For many nations, the only hope forward is to leapfrog, to resist purchasing used future, and instead change.
Interview with professor Sohail Inayatullah, PhD, UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies at the Sejahtera Centre for Sustainability and Humanity by Dražen Maravić
One of the world’s greatest futurists, Professor Sohail Inayatullah, PhD, UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies at the Sejahtera Centre for Sustainability and Humanity, spoke for Diplomacy&Commerce magazine about futures and the role of a futurist in modern society.
Professor, could you share with us your beginnings in futures studies. Also, do you think that we are witnessing rising interest in the futures field?
Futures Studies and in particular strategic foresight is all the rage now. When I became a student of the field in the 1970s, we were considered very strange. Indeed, one of my professors upon hearing my desire to continue in the field and enter the MA programme in Alternative Futures forcefully said, “it’s a can of worms.” When I did not respond, he repeated his sentence.
I did not take his advice. Instead, after completing the MA in Futures Studies, I spent ten years working with the Hawaii Judiciary. There we not only assisted in solving current issues – developing data sets to argue for an increase in the salaries of judges – but also identified issues down the track i.e. AI in the courts, for example. We also explored issues such as the need to move from litigation to mediation and understanding law from multiple cultural perspectives. Some of our more radical work asked what the world would look like if robots and legal rights.
Today these questions whether in sci-fi movies or the predictions of Silicon Valley gurus seem commonplace. The future has arrived, though as Gibson has suggested, it is not evenly distributed, nor may it ever be.
The arrival started thirty years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall, then with the rise of the internet, the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS, the global financial crisis, the rise of the extremists throughout the world, 3d printing, robotics, Crispr, COVID, and now climate change, here and now.
Disruption after disruption has forced organizations to shift their strategy, from avoiding change to embracing change, from thinking of the short term to exploring the long term, from seeking to manage uncertainty to embracing the unknown, and from predicting the future to using the future to create alternative pathways, novel products and reinvent self and society.
Can you give us some examples of the futures in action?
Let me give you a few examples. A few years back I was working with a trucking insurance company. They sensed the need to change even though they had record profits. We looked at the changes in the industry from wearables for truck drivers to AI in trucks to driverless trucks. As we explored, they suggested that while they needed to keep their core business, it would behove them to focus on new products and processes. Given that they had expertise in ICTs they decided to explore bio-informatics. These would help create a new market and would keep them focused on their mission of safety: safer drivers, trucks, and the nation.
Disruption after disruption has forced organizations to shift their strategy, from avoiding change to embracing change
Working with one of the largest car companies in the world, we analyzed the futures of the company. In the first scenario, the no-change, we looked at quick profits through larger and smarter cars, what some have called car obesity. In the second, the marginal change scenario, we looked at minor changes to the car, more AI, more tailored specifications, and more electric cars. In the adaptive scenario, we changed the goal post from just cars to the ecosystem around the cars. Suddenly driverless cars, community pods, greener systems and supply chains became far more important. In the radical scenario, we moved even broader to no longer just selling the car to selling mobility services over a lifetime.
Futures studies thus help organizations move from the current to alternative futures. Groups whether corporations or nations use the future to innovate, to create new products. But the wise know it is not just a product but a deeper process.
You have mentioned some examples of scenario usage, and how they can lead to a more radical reinvention of the business landscape. Could you describe some concrete processes that led to the final futures “product”? What is the role of the public sector in that process?
In one project on a national airport, we explored alternative futures of the airport. We moved the discussion from landing rights and retail stores to seeing the airport as a site of innovation, for example, 3d printed avionics. The Minister immediately gave significant funding – 50 million – to make the airport not just an international hub but a policy learning centre, indeed, the future university. The stakeholders all understood that airports and travel were to be challenged and they needed to not just have new products but see futures as a deeper learning journey, as a learning process.
More and more nations, especially in the Middle East and Asia have developed a centre of strategic foresight. These collect information on emerging issues – opportunities and risks – and present snapshots to Ministries and CEOS. Public servants take turns becoming futurists learning the tools of the trade. But the research is not just theoretical as they advise nations and corporations not just what is next but what to do next. It is not just adapting to the changing world, but as they gain confidence and capacity, to create a new world.
The future thus becomes a space for reinvention. Indeed, for many nations, the only hope forward is to leapfrog, to resist purchasing used future, and instead change.
You mentioned the need to go beyond used futures, those things that we keep doing that do not work but we continue to use it. If we look at futures practices from a broader perspective, could you tell us more about their potential emancipatory role?
Futures seen in this lens is about decolonizing the past. The past often becomes the key barrier. Board directors often say, “but we have always done it this way.” Employees always come to work, why should they work from home?
Or on social media, citizens might say, “I know someone who is 99 and she still smokes and drinks vodka every day so why should we eat healthily?” Futures thinking in contrast uses evidence-based to understand emerging trends and leverages metaphors of prevention – a fence on top of the hill instead of an ambulance below – to challenge how we have always done things. The past can be a guide and a friend, but it can also become a burden, handcuffs.
Clearly, what we can say, at the planetary level, is that what worked eighty years ago no longer works. Our problems, whether climate change or global inequity, cannot be solved by the current United Nations nation-state-based system nor the power of corporations to evade the downstream impacts of their action on nature and the vulnerable. For example, evidence suggests to ensure global financial wellbeing, money in the world needs to keep moving. This can be accomplished by creating a global wealth cap, a maxi-mini wage system.
