operational principles involved, but because we are primarily concerned with the Iarger social and cultural processes.

Polak describes various characteristics and aspects of images of the future, which he derives in particular from historical analysis.

The starting point for images of the future is the values they are based on.

Awareness of ideal values is the first step in the conscious creation of images of the future and therefore in the conscious creation of culture, for a value is by definition that which guides toward a “valued” future. The image of the future reflects and reinforces these values.

Accordingly, the images of the future express these ideal values of a society and reinforce them every time they are repeatedly conveyed (performativity). The decisive factor for Polak is that the nature of future images is not rational but, above all emotional. This gives them their power to change society:

The force that drives the image of the future is only in part rational and intellectual; a much larger part is emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual.

The performative aspect of future images ensures their “self-elimination.” The change they bring about in society alters the values as well as their dialectics and thus ensures the further development and re-emergence of future images.

From this premise, Polak examines in the further course of ‘The Image of the Future’ different eras for their dynamics between prevailing images of the future and cultural change.

For his understanding of images of the future, he cites two typical examples right at the beginning, which still have a lasting influence today: the ‘resurrection of Israel’ in the Old Testament and ‘the kingdom of heaven’ proclaimed by Jesus. He continues this consideration through various epochs up to the 20th century and comes to the following conclusion:

The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.

As a sociologist, Polak derives from this thesis a necessity for a sociology of the future, which focuses on the question of how the interplay of images of the future and society functions over time, if, in his view, this leads to the rise and fall of cultures.

Stated in sociological terms, the problems are these: what is the relationship between fundamental changes in the social structure and changes in the reigning images of the future? Is there interaction between images of the future and the future itself?

In the first question in particular, parallels can be seen with other analysis models on the directions of impact between society and futures:

[…] we must examine and be as fully aware as possible of the influence on society of those images of the future already existing in the minds of political planners, scientists, and professional practitioners in every field.

This call can be read as a fundamental research task for critical futures studies, which analyzes existing images of the future and their impact on society.

‘The Image of the Future’ is characterized by Polak’s critique of the culture of his time. His main motivation to deal with the role of images of the future is the lack of positive images of the future he diagnoses in society. Again and again, he writes of a “culture crisis” or locates a vacuum where previously the images of the future were. In this way, a tendency can be observed to selectively seek evidence for his theses instead of weighing the pros and cons. Dennis R. Morgan points out that…

…the image of the future, as a vibrant, dynamic force pulling society forward, is truly a modern-born phenomenon, whose utopian nature forms a dialectical relationship within the idea of progress.

Morgan, D. R. (2015). The dialectic of utopian images of the future within the idea of progress. Futures, 66, 106–119.

In this respect, Polak‘s consideration of images of the future and their impact on ancient and medieval history can be classified rather as ideological. ‘The Image of the Future’ is thus to be understood primarily as a modern “manifest for active cultural politics.”

This text is an excerpt from my master’s thesis on future imaginaries. You can also find this text in the garden.

The Difference between Present Futures and Future Presents

There is a significant difference between “present futures” and “future presents.”

A “future present” refers to a certain point in time in the future. This point will become the present at some time. When we imagine being somewhere in two weeks, we think about a future present. But that image in our head of that future point in time is a “present future.” It is being felt in our heads right now in the present.

The distinction between these two understandings of the future is essential for Future Studies because only one of those is “real” and thus scientifically investigable. As future presents haven’t happened yet, they haven’t become a reality and are not accessible. Present futures – the hopes, anticipations, expectations, and imaginations in our heads – on the other hand, can be examined with the help of social sciences.

How we imagine the future in the present has very little to do with how the future will turn out when it becomes the present. Instead, it’s a strong reflection of how we perceive the present: Tell me what you think about the future, and I will tell you how you feel about the present.

This text is a seedling, which means it is an unpolished thought or idea that will grow and mature over time. For this purpose, it has been planted in the garden. Let me know your questions and thoughts via email.

