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Words, Dreams, and Action: Sharing 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.

I. Introduction
"...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 can do?"

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.


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 some examples.

Incasting takes 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?

Facilitators implement 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 who disadvantaged.

Visioning is 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.

Backcasting is 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 a week.

Variants and 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 explored.

Government agencies 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.


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.

Micronesian Diplomatic 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 discussions.

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 policy strategies.

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.

Health Promotion 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 posted.


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.


> Essays > Futures Studies > Virtuous Circles and Variety
>> Imagination/Innovation: Innovations | Science Fiction | Archetypes
>> Education/Outreach: Plausibility | Details | Overview
>> Articles/Presentations: Strengths and Weaknesses | Scanning | Scenario Analysis | Good for You | Essential Visioning |
>> A/P continued: Words, Dreams, and Action | Unpacking Our Cultural Baggage | Visions R Us | Sidling (Creativity/Critique)

15 February 2003. Email IF.
Copyright © 2003, Wendy L. Schultz
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