Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Barbershop futures revisited, part II

/Continued from a previous post.../

There are many well travelled, cosmopolitan, and highly informed people operating in the futures field, but few can claim to have experienced such systematic first-hand exposure to the many views about the future held across different lifestyles, cultures and geographies, as Maya van Leemput. Her post-doctoral project "Agence Future" consisted of riding around the world (on a recumbent bicycle) conducting in-depth interviews on camera, with some 400 people in 20 countries, over a 30-month period. The common thread of discussion was their attitudes and understandings regarding the future(s). I was delighted when my post "Barbershop Futures" about futures-related conversation elicited a detailed response from her, which I posted under "Barbershop Futures Revisited, part I". Here, then, is part II, being further reflections in light of thoughts Maya offered; not a literal response to her, perhaps, so much as another run at further developing a few of the same ideas.

As I suggested in the original piece, to find oneself talking futures with all sorts of people is one of the core aspects of this line of work. There may be nearly as many differing conceptions about what being a futurist means as there are people who label themselves that way (incidentally, a topic touched on in an earlier post, "The meming of futures"). Attempts to codify and generate consensus on the nature of the profession are many, but as they proliferate, paradoxically they seem to contribute as much to the diversity of the field as to its consolidation. The Association of Professional Futurists provides one take on what futuring is all about. Swinburne University's Strategic Foresight FAQ (especially from Q7 onwards) offers another. I think my favourite statement of what it means to work in this field is HRCFS founder Jim Dator's list of "attributes of a futurist", crowned with the wonderful notion of aiglatson -- yearning for the future -- which can serve as a kind of litmus test for one's readiness to embark on futuring Manoa-style. (If you haven't seen Dator's list, do check it out. It may be that if the intellectual jack-of-all-trades, Renaissance woman conception of the ideal futurist that he describes appeals to you, then you have the holistic sensibility, not to mention the kind of grandiose transdisciplinary aspirations, that ought to serve you well.)

Regardless of the details of one's philosophy or outlook, it is surely an inescapable characteristic of being a futurist that one finds oneself constantly in conversation with all sorts of people about the future, whatever that means to them. Typically they have plenty to say, and as Maya points out, when a chord is struck, folks may unexpectedly open up on all kinds of big themes on the nature of life, the universe, and everything.

Accordingly, one of the necessary (but not, I hasten to add, sufficient) steps to becoming a futurist is simply to declare this early in each conversation with a new person. I don't like being -- or at any rate being seen as -- monomaniacal, but part of the "getting to know you" process typically involves discussing what you do for a living. Put a stake in the ground as a futurist, and you can have a conversation with virtually anyone about their conception of the future. If this is something you enjoy, you'll be delighted to find it's one of the key parts of the job. And I want to suggest that there's a give and take here; the trick to communicating about futures lies not only in finding new ways to describe the field, ways to articulate it that are meaningful and useful to others. It is also about the reciprocal process of gradually mapping in your own mind how your particular interlocutor, as well as people in general, conceptualise it. Consequently, an increasingly fine-tuned awareness of the nuances and variations in attitudes, by psychological, temperamental, professional, cultural, and other dimensions, is to my way of thinking a crucial aspect of developing as a futurist, and an important part of what one takes incrementally and osmotically from the body of conversational data. (Of course, if I'm really not in the mood for a detailed discussion, I find that simply telling people I'm a graduate student in political science is a good way to keep the conversation short.)

In the course of having these conversations, you steadily accumulate a kind of expertise on how lots of different people think about the future. But there is an art to conversation, and as the previous paragraph suggests, both give and take are involved. One part is listening and understanding, probing for comprehension of an aspect of someone's world view that has in many cases never been explicitly or carefully considered by them before. The other is a sort of advocacy for more rigorous, detailed, rich, systematic, creative, well considered kind of thinking about futures. Maya referred to Wendell Bell's mention of the role of advocacy in futures. But I sense that at levels both general and specific there's a balance to be struck with the former process -- inquiry. Although the relative importance of the two is bound to vary according to circumstances, I don't think one can advocate effectively without sensitive inquiry.

