Ogilvy, J. Creating Better Futures

Creating Better Futures. Scenario Planning as a Tool for a Better Tomorrow, James A. Ogilvy, Oxford University Press, 2002, 238pp + xvi

I should begin this review with a couple of admissions. First, I met Jay Ogilvy several years ago on a GBN sponsored trip to Australia and found him charming and accessible. Second, I reprinted a 1992 paper of his that I still consider to be among the best ever written about some of the underpinnings of intelligent futures work. 1 I therefore came to this book with keen anticipation expecting to find a mature and sophisticated expression of futures work from a leading practitioner. Unfortunately, however, the book does not live up to these hopes and I will attempt to explain why.

The aim at the outset is clear: ‘this book is about what it takes to build better futures’ (p. 1). Or again ‘this book can change your life because its subject is the tools we have at hand for changing the systems that affect our lives’ (p. 3). It also aims to stimulate ‘fresh thinking … (based on) … new assumptions’ (p. 5). These aims are genuine. They are supported by an impressive grasp of many sophisticated subjects including: philosophy, social theory, post-modernism and hermeneutics. Ogilvy’s comments about the nature of language, the semiotics of culture and even the difficulties Americans have with ‘ways of knowing’ are exemplary. Let’s be clear about this: Ogilvy is nothing if not well grounded in areas that are still dismissed as esoteric by some futures practitioners. So there is much interesting and relevant comment about the nature of language, paradigms, values, the social construction of reality and so on. These are, in fact, the core strengths of the book. Yet as I deepened my engagement with the work I became increasingly concerned.

To begin with Ogilvy makes fair use of two of Habermas’‘fundamental social interests’, ie, those dubbed ‘technical’ and ‘practical’. He even suggests that ‘Habermas and his forefathers are the closest thing we have to an honourable ancestry for scenario planning’ (p. 97). Why, then, does he omit the third – and certainly the most significant – knowledge interest, the ‘emancipatory interest’? The latter concerns the process of human self-constitution, and the need (as Habermas very clearly sees it) for emancipation from oppression. For some reason this key human interest appears to be in conflict with the writer’s purpose – so it is simply dropped. This is a serious mistake because the clarification and defence of the emancipatory interest is perennial. It is central to Habermas’ account and I cannot see how it can be other than a sine qua non of any liveable future.

A second concern (and one that Ogilvy was certainly warned about) is that the book’s central focus is limited to what he calls ‘scenario planning’. The view put forward here is that such planning is the one best route toward ‘better futures’. This singular focus suggests very clearly that no other futures methods are relevant. In other words, the author overlooks methodological developments that have occurred in the field over more than a decade. 2 It is an outrageous claim. Hence, while at first sight the book appears intellectually broad, so far as Futures Studies are concerned it is culturally and methodologically insular. I will return to this point below.

Late on in the book there is a deeply ironic reference to the fact that ‘navigating the future turns out to be a team sport’ (p. 175). What Ogilvy is referring to here is the use of teams in building effective scenarios. What he is paradigmatically unaware of (which is doubly ironic in this case) is that this fact does not only apply to the ‘teams’ that assemble for corporate scenario projects. Professional collegiality among those working in the wider field is vital for its further development. But Ogilvy and his colleagues at GBN, all of whom benefited enormously from shared futures resources, are openly dismissive. Over an extended period they opted to cut themselves off from a field that they considered inferior and that, in their view, had little of value to offer them. He then writes of the ‘spirit of generosity’ at GBN that reflects a merely internal norm (p. 179). The rejection is made quite explicit in at least two places where the author accuses ‘futurists’ of ‘bad faith’ (p. 116, p. 154) though no specific names or sources are mentioned to support this view. Yet at the same time he also refers to what he calls ‘the slimness of our academic portfolio’ (p. 115, emphasis added). There is clearly some confusion here since this usage of the term ‘our’ is in direct conflict with the whole focus and approach of the book. Moreover the portfolio of symbolic and methodological resources is by no means as slim as he appears to believe. 3

As noted, Olgivy’s 1992 essay on ‘Futures Studies and the Human Sciences – the Case for Normative Scenarios’ was, in my view, a model of clarity and usefulness. But rather than building forward from this impressive work he appears to have withdrawn from constructive engagement with other futures workers in favour of the insular comfort of GBN. The slide is reflected in a critical difference in the opening sentence from the 1992 paper and the one given here. In the version I reprinted in New Thinking for a New Millennium the piece began with these words: ‘simply to be a human being is to be a futurist of sorts’. 4 Yet here the sentence has been altered to read ‘simply to be a human being is to be a planner of sorts’ (p. 115, emphasis added). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, while the field has progressed from planning to Futures Studies, and from there to applied foresight (etc), this talented practitioner has moved in the other direction, regressing back to planning!

