Some Reflections and Questions on Participation, Representation and Politics in Societal Visioning

Humans have been interested in the future since pre-historic times and tried to know, understand and control what is going to happen with the aims of surviving, acquiring and/or sustaining power, making strategic decisions and so on. There are three main phases in human inquiry into the future: the pre-scientific phase, the (quantitative) forecasting phase and the alternative futures thinking phase (List, 2005). There are three types of reactions to future: passivity, adaptation and voluntarism (Godet, 1983). Current thinking is representative of voluntarism which is about creating one’s future. This type of reaction marks the start of the alternative futures movement in the field of futures studies in the mid-twentieth century. Alternative futures thinking is based on the idea that there is no single possible future but multiple possibilities and creation of a desired future is embedded in present choices and decisions (Slaughter, 2005). Therefore, alternative futures thinking is about understanding the possible, probable and plausible futures and selecting preferable one(s) to act upon and to create (Bell, 2005).

Inayatullah (2008) talks about three fundamental forces helping us to understand and work with the future: Pull of the future, push of the present and weight of history. To “work with” and understand these forces, there’re numerous methods of futures inquiry one of which being visioning. Visions or visioning is used to understand and “create” the pull of the future. Among the futures inquiry methods, the least analytical and most intuitive and creative one is perhaps visioning. Bezold (2005) defines visions as “futures for the heart”. I understand visions to be anchors marking future possibility areas which are desirable and plausible. Desirability and plausibility are two qualities commonly accepted to be fundamental for visions. Fine. But three immediate contextual questions arise from this position: Desirable by who? Plausible in what time frame? Plausible according to which technological, scientific, socio-cultural and political assumptions?

These immediate questions bring to surface the question of representativeness of the visions. Donella Meadows, to make an important point, puts forward the idea of Hitler being a visionary in her address at 1994 meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics in San José, Costa Rica. She adds though “but his vision was not the vision of the Jews or gypsies”. A vision might be inspiring for the “masses” at its time but history judges visions with a different set of values, again, depending on the context through which that historical outlook is formed. Compare Hitler’s Propaganda with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream”; both imagining being exposed to them at their respective days of conception and then in present time. Which one still resonates? Why? I am not making any assumptions here; I understand that either may resonate with individuals of human society but both cannot at the same time. Politics and values are among the primary “informants” of visions and they should not be swept under the carpet. How can we make them explicit, thus allow reflection?

The question of representativeness is the other side of the coin of “participation”. Thanks to the remarkably individualist yet highly community-conscious, egalitarian and collaboratory culture they have, Swedes gifted the world with the idea and practice of “participatory design”, initially as a way to overcome problems associated with interface design of early software. The early successes of these participatory designers found resonance in several disciplines of design, industrial design being a very early adopter. Scale and ability of prototyping played a role in this early adoption as well as the immediately verifiable “business case” of developing products with prospective users. It’s not easy to design larger scale artefacts such as buildings as a whole due to costs associated with prototyping nevertheless it is possible to emulate experiences associated with particular spaces. Similarly participatory design techniques are being used by urban design studios and some enlightened local councils. But how can one design the future of a large complex system through participatory approaches? Participatory visioning seems like a potential answer as hundreds of projects across the world, especially in Europe popped up in the past couple of years using participatory visioning for city futures. Not all of these projects are transparent about the processes used or the extent of representation of stakeholders. Then one question branches out to be on the qualities of participation. How can we possibly represent every stakeholder in a visioning exercise? Is this necessary at all? Politics all over again…

My general and anecdotal observation is that majority of people are not able to or do not want to think in terms of the future beyond time and spatial frames that they think to be binding their own experience. There might be several reasons for this including lack of systemic understanding, particularities of the values/ethical framework one is subscribed to, educational level and intellectual depth etc. Some personal stories are relevant here as examples. In 2014, right before the visioning workshop we held in Melbourne, I went to a hairdresser close to my office to get a quick trim. The hairdresser was a chatty woman in early 20s. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea: I was either going to have small talk with this woman or read the women’s magazines that were thrown in front of me. It was obvious that unless I demonstrated active disengagement by having my attention on something else, she wouldn’t left me alone in quiet observation. I chose the small talk option; she was full of questions, initially tailored for twenty year olds, but nevertheless one finally came which made me feel I was in control of the conversation: “What do you do?”. So I told her that I’m a researcher at Melbourne University and she asked what my research was about. To cut it short and sweet I told her that it was about the future of Melbourne and asked her what she thinks how Melbourne should be like in 2040. She found the question amusing, incomprehensible at first I think, then started “mmmm”ing as an indication of thinking. Finally she said: “Well, I don’t know, I like nightclubbing but all clubs in the city close by midnight. I think I’d like the nightclubs to be open longer”. I was caught defenseless, couldn’t say a word and she changed the subject to the boyfriend she recently broke up with. She was not even able to reflect on the fact that maybe she wouldn’t be into nightclubbing anymore in 2040 and would need and/or prefer other experiences and services. She also wasn’t able to imagine she might not have been living in the CBD in 2040. What does this example tell about the appropriate politics of representation and participation in visioning futures of large complex systems?

