the Futures Experience
Wendy L. Schultz
September 19, 1991
Barcelona, Spain (a presentation to the World
Futures Studies Federation)
This paper discusses several approaches to workshops and group activities
which serve to draw people into the futures worldview. These exercises
may be linked together in an extensive program of futures education
or used as modules in different combinations as planning circumstances
require. The conclusion briefly reviews different venues in which
the the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies has organized
futures workshops, and discusses the varying rates of success.
"...words, words, words! I'm so sick of words; I hear words all
day through, first from him, then from you: is that all you blighters
I've long known that
heat makes me cranky, so perhaps my irritability in this Catalon
"Indian summer" heat wave has fomented my internal rebellion. Whatever
the reason, I crested a psychological watershed this morning and
have wandered into a mental territory inhospitable to formal academic
presentations. I don't believe in active talking anymore -- nor
in passive listening. If I could have figured out some group activity
that only takes nine minutes, then I would have engaged you all
in working with me to build something right now, instead of talking
at you like this. Forgive me, I've failed you, and failed my own
expectations. I have failed to explore and energize the creative
and innovative resource this group represents.
I have ceased to believe
in active talking. It's been said this is the age of infoglut: no
kidding. We have more and better ways to deliver and store resounding
amounts of data and information. What we don't have is the time
to sort, prioritize, synthesize, and make anything approaching wise
use of all that data. I am also discovering that I care less and
less about philosophy, comparative analyses, empirical studies,
and, in short, anything that smacks of being a "neutral observer"
-- or that encourages the witty theoretical gloss used merely to
score rhetorical points. And I never have believed in being evangelically
normative or prescriptive (except, maybe, a few gentle exhortations
to encourage people to think more creatively about the future).
I do believe in active
listening. I do believe in helping people dream, define their concerns,
identify their problems, articulate their ideas, generate action
plans, and COMMIT to those plans. I care about seeing people around
me have a new idea, recognize a new opportunity, identify a different
possibility. I enjoy offering that peak experience to others, and
so I actively try to introduce as many people as possible to the
futures perspective. In its workshop mode, the futures perspective
offers people the opportunity for a peak creative experience. As
a practitioner of the policy and planning sciences, I am especially
concerned to share the creative futures experience with planners,
legislators, judicial administrators, diplomats, non-governmental
organizations, community interest groups, and school students.
The Hawaii Research
Center for Futures Studies has focussed increasingly on the group
exercises possible within two different formats: devising and exploring
scenarios of alternative futures, and compiling and evaluating components
of preferred futures. In designing futures workshops, the most basic
goal is for participants to experience articulating their own ideas
about the future. But it is fundamentally important that they do
so in an arena where others are struggling to articulate theirs,
and to experience negotiating the trade-offs among all those ideas.
The next few paragraphs describe several variants on futures labs
that the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies has been refining
and using over the past ten years, and offers some examples of where,
why, and how we have used them.
II. STRUCTURED DAYDREAMING: THREE MODES FOR FUTURES WORKSHOPS
Basically, we use variants
of three different workshop exercises: incasting, visioning, and
backcasting. Incasting, developed primarily by James Dator,
is a form of deductive forecasting of alternative possible futures.
Visioning is an imaginative, idealistic and normative process
which aids people in explicitly articulating their preferred future.
Backcasting, also known as "Apollo forecasting" or "creating
future histories," bridges the gap between the events in a possible
future -- usually a preferred future -- and the extended present;
it is a useful strategic planning tool. Our formats and instruction
sets for visioning and backcasting emerge primarily from previous
work by Robert Jungk and Elise Boulding. The following paragraphs
describe our approach to each technique in greater detail, and offer
people on a comparative journey across several possible futures.
It requires moderate and equal amounts of logic, imagination, and
intuition, and is hampered by the idealistic and the normative.
