Sohail Inayatullah: We see the future as a learning journey, not as a site of prediction

December 2, 2020

Sara Božanić talks with Professor Sohail Inayatullah on the methods and the importance of futures oriented education and practice.

Professor Sohail Inayatullah /sə’heɪl ɪnaɪʌ’tʊla/, a political scientist, is Professor at Tamkang University, Taipei (Graduate Institute of Futures Studies); Associate, Melbourne Business School, the University of Melbourne; and Instructor, Metafutureschool.org. From 2011-2014, he was an adjunct professor at the Centre for Policing, Intelligence, and Counter-Terrorism at Macquarie University, Sydney. He teaches Become a Futurist: Futures 101 through www.metafutureschool.org. In 2016, Professor Inayatullah was awarded the first UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies. In 2010, he was awarded the Laurel award for all-time best futurist by the Shaping Tomorrow Foresight Network. In March 2011, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. In 1999, he was the UNESCO Chair at the Centre for European Studies, Trier, Germany. He received his doctorate from the University of Hawaii in 1990. Inayatullah has lived in Peshawar, Pakistan; Islamabad, Pakistan; Bloomington, Indiana; Flushing, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Brisbane and Mooloolaba, Australia.

Together with Ivana Milojević you founded Metafuture, a think tank that explores alternative and preferred futures and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. Can you tell us more about that?

Metafuture.org really started out as a website, as a library of our work. Eventually, it became a network of colleagues engaged in futures thinking and strategy development. They have included Robert Burke, Colin Russo, Marcus Bussey and others. Metafuture is focused not just on research and action learning projects that intend to understand and create alternative and preferred futures but it seeks to challenge the current dominant narrative and create new visions of the future. My own work is both external – helping nations and organizations transform – and inner, assisting individuals to create their own life story. Ivana Milojević is trained in feminist epistemology and peace studies and brings a radical view of the future. Her recent online course is titled Conflict Transformation Futures. It uses methods and tools of the field to help not just resolve conflicts but transform them. The question for her is when individuals and organizations have differing views of the future, what then? How can we use methods such as the futures triangle, backcasting, and Galtung’s transcend approach to address conflict and create positive solutions – that enhance wellbeing and reduce war and violence. 

You are the author of the CLA (Casual Layered Analysis) research theory and method. Can you share more about it? What is the aim of the method and what does a process that one needs to undertake in order to address/deliver futures-oriented proposals look like?

While many methods seek to broaden the future, CLA seeks to go deeper, challenging our core assumptions; we move from the litany, the outward manifestation of reality to the system, the worldview and finally to the metaphor or myth that underlies reality. We then create new narratives and ensure they are supported by new systems and litanies. For example, if we unpack GDP, we see it rests on the current capitalist system, based on the story of “more, and more”. For a different future, we need a new litany, perhaps the quadruple bottom line, moving from just profit to prosperity, people, planet and purpose. We then need to ensure the system supports that, as we see in New Zealand, where the budget is well-being based. We also need a new metaphor and deep culture. We are now starting on just such a project with the Government of New Zealand, creating a new vision and a new metaphor for the future.

I won’t go into details on CLA as metafuture.org has endless articles and we have two books on the subject, The CLA Reader and CLA 2.0, but the main idea is to go deeper and use depth as a resource, as an asset to challenge and create. For example, in a recent video of mine for Prout Rev, we asked, who killed George Floyd? At one level it was the police officer, but really his agency, ability to act, was based on a system of policing where harming African-Americans has become, if not the norm, certainly acceptable. Thus, at the systemic level we query training of law officers, we search for the level of infiltration by far-right domestic terrorists, we ask the level of diversity training. Thus, at the systemic level, the cause of Floyd’s death is not the individual policeman but the system of current law enforcement. If we go deeper to the worldview level, then the issue is spatiality, the division of American cities by race. We see the worldview of white fear of black men and historical and social injustice.  Finally, at the metaphor level, certainly the main story is “I can’t breathe”. We then ask, what would a different world look like?  The litany would be Floyd is a respected citizen. The system is one of diversity, with rules that are not discriminatory. The worldview shifts to inclusion. The new metaphor could be “Black lives matter”. As we move toward a third horizon, the long term, we begin to imagine a partnership society, where all consciousness, human and nature, matters. But first we need to address inequity, then move toward greater awareness.

We understand time to be fluid; future, present and past to be in a co-creative process.

In your paper “Prospective and Strategic Foresight Toolbox”, you refer to traditional methods of forecasting as a process in which a future is designed by using the terms of the present instead of reframing it through alternative worldviews and narratives. Can you please elaborate and tell us more about the traditional methods you are referring to?

We use the future to change the present. For example, if you are in conflict with someone, then the past is very important. “You did this and this to me.” In critical futures thinking, we use the future. That is, we ask where do you wish to be, what is your preferred future? We ask individuals to imagine this future. Meditate on this future. Indeed, we take individuals to this future through creative visualization techniques. The future then becomes real. We also have them access their future self – that the present is informed not by the past but by the possible and preferred future. You create a temporal bridge. In this sense the future is an asset. Often the present is a stranded asset, a psychic sunk cost. A great deal of emotional investment has been put into the present, and it no longer works, and thus we are unable and unwilling to make changes for a different future. Of course, if the present is working or aligned to your vision, then there is no need to shift. However, if the alignment is not there, then we need to challenge it and create a different future. This does not mean we are not mindful, not in the present, but it does mean that we understand time to be fluid; future, present and past to be in a co-creative process.

