> Essays > Futures Fluency > Chapter Five: Defining Futures Fluency:
| Overview | Change | Critique | Scenarios | Visions | Planning | Summary


Immersion as Praxis


The Widening Gyre

The preceding pages introduced, defined, and offered examples of the five cornerstone activities of futures fluency: 1) looking for, and monitoring, change; 2) critiquing implications; 3) imagining difference; 4) envisioning ideals; and 5) planning achievement. Many researchers pursue each of these cornerstone activities for themselves alone, as independent fields of study. Yet linked together they create an art at once powerfully critical and powerfully constructive.

Within each phase of activity, the fluent futures thinker maximizes diversity, combining and recombining elements of social science extrapolation, intuition, whimsy, and fantasy. As all the loose elements of observation, analysis, and imagination shift and fall and are viewed within this mental kaleidoscope, the fluent mind looks for and compares the varying trade-offs posed by each new pattern as it slides into place. The figure that follows offers a map of the movement from one activity to the next. It illustrates the iteration of critique between each phase.

We begin by standing in the present, on the foundation of the patterns of the past. We begin by looking for change, asking, "what is happening?" After identifying cycles, trends, innovations, and emerging issues, we ask ourselves, "what are the implications of these changes -- and for whom?" In the new conditions and environments created, who wins? who loses? Next, we imagine difference. Extending those changes and their effects out to absurd but interesting extremes, we ask, "what might happen as a result of these interacting forces of change?" And what are the implications of what's possible for the future? Which possible future offers more in the realms of equity, justice, fairness? Which presents the fewest trade-offs between human productivity and environmental quality? Which offers the greatest opportunity for development of human potential?

All these initial exercises help us understand how changes intertwine to create different scenarios. They thus enhance our ability to envision our ideals very specifically. It is too easy to say, "we want a world at peace, a world in which people live and work in harmony with the environment, where every child has the right to affection, health, and education;" what, after all, would all that look like in practice? When you fill an ideal scenario with less than ideal people, who have fears and hatreds and petty irritations, irresponsibilities, and idiosyncrasies, what does it look like on a day-to-day basis? The richer our vision of a preferred future, the more it will touch our hearts -- the more it will seem real to us. When we ask, "what do we want to happen?" we must focus on the minutiae of individual's lives, asking what this structure of our ideals will mean to different real people, how it will change their circumstances, and whom it will benefit, and whom harm.

It would be frustrating forever to build castles in the air, and never on the ground. With our vision richly expressed, we can ask, "how do we make things happen?" This leads us to plan and mobilizes us for action. But even at this stage, we must consider the implications of the strategies and tactics designed to realize the vision. When acting to achieve our dreams, we become forces of change ourselves, and so must evaluate the possible effects and impacts of our actions.

Finally, after imagining, dreaming, and planning, we are eager to see results. In order to do so, we must complete our efforts by monitoring change, which is merely an update of our initial efforts in looking for change. Thus the last phase of futures fluency links back to the first, creating an infinite cycle of vision renewal.

Yet our actions between round one and round two mean we begin the second iteration slightly advanced from the present. We progressed in time and in experience: with this incremental increase in mastery of the skills involved comes an increase in the scope, in the breadth and depth of our imagination, ability to vision, and ability to plan achievement. Thus our cycle of futures fluency broadens as it rises.

Futures Fluency and Strategic Planning: A Double Helix

In the summer of 1987, as part of the U.S. A.I.D.-sponsored Asia-Pacific Development Planning Institute, I made a presentation on the various perspectives and techniques involved in futures studies. My audience was composed of government planners from a variety of Pacific Island nations, states, and territories. They asked me what the difference was between futures research and planning. The best response I could think of at the time was an analogy to playing cards.

Assume you are with four or five friends in search of amusement, and you have a deck of cards. Futures studies aims to get people to discuss which games they might want to play, and can then try to inform players what the possibilities are in the hands they might be dealt, and how probable it is they will receive any one kind of hand (whether a particular hand is preferable or not depends upon which game a given player has chosen). Once you have the game chosen and the hands dealt, planners advise you on how best to play the hand. This also involves considering alternative possibilities, probabilities, and preferences, but in a more limited way.