An incasting exercise begins with three to five scenarios describing
possible alternative futures. These scenarios are themselves
the results of intermixing the logical extensions of impacts and
cross-impacts from specific emerging issues. From these general
descriptions of a future, participants then logically deduce particulars,
specific details: given a future in which nanotechnologies and bioengineering
allow corporations to produce infinitely malleable mass-market consumer
goods, what would chairs look like? What would 21st century chairs
look like across an array of very different futures? How would educational
systems differ between a high-technology corporate future and a
future characterized by increased spirituality and a focus on environmental
stewardship? How would the concept of "tourism" differ across a
green future, a corporate future, and a post-environmental disaster,
post-global depression future? What familiar social institutions
would cease to exist? What new social institutions would need invention?
this approach several ways. With a small group facilitators begin
by describing several futures; the group then brainstorms the forms
any single institution would take across the futures. Group dynamics
become awkward above a dozen; with larger groups the exercise works
better if several smaller teams are formed. Each team is assigned
a single future for which they consider an identical set of questions.
Again, the goal is to depict what form an institution or technology
would take in the assigned future, or how a particular critical
issue would play out in the assigned future. The only evaluative
criterion at this point is internal, logical consistency with the
assumptions -- either explicit or implicit -- of the assigned scenario.
Each team then reports back to the group as a whole and the participants
are encouraged to evaluate and discuss the differences across the
scenarios. Groups are often most interested in incasting the possibilities
for their own agencies and organizations. BUT the exercise can also
be structured to elicit a useful political critique: incasting possibilities
for specific marginalized subpopulations -- women, children, the
physically or mentally handicapped, the unemployed -- or, at a more
general level, merely asking the teams to identify who in each scenario
will find themselves economically or politically advantaged, and
an exercise in structured idealism. It requires wrenching one's
"common sense"-ibilities away from the practical to indulge in daydreaming
and wishlisting. It not only assumes that can we create the future,
but also that a sufficiently inspiring vision of a preferred future
motivates us to action. Most simply, it is an iterative brainstorming
process, relying heavily on imagination, ideals, and intuition.
Participants are asked first to state a handful of general characteristics
for their most preferred future. In the next round, they perform
a sort of idealistic incasting on the staple components of social
reality: in your preferred future, what form will nation-states
take? government? what will community social structures be like?
how will people be educated? how will work be structured? how will
goods be produced, distributed, and consumed? The next step takes
participants further into the realm of fantasy, asking them to consider
the components of an individual's everyday reality: describe a typical
day in your preferred future -- begin from the moment you wake up
and get out of bed, and make sure to describe the bed and the bedding.
This exercise has two
primary goals: one, to create a richly descriptive image of a preferred
future; and two, to get participants beyond the imaginative constraints
of a purely practical, "yes, but..." mindset. Many people find it
difficult to let go of the problem-identifying and problem-solving
perspectives that work ingrains in all of us. Often the best bridge
to the ideal is a string of complaints: most people know what it
is about the present they do NOT like. Consequently, the psychologically
natural opening exercise for a visioning workshop is a problem-listing
or "catharsis" stage, in which participants list what they absolutely
reject for their preferred futures. Facilitators can then begin
the statement of positive components by asking people to restate
the negatives as their opposites: if cultural intolerance is the
hallmark of a negative future, the delight in cultural diversity
may be a major component for the group's preferred future. Another
way to shift to the positive is to ask people what they have felt
are their greatest recent successes, either individually or organizationally.
This has the added benefit of reinforcing the belief that they can
act positively to affect change.
arguably the most difficult of these three activities, either to
do or to explain. It simply means the creation of a future history,
a timeline that explains what events needed to occur for the future
under discussion to emerge from the present we currently inhabit.
The simplest approach is for the group to consider the emerging
trends implied by the given scenario, brainstorm possible events
related to those trends, and then attempt to impose a plausible
chronological order on the events list.
A more rigorous approach
asks, for each characteristic or artifact of a given scenario, what
logical precursor needed to exist for this artifact to exist? And
what logical precursor preceded the logical precursor? In short,
participants construct an "effect-and-cause" chain. We often suggest
five-year intervals between the events, that is, the links of the
chain, because we are most often dealing with social institutions
which have fair inertia. For scientific achievements or technological
artifacts, the links in the chain will probably be shorter. Perhaps
the best-known example was the backcasting performed to design the
Apollo program -- hence its other label, "Apollo forecasting." As
that example demonstrates, this is the most obviously practical
activity of the three described: if the chain of precursor events
is brought to within five or so years of the present, participants
can usually see a direct link to actions they could initiate within
combinations of these three techniques form the backbone of our
workshop designs. For introductory political science classes, I
frequently have students spend fifteen minutes listing the characteristics
of their preferred future, then divide them into teams for incasting
exercises across a range of possible alternative futures. Afterwards,
they regroup and evaluate which of the possible alternatives they
would prefer, based on their preferred future characteristics.