Can you name some projects that in your opinion showcase best what the future (or future exploration) should look like?

I can tell projects that I am working on that I like. Recently we did a project on the futures of manufacturing for the Government of Egypt. That worked well as we had a clear task – develop scenarios and ensure inclusion of industry leaders. The first session we went through the “Six Pillars” process of Futures Studies. Then we asked external leaders for advice, for feedback. Then we developed the scenarios. It was a mix of quantitative data and qualitative research.

We are in the middle of a process with the United National Economic and Social Commission of Asia and the Pacific. Again, we use solid methods. Include stakeholders. Facilitate people to move from what they know to what they don’t know. We do this in safe areas. We wish to assist very smart people in thinking differently.

In terms of what works, I follow the following. This is work of over 40 years and has come out in a book titled, What Works: Case Studies in the Practice of Foresight (Tamsui, Tamkang University, 2015).

  1. First, we see the future as a learning journey, not as a site of prediction.
  2. Second, we challenge the used future, or practices that no longer work but we keep on doing them.
  3. Third, we explore emerging issues/weak signals, that is, how the future is changing. This is based on Graham Molitor’s work. We then take a few emerging issues and develop consequences, for example, if 50% of all meat production is now cellular based, what happens to traditional farmland?
  4. Fourth, we create alternative futures. While we use many methods in this section, our preferred is the “Change Progression”. In this we integrate how the external world is changing with institutional responses to change. The first is the “No change”. The second the “Marginal change”. The third is the “Adaptive change”. And the last is the “Radical change”. For example, with the futures of learning and teaching, in the first, we teach and train for jobs that no longer exist. In the second, we enhance teaching and training through virtual teaching. In the third, we anticipate tomorrow’s jobs and develop ways of teaching to prepare students for these jobs (bio-informatics, wellness, AI, spiritual intelligence, care for the aged, systems design). In the last, we teach and train for a world after jobs.
  5. Fifth, we create the preferred future. We ask individuals and organizations where they wish to be in 2030 or 2040. Gaining clarity on vision is crucial – it becomes the strange attractor that coheres.
  6. Sixth, through backcasting, we help enhance the chances of realizing the preferred future.
  7. Seventh, we use CLA to create the new metaphor and articulate strategy based on the vision and the new narrative.

There are always political processes in play where resistance becomes a factor one must design for.

What has your experience been in educational processes with managers, social activists, policymakers and creatives? Where do you see design in future forecasting?

Well design is crucial, we are all consciously co-creating and co-designing the future. We ask, is the process linear or iterative? Who is not in the room? Thus, the design aspect is primary. This means as above, designing based on what works. Clearly, there are always political processes in play where resistance becomes a factor one must design for.

In one project on CLA, the head of HR of the company ensured the entire room was based on story telling. Paintings adorned the wall. Later in the day, individuals wore their favorite superhero costumes. While this was perhaps over the top, she wanted them to move toward finding their core inner narrative and using that to create the future they wished for in the company.

The suggestion here is that all design is worldview and metaphor based. Prior to any social design, we, I, need to understand my own epistemological biases, and thus intervention can move from being technical and strategic to adaptive and transformational.

I thus use CLA as a scaffolding in every futures project – we begin with the narrative that allows us in the room. We then ask, is there a better story that can help us create the future we want? How will we measure that? This starts the process of epistemological authenticity.

One of the key challenges today lies in moving future-oriented practice beyond educational environments. Can you offer any advice on this process?

Actually, I was going to argue the opposite. My experience is that non-educational institutions – corporations, governments, international organizations, individuals, community groups – are engaged in futures thinking. Universities are not. We can see this globally where universities have been surprised by COVID-19 and instead of creating partnership models (everyone taking a pay cut), they have let go of academics at the bottom, and instead of treating international students well, they have nearly killed their “golden goose”. Universities and educational institutions are not just past-oriented, they tend to be feudal, futures-reactive. In contrast, other sectors are using foresight, not just to mitigate risk, but to pursue opportunities and let the vision lead.

Who in your opinion should have agency in the development of the future, and what does your future look like?

Remembering Polak, he asserts the best or key for success is believing the future is bright and we can create it. Worse is the future is bleak and we have no agency. In a new article for the Journal of Futures Studies, Professor Chen, having done pre- and post-tests for those taking courses on the future, found the following:

  1. Enhanced trans-disciplinary thinking i.e. whole of knowledge and not just silo-based thinking.
  2. More optimistic about the future – the future is brighter.
  3. More open to alternatives.
  4. A narrative of agency i.e. a boat in an ocean with many directions instead of no direction or only one direction.

Agency can remove us from depression, from being stuck, from letting tyrants – globally or in our own backyard – get away with it. Futures is about agency. However, the context is crucial. Is agency just for me and my tribe or for the entire planet? Thus, I use Sarkar’s neohumanism – this is the shift from tribal thinking to planetary thinking.

Agency, however, now seen in terms of a successful foresight project is about ensuring that everyone is in the room. As the future is unknown with numerous uncertainties, the more voices that are in the room, the greater the possibility of a more robust map of the future. There is of course a dance between structure and agency, between deep macrohistorical patterns of change and power interests and agency, our ability to create the future we wish. Understanding this tension is critical for Futures Studies, and, indeed, any theory of change.  





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