By Dr Paul Graham Raven
“The end of nature and the end of the future do not spell the end of green utopias. But they do suggest a new phase of changes in their content, form and function.”(Garforth 19)
In this essay I outline the origins of the feeling that the future has been stolen, by showing that rather than having been taken away, it is more the case that we have been peddled a singular, monolithic future—a future of business-as-usual, both literally and figuratively—whose contradictions have become impossible to ignore. I illustrate this hegemony by reference to the development of positivist models and methods of futurity in the corporate sector; to the traducement of social-scientific approaches to futuring and utopianism, in the academy and beyond; and to the emergence and mainstreaming of environmental issues. In all three cases, I hope to show that the tide has either already turned in favour of polyphonic, social and inductive epistemologies of futuring, or is poised on the point of turning—and to suggest that the theoretical and methodological tools for co-producing futurity are ready-to-hand for those prepared to take them up.
Model behaviour: scenarios, simulations, and the business of business-as-usual
Outside of the entertainment-industrial complex—and perhaps even there, in many cases—the fabrication of futurity has been predominantly the province of business, and a tool of its influence upon the state. However, these supposedly strategic practices have a more militaristic origin.
Scenario planning (SP), still very much the dominant form of futuring in corporate, gubernatorial and defence strategy work, was developed from the early “operational planning” paradigm of the original think-tank, Research And Development (now better known as RAND Inc.), itself a spin-off from the US Department of Defence after the second world war (Curry 6). SP—a broadly positivist methodology, evolved from the 1950s trend-analytical and game-theoretical approaches of RAND alumnus Herman Kahn (7)—was taken up during the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, corporations such as General Electric and Shell sought a solution to something billed as “an emerging crisis in planning processes”, but otherwise left largely undefined or tacit; the real impetus was likely the dwindling of the post-war boom, and an increasing awareness of ecological hazard (9). Shell’s “patient business culture” (10) nurtured SP until it could produce robust results, and their successful weathering of the oil crisis did much to endorse the methodology. It spread further thanks to the diaspora of Shell alumni into futurist roles all across the corporate sector, and to the popularisation of SP (via the well-known “quadrant” method) by the Global Business Network consultancy in the 1990s, through its connections to not only the extractive industries and the US DoD, but also the rising powerbase of Silicon Valley’s tech sector.
The “intuitive logics” school of futuring, exemplified by SP, has three pillars: one, the so-called “decision focus” of what was primarily a strategy tool for corporate multinationals; two, the epistemological biases of its deductive, top-down methodology, and of the models of reality implicit therein; and three, the “business question” to which the methodology’s development was always addressed. SP is “problem oriented”, empirical, and deductive, “reli[ant] on forward inference, and therefore on notions of causality from the present to the futures” (12-14); scenarios are extrapolated from a small number of critical uncertainties (or ‘drivers’). More broadly, SP’s attitude to time frames futurity as an empty territory waiting to be colonised: “[w]hile assuming multiple possible futures”, SP methodologies “also presume a single shared past and present” (21).
Perhaps most damningly, SP’s supposed orientation to controversial challenges is not borne out by the actions taken in response to its findings, as exemplified by Shell’s public endorsement of its 2008 ‘Blueprints’ scenario during a period when its activities—divestment from renewables, and bidding for new drilling licenses in Alaska—was obviously more informed by the ‘Scramble’ scenario (25). For all its marketing to the contrary, SP was no alternative to prevailing business strategy practices, but rather “a modification to them that allowed the assumptions and models of the world that informed the processes of strategic planning to continue” (27); expecting such practice “to evolve beyond its current range, or to address issues of power or meaning, is a category error” (28). The futures sold through SP are predominantly futures in which the selling of futures can, and indeed must, continue: they are literally the business of business-as-usual.
However, there was always an alternative, even if it never gained the same levels of visibility and influence: “if the American approach tended to be driven by forecast models, game theory and probabilistic approaches, the European approach was framed by images and narratives” (7). This more “‘critical’ futures school tends to gravitate towards inductive methods” (20), and relies on a more relational epistemology by comparison to the positivist rationalism of SP. Practitioners and theorists of the deductive school tend to reject, or even harbour outright hostility, to social-constructivist epistemologies—though it bears noting that this discourse is itself socially-constructed, and that corporate scenario planning, whether knowingly or not, is “a rhetorical strategy designed to align scenarios with the discourse of strategy-making, rather than its practice” (24). However, the past two decades have seen a rising tide of inductive methods of futuring, whether in the form of models and frameworks that make greater space for questions of values and power, or practices such as experiential futures (see e.g. Candy and Kornet) and narrative prototyping (see e.g. Raven, “Telling tomorrows”) which embrace the power of story for the co-production of social futures.
