Whaley, C., Campbell, J. (et al) & Aust. House of Reps., The Elusive Potential of Applied Foresight (in Australia)

Enhancing Thinking and Creativity with Futures Studies, Charles E. Whaley, 99 pages, New York, Trillium Press, 1991, Pb US$12.99

Visions of a Future Australian Society: Towards an Educational Curriculum for 2000AD and Beyond, Campbell, J., McMeniman, M. & Baikaloff, N. 64 pp, Brisbane, QLD, Ministerial Consultative Council on Curriculum, 1992, Pb, Free

From Short Term to Long Term Thinking: the role of Parliament in framing the future, House of Representatives, Standing Committee for Long Term Strategies, Canberra, 18 Pages, 1992 (Discussion paper), Pb, Free


One of the consistent features – and frustrations – of futures in education is that people still take a parochial (local or national) view, when a broader international one is so manifestly necessary. The first two of these publications exhibit this feature, albeit in different ways.

Some years ago, when I was researching futures education in the USA, I came to the conclusion that, at that time, it could be described as “a striking combination of practical achievement and theoretical inadequacy”. If Charles Whaley’s book is anything to go by, nothing much has changed. At the practical level this is a useful resource, the core of which is a collection of 30 futures activities. I have no doubt that school and college teachers in many countries would find them valuable. Similarly, I cannot but applaud the rationale that includes the statement that “when a school has no vision of the future, it teaches the past”. Quite so. But then, this whole compendium is itself very much a product of earlier approaches. It shows no hint of awareness either that things might have moved on since that time, or that things might have moved on elsewhere. All the references are American, many of them from the 1970s.

It’s ironic that a book that attempts to link thinking, creativity and futures is actually a reprise for 1970s work. The reliance on early sources is striking. But there is surprisingly little mileage to be found in these sources for one simple reason: they leave out the all-important critical/interpretive dimension. The hallmark of a non-critical approach is that assumptions are taken at face value. Deeper, shaping forces are simply overlooked. It follows that future alternatives are radically constrained. Thus, in familiar fashion, Whaley has no concerns about an ‘information society’, the direction of technical developments or the repressive aspects of American culture. Chomsky would have a field day with this material.

The theoretical and conceptual framework of the book is inadequate. For example, ten ‘generic concepts’ and nine ‘generic issues’ are given. But they are hardly generic to futures. They owe more to sociology or cultural studies. There are problems too with an ‘issue-based’ approach to any curriculum, for, as I have suggested elsewhere, issues are only one aspect of futures work, and by no means the most productive one. Some of the activities are useful, as noted, but there is nothing about understanding the global problematique or dealing with young peoples’ fears. The overall effect is disempowering, rather than creative.

The notion of ‘futures studies’ at the heart of this book is weak, unsystematic, culture-bound and dated, so those without prior knowledge of the field will find it too amorphous and unclear to support innovative work. I find this frustrating because material of this kind provides grounds for the marginalisation of futures work. The wider futures enterprise is a great deal richer and more symbolically powerful than this writer is aware of. The upshot is that the promise inherent in the title is not delivered. This is a pity, because the resources to do so certainly exist. Perhaps, at a minimum, future authors of such works could (a) look beyond their own countries, (b) consider up-to-date sources and (c) draw on more productive models of futures studies which, at minimum, include critical/interpretive components.

Visions of a Future Australian Society, while not without its faults, is a more substantial and interesting production. The authors were employed by the now-defunct Ministerial Consultative Council on Curriculum in Queensland to survey informed opinion about desirable futures for Australia. A Delphi technique was used with a group of “500 reflective thinkers”. In the first stage, each individual was invited to present a personal vision of the kind of society Australia should be attempting to develop. The second stage sought reactions to a range of issues, with a particular focus on defining explicit societal goals. In the third stage, participants were invited to re-structure these goals according to their personal value systems. The authors have chosen to devote the bulk of the publication to presenting extracts from the survey, so a great deal of idealistic and even visionary material is given. Surprisingly, there is relatively little analysis, and the question posed by the Council chairman in his Foreword: “can educational curricula be designed to help human kind choose and shape a future rather than drift into it with no sense of destiny or control” is not addressed.

