Lyn Elen Burton

Futures Beyond Dystopia – Creating Social Foresight

Reviewed by Lynn Elen Burton

Slaughter, Richard A. Futures Beyond Dystopia : Creating Social Foresight. RoutledgeFalmer Publishers: New York, 2004.


Believing that the motivation to avoid future dangers is matched by the human need to create plans and move forward, futurist Richard Slaughter makes a clarion call to practitioners around the world to move futures studies into a new phase and to stimulate the development of applied foresight. In Futures Beyond Dystopia – Creating Social Foresight, the author challenges anyone involved in futures work to re-examine their assumptions, methodologies, and practices with a view to reinventing futures studies for the ultimate benefit of humankind.

Far more than “a conventional reading of the latest trends”, Slaughter’s model requires a depth of understanding of the present, and a new balance between the inner and outer dimensions of reality. This new approach to futures studies is intended not only to avoid the dangers indicated in many current trends, but also “to set goals, dream dreams, create visions, make designs; in short, to project upon the future a wide range of purposes and intentions.” According to American philosopher Ken Wilber, this 306 page book provides “an extraordinary opportunity to be on the ground floor of an historic shift in human understanding [and] Richard Slaughter has done a superb job in conveying the essentials of an integral map and its application to Futures Studies [which] promises to change profoundly the nature of the discipline.” 


Futures Studies, Foresight, Applied Foresight, Social Foresight, Forward thinking, Higher Education, Humanity, Critical Issues; Science, Technology, and Society; social action, integral agenda, futures, futures methods, knowledge creation, civil society, worldview, citizenship, personal responsibility, global network, civilization catalyst, socially excluded, management of change, societal responsibility.

At the time this book was written, Richard Slaughter was the Director of the Australian Foresight Institute and the President of the World Futures Studies Federation with a global membership of around 500 members[1]. In Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight, Dr. Slaughter has created a watershed guide for the future of Futures Studies – one that builds on the past, understands the possibilities in the present, and is guided by the depth of the human spirit to imagine and act on our inclusive visions for tomorrow. He says that while there is not, and can never be, a blueprint that leads to viable human futures, “there are a series of institutional arrangements, practices, and processes that can support movement in that direction.”

But achieving our preferred results will not be easy. The author challenges the status quo and states that, “a great deal of mainstream futures work has been solidly embedded in the traps and limitations of ‘flatland’ thinking… [Futurists] have sought to offer guidance, but on the basis of radically limited maps and of a single privileged (Western) way of knowing overshadowed by instrumental reason.” Believing that the motivation to avoid future dangers is matched by the human need to create plans and move forward, Slaughter makes a clarion call to practitioners around the world to move futures studies into a new phase and to stimulate the development of applied foresight.

Recognising the risks of being caught in the morass of politics, economics, trade, and finance, Slaughter steers away from these areas in Futures Beyond Dystopia – Creating Social Foresight and consciously focuses on reinventing futures studies and developing social learning strategies. He calls not for a minor adjustment in course, or even a series of them. But rather he sees the main goal of Social Foresight as helping “to clarify viable pathways to a livable future.” This includes reasserting limits, and understanding that some technological possibilities should not be pursued. It includes marshalling the control that human beings have to use their reflexive powers to view the world with fresh eyes and fashion a workable inclusive future. Through our “‘speculative imagination’ that gives us other, often divergent, images, options, areas of possibility that lie beyond reason and instrumental analysis,” (p 30) and an ‘installed organisational capacity’ such as a global network of Institutions of Foresight (p.12), we can create desirable images of the future. Applied Social Foresight rests on “the human brain/mind system…and the use of futures concepts that permit the emergence of a distinctly futures oriented discourse.” (p.17).

In an article in Futures[2](1998), the author set out the three unifying themes for Futures Beyond Dystopia – Creating Social Foresight. The first theme is a critique of the ‘American empirical tradition’ for futures studies which the author claims lacks sufficient depth to deal with the complex realities of modern times. The second theme shows ‘the integral paradigm’ as an alternative way forward and an approach to reestablish the discipline of futures studies on a more secure basis. And the third unifying theme is that of challenging futurists to collaborate in the development of applied social foresight and a global network. He sees “the old conflicts between inner and outer, and between (for example) empiricism and hermeneutics,”[3] resolved in favour of a much expanded, broader and deeper framework of social foresight and its applications.

