Futures beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight

Lynn Elen Burton (Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 September 2005




Elen Burton, L. (2005), "Futures beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight", On the Horizon, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 183-186. https://doi.org/10.1108/10748120510618213



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Richard Slaughter is the Director of the Australian Foresight Institute and is the President of the World Futures Studies Federation with a global membership of around 500 members (Marien, 2002). In Futures beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight, Dr Slaughter has created a watershed guide for the future of Futures Studies – one that builds on the past, understands the possibilities in the present, and is guided by the depth of the human spirit to imagine our inclusive visions for tomorrow. He says that while there is not, and can never be, a blueprint that leads to viable human futures, “there are a series of Institutional arrangements, practices, and processes that can support movement in that direction”.

As Dr Slaughter begins the book, he cites Saul's (1997) warning of “an overarching corporatist ideology at work in the world which seeks opportunity and profit but which has become detached from the ecological foundations of the world and, indeed, has no real interest in the future”. Further to this, the author posits a preliminary set of propositions about aspects of the current context that include:

  • A Western worldview that in certain respects “supports a [short‐term] thin, instrumental view of the world”.

  • Dominant economic and political agendas that serve to produce a consumer society and perpetuate destructive and unsustainable views, practices, and systems everywhere.

  • Little attention to conscious participation in wider social and natural entities, awareness, and spirituality.

  • The over glamorization of technology and its potentials in detriment to our humanity.

  • Often‐false solutions to the perennial problems of human existence – meaning, purpose, soulful work, rites of passage, and death.

  • Powerful forces aligned in favour of material growth and against “enoughness” and “voluntary simplicity”.

  • “Overall, it may be possible to redesign some of the ‘ways of knowing’ that are contained within the Western worldview by retiring defective components and replacing them with consciously chosen equivalents. The tools for engaging in this work are widely available, but the places where they can be learned and practiced are not very common” (p. 8).

With this context in mind, the author calls not for a minor adjustment in course, or even a series of them. But rather he sees the main goal of Futures Studies as helping “to clarify viable pathways to a liveable future.” This includes reasserting limits and understanding that some technological possibilities should not be pursued. It includes marshalling the power that human beings have to use their reflexive powers to view the world with fresh eyes and fashion a workable inclusive future. Through our “‘speculative imagination’ that gives us other, often divergent, images, options, areas of possibility that lie beyond reason and instrumental analysis” (p. 30), and an “installed organizational capacity” such as a global network of Institutions of Foresight (p. 12), we can create desirable images of the futures “Applied Foresight rests on … the human brain/mind system … and the use of futures concepts that permit the emergence of a distinctly futures oriented discourse” (p. 17).

In his chapter on “Changing methods and approaches in Futures Studies”, the author makes the case for forecasting, scenario building, and critical Futures Studies, but also argues that, with the integral work of Ken Wilber as a guide to our thinking, we need layered futures work to reach a level of emancipation heretofore undelivered. According to Slaughter, “depth, resonance, significance and meaning are not available through technology, or at least only marginally so. They are available through the progressive refinement of the instrument of knowing itself, that is, through each individual person” (p. 124). Authors such as Mezirow (1990) and Burton (1992), would concur, calling for critical reflection as a necessary precursor to fuller understanding.

Slaughter goes on to say: “one of the distinguishing features of high quality futures work is that it routinely ignores borders and moves across many different domains.” He reinforces broader access to the field through what Schultz has termed “futures literacy”. Reinforcing this notion, Burton (1992) says, “The only constant in the emerging world is change – and the accelerating rate of that change. Hierarchical corporate structures under the old economic order are being replaced by a spider web of activity whose strands reach all over the world … The traditional 3Rs of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic must merge with the 4Rs of the future – reasoning, relating, reflecting, and redefining”. Rather than a focus on the external and instrumental “it” of the future, Slaughter makes us all (“I” and “we”) integral and the stewards of our collective future. Future generations depend on us.

Achieving this end requires recognizing both the strengths and the weaknesses of the four main traditions of Futures enquiry – the empirical tradition based largely in the USA; a series of culturally‐based European traditions; the International Multicultural tradition; and the Integral approach which values many ways of knowing across all significant fields. After discussing each of the preceding approaches, Slaughter then attempts to provide a more integral modus operandi, which could support a broader, more inclusive, transdisciplinary frame of inquiry.

The author notes that “it is one thing to articulate futures issues and problems and to enter into productive futures‐related discourses with other similarly equipped people. But it is quite another to operationalize the insights so gained. The reason is that discourse alone is not action‐oriented and cannot deal adequately with many broader or more complex futures concerns” (p. 179).

Slaughter presents a strong rationale for widespread futures education practice, but also concludes that “if teachers and schools are to stand any chance of integrating futures perspectives into their work, they need much more durable structures of support than anything that has been provided hitherto”(p. 191). He then goes on to devote chapter 14 in Futures beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight to “Creating and sustaining second generation Institutions of Foresight” for which “an international programme of study and research is urgently needed” (p. 200).

Based on an international survey several years ago, the author further posits the following functions for these Institutes of Foresight:

  • raise issues of common concern that are overlooked in the short‐term view;

  • open out the forward view to highlight dangers, alternatives and choices before they become urgent;

  • publicize the emerging picture to engage the public and inform decision making;

  • contribute to the body of knowledge on foresight implementation and the macro‐processes that frame the future;

  • identify the dynamics and policy implications for the transition to sustainability;

  • identify aspects of the new world order and place them on political agendas;

  • facilitate the development and application of social innovations;

  • deal with fears and help empower people to fashion their own futures;

  • help organizations to evolve in appropriate ways; and

  • provide institutional incubators for innovative people and experimental or public interest work that can not be carried out elsewhere.

The author goes on to say that successful Foresight programs: recognize the need for futures work, have a champion in the start‐up phase, are responsive to client needs, involve the stakeholders in the process, and experience a legitimizing process. They also need to define core purposes, and have secure funding as well as several other requirements. Unifying the Centres of Foresight around the world requires a collaborative agenda for education, research, funding, and critical mass.

In conclusion, Futures beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight posits that “the ultimate goal of Futures Studies is to help bring into focus, and then create the foundations of a new civilization” (p. 228). It hopes to use “the rich store of intellectual and practical knowledge” (p. 228) gained through over almost half a century of Futures Studies to build a sustainable and desirable future … buttressed by new values attributed to a “civil society”. “Essentially the task is about letting go of industrial models, values, priorities and structures across the board and opening to the processes of transformation available through the perennial wisdom of humankind” (p. 255).

Consistent with Dr Slaughter's clarion call to action, Futures beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight is well written, grounded, and provocative. It provides an excellent beginning agenda for diminishing the weaknesses and building on the strengths of the various Futures Studies traditions. While Dr Slaughter does not mince words in his assessment of existing Futures practice, he provides a solid launching pad for collaboration on the next phase of development. As concerned futurists, the choice is ours. We can actively accept the challenge of helping to fashion a preferable future for humanity, or passively accept the consequences.


Burton, L.E. (1992), Developing Resourceful Humans: Adult Education within the Economic Context, Routledge PressLondon and New York, NY.

Marien, M. (2002), “Futures studies in the 21st century: a reality‐based view”, Futures, Vol. 34 3‐4, April.

Mezirow, J. (1990), Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood: A Guide to Transformation, Jossey‐BassSan Francisco, CA.

Saul, J.R. (1997), The Unconscious Civilization, PenguinMelbourne.

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