Interest groups and
businesses are often most interested in articulating a mission statement
or vision, and developing strategies and programs to meet the goals
the vision implies. This often occurs in conjunction with a program
evaluation or reassessment; we have found that the tasks of listing
current problems, listing recent successes, and then reversing the
problem statements to create goals, fit nicely with administrative
perspectives, while simultaneously widening the range of issues
generally want both to plan for a wide range of contingencies and
to establish some positive programs. Furthermore, such agencies
often have extensive-data collection programs, and in a naive way
may be attempting to monitor emerging issues. If that is the case,
they have the input necessary to generate their own scenarios depicting
possible futures, across which they can incast possible outcomes
of critical issues or policies. Those possibilities may then be
ranked for desirability in public hearings, or by task forces. The
preferred future of the community as a whole may be aggregated by
a series of such activities.
III. DAYDREAM BELIEVERS: FIVE EXAMPLES OF FUTURES WORKSHOPS
Over the past decade,
the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies has organized futures
workshops in Hawaii, on the mainland, and in the Pacific Basin.
These workshops have involved a wide variety of participants, including
associations of credit union managers, Girl Scouts, state judiciaries,
and community groups. The techniques described have also been included
every semester for the past ten years in both graduate and undergraduate
classes in the University of Hawaii Political Science Department.
The following paragraphs
summarize five of the most recent futures workshops organized and
facilitated by staff from the Hawaii Research Center for Futures
Studies. Each case briefly touches on the following variables: whether
facilitators introduced futures studies generally, giving an overview
of critical emerging issues; which techniques were used and how
they were combined; whether participants had previous experience
with facilitated meetings; whether the organizers/supervisor had
participated in planning the workshop (had bought into the process);
and whether HRCFS allocated sufficient resources (staff, space,
time, tear sheets/markers, etc.) for implementation.
Training Program. In August and again in November of 1990, HRCFS
designed and implemented a one-day futures seminar for the Micronesian
Diplomatic Training Program, a week-long activity sponsored by the
U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute. Participants
included government officials from all the American-affiliated Pacific
Island nations. While both sessions included a futures briefing
with an overview of emerging issues, we varied its proximity to
the workshop exercises. During August, the futures briefing immediately
preceded the futures workshop; in November, the futures briefing
was part of the program's introductory lectures the first day, three
days prior to the futures workshop itself. Briefing the participants
immediately preceding the futures exercises produced much livelier
For both sessions, we
begin the exercises by asking participants to describe changes within
their islands in last thirty years. We then briefly reviewed emerging
trends, asking them what changes they see occurring right now. Following
that, we divided participants randomly into four groups, assigned
each group a different alternative future, and asked them to incast
the future of 1) the family; 2) work; 3) the economy; 4) relations
with other countries; and 5) one other area of their own choosing.
After each group reported back and we discussed these alternative
scenarios, we divided participants up by island group, and asked
them to describe the preferred future for their country. We finished
the session by comparing the emerging trends, the scenarios possible,
and what they wanted: this sparked intense discussion on possible
These participants had
moderate levels of experience with facilitated meetings, as most
of them were management-level professionals. We had little difficulty
"translating" the technique across Pacific culture conversational
styles and body language. It did help to ask everyone to spend five
minutes jotting ideas down before beginning brainstorming sessions,
as facilitators could then call on the terminally shy to read what
they had written. That technique worked so well that we have since
translated it back to our U.S. work. The Foreign Service organizers
of the program were not involved in our design activities, but were
pleased with the results and with the interest and excitement generated
among the participants. We had perhaps too little support staff:
one person to present the overview, and two facilitators. Given
that there were only about sixteen participants, however, this proved
sufficient if not ideal.
and Education Division (State of Hawai'i, Department of Health).