A friend of mine, previously climate change researcher currently process engineer for a large consultancy for mining sector, is struggling with his career direction as it doesn’t reflect his values about responsibility to society, nurturing nature, etc. He is one of the more technically and scientifically knowledgeable people about climate change and its implications among all my friends. Nevertheless, he cannot take the easy step of quitting his job and doing something that doesn’t undermine his integrity. Several strategic questioning sessions revealed parts of a complicated picture: in my understanding, he is fearful of not being able to provide for/protect his family (which he actually doesn’t have but obviously hoping to have) during potential times of crisis unless he earns good chunks of money now to invest in property with land to grow food etc. So, although he is able to envision a desirable life for himself and beyond his immediate self and hypothetical future family with an understanding of future risks, his visions about the society and about his nuclear family do not overlap: he struggles thinking systemically. I am still assisting him exploring his assumptions about future possibilities and if his current strategy is the one which will really “pay” during times of crisis. Walking him through different “vantage points” across the large complex system that is “society”, I have been able to help him “picture” desirable visions at different system levels; i.e. society, community, immediate family. It is clear for him that these are interconnected, nevertheless, alignment of his visions at different levels is yet to emerge. He first needs to overcome “fear” and learn to “trust” the wider system because if we cannot envision from a place of mutual trust, regardless of how representative and participatory our current processes of visioning are, at the time of futures unfolding, we will focus on individual security and safety at the expense of safety and security of other members of our immediate community and of wider society. So, unless we facilitate a “group dynamic” that is collaboratory, that enables emergence and endurance of mutual trust among members of society, representativeness and participatory nature of visioning processes at the time of visioning will not necessarily bring out an outcome that is representative and inclusive in the future.

For a (societal) vision to be an effective anchor it needs to meet at least two of the following three conditions, first being a prerequisite:

  1. A vision needs to be plausible-I don’t think this needs explaining although “plausibility” may find different and still valid interpretations in people with different expertise background. Nevertheless, I cannot help but issue a warning which stems from my annoyance with mainstream, loud, advertorial business literature, both academic and practitioner, arguing “visions should be achievable”. In my opinion, if, at the time of visioning you believe you can achieve the vision, you’re not visioning hard enough. If you think you could achieve the vision, then you’ve met the plausibility criterion;
  2. Appealing for the masses (means the vision is timely, widely accepted, so a movement starts, grows and takes over the mainstream), or;
  3. Somehow holds strong political and/or economic “voice” resonating with the “elite” or “yet to be elite” (so, if the masses are “blind” to your vision, you can pretty much “hack” the mainstream through the two most socially relevant mechanisms).

In this conditions list, the second can be generally attributed to evolutionary changes in socio-political systems whereas the third implies revolutionary patterns. Preempting either confusion or objection about my use of terms here, I’ll define them. By evolutionary I mean slower processes of change where those who did not either want or foresee the particular change happening can accept it and adapt to it. By revolutionary I mean faster processes of change where a new model either replaces an old model and become autonomous (which might or might not be followed by evolutionary change for a complete transformation) or a new model takes over an old model by force. Of course these are “ideal” types and especially in transformation of large systems like cities a proportional combination is likely to be observed. In either case though, the context within which change happens is also a determinant of if the vision will be achieved (as the “original” visionary/ies envisioned it) or not.

As usual, these are current meanderings of my mind and my mind would appreciate to be challenged.

References cited in this post:

Bell, W. (2005). An Overview of Futures Studies. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge base of futures studies (Professional ed.). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International. In CD.

Bezold, C. (2005). The Visioning Method. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge Base of Futures Studies CD-ROM Professional Edition (Vol. 2 Part 2). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International.

Inayatullah, S. (2008). Six pillars: Futures thinking for transforming. Foresight, 10(1), 4-21.

Godet, Michel. 1983. Reducing the blunders in forecasting. Futures 15 (3) 181-192.

List, D. (2005). Scenario Network Mapping. Unpublished Ph.D., University of South Australia, Adelaide.

Slaughter, R. (2005). Futures Concepts. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge base of futures studies (Professional ed.). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International. In CD.

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