Glenn, J. and Gordon, T. (eds), 1998 State of the Future: issues and opportunities

State of the Future 1998, The Millennium Project, American Council for the United Nations University, 1998, 304 pages, US$ 76, UK£49


In the late 1990s any attempt to grasp the global predicament and draw attention to necessary actions and policies must be welcomed. The Millennium Project (MP) has made a sturdy beginning in its approach to this task. It has established several ‘nodes’, or collaborative centres, around the world, carried out countless interviews with a wide range of respondents, successfully employed several standard futures methodologies and published two annual volumes, of which this is the second.

There are essentially three main sections to the book. One describes 15 global issues and 15 opportunities. The second presents elements of six scenarios. The third is an extensive annotated bibliography. All will be welcome resources for those involved in futures work or concerned about the global prospect at the beginning of the third millennium. Looked at positively, the MP has pioneered a broadly participatory approach for carrying out futures work. It has demonstrated the use of methodologies; and it has provided suggestive ‘nuggets of insight’ that can be used for many purposes in, eg, business, policy-making and education. So I want to give credit where credit is due and acknowledge the work of the editors and their many associates. Futures studies is a discipline that is manifestly powered by the human energy behind projects such as this. I hope that many more such projects will be started, and applied, in the coming years.

But it is necessary for an emerging discipline to do more than give due praise for effort. We have also a duty to search for quality in futures studies. [1] From this point of view the MP has a long way to go. The way it has been framed and executed places it firmly within the dominant American empiricist tradition. As such it bears the characteristic hallmarks of that approach: a US-centred view of the world; a painfully literal use of language; a near-complete lack of awareness of metaphor, power, embedded social interests and last, but by no means least, a conceptual superficiality that generates endless talk about ‘issues’ but overlooks the rich worlds of epistemology and critique (according to which all such ‘issues’ flourish or die).

In the simplified empiricist world, words just mean ‘what they say’, cultures are all-but invisible; and technologies are powerful, but neutral, means to pre-given ends. Futures work in this tradition still lacks the tools, the self-understanding, the depth of insight to do much more than rehearse surfaces and re-hash the conventional (Western) wisdom. So it is no surprise that there are many confident ‘shoulds’, but remarkably little original thinking in this large A4, 300+ page book. An ‘issues’ based approach will only canvas ‘opportunities’ revealed within its own, limited, frame. More original work comes, in part, from problematising taken-for-granted frameworks, assumptions, interests etc and reconceptualising ‘issues’ in deeper and more productive ways. But that is not what has been attempted here.

Perhaps the best part of the book is an excellent discussion about the use of models in explanatory scenarios (p. 111-112). Here some of the difficult methodological choices are succinctly canvassed. The scenarios themselves (p. 121-149) are well worth a look: four are exploratory; two are normative. These provide a satisfactory way to integrate and present much of the data gathered. The section on lessons from history, while worth attempting, seemed to me to merely reach banal conclusions, eg, ‘things turn out differently than intended’, ‘war is part of the global prospect’, ‘history may not be useful in forecasting’ etc. (p. 105-6).

I was similarly ‘underwhelmed’ by the comments associated with five general themes or observations that emerge from all this work. These are sustainability (‘there is little agreement about what it means’); economic growth (‘implementation of policies that promote economic growth should be a priority of all nations. (Yet) policy makers believed this more strongly than scholars’); education (‘it is time to identify the most cost/effective educational materials, curricula, and distribution media for global education and institutional arrangements to accelerate learning’); technology (which ‘may have its problems, but the introduction of new technology is essential if some of the world’s major problems are to be solved and some of the major opportunities … are to be captured’); and globalisation (‘a trend affecting all issues and opportunities; it is rapidly evolving and an improved global legal framework is needed’). Comments at this level add nothing to existing knowledge. And that, really, is the fundamental weakness of the MP so far.

The most useful part of the book is the executive summary (p. 9-21). It will save readers wading through many pages of mind-numbing point-by-point text. Given the range of material presented in the book, and the sheer bulk of reading it presents, an index would have been very useful. But for the second year running an index is lacking. This is a serious oversight.

The bibliography is extensive, and should have been a valuable resource. But it is less useful than it could have been, for three reasons. The first is that the abstracts are descriptive, not evaluative. Sadly, and in contrast to Future Survey, the reader is given no assessment of the quality of work described. [2] So the material is flattened, homogenised. The second problem concerns the selection of material. There are old and questionable works that do not belong here. There are new and useful works that are missing. I was puzzled by, on the one hand, the inclusion of the Encyclopedia of the Future and Tough’s apparently unpublished speculations on alien contact and, on the other, the omission of the Knowledge Base of Futures Studies. [3] If these intrepid researchers had bothered to look in volume 3: Directions and Outlooks, they would have found a rich source of ‘scenario’ material, including two masterly accounts of ‘the long view’ that stand in a productive contrast with what Schwartz (predictably included here) means by that term. Finally, an alphabetical index of authors, titles and themes would have been useful.

For something aspiring to be an annual State of the Future report there is an inevitable comparison with the series edited for some years by Lester Brown on the State of the World. [4] The fact that they both originate in Washington DC only sharpens the contrast since, year after year, Brown and his colleagues have assembled a selection of sharp, penetrating, critical – and yet always positive – essays covering many aspects of the global problematique. On the whole they are well researched, trenchantly argued and frequently innovative. The two annual MP books have so far fallen short of these standards: bulk is no compensation for lack of quality.

So what suggestions could be drawn out for future work? There are three. First, the work carried out so far is preparatory in nature; that is, it serves to sketch out the territory, establish the networks, get the project under way. The next step is to go for a deeper analysis – one that will begin to produce insights and recommendations of the quality desperately needed by a world in stress and in peril. Second, in order to do this, I believe it important for the chief architects of the work to venture beyond familiar, stereotypical, approaches (surveys, cross-impact matrices and scenarios) and begin to draw on some of the more demanding critical futures methodologies that have been developed over recent years; eg, to employ ‘layered causal analysis’ and a rigorous interrogation of worldview defects/assumptions as vital inputs to their work. [5] Third, I would certainly aim for a shorter, more readable and more accessible text. The present two volumes are not very ‘user friendly’.

In short, the MP has made a start, but still has a long way to go. I hope that it will mature into a more substantively international enterprise, that it will deepen beyond the relatively superficial approaches pursued so far and that it will begin to do justice to its own worthy – but so far largely unfulfilled intentions.

Published in the World Futures Studies Federation Bulletin, 25, 2, June/July, 1999 pp 6-7.

Coyright (C) Richard A. Slaughter, 1999.


[1] Slaughter, R. Professional Standards in Futures Studies, draft policy paper for the World Futures Studies Federation, Futures, 31, 8, 1999, pp 835-851.

[2] Marien, M. (Ed), Future Survey, published monthly by the World Future Society, Bethesda, MD.

[3] Slaughter, R. (ed) The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, Vols 1-3, Futures Study Centre, Melbourne, 1996.

[4] Brown, L. (ed) State of the World 1998, Earthscan, London.

[5] Inayatullah, S. Causal Layered Analysis, Futures, 31, 8, 1999 815-830.