The question is still a struggle. What is futures to planning, or planning to futures? Aren't they the same thing? Why aren't they the same thing? Between the first floor of Porteus Hall (Urban and Regional Planning, University of Hawai'i) and the sixth (Futures Studies, Political Science, University of Hawai'i), these questions have been drowned in coffee, cola, and good brown ale, but keep surfacing. Many of the activities defined above as comprising futures fluency either are planning, outright, or are practiced also by planners. How do we tell ourselves apart? We know the difference when we see it, certainly -- why is it so difficult to define?

Perhaps because the two fields parallel each other so closely, separated only by a matter of degree, a shift in emphasis, a difference in attitude: planners attempt to minimize difference and divergence, as they result in controversy and cost over-runs; futures researchers attempt to maximize difference and divergence, as they result in critique and creativity. How does that play out in practice?

First let's look at the forms of planning that most clearly resemble futures fluency: comprehensive planning and strategic planning. Comprehensive planning uses a systems approach that manages activities in three dimensions for defined conditions. That is, comprehensive planning assumes that in order to manage the forest, you must manage the watershed, the indigenous species, the soil quality: managing the trees means managing all the interlinked bits of their ecosystem as well. Comprehensive planning has little temporal dimension. It assumes that you wish to maintain conditions as they were at a defined moment in time. It is a snapshot.

Strategic planning, on the other hand, is the movie. Strategic planning takes a probabilistic approach that manages activities through time in the face of uncertainty and change. Just as a good movie includes a series of clear, well-composed stills, good strategic planning includes clear, well-composed comprehensive planning. This definition of planning parallels futures fluency by encompassing complexity, in the form of multiple systems, and chaos, in the form of uncertainty and change.

To manage the forest strategically, we must account for possible changes that might take place, and actively design preferable changes we want to implement. For example, say we are managing 10,000 acres of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, currently classified as state lands. What changes might take place? Some introduced parasite might damage the trees; the state could re-classify it and sell it to a land developer; the state could sell the timber rights; the Nature Conservancy could buy it; some near-by long-dormant volcano could explode and cover huge tracts of it in mud and ash. Which of these changes could we monitor? Which could we mitigate, encourage, or constrain? Who would be our allies in those efforts, and where would we solicit support? Which outcome would we prefer -- or must we design another, one not mentioned? These questions resemble those listed above under "planning achievement." They are the questions asked by leaders faced with uncertainty, rather than the conditions maintained by managers entrusted with a system. Strategic planning, like futures fluency, is linked to leadership.

Strategic planning consists of six basic components: 1) program evaluation; 2) data-gathering; 3) describing several possible scenarios as well as the preferable scenario; 4) mission statement definition; 5) outlining strategies and goals; and 6) implementation. Like futures fluency, these activities are most effective linked together in a continuous process. As plans are realized and programs implemented, they undergo regularly scheduled evaluations, which re-engage the strategic planning process.

Like futures fluency, planning begins by looking around at the presently visible landscape. In the planning scheme outlined above, that includes the organization's internal landscape as well as what's happening outside it. The organization's internal landscape is mapped via the program evaluation. This defines the original conditions under which the organization or community was formed, reviews the past problem definition and the mandate that accompanied it, itemizes current activities, and inventories strengths and weaknesses. It is akin to beginning futures fluency by monitoring progress made towards an old vision. The external landscape is mapped by gathering data on the environment within which the organization or community exists. This parallels the "identify/monitor change" activity of futures fluency.

The next four steps in strategic planning map one-to-one onto futures fluency: exploring organizational possibilities via alternative scenarios of the organization's future; defining organizational preferences in a vision statement; affirming organizational purpose via a mission statement; prioritizing vision components as strategies and goals, and identifying resources, allies, strengths and weaknesses; implementing strategies by defining objectives and personal responsibilities of the participants to the vision; and commitment. What is missing is the conscious investment in critical evaluation at each stage.

What characterizes good strategic planning? First, it should be ongoing, a permanent organizational activity. Second, it is information intensive, with data searches focussed on external conditions and change. Third, good strategic planning expands the planning timeline, considering the past, the present, and a range of possible futures for an organization or community. To achieve constructive outcomes, it is opportunity hungry, constantly working to identify allies, resources, and emerging activity niches for the community. Strategic planning works best when it melds the efforts of many people: it is participatory, involving stakeholders, clients, and allies at each stage. Finally, good strategic planning is future-focussed, concentrating every participant's efforts to achieve the group's vision.