As Dr. Slaughter begins the book, he is not optimistic about the current state of the world, indicating that without serious remediation the long standing drift towards ways that actively work against the long-term survival of humanity can only end in oblivion. He cites John Ralston Saul’s (1997) warning of “an overarching corporatist ideology at work in the world which seeks opportunity and profit but which has become detached from the ecological foundations of the world and, indeed, has no real interest in the future.” [4]

Further to this, he posits a preliminary set of propositions about aspects of the current context that worry him:

  • a Western worldview that in certain respects “supports a [short-term] thin, instrumental view of the world.
  • dominant economic and political agendas that serve to produce a consumer society and perpetuate destructive and unsustainable views, practices, and systems everywhere.
  • little attention to conscious participation in wider social and natural entities, awareness, and spirituality.
  • the over glamorisation of technology and its potentials in detriment to our humanity.
  • often-false solutions to the perennial problems of human existence – meaning, purpose, soulful work, rites of passage, and death.
  • powerful forces aligned in favour of material growth and against ‘enoughness’ and ‘voluntary simplicity.’
  • “overall, it may be possible to redesign some of the ‘ways of knowing’ that are contained within the Western worldview by retiring defective components and replacing them with consciously chosen equivalents. The tools for engaging in this work are widely available, but the places where they can be learned and practiced are not very common.” (p. 8)

To develop a more integral futures inquiry, Slaughter emphasises two necessary components. He says that while ‘pop futures’ and ‘problem oriented futures’ both have their uses, they are limited in their ‘critical and applied power.’ He sees the first phase in reinventing futures studies as a shift from conventional futures thinking towards what he calls a ‘critical paradigm’ – “an approach to futures based on ‘probing beneath the surface’, ie., looking beyond empirical surfaces to linguistic, cultural and symbolic dimensions where meanings and assumptions are actively shaped.”[5]

The second phase in achieving that which American philosopher, Ken Wilber calls the ‘first word on a new approach to futures studies’ is a shift from instrumental thinking to full engagement with the integral paradigm, “a theory that is critical of the present state of affairs in light of a more encompassing and desirable state, both in the individual and the culture at large.” [6] This integral approach focuses not only on the individual and collective, but also on the exterior and interior of each – the subjective, the objective, the intersubjective, and the interobjective – the individual ‘I’ and ‘it’, the collective ‘we’ and ‘it’. As Slaughter uses the integral paradigm “to understand the foundations of the next civilisation”[7], he invites “all practicing futurists and intending practitioners’ to join him “in the further development of this fascinating discipline or domain of enquiry.”[8]

In his chapter on ‘Changing methods and approaches in Futures Studies’, the author makes the case for forecasting, scenario building, and critical Futures Studies, but also argues that, with the integral work of Ken Wilber as a guide to our thinking, we need layered futures work to reach a level of emancipation heretofore undelivered. According to Slaughter, “depth, resonance, significance and meaning are not available through technology, or at least only marginally so. They are available through the progressive refinement of the instrument of knowing itself, that is, through each individual person.” (p. 124). Authors such as Columbia University Emeritus Professor, Jack Mezirow[9] would concur, calling for critical reflection as a necessary precursor to fuller understanding.

Slaughter goes on to say, “one of the distinguishing features of high quality futures work is that it routinely ignores borders and moves across many different domains.” He reinforces broader access to the field through what Wendy Schultz has termed ‘futures literacy.’ Reinforcing this notion, Burton (1992) says, “The only constant in the emerging world is change – and the accelerating rate of that change. Hierarchical corporate structures under the old economic order are being replaced by a spider web of activity whose strands reach all over the world…The traditional 3Rs of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic must merge with the 4Rs of the future – reasoning, relating, reflecting, and redefining.” Rather than a focus on the external and instrumental ‘it’ of the future, Slaughter makes us all (‘I’ and ‘we’) integral and the stewards of our collective future. Our children’s children depend on us.

Achieving this end requires recognising both the strengths and the weaknesses of the four main traditions of Futures enquiry – the empirical tradition based largely in the United States; a series of culturally based European traditions; the International Multicultural tradition; and the Integral approach which values many ways of knowing across all significant fields. After discussing each of the preceding approaches, Slaughter successfully attempts to provide a more integral modus operandi, which could support a broader, more inclusive, transdisciplinary frame of inquiry.

The author notes that “it is one thing to articulate futures issues and problems and to enter into productive futures-related discourses with other similarly equipped people. But it is quite another to operationalise the insights so gained… Discourse alone is not action-oriented and cannot deal adequately with many broader or more complex futures concerns” (p. 179).

Slaughter presents a strong rationale for widespread futures education practice, but also concludes that “if teachers and schools are to stand any chance of integrating futures perspectives into their work, they need much more durable structures of support than anything that has been provided hitherto”(p. 191). He then goes on to devote chapter 14 in Futures Beyond Dystopia : Creating Social Foresight to ‘creating and sustaining [a global network] of second generation Institutions of Foresight’ for which “an international program of study and research is urgently needed.” (p. 200)

Based on an international survey several years ago, the author further posits the following functions for these Institutes of Foresight:

  1. raise issues of common concern that are overlooked in the short-term view.
  2. open out the forward view to highlight dangers, alternatives and choices before they become urgent.
  3. publicise the emerging picture to engage the public and inform decision-making.
  4. contribute to the body of knowledge on foresight implementation and the macro-processes that frame the future.
  5. identify the dynamics and policy implications for the transition to sustainability.
  6. identify aspects of the new world order and place them on political agendas.
  7. facilitate the development and application of social innovations.
  8. deal with fears and help empower people to fashion their own futures.
  9. help organisations to evolve in appropriate ways.
  10. provide institutional incubators for innovative people and experimental or public interest work that can not be carried out elsewhere.