We can’t handle the future

IFTF’s Jane McGonigal is promoting her new book Imaginable. Her crucial talking points are the two foresight games she did in 2008 and 2010 involving more than 20,000 people and accurately predicting the Corona pandemic.

But as Tim Harford points out in his FT article (paywalled):

As a life-long gamer, I am easily persuaded of the benefits of games, but they are no panacea, even when they do predict the future. Superstruct and Evoke did not prevent pandemic policy missteps;

One could even ask if those games had any effect on the pandemic they predicted. And thus, they are an excellent example of what I deem to be the biggest challenge of foresight work: nobody listens.

In this interview with Stuart Candy, which is an excellent primer on futures studies btw., he also points toward this problem:

However, over some years of working with foresight in government, I found that policymakers had limited capacity to envision alternative futures, and even where the field had a certain currency, its legacy methods weren’t necessarily having great impact. […]

The field traditionally has been very strong on frameworks for organizing thought, but less so on converting those anticipations into embodied insights and making them stick.

I’ve spent some time studying the history of futures studies and foresight, and I think it’s rather bleak. I like to sum it up as “a history of being ignored.” So this is a general topic that has been on my mind for the last couple of years: how can our work in futures studies become more effective and lasting?

Sure, this isn’t just a problem with our work and methods. It’s also caused by the short-termism and focus on the now in business and politics. Nevertheless, it’s the biggest and most exciting challenge we’re facing as a field, and after sixty years, we should be able to find better answers.

My personal approach has been to look at imaginaries as collective expectations that have become so ingrained that they are taken for granted and impossible to challenge. Charles Taylor talks about them as a background understanding in society that guides all decisions and behaviors.

Foresight and even futures studies have always been primarily interested in creating new images of the futures/scenarios. But unless they feed into the status quo, they are usually dismissed. That’s why I’m so interested in critical futures studies work. It can help create awareness of current future imaginaries and thus open up receptiveness for new images of the future.

This seedling is based on a conversation with Patrick on the Sentiers discord.

A rough definition of Critical Futures Studies

The field of futures studies describes “the scientific concern with possible, desirable and probable future developments” (Kreibich 2006). While the majority of futures studies and foresight work focuses on creating new images of the future using scientific methods (e.g., scenarios), there have been repeated efforts since the late 1970s to examine existing images of the future as well.

Among the most influential pioneers of critical futures studies is Sohail Inayatullah. Influenced by poststructuralism, he pointed out in his seminal article on ‘Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Future’ that epistemological assumptions underlie all futures thinking: temporal, economic, political, ideological-cultural, and linguistic. However, these assumptions remain mostly unreflected even in most futures studies work. They are not questioned and thus influence the results unrecognized.

That is precisely where critical futures studies deconstruct images of the future as present futures, which provide less information about events in future presents. Instead, they are about wishes, interests, needs, and expectations prevalent in the present, expressed in stories about the future.

According to Inayatullah, the goal of critical futures studies is to create new epistemological spaces in which alternative futures can emerge by historicizing and deconstructing existing futures, or, as he puts it, “to undefine the future.”

In summary, the two goals of critical futures studies are:

  1. A better understanding of the present from the images of the future prevalent in society
  2. The “opening of the future” via broadening the space of plausible futures and the development of alternative futures

In their reconceptualization of critical futures studies, Goode and Godhe place the “futural public sphere”—the public debate about the future—at the center of consideration. In doing so, they shift the focus: away from individual images of the future in arbitrary contexts toward a more integral perception of the constituent ideas about the future in a societal context.

Based on this, they define critical futures studies as follows:

CFS investigates the scope and constraints within public culture for imagining and debating different potential futures. It interrogates imagined futures founded—often surreptitiously—upon values and assumptions from the past and present, as well as those representing a departure from current social trajectories.

Goode und Godhe

Like Inayatullah, however, they do not want to leave it at the mere deconstruction of futures but call for a “reconstructive turn” to enrich public discourse with alternative futures.

I have taken the definition above from my master’s thesis on future imaginaries, which I submitted at the end of 2019. It should only be taken as a starting point, missing a host of other essential voices and approaches. This seedling has been planted in the garden.