Marcus Bussey

Futures Tools and techniques

Richard A. Slaughter. Melbourne: Futures Study Centre and DDM Media Group, 1995, 194 pp. (includes Glossary of Futures Terms)

As a teacher with a commitment to learning that helps children and adults to engage positively with present crises and plan responses to future needs, I was very pleased to find Richard Slaughter’s rich source book Futures: Tools and Techniques. This carefully crafted work is rich in material that allows the reader to develop a coherent understanding of the major issues, problems and themes that are coalescing under the broad banner of futures studies. It is clearly written, with excellent charts and graphics, and has at the end of each of its fifty sections questions to stimulate discussion and enquiry. The text and diagrams are most suited to adult or high school ages but many of the tools and techniques can be simplified to cater for younger learners. Starting with issues centred around the nature and purpose of futures work, Slaughter moves on to describe simple techniques that are useful for creating and informing the forward view.

Healthy balance

He does not simply focus on traditional empirical social science techniques but argues strongly for a healthy balance of data gathering, deduction, extrapolation, and analysis which also includes imagining, dreaming and visioning. He points out that:

Reason, rationality and analysis only carry us a certain distance before they fade out into the irreducible uncertainty of the future. But imaginative and creative approaches are not limited in this way. They can leap ahead of the present, make seemingly outrageous assumptions and overturn the conventional wisdom of the day. In so doing they help to free our minds from the limitations of the present thereby opening up new ideas, new options, new lines of enquiry and aspiration. (p.76).

This statement gives us the key to this book and to futures study in general. Both are rooted in solid social science practices but move beyond these to unabashedly play with possibility. It follows that after looking at both imaginative and social science techniques Slaughter should turn to our greatest limiting factor: fear. Many of us do in fact fear the future. As a teacher I am well aware that it is fear more than anything else that prevents us from reaching our potential both as individuals and as a society. But I needed to be reminded that uncritical optimism can also prove problematic when trying to deal with challenge.

It is true that pessimism may lead to despair. However, it may also stimulate a person to search for effective solutions. On the other hand, optimism may leave an individual’s energy free for constructive projects or it may encourage bland, unhelpful, business-as-usual attitudes. In both cases the human response is crucial. Optimism and pessimism can both inhibit and encourage effective responses. (p.93).

Using the question of fear as a platform, Slaughter proceeds to develop what he calls the ’empowerment principle’. This principle is rooted in the quality of our understanding and response to the future. What do we fear? Why do we fear this? And, how might we respond? The quality of our response here is critical:

High quality responses to fears may include some of the following features. The fears are now seen in a wider context – there is an enormous range of options to choose from. Students begin to see that most fears are overstated or illusory. It becomes clear that images of the future are provisional and negotiable. They represent opportunities for engagement, choice, action. (p.96).

Values clarification

Slaughter then moves from fear to scenarios for the future. He begins with what we know, the business-as-usual picture of the future and the machine metaphor for the future. Both images are shown to be defective and he quickly moves on to the positive image of a wise culture. This is in many ways the high water mark of the book. Slaughter gives us a brief but inspiring view of a qualitatively different world from the one we know and experience. A wise culture sees growth as problematic and qualitative and reconceptualises and sets its own limits. It conceives of nature as a community that is sacred and honoured. Following from this, interpersonal and person-nature relations are reverent and participatory. Views on time, shift from the fleeting and the linear to the extended and the open. Technology is no longer violent and destructive but appropriate and peaceful, while knowledge, which is what this book is really about, is layered into realms, being at different times and in different contexts: instrumental, practical and transcendent.

Values clarification forms the next part of the book. This section is well positioned between the speculations about a wise culture and the final section which deals with questions of sustainability. It allows for the major value systems to be examined and is designed to help us delve more deeply into our own value systems and thus look at their implications for our own preferred futures. I particularly liked Figure 43 which summarises major value positions within the wider global futures debate. In this figure the characteristics of each position are described, their preferred future is listed and their major contributions are given.

As noted above, the last section of Slaughter’s book looks at issues of sustainability. This part is divided into five sections, each one taking a separate issue and examining it.

Visioning process

In this section we are taken into the visioning process that is so important to any futures work. Here, foresight is what counts and it is what we, as a culture, most lack despite the fact that it is undoubtedly a human capacity. Slaughter’s final remarks are set to stir some feeling of scepticism and doubt in the hearts and minds of all ‘level headed’ folk. But one of the underlying themes of this book has been that it is precisely our level headedness that is the problem. Our habits and fears, our resistance to change, and suspicion of anything unconventional are preventing us from doing what our planet desperately needs. Perhaps we need to redefine level headedness.

Let’s have a closer look at what Slaughter has to say. He argues that:

Foresight and futures studies should be routinely taught in schools and universities Second, research should be carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of institutions and processes of foresight; that is, how they work, what they produce, the tangible results that, occur. Third, all countries should develop their own national foresight strategy on a sector by sector basis. Each major constituency should be assisted in the creation of foresight arrangements best suited to its particular purposes and needs. Fourth, national institutions of foresight should be created to facilitate all the above changes. The savings of successful foresight (a stitch in time saves nine’, ‘forewarned is forearmed’) are more than sufficient to pay for the expenditures involved. Finally, all nations should participate in the international program of 21st Century studies. By the turn of the century all the national studies will be integrated and the resulting insights made available. No country can afford not to be part of this great conversation. (p.151).

This is undoubtedly a grand ideal; but what I found myself asking after reading the book is ‘Why not?’. While we are dealing with this simple question we can use a book like Futures: Tools and Techniques to help ourselves and others unravel the knots in our consciousness to make that open space where possibilities can become reality.

Marcus Bussey is a teacher at a community school in Brisbane, Queensland and a member of the local organising committee for the1997 World Futures Studies Federation Conference.

Published in the WFSF Futures Bulletin, March 1996, pp 15-16.