Once the vision and scenarios have been developed, it is critical to make the future real, i.e. to move from the dream to reality
However, we know very well there is considerable resistance to change. As one leader of a regional organization said about climate change, “we know what the right thing to do is but do not believe we can get reelected for doing the right thing.” Those invested in fossil fuels do not wish to move toward a global renewable energy regime. Those invested in selling tobacco do not wish toward creating healthier communities. Those focused on roads and cars cannot imagine carless cities.
While being fully aware of the power of the status quo, the work of the future is to help imagine the unimaginable and to use every obstacle as a springboard for innovation.
Let’s discuss the role of a futurist. What methods and tools could we use to think about the futures?
To do this we use numerous methods. For example, we use the futures triangle to explore the contrast between the preferred future, the desired vision as one factor and the weight of history, the obstacles. The triangle has a third aspect, the push of the present. These are the waves of change. One could thus make a strategy after having done the triangle focus on making the vision more compelling or reducing the weight or riding the waves of change. One of the largest museums in the world used the method to imagine their role in the metaverse, in rethinking the rule of curation and designing personalized museums.
To understand the changing world, we use emerging issues analysis. In this method, the goal is to focus not on what we know i.e. problems or even trends – where there is some data, but to spend time on the outliers, that do not make up the current debate. For example, in the 1980s, we wrote about the rise of China becoming the next global economic centre by 2020. Also, in the 1990s we wrote on the rise of veganism as well as on depopulation throughout Europe and East Asia. In the last twenty years, just like many others, we have written on climate change, urbanization, and the rise of pandemics. But it is not just about identifying the future, of course, but creating processes so that citizens, governments, and regional organizations can act on the emerging issue instead of always being busy with current problems.
However, disruptions often forget about what is not novel. Futures Studies are focused on the larger patterns of change. For example, it is not just novelty that matters but pendulums i.e. we note in large organizations the shift from centralization to decentralization and back, in nations from secularism to religiosity and return. There are other significant patterns in history as well.
We also use scenarios or different stories of the future to move the discussion from fixed reality to alternative realities. This helps decision-makers transition from what they know to what they do not know.
But once there are alternatives, we need to make decisions. For this, we use visioning, where we imagine the preferred future. This could be citizen-based or anticipatory democracy. It would be helping a board of directors move from current problems to deep purpose, where they wish to be in ten to twenty years. With one nation, we are part of a process to help them move from a focus on GDP to a focus on wellbeing as the core measurement. In another nation, it is helping them move from commodities to becoming a spaceport; in a third, from a focus on traditional infrastructure to becoming a leader in green infrastructure; in a fourth, developing manufacturing scenarios that address COVID and changes in AI… For a large international organization, we examined the changing nature of food and articulated different possibilities ahead.
Once the vision and scenarios have been developed, it is critical to make the future real, i.e. to move from the dream to reality. Backcasting is one of the most powerful methods in this regard. We go from the future to the past and ask what needs to be done to create the desired future. This helps link vision to actionable steps.
Personal futures are as important as organizational futures. We live in organizations and as they change, we need to shift as well, we must change our inner understanding
Finally, using the method CLA or causal layered analysis, we change the narrative, the story that gives meaning. With one large bank, we shifted the story from infrastructure-first to becoming a knowledge solutions bank. With the new narrative, this meant a shift in systems i.e., from funding the past to funding the future – solar, gender equity, and moving toward peer-to-peer banking solutions. In one nation, we debated the need to shift the narrative from “live to eat” which was resulting in diabetes and a system based on subsidizing junk food to the new story of “eat to live”. In this future, the worldview was that of healthy living focused on prevention. The system is shift was toward taxing junk food, developing local farms everywhere, and moving toward plant-based alternatives. The new story must link to a new strategy otherwise the best scenarios can still lead to a situation where culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Is futures thinking useful only for organizations and on the national level? Could we use it as individuals, to prepare for multiple possibilities?
While futures can be grand about the next 100 years, it is also about the day-to-day, about you and me. Personal futures are as important as organizational futures. We live in organizations and as they change, we need to shift as well, we must change our inner understanding. Many CEOs comment how the world has changed so much they feel uncomfortable, longing for a stable past that no longer exists. A new story is required as is inner reinvention. This means creating new identities moving from “I am” to “I am becoming”. Once CEO saw his life as a tennis game, but now when he went to a meeting, he never knew what court it would be. Clay or grass or hard court? He realized he had to change his narrative to the person who could play on many courts. This meant learning new skills such as conflict transformation futures. Ultimately though, in the long run, he wanted to go back to purpose, to the mission, to play for the love of the game, the rally. This was moving from strategy to presence, from optimizing over others to being with self and others.
Futures may begin with a changing external world but always ends up with our ability to make meaning and create the worlds we want and avoid the potential disasters ahead.
Became a Futurist
In cooperation between the Belgrade-based Centre for Futures Studies and Metafuture, a world-renowned educational think-tank, Became a Futurist – online training by professor Sohail Inayatullah is now available in the Serbian language at www.futures.rs/obuke