Someone recently sent me an article (Andrea Shapiro, "Applying Lessons from Public Health to Organizational Change", The Systems Thinker, September 2003) which usefully nailed the distinction between these two as follows:

In The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Currency/Doubleday, 1994), Richard Ross and Charlotte Roberts describe the value of both advocacy and inquiry. To them, advocacy involves expressing a certain position convincingly, forcefully, and clearly; it requires presenting your own assumptions, distinguishing between data and opinion, and articulating the logic and reasoning behind your conclusions. In contrast, inquiry means seeking to understand another's position by listening well and reflecting back what you heard, as well as seeking to understand the data and reasoning behind their conclusions and avoiding imposing your own interpretation on them.

Maya describes the animation and engagement that result when people warm to their future theme. I share her delight in being able to draw that out. At the same time, my original post alluded to the confusions or preconceptions that we futurists often encounter. These are not mutually exclusive; for instance, my experience with Wally the barber had elements of both. While eager to talk about the future, he was somewhat confounded at first by the idea that I wasn't thinking of it principally as a predictive endeavour.

I have found that plural or alternative futures thinking requires a sort of big-picture paradigm shift that some people don't quite grasp right away. Resistance to the plural view of futures is not incompatible with enthusiasm for "studying the future". I've been struggling with the question of what it is psychologically, educationally, developmentally or temperamentally (to name a few possible factors) that makes the difference between people "getting" futures or not -- and I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on this issue. I'm also currently going through some fascinating material on the psychology of counterfactual thinking (see this post for some remarks on counterfactuality, and expect more on that topic to appear here at the sceptical futuryst). Indeed, many of the thoughts presented here revolve around exploring more effective ways to communicate foresight, alternative futures, and long-termism (three interrelated but analytically separable modes of thinking).

But here's the bottom line, if there is one: inquiry and advocacy are both required in the futures communication process. After the quote above, the author continues;"Balancing advocacy and inquiry is especially important when dealing with apathy or resistance." It has been my observation that alternative futures thinking can be useful and engaging for pretty much anyone. However, apathy and resistance are not uncommon, so being able to deal with them in conversation is essential.

It was my own sense that I'd failed to communicate futures to full effect in terms interesting and relevant to a hairdresser which prompted the original piece. And Maya pointed out that I might have tried moving beyond framing the field in terms of its possible economic value to the barber's business to describe the field's big picture relevance. I take her point and agree completely. Yet the tension will likely to remain between, on the one hand, encouraging a future orientation to do better (or cheaper, or for longer) what we already do; and on the other hand, using conversation about futures to move beyond today's problems, and dream big, and construct idiosyncratic or dissenting visions of the individual, family, community, and planet. In the former case, inquiry trumps advocacy, as futures thinking is brought into the service of existing priorities, and its revolutionary potential to transform thought and action is defused to that extent. In the latter case, advocacy can trump inquiry, and if you push its transformative potential too far on a party unwilling to entertain that, they shut it out; increased resistance or apathy (varieties of the same syndrome -- denial of responsibility?) may ensue.

Hazardous and difficult though it may be, one thing is for sure in all this: we need to keep working on the Great Futures Conversation. Thanks to Maya, and to Wally, for the impetus to continue evolving these ideas.


Maya said...

Thanks Stuart, for this very useful development of thought.

I like the links to what futurists are supposed to do/be. And you hit the nail on the head zooming in on the balance between advocacy and inquiry. This is a core question for futures conversations. Thanks for formulating it so well and for the Shapiro reference too.

In the AgenceFuture conversations, my part is to ask questions. You are right that with such an inquiring stance, you do not always tap into the full transformative potential of futures thinking. For me, inquiry needs to precede advocacy. To be able to help people think about the future, you need to be aware of the different ways they already do. To understand the full potential of futures thinking, you need to see it in action.

So certainly, lets keep at it, the Great Futures Conversation.

Wishing you many unexepected turns,

Stuart said...

Great to hear from you Maya, and I'm glad to know you found this response illuminating. I definitely appreciate being pressed to explore it further.

I'm really keen to see the next phase of your work on, please drop me a line when the revamp is done.