Utopia’s exile: how computers replaced planners, and planning became a dirty word
Before and immediately after the second world war, social-democratic statecraft relied on centralised planning and utopian goals to direct economic activity, and futurity was predominantly (though not exclusively) the domain of the social sciences. But as in commerce, the lure of quantitative “computational thinking” (Bridle 4) in social and political thought squeezed out and banished the qualitative.
The surrender of futurity to technocractic and positivist paradigms is connected to a narrative of failure associated with Marxian analyses and Soviet utopianism, which developed as part of the Western/capitalist position during the Cold War. This was boosted by the increasing importance of environmental issues in political discourses, with the apocalyptic Limits to Growth report playing an important role in legitimating model-based studies of global dynamics, and laying the ground for the present influence of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Urry 4-6). This bias toward modelled futures, reliant upon (and fetishising of) computation and economic growth for its own sake, has resulted in a corporatization and commodification of futurity, despite an enduring rhetoric that claims the future as a shared space in which collective desires will be realised. Meanwhile, the influence of Silicon Valley, the extractive industries, and government defence agencies in the shaping of hegemonic techniques of futuring (see above) has resulted in “a kind of digital utopianism” (11-2), the dominance of imaginaries in which futures predicted by extrapolation are replete with technological ‘solutions’ which themselves use computer modelling to predict and manage social ‘problems’.
There is irony and contradiction, however, in the monstering of utopianism, which Levitas notes “is commonly dismissed as an irrelevant fantasy or traduced as a malevolent nightmare leading to totalitarianism [… this] discourse equates utopia with a blueprint producing violence and terror, and gives rise to a politics of quiescent subordination to the dictates of capitalist markets” (xii). I would argue that the blueprint utopia is in fact an extant and prevalent form, but due to its self-conception in contradictory opposition (i.e. ‘our utopia isn’t a utopia, because utopia is something that communists have’) and its supposed ‘deliverability’, it gets a free pass from the standard anti-utopian attacks. To return to Levitas: “it is important to recognise the utopianism of right-wing politics, both at the level of improvised institutions and especially at the level of the state and the global market” (xii); this libertarian utopianism is the implicit underpinning of Silicon Valley futurism, which I (among others) have labelled as the “technological utopian mode” (Raven and Stripple 224-6).
The resurgence of a more socially-oriented utopianism is underway under the banner of “social futures”: ways of thinking futurity which center issues of power, values and meaning. This is perhaps less a new development than the rehabilitation of what was once known as “planning”, with the new label mandated by the ideological contamination of the older term, which became a target of critique from both sides of the political spectrum (Urry 13). However, the social-scientific recapture of futurity as its rightful territory—a move sometimes referred to as the “speculative turn” (Raven and Stripple 222)—mobilises constructivist and creative methods, reminiscent of the sidelined ‘European school’ of futuring, as the necessary counterbalance to more quantitative and inductive approaches such as SP.
Green hope(s): a tale of two sustainabilities
While I would argue that the (re)turn to utopian hope and social futures is already underway in terms of methods and theories, the state of grassroots politics is a little behind the curve. This can be illustrated by reference to the particularities of environmental politics.
Garforth shows that from the 1970s to the early 1990s, environmentalism was still a fringe concern. In this period, early extrapolative models (exemplified by the Limits to Growth study) depicted an “apocalyptic horizon” of futures in which business-as-usual would result in catastrophe, conflict and collapse. To counter that dystopian fate, early environmentalists advanced alternatives to growth-oriented modes of production and consumption. “The preoccupation of post-war environmentalism with systemic environmental problems meant that it often imagined wholesale alternatives to the status quo”: these were “formal, prescriptive visions”, often described as “blueprints” (18), and thus partook of the same paradigmatic positivism that characterised the hegemony of managerial technocracy at the time. The underlying assumption was that Nature could be saved, and new utopias flourished as individuals and groups assembled rescue plans to that end.
While few of those alternatives had any lasting concrete expression, their influence—inextricable from the more admonitory influence of the apocalyptic horizon—manifests in the mainstreaming of environmental discourses from the 1990s onward. The contradiction of environmental externalisation inherent to capitalist production was exposed by environmentalism, which began to propose alternative socioeconomic models; those alternatives failed to overturn the fundamental paradigm, but nonetheless gained sufficient purchase that the hegemony became obliged to address the ‘climate question’. This provoked a new contradiction: the need to address climate change without actually altering the fundamentals of the economic paradigm which was (and is) causing it. Despite a rear-guard action by the denial industry, climate change has been for decades an accepted reality amongst those most responsible for it, as indicated for example by Shell’s careful manipulation of deductive planning paradigms (Curry 25). In the policy and governance spheres, this new contradiction was held in tension through the concept of sustainable development, which came in two competing flavours, ‘weak’ and ‘strong’; the latter, whose eponymous strength came from its insistence on hard limits to economic activity, was defeated by the former, whose triumph might be attributed to its steadfast woolliness on its own terms of engagement. The matter of for how long ‘development’ might be sustained, and with what consequences, was sidelined by what we might think of as the environmental facet of capitalist realism: the absolute ideological conviction that there is no alternative to growth, which will surely serve to provide the ‘solutions’ to its own consequences.
