8th August 2010 | Draft
Towards a History of World Futures Studies
focusing on collective initiatives
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The focus here is explicitly on collective initiatives involving a degree of worldwide participation. Historical development of futures studies by individuals following 1945 is for example a focus of the study of Wendell Bell (Foundations of Future Studies: human science for a new era, 1997). The concern here is not with the substance of futures studies and its development, as notably documented by Richard Slaughter (The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies, 2005).
The exercise follows from an effort to document the reports of the Club of Rome and the bodies which had in some way been associated with its history (Club of Rome Reports and Bifurcations: a 40-year overview, 2009). As noted there, the approach recognizes the tendency of different collective initiatives to lay claim to a degree of priority or special merit in exploring the future. It is unclear that any history will do justice to the associated dynamics and their problematic consequences for the world.
In an accompanying table, a tentative effort is made to juxtapose bodies (as collective initiatives) concerned fairly specifically with world futures in relation to the people engaged in them in a continuing or substantive role. Since this mapping could be variously extended, in pursuit of a more succinct presentation an arbitrary decision was therefore made to exclude various individuals and initiatives in quest of a succinct presentation.
Criteria used, questionable though they may be, are:
- Focus on international initiatives rather than on the many which are primarily national.
- Provisional exclusion of individuals who may indeed have helped initiate future studies but whose work was not associated with a collective initiative to that end. Notably excluded were Alvin Toffler, Olaf Helmer, R. Buckminster Fuller, Jean Fourastie, Peter F. Drucker, Karl Steinbuch, Jean Meynaud, Dennis Gabor, Nigel Calder, and Gordon R. Taylor (as indicated by Richard N. Cooper and Richard Layard, What the Future Holds: insights from social science, 2003). Wikipedia offers two relevant lists (List of futures scholars; List of futurologists)
Reinforced by the requirement of succinctness, the emphasis was placed on individuals engaged in one or more collective initiatives over a more extended period of time than that typically associated with holding of a formal office -- especially those so engaged "for the long haul". For this reason, those who might otherwise be included were placed in a second half of the table -- subject to subject reallocation in the light of further information.
Additional weighting towards inclusion in the first half of the table was also placed on individuals taking an unusual degree of personal risk in undertaking and sustaining their involvement in futures related activities. Futurists are not renowned for their personal enthusiasm for risk, in ironic distinction from their colleagues concerned with financial futures on the futures market.
Futurists, as with many in the academic world, might even be considered as handicapped by risk aversion in relation to social and political activity. Their role as institutional activists is seldom acknowledged -- in contrast with those investing in the future as acknowledged by the Right Livelihood Foundation awards.
- Provisional exclusion of other related collective initiatives in which many of those individuals have also been involved -- together with many others who have not been specifically associated with the futures initiatives indicated. Hopefully the approach is suggestive of a fruitful methodology to be explored more extensively in any future historical mapping of the larger set of interrelated concerns.
Accepting that their members may understand themselves to have a distinct approach to global futures, international collective initiatives notably excluded were those relating specifically to:
- global simulation and world modelling (Balaton Group, Society for Modeling and Simulation International, Sentient World Simulation, Joint Simulation System, and the European FuturIcT project)
- integrative and transdisciplinary studies (International Center for Transdisciplinary Research and Studies (CIRET). Integral Institute, International Transdisciplinarity Net)
- systems and cybernetics (Society for General Systems Research, International Society for the Systems Sciences, World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics)
- social innovation (Experiences in Social Innovation)
- human values and cultural creatives
- elitist and secretive groupings variously concerned with the future (Bilderberg Group, Trilateral Commission)
- global mapping initiatives (Global Sensemaking)
- global forums with only an implicit preoccupation with futures as such (State of the World Forum, Tällberg Forum, World Economic Forum, World Political Forum, World Social Forum).
- intergovernmental summit groups (G8, G20)
- various bodies and initiatives focusing on approaches possibly to be considered synonymous with a future preoccupation: foresight, prospective, planning, "new thinking", "paradigm shift", "being the change", etc, especially those with a commercial orientation as consultancies (World Centre for New Thinking, Applied Foresight Network,World Academy of Social Prospective, Club of Athens)
- projects specifically understood as enabling the emergence of fruitful future (The Darwin Project; Global Marshall Plan)
- encyclopedic initiatives, whether specifically relating to the future (George Thomas Kurian and Graham T. T. Molitor, Encyclopedia of the Future, 1995) or of a more general nature (Wikipedia)
- innovative, forward-looking global universities, existing or envisaged (Global Shift University, Gaia University, International Space University, University of Earth, Singularity University, World University, University for Peace, New Age International University, Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, Wisdom University, New Wisdom University)
- primarily web-based initiatives which history may well see as performing a key role in envisioning and creating the future (The Transitioner), notably social networking facilities
- media and science fictional epics, and interactive gaming environments, which enable many to envisage and engage with possible futures
Exceptions were occasionally made, however questionable or self-serving:
- where the individuals listed in relation to the futures initiatives were also active in other bodies -- although no effort was made to include those individuals more specifically associated with such other bodies
- in the curious case of the Union of International Associations (founded in 1907), given the seminal initiatives and preoccupations of its founders in relation to the future. Its early key figure, Paul Otlet, has been labelled by historians as the "father of the internet". An early preoccupation of his was articulated in terms of the "problem of problems" (Union of International Associations -- Virtual Organization: Paul Otlet's 100-year Hypertext Conundrum? 2001)
In that spirit, a later long-term initiative from 1972 resulted in the creation and updating of an Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential as described at that time (World Problems and Human Potential: a data interlinkage and display process, Futures, 7, 3, June 1975, pp. 209-220). In addition to profiling world problems and global strategies perceived and envisaged by international constituencies, it also related these to profiles of human values and understandings of human development, approaches to integrative comprehension, and the relevance of metaphor in future governance.