This was a two-day re-examination of division goals and mission:
a retreat featuring almost 100 people. A health professions facilitator
was overall coordinator, and he began the first day with a "problems-and-strengths"
brainstorming session. This was followed by an "emerging issues"
lecture, after which the group broke for lunch. Luckily for the
futures process, the keynote speaker was Hawaii's Department of
Health director, Dr. John Lewin, who is one of the most futures-focussed
and visionary speakers it has been my delight to hear. With the
afternoon session we began a classic vision development workshop:
eliciting a general statement of vision or goal for "Healthy Hawaii
2020;" then a segment focussed on describing the details of that
preferred future; moving backwards in time from the preferred to
the present; finally planning programs that would create that positive
timeline. The participants were divided into six random groups until
the planning phase, at which point division units met together.
This came close to defining
disaster for me. We were working with a huge group of people, and
had only three trained futures facilitators, and no trained recorders.
The participants were mixed professional/administrative/clerical,
and while they perceived that as an interesting dynamic, and a strength,
for us it meant that some people objected to "lengthy instructions"
and other people did not understand what they were supposed to be
doing. Design and planning was complicated by the fact that HRCFS
was contracted late, and had to explain/negotiate the process with
the health facilitator (who was, on the whole, interested and accomodating).
Furthermore, the division
chief had not attended any of our planning sessions. She did not
participate in the group exercises; instead, she drifted around,
watching over people's shoulders, and generally made everyone involved
feel we were an experiment under observation. In the middle of the
first exercise, she walked up to me in a panic and said, "This isn't
working." From my perspective it was, so I asked her how she had
expected it to work. I never got a clear response to that, but she
DID say that she hoped we were not going to end by asking people
to suggest first steps in programmatic terms, and asking them to
commit to those first steps. As that was exactly what we were planning,
I was appalled. She demanded a restructuring session at the end
of the first day, and laid all the responsibility on the health
facilitator. Consequently, the vision was never transformed into
practical plans, and people felt cheated. The two major flaws for
this workshop were lack of interest and commitment on the part of
the division chief, and not enough support staff: we had to rotate
three futures facilitators around six working groups.
Hawaii Teen Pregnancy
and Parenting Council. If the previous case exemplifies disasters
on a continuum of futures workshop experiences, the vision workshop
for the Hawaii Teen Pregnancy and Parenting Council was certainly
the apotheosis. The HTPPC is a consortium of non-profit public advocacy
groups, public agencies, churches and interested professionals that
serves as a clearinghouse and coordinating body for issues centered
on teen pregnancy. Initially I was under the impression they merely
wanted a neutral facilitator for a yearly action plan retreat. When
we first met to discuss the agenda, and I discovered they had renamed
the activity an "advance," a delightful meeting of minds occurred.
We jointly replanned
the day as a classic vision design workshop: Beginning with a brief
introductory session and a playful warmup exercise, we moved to
brainstorming a list of current problems. Old-timers with the group
then offered a brief oral history of HTPPC successes, and using
those as a bridge to optimism, the group worked to reverse their
negatives list to define positive characteristics for their preferred
future. As facilitator, I suggested emerging issues that might provide
new opportunities and probed for greater detail. We then split the
group of thirty or so into four groups to further refine their preferred
future. When the groups reported back we initiated a discussion
which served as an informal check for agreement among the group
lists. After lunch, we worked to elaborate suggestions for immediate
programs, and the day ended with an initial attempt at synthesizing
a vision/mission statement.
Almost all of these
people had served as health, psychological, or vocational counselors,
and consequently the group as a whole featured huge resources in
active listening, facilitation, and nominal group technique. I served
more as a coordinator than a facilitator: they self-facilitated.
The planning session with the "advance" executive committee had
been intense, and follow-up was prompt and efficient. They provided
the logistical support, cannily scheduled it for a Friday and reserved
the lanai of the Honolulu Yacht Club (sunny, green, and breezy),
and had wisely told people to wear casual clothes and come with
a playful attitude. We cheered each other at the end of the day.
Pacific Coastal Zone
Management Conference '91. Organizers of the '91 Pacific Basin
Regional Coastal Zone Management Conference had requested input
from HRCFS on injecting foresight, vision, and interactive creativity
into their conference plans. Scattered throughout three days of
more traditional paper presentations, the American Samoa Coastal
Zone Management program wished, as hosts, to include three or four
workshops that promoted active discussion. Our design for them included
two incasting workshops: 1) the first a classic incasting which
divided people into five alternative future scenarios and asked
them to described the changed face of coastal zone management in
each specific future; 2) the second a focussed incasting which considered
two different sea-level rise scenarios and asked them to imagine
impacts and design possible governmental and programmatic responses.