What are the requirements for successful strategic planning? If implemented in a hierarchical organization, the leaders must strongly support the process, encouraging risk-taking on the part of their subordinates. In order to encourage suggestions, ideas and creativity from all participants, organizers should design a process that is simple, open, and accessible. Participation is critical, and the process should encourage diverse input, listen rather than lecture, and acknowledge what it has heard. Successful strategic planning incorporates mediation and conflict resolution; it must heighten participants' sensitivity to conflict and encourage negotiation to balance competing interests. As part of negotiation and creativity, it must encourage flexible thinking, particularly in the form of new problem definitions, and solutions which identify and adapt emerging possibilities. The final three requirements for successful strategic planning are community consensus on the vision, encouraging a sense of personal responsibility for achieving the vision, and a commitment to continuously review progress and renew the vision.

These characteristics and requirements also fit futures fluency. To return briefly to the card analogy, where the two differ mostly is in the scope of the changes they consider and attempt to influence: planners attempt to monitor and influence the conditions internal to the game; futures researchers attempt to monitor total transformation of the game, the players, and the room itself into something entirely different, and entirely unlikely.



As a whole, the elements of futures fluency enable people to state their fears and articulate their hopes, to consider a wide range of possible changes and build alternative future scenarios based on those possibilities, to evaluate critically the opportunities and constraints offered by alternative futures, and finally to articulate their vision of a preferred future and develop strategies to achieve it. When combined, these activities enable us to exercise creativity, flexibility, and adaptiveness in the face of the future.

Researchers in creativity define it as, "the formulation of a specific problem in an initially ill-defined problem domain, or as advancing a novel and appropriate solution to an extant problem, or both." The cognitive mechanisms seen as crucial to creativity are: the association of two or more previously dissociated or even incompatible elements in the existing knowledge structure; the forging of random associations; breaking existing perceptual and cognitive sets; mental imaging; and the suspension of judgments. The activities of futures fluency create conditions in which each of these cognitive mechanisms may function -- and in fact require each of these cognitive mechanisms.

Envisioning the human future, the future of the species, the future of value and meaning, the future of communities and governance, the future of laughter, music, dance, art, and games, is the great creative act. It does not require charisma; it does not require attainment of power; it does not require discipline or a serious frame of mind; it requires only reflection. But it is greatly aided by collaboration, and perhaps the best use of the skills and tools of futures fluency leading are participatory processes leading to community vision and enhanced constitutent leadership.



1. This introductory section was drawn from an earlier work by W. Schultz, with C. Bezold, and B. Monahan, Reinventing Courts for the 21st Century: Designing a Vision Process (Williamsburg, Virginia: National Center for State Courts, 1993), 9-10.
2. Robert Jungk and Norbert Mullert, Future Workshops: How to Create Desirable Futures (London: Institute for Social Inventions, 1987).
3. Warren Ziegler, Envisioning the Future: A Mindbook of Exercises for Futures-Inventors (Denver, Colorado: The Futures-Invention Associates, 1989).
4. United Nations Development Programme, Reclaiming the Future: A Manual on Futures Studies for African Planners (London: Tycooly International, 1986) 13-24.
5. Eleonora Barbieri Masini, "Women as Builders of the Future," Futures, August 1987, 431-436.
6. Personal correspondence with Ray Lorenzo of Learning Environments regarding the "Let's Image the Future" Project with children and teens in Italy, April 22, 1991.
7. James A. Mau, Social Change and Images of the Future: A Study of the Pursuit of Progress in Jamaica (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Schenkman, 1968).
8. Neil Goldschmidt (Governor), Oregon Shines: An Economic Strategy for the Pacific Century (Salem, Oregon: Oregon Economic Development Department, 1989), 18.
9. Ibid.
10. Personal conversations with J. William Lockhart, Courts Administrator, Sixth Judicial Circuit Court, Clearwater Florida, March 2-4, 1992.

> Essays > Futures Fluency > Chapter Five: Defining Futures Fluency:
| Overview | Change | Critique | Scenarios | Visions | Planning | Summary

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