The author goes on to say that successful Foresight programmes recognise the need for futures work, have a champion in the start-up phase, are responsive to client needs, involve the stakeholders in the process, and experience a legitimising process. They also define core purposes, and have secure funding to become operational.

While Richard Slaughter eschews the blueprint label for Futures Beyond Dystopia : Creating Social Foresight, he has in fact created a strong beginning for reinventing futures studies. Recognising that “the depth within the practitioner … determines how well any particular approach or methodology will be used,” it is now incumbent upon futures studies leaders to reach beyond proprietary thinking and become the professors of foresight envisaged by esteemed futurist Herbert George Wells over seventy-five years ago.[10] Creating an Applied Foresight Network and ‘an International Program of study and research’ needs imaginative solutions and durable structures of support.

In conclusion, the author of Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight hopes that by using “the rich store of intellectual and practical knowledge” (p.228) gained through over almost half a century of futures studies, we will help to fashion a sustainable and desirable future buttressed by the new values attributed to a ‘civil society.’ “Essentially the task is about letting go of industrial models, values, priorities and structures across the board and opening to the processes of transformation available through the perennial wisdom of humankind.” (p. 255)

About the reviewer

Dr. Lynn Elen Burton teaches Futures Studies and is Chair of the Humanities Department at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. Prior to this, she was Dean of University Extension at California State University, Los Angeles, and at SFU. She also served as the first ever Director of Environmental Education at Environment Canada and was Senior Advisor to the National Advisory Board on Science and Technology, chaired by the Prime Minister of Canada.

Published in Futures 38, 9, November 2006 1125-31.

[1] Marien, Michael. Futures Studies in the 21st Century: A Reality-Based View, in Futures, vol. 34, issues 3-4. Elsevier Science: April 2002.

[2] Z. Sardar (ed). Elsevier Sociology. 2005. “Futures® is an international, refereed, multidisciplinary journal concerned with medium and long-term futures of cultures and societies, science and technology, economics and politics, environment and the planet and individuals and humanity. Covering methods and practices of futures studies, the journal seeks to examine possible and alternative futures of all human endeavours. Futures® seeks to promote divergent and pluralistic visions, ideas and opinions about the future.”

[3] Richard Slaughter. Towards a wise culture: Four Classic Futures Texts. (CD-ROM) Australia: Foresight International, 2005.

[4] J.R. Saul. The Unconscious Civilization. Penguin: Melbourne, 1997.

[5] Richard Slaughter. Futures Study Glossary. Indooroopilly, Aust.: Futures Study Centre, 1997.

[6] Ken Wilber. The Integral Vision at the Millennium, Introduction to Volume 7 of the Collected Works.

[7] Richard Slaughter. Towards a wise culture: Four Classic Futures Texts. (CD-ROM) Australia: Foresight International, 2005.

[8] Richard Slaughter. Op cit.

[9] Jack Mezirow. Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood – A Guide to Transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

[10] in a British Broadcasting Corporation radio program on November 19, 1933, noted futurist H.G. Wells’ called, for professors of foresight to use their knowledge in socially responsible ways. Wells talked about how unprepared the world was for the motorcar. He said that, “the motorcar ought to have been anticipated at the beginning of this century. It was bound to come. It was bound to be cheapened and made abundant. It was bound to change our roads, take passenger and goods traffic from railways, alter the distribution of our population, and congest our towns with traffic. It was bound to make it possible for a man to commit a robbery or murder in Devonshire overnight and breakfast in London or Birmingham.” He further said that while we could have, we did nothing to work out the potential impacts of the motorcar before our roads were choked, the railways were bankrupt, and the police were dealing with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (Futures Research Quarterly, 1987).

Since that BBC broadcast close to eighty years ago, specters of global warming and uncontrolled population growth have filled our newspapers; scientists have put a man on the moon, mapped the human genome, cloned Dolly the sheep, crossed a strawberry with an Arctic char, created weapons of mass destruction, and advanced artificial intelligence, robotics, and nano-technologies; and the world is dealing with numerous threats to peace, the global commons, and to humanity itself (Petersen, 2000, Anderson, 2003). At the same time, while the world is characterized by rampant change, and there have been efforts such as those of American Council for the United Nations University (2004), the World Academy for Art and Science (2003) to assess both the positive and negative impacts of these burgeoning developments through expert panels and chat groups, this is not enough. According to Slaughter (2004), “It is one thing to articulate futures issues and problems and to enter into productive futures-related discourses with similarly equipped people. But it is quite another to operationalise the insights so gained.”