The Encyclopedia was a consequence of collaboration with Mankind 2000, which had been instrumental in convening the International Futures Research Inaugural Conference (Oslo, 1967) -- as described in its proceedings (Robert Jungk and Johan Galtung, Mankind 2000, 1969). Mankind 2000 subsequently played a key role in the emergence of the World Futures Studies Federation (in 1973). For a period the Encyclopedia was developed with the collaboration of the Center for Integrative Studies. A number of those named on the accompanying table became statutory members of UIA. Although funds were not the issue, and Mankind 2000 was dormant in all but legal terms, of historical interest to the dynamics amongst futures-related initiatives is the manner in which the UIA reneged in 2006 on its original agreement with Mankind 2000 and its key figure James Wellesley-Wesley (immediately prior to his death in 2007). As a consequence of this unethical misappropriation of intellectual property, the Encyclopedia initiative was reframed by the nominal Executive Secretary of Mankind 2000 as having effectively been that of a Union of Intelligible Associations -- distinct from the UIA and succeeded by a set of four initiatives, including a Union of Imaginable Associations.
Individual engagement with "futures": The above approach to highlighting individuals associated with institutions suggests a distinction between:
- individuals working within conventional academic environments and necessarily constrained as "futurists" by the inherited patterns of preoccupations of such institutions, notably with respect to funding, peer group pressure and career considerations. Only with difficulty is their long-term engagement with futures enabled.
- individuals engaging with a range of bodies, whether governmental or corporate, typically operating in a consultancy mode from by which their funding is ensured. In this case the constraint on futures thinking is defined by what that "market" requests or will tolerate
- individuals acting to enable or bring about a more desirable future -- especially to "be the change" -- notably as honoured by the Right Livelihood Foundation
- individuals instigating new initiatives, notably bodies designed to be viable and sustainable over more extended periods, possibly as an alternative context to the academic mode. This modality may then include activist organizations and intentional communities
It is this last category which may offer a collective environment for a more applied or activist mode of futures, necessarily implying a degree of risk in pursuit of an agenda and in ensuring the resources to that end.
Of special interest are those unusual individuals who operate in the interstices between initiatives and those engaged in them -- thereby ensuring a degree of cross-connectivity. Examples in relation to international futures initiatives might include: Heiner Benking.
Methodological concerns: Additional factors meriting attention might include:
- the classical problem of articulating any history by assembling insights from a variety of perspectives, namely what weight to give to what in assessing relative objectivity, subjectivity, etc
- the sense in which each collective initiative, and those most identified with them, develops a "story" which is necessarily selective in a variety of ways, notably avoiding perceptions from other stories
- the sense in which any articulated story is then often "his-story", often even when it is "her-story"
- the sense that multiplying the variety of collective futures initiatives, and associated individuals, is usefully to be recognized as constituting a history of mutual disaffection and disabuse -- a characteristic of many of the optimistic, ambitious initiatives over past decades (with consequences still in play today)
- the sense that what is "not said" (the non-dit) is as significant as what is said in considering the system of relations between such initiatives (as it is in both academic and intergovernmental contexts)
- the possibility of splitting the main table into a "core" list of people and a secondary list -- to improve readability. However, here again, who is rightly to be included in one rather than the other?
- the possibility of a different kind of presentation, possibly two:
- one showing the relationships (if any) between the collective initiatives, possibly in terms of "cross-linking" members, following the methodology of Frans Stokman (on cross-linking directorships in multinationals). This could have been done as a kind of systems diagram seeking to highlight strongly supportive and antagonistic relationships. The Touchgraph application on the web is one approach. This wass previously with respect to the NGOs in consultative relationship with UNESCO or constituting umbrella bodies
- one showing the relationships between the (core) people, whether as a simple matrix or again as some kind of systems diagram
Comment from Wendell Bell: At any given time there is a canon -- key theories, concepts, methods, major defining works, etc. -- which both guide members of a field and which collectivities dedicated to the field importantly define and sanctify. Thus, it appears sound to me to juxtapose 'bodies' (collective initiatives) that deal with world futures to the people engaged in them. This might leave out isolated individuals who work alone, even though they contribute to the joint effort usually by building on the work of others or by others building on their work. F.L. Polak in his two-volume The Image of the Future for example, might be an example. Such people may have no personal links to each other or have no membership in the same -- or any -- futures groups, yet they are participating in joint discourse of a sort with others.
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Richard N. Cooper and Richard Layard. What the Future Holds: insights from social science. MIT Press, 2003
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