Still, there is some valuable material. For example, under ‘Shared Visions’ the kind of society desired is one which: “has a robust socioculture; …values its members intrinsically; …is committed to the development of full potentials in individuals; …has a robust economy; …is committed to ecological responsibility; …and which relates sensitively to other societies” (p 24). Later in the Concluding Comments, some other points are made. For example, “The strongest impression one receives from an overview of the data base is that Australia’s desirable future is not what it was”. (Emphasis in original) However, ” the way to achieve a more humane society…is open to speculation. The most promising suggestion…is the transcending of our current ways of thinking and the development of a more outward-looking worldview” (p. 55).

To its credit, the study does not avoid the difficult (but important) issue of spirituality, and uses it here to suggest a capacity “to go beyond” current structures, assumptions etc., in education, as elsewhere. It concludes that “our current thinking and actions must be informed by where we should be going” and that “the message from the participants in this study is that Australian society must change… the desired future is one where a more humane society of cooperative individuals co-exists peaceably with their world and other species” (p. 56). One cannot but applaud such a conclusion: it is both useful and appropriate. Such sentiments cannot be repeated often enough. As the cliche goes, however, the road from here to there is a rough one. It’s clear from the references that the disciplinary ‘home’ of these researchers is not futures but psychology. Their lack of grounding in futures work is quite clear and it makes this study rather less penetrating and useful than it might be. For example, two works cited in the Bibliography are publications of Australia’s Commission for the Future. But they are credited to Canberra, not to Melbourne, where it is actually located. This might seem like nit picking. But in terms of local knowledge, such a gaff makes it clear that they are not close to a key source of futures material in Australia; hence their knowledge of the field is sketchy. The impression is confirmed by the lack of reference to the wider futures literature (one Futures entry notwithstanding) and their inability to translate some promising results into, e.g., enabling processes, social innovations or curriculum proposals. In other words, the implications of the survey for implementation are missing. This is a pity, given the quality of some of the material. In essence, it is a missed opportunity.

One could not say the same of the discussion paper produced by the Standing Committee for Long Term Strategies. Though short, it is the most useful of the three publications under review. It begins with a section on ‘The Need to Exercise Foresight’ and regrets that Australia is not adapting well to current processes of change. It goes on to explore some of the ways that foresight suggests a more proactive stance. Next, it looks at some of the conceptual and organisational foundations of foresight and makes the important observation that “futures scanning and the clarification of emerging situations is not the same as modelling and predicting” (p. 9). A little later it states that “the use of foresight, futures scanning or scenarios cannot be reduced to a simple technique that futurologists and forecasters can add to their toolbox, but it could contribute greatly to policy development” (p. 10). The link between foresight and policy-making is an important one that has too often been obscured.

The paper then considers a number of institutions of foresight, showing briefly how various institutional innovations have attempted to proceed from ideas to actions. It notes that “the Australian Commission for the Future…has not had a significant impact on the Parliament’s deliberations”, and suggests that “the federal parliament needs to spend more time considering long-term issues and the future direction of Australian society” (p. 13). After noting some of the deficiencies of present legislative arrangements, it summarises the role of the Standing Committee on Long Term Strategies, and outlines several reports it has tabled on Australia as an information society, changing expectations of life and patterns of urban settlement.

The discussion paper concludes by recognising that the work of the Committee is only one aspect of what ought to be a wider national task. The need to establish something akin to the US Congressional Clearing House on the Future is canvassed, but seen as a long-term goal. All in all, it is a refreshing, concise and timely review of the potential uses of applied foresight.

One can only speculate about how long it will take for the significance of this message to penetrate to the higher levels of government where it is so urgently needed.

Published in Futures, Vol 25, No. 4, 1993, pp. 477-479.

Copyright © Richard A. Slaughter, 1993.