The last two workshops were brief forays into vision design for
coastal zone management programs, and a "next steps" exercise.
All of the participants
were coastal zone/environmental management professionals, experience
with facilitated brainstorming was distributed unevenly. Conference
organizers had been intensely involved with workshop planning, discussing
combinations of potential exercises and reviewing instruction sheets.
This conference also featured over a hundred participants, and HRCFS,
through the Pacific Basin Development Council, was only able to
provide four staff members to support workshop activities. Of these,
only three had formal facilitation experience, so facilitators rotated
the first day through the five groups. On the second day, an experienced
science policy professional interested in the futures approach and
experienced in facilitation lent a hand. While not an unqualified
success, neither was this conference a disaster. Participants particularly
enjoyed the alternative futures incasting, and some very good ideas
emerged in both the visions and next steps workshops. The sea-level
rise exercise presented the most difficulty, primarily because it
is a very complex problem which is not amenable to problem-solving
within the space of an hour.
Office of State Planning
(Office of the Governor, State of Hawai'i). This is the most ambitious
project the HRCFS has initiated to date. It requires the fullblown
use of all the futures facilitation techniques: starting from scratch
with emerging issues from OSP's own environmental scanning program,
we designed a scenario construction workshop which uses cross-impact
matrices and iterative incasting to devise alternative possible
futures. OSP's scanning project wished to learn how to write scenarios
from emerging issues, and wanted also to build a library of alternative
images of the future related to their scanning activities.
OSP also wanted an example
of how alternative future scenarios may be integrated into strategic
planning: thus we worked with them to devise a three-phase process
combining incasting with visioning. In the first phase, critical
economic development issues are identified by focus groups comprised
of experts, legislators, public administrators, and citizens. As
part of these focus groups, participants are also asked to identify
the characteristics of their preferred economic future for Hawaii.
The second phase was merged with the scenario construction workshops:
after the main components of each scenario were identified and described,
participants were asked to incast how the critical economic issues
identified in phase one played out in the newly described scenarios.
These alternative futures, with their accompanying perspectives
on the critical economic issues specified, are then fed into phase
three. Phase three begins by identifying a negative, "unthinkable"
future, and reverses that to further refine the positive characteristics
of ideal future, expanding the characteristics already identified
by interest groups in phase one. This preferred future is then used
as a diagnostic to identify where across the possible futures policies
could be used to ameliorate negative outcomes and encourage desirable
outcomes. The phase three plenary ends with a "next steps" exercise
to establish suggested policies and programs.
This design emerged
out of plans to add scenario construction to the scanning project's
abilities. The strategic planning process was already in train when
the futures component was coupled to it; consequently, OSP had already
hired a facilitation consultant to organize the phase one focus
groups. The combined project support for phase two meant a luxurious
amount of support staff for the scenario designexercises: a trained
facilitator and recorder for each of four groups of eight or so
participants. That workshop, held in one afternoon, went well according
to schedule and produced four very diverse scenarios, as intended.
Phase three, the scenario/vision integration, has not yet been implemented:
it will involved over sixty-five people, and due to budget constraints
we are understaffed. Consequently, we will probably have to run
a facilitation training session for volunteers from the OSP staff.
Furthermore, there is not enough time in a one-day plenary to review
possible emerging issues, which usually helps jar people out of
their present-day mindset.
In terms of contact
with the organizers, we have held numerous meetings to wrestle with
perspective, approach, possible products, format, and schedule:
these meetings have included both scanning and strategic planning
staff, but mid-management from strategic planning only: nonetheless,
the division head supervising scanning appears to have a nice sense
of process ownership, as she has (sight unseen and plans unheard)
made presentations on the overall process at national planning conferences.
A true test of the practical usefulness of this imaginative technique
to policy-makers and planners will be the reception of the final
project report by Hawaii's state planning director. We'll keep you
As a whole, the exercises
described 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 construct a preferred future and develop strategies
to achieve it. In combination, these group activities enable people
to exercise creativity, flexibility, and adaptiveness in the face
of the future.