Another serious omission occurs in a section on ‘the shift of worldviews in psychology’ (pp. 87-91). Bear in mind here that a key point of the section is ‘the shift in emphasis from things to relationships’ (p. 89). Here there are appreciative references to Neitzsche (and his ‘lyric nihilism’) Descartes, Jung, Hillman, Klein et al – but no reference at all to Ken Wilber who has contributed more than most – and clearly more than Ogilvy either knows or, more likely, will admit – to this very discussion. 5 Ogilvy and Wilber have known each other for many years. But Wilber is ‘othered’ in this book because Ogilvy disagrees with him about certain fundamental assumptions. It is, however, merely weak to disagree by ‘othering’ and ignoring. It would have been far better to engage and, if necessary, rebut, argue, develop some sort of dialectic with the Wilberian perspective as many other equally talented people have done. But that is not attempted and the book loses credibility as a result. Like it or not, advanced practitioners cannot afford to ignore the human and futures implications of Wilber’s work, especially if they are in the business of re-assessing worldview commitments.

The title of the book, we recall, is Creating Better Futures, and I certainly believe that this is indeed what Ogilvy had in mind. Moreover, as I’ve tried to indicate, he has a great deal to offer, both as a theorist and as a practitioner. He is articulate and writes with great skill and enviable clarity. But there is one final feature of this book that renders it incapable of ever approaching its declared goal – the subject throughout is the USA. Despite his evident breadth of knowledge, his wide travel and impressive range of sources the book remains trapped within an American frame. As such it literally cannot encompass other alternatives to the continued expansion of the market, nor acknowledge the varied expressions of American power that support and maintain it. Indeed, the greatest silence in this work is the way it fails to question America’s hegemonic interests and the military, economic, cultural and technical imperatives through which they are expressed. Instead these awkward facts are set aside in favour of an anodyne, uncritical account, based on simplistic historical analogies, of the alleged shift from ‘politics’ to ‘the market’. In other words Ogilvy’s approach serves to obscure, not clarify, key shifts in the post-modern world that require depth understanding and critique. For someone so steeped in Marx and philosophy it seems odd that Ogilvy has chosen to ignore a significant body of work dealing with the problematics of post-modernity and market-led ideologies, in favour of surface-level advocacy. 7

These oversights are highlighted in the final section of the book where the usefulness of ‘scenario planning’ for ‘education’ and ‘health care’ are discussed. In both cases the focus is exclusively American and therefore of strictly limited value anywhere else. Despite good intentions the result is a reimposition of the standard Western hegemonic view and the ‘othering’ of the bulk of humanity, along with all its diversity and rich patterns of possibility for the future. Despite sketching in aspects of a more fluid, transactional and ‘relational’ worldview, Ogilvy cannot see that he is failing to apply his own philosophy.

The final irony is that the concluding section is called ‘Earth Might be Fair’. Here, yet again, we see the unconscious transference from one specific cultural context to the global one. But there is nothing global at all about the path Ogilvy has chosen to tread and which this book so clearly tracks. I cannot avoid the conclusion that one of the very best minds to grace the Futures field has, in effect, quit the scene and watered down its earlier impressive work to fit a diminished frame of reference. This is a great pity. The author has forgotten that Futures work advances through open and collegial processes of dialogue, critique and innovation across organisational and cultural boundaries. As a symbolic and applied domain of enquiry it has far more to offer than a single over-exposed, over-hyped and commercialised method enacted within a dominant cultural frame. 8 The field has moved on enormously in recent years and I regret to see one so able producing a book that speaks so clearly not of collective progress toward a ‘better world’, but of market ideology and professional isolationism. As such this book falls a long way short of the mature expression that we have a right to expect. Moreover, it works against the interests of the field as a whole.

Creating Better Futures stands as a warning to all practitioners that there is no substitute for staying open and engaged at all times, however deep our philosophical foundations – or differences – may be.


  1. Ogilvy, J. Futures Studies and the Human Sciences: The Case for Normative Scenarios, Futures Research Quarterly, 8, 2, Summer 1992, pp 5-65. Reprinted in Slaughter, R. (ed) New Thinking for a New Millennium, Routledge, London, 1996, pp 26-83.
  2. For a recent example see Inayatullah, S. Questioning the Future, Tamkang University, Taiwan, 2002.
  3. See the Integral Futures web site: http://integralfutures.com/wordpress/
  4. Ogilvy, J. 1996, op cit p 26.
  5. See Wilber, K. Integral Psychology, Shambhala, Colorado, 2000.
  6. Two sources that profoundly question the ‘shift to the market’ are Beck, U. World Risk Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999. Also Bauman, Z. Society Under Siege, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2002.
  7. Slaughter, R. From Forecasting and Scenarios to Social Construction: Changing Methodological Paradigms in Futures Studies, Foresight 4, 3, 2002, pp 26-31.

Australian Foresight Institute, 10th October 2002, Melbourne.

Published in Futures Vol 35, 2003, pp. 889-892.