This contradiction is, I argue, one major source of the feeling that the future has been foreclosed upon—particularly now that the effects of climate change are becoming obvious even to non-experts. But as Garforth notes, “detailed images of sustainable societies are not currently conspicuous in mainstream environmentalism […] space for overtly utopian imaginaries seems to have shrunk”. So, no more blueprints—but “green hope” nonetheless “emerges against the grain, as an echo or desiring trace […] often expressed in images rather than words, often entangled in commodified desires rather than clearly in opposition to them”. The solarpunk movement might be the most globally visible example of this tendency toward a utopian aesthetic, and its tacit refusal to engage with the politics of its preferred futurity is paradigmatic of popular futurisms in what Garforth labels the period “after nature” (23).
This paper outlines a still-ongoing transition away from corporate, positivist and deductive epistemologies of futurity to polyphonic, social and inductive epistemologies of futurity. The narrow framing of the plausible—fundamental to the deductive approach of SP—has been shown to operate as a way of justifying the sustainment of business-as-usual; the surge of socially-oriented techniques of futuring, by contrast, is serving to prise open that frame to include the preferable—the matter of desire is being reintroduced to futurity, alongside the matters of values and meaning that were ejected during the exile of utopianism. Meanwhile, the impact of climate change makes futurity an ever more pressing issue.
“Environmental discourses are strongly extrapolative”, and the “apocalyptic horizon” of climate dystopia opens up the opportunity (and motivation) for imagining alternatives (Garforth 18): while we may rightly reject the blueprint approach to the reconfiguration/reconstitution of society, which we might think of as ‘utopia-as-destination’, we might nonetheless seek a ‘utopian direction-of-travel’, to be perpetually updated as new knowledge and experience is gathered (Raven, “Imagining” 119-20). In (re)making our collective choices about that direction of travel, dystopian extrapolations serve to rule out certain bearings, just as utopian extrapolations serve to argue in the favour of different ones; thus the options are narrowed. If we extend this spatial metaphor further, then we might see the work of futuring, properly conceived, as not being the design and construction of a perfected ‘shining city on the hill’, but rather being the perpetual process of surveying the landscape ahead, performed by members of a community whose peripatetic movement across this temporal landscape is a condition of its onto-epistemology. As such, we might think of people engaged in the work of futuring as being scouts and surveyors—a figuration which stands in stark and pointed contrast to the ‘thought leadership’ still celebrated in corporate and gubernatorial futures discourses. The polyphonic and co-productive philosophies and methodologies mentioned above present the prospect of not just situating the work of futuring, but democratising it.
In his final lectures, the late Mark Fisher was searching for what he termed a psychedelic approach to postcapitalist politics: one which embraced complexity and community and the necessity of planning, but which rejected hierarchical patriarchy and the surveillance-capitalist solutionism of Silicon Valley (Fisher and Colquhoun 5-7). I am by no means claiming that the emerging paradigm of polyphonic and social approaches to thinking futurity are a realisation of Fisher’s yearning. But I do claim that the hegemony of positivist futures is part and parcel of the post-Fordist socioeconomic apparatus—and that polyphonic and social techniques of futuring, deployed by institutions and communities alike, might enable us to envision, survey, and advance in the direction of futures in which the exploitation of people and planet have become history.
Paul Graham Raven, “From Predictive Product to Polyphonic Practices: Techniques of Futuring Beyond Business-as-Usual,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2021): n. pag. Web 4 June 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.3.02
About the Author
Dr Paul Graham Raven is (at time of writing) a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow with the Department of Political Science at Lund University, where he studies and applies the narrative rhetorics of sociotechnical and climate imaginaries. His doctoral thesis proposed a novel model of sociotechnical change based on social practice theory, and a narrative prototyping methodology for infrastructure foresight. Paul is also an author and critic of science fiction, an occasional journalist and essayist, a collaborator with designers and artists, and a (gratefully) lapsed consulting critical futurist.
He currently lives in Malmö with a cat, some guitars, and sufficient books to constitute an insurance-invalidating fire hazard.
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Feature Image: “Passing” by Benjamin Horn