Helping a Nation Think About Its Futures

The term “national conversation” seems to be gaining traction as a desirable activity where people talk with one another at a national scale about matters of national concern—the United States talking about the security state, for instance, or Australia calling for discussions on population, the structure of future economies, and attitudes towards people seeking asylum. These issues are part of the bigger question of how nations might define and achieve progress and well-being. And behind all of this is concern over what sort of future we, the people making up a nation, would like to have.

But having a conversation about the future is difficult. So how might a nation go about doing it?

Shaun Johnston
The Brisbane skyline at sunset. A recent project sponsored by the Australian Academy of Science brought together a diverse group of scientists to discuss potential futures in Australia—and how to get the public engaged with this discussion.

Why Conversations About the Future Are Difficult

In her seminal advice for English society in 1912, Mary Greer Conklin1 distinguished conversations from other forms of communication. Conversations, she said, are dialogues, not monologues; they are partnerships, not individual activities; they involve listening as well as talking; they are ways to learn from and understand others but are not necessarily a vehicle for information; and they should be polite and respectful.

Conversations among friends are still common, but at community and societal levels we tend these days to argue our case. More often than not we try to convince others that our ideas are best. We often end up in lawsuits or battles to capture media attention. On top of this, humans tend to develop simplified mental models of how the world works; and we are very good at only letting in information that agrees with those models. This gives rise to a range of so-called thinking flaws, including confirmation bias (only seeking information that agrees with our views) and selective recall (only remembering information that agrees with our views).2 Behavioral economist Daniel Ariely describes human decision-making as “predictably irrational.”3

So how can we have sensible conversations about the future when we don’t manage politeness and respect and are often unaware that our view of the world might differ from the view held by our conversant? The discipline of strategic foresight tries to address these problems, and thereby help us talk about the future. It combines strategy (how and why we do things) with forecasting and insight (casting our minds into the future and seeing things from different perspectives, thinking beyond the obvious).4

A typical process of strategic foresight starts with a clear question about the future and then asks what sorts of trends and events have led us to where we are and what might influence future developments. The underlying principle is that we cannot predict the future and, therefore, planning should consider a range of possibilities.5,6 At the heart of good strategic foresight is an examination of the things we assume about the future and some stiff questioning of these assumptions—“cliché hunting” in the words of French strategist Michel Godet.7

Understanding our own assumptions and those of others is perhaps the most important step toward an informed conversation about the future: what we think is fairly certain (e.g., the sun will come up tomorrow, human populations will continue to grow for several decades, we will need energy to grow food, travel, and keep warm), and things we are uncertain and may have different views about (e.g., whether our society will, or should, be driven by market forces, whether people will, or should, focus on individual interests or the common good, whether the world will, or should, become more or less connected and cooperative). Strategic foresight processes often develop scenarios to help us grapple with uncertainties. Scenarios ask questions like, what if something we are uncertain about develops in one way versus another? What might be the consequences?

The Australia 2050 project

The Australian Academy of Science established the Australia 2050 project in 2011, bringing together a group of scientists from a broad range of disciplines to consider what science could contribute to thinking about Australia’s possible futures.8 During a five-day workshop, participants considered four broad topics:
1. whether it is possible to define what a socially sustainable Australia might look like
2. how Australia could be resilient to future shocks
3. how mathematical models could be used to help understand social, economic, and environmental systems
4. scenarios for Australia’s future that emerge from these discussions.

Constructive conclusions emerged for the first three topics, but those charged with developing the scenarios struck some interesting problems.8 They agreed on a range of assumptions, sometimes contradictory, that Australians seem to make. They also agreed on a range of key factors that might affect the nation’s futures (see tables 1 and 2). But they had difficulty agreeing on what particular issues the scenarios should focus on. Some members of the group felt that the main aim should be to outline the potential scientific challenges of the future (e.g. climate change and energy generation) so that Australians could see clearly what they might face. Others agreed that this was important, but thought that something more was needed. They observed that people learn best when allowed to explore information and situations for themselves. They argued that we need a way to help Australians from all backgrounds and walks of life engage with science and their possible futures through personal knowledge, beliefs, values, and hopes.

This led to the conclusion that what is needed to support a national conversation about the future is a set of “living scenarios.” These shared, ongoing explorations of Australia’s futures could be picked up and modified to suit the needs of different communities. Living scenarios grow and evolve as different groups of people make them relevant to their own critical issues, their values and beliefs, and their hopes for the future, thus contributing to deeper and richer stories that change with time.
But how might these living scenarios be developed?

The Challenge of Developing Living Scenarios

A consistent observation from foresight practitioners is that the benefits from scenario development come mostly from being involved in the development process itself—the dialogue with other participants, the new insights and possibilities uncovered. People get much less value from reading the reports from such projects. Therefore, if we seek to use scenarios to encourage a national conversation about the future, how might we engage large numbers of people in developing scenarios?

Several foresight practitioners in Australia are experimenting with ways of using social media tools such as Google hangouts, Twitter conversations, and Facebook groups to generate conversations about alternative futures.9 Internationally, online games have been used to engage with large numbers of people in thinking about the future of the world,10 or a particular country or region. Progress has been admirable, but still small; and different approaches appeal to different groups, so achieving a national conversation requires that these different approaches are complementary, making the whole of the project more than the sum of its parts.

In order to complement existing activities and maximize the unique contribution that a science-focused organization might make, the Australia 2050 project sought to:

• Draw on the Academy’s ability to convene prominent Australians with a record of recognized contributions to society
• Demonstrate a process, consistent with the state of the art in strategic foresight, by which diverse people can share and understand their various assumptions and viewpoints about the future, and then identify a range of plausible futures for Australia
• Document the process and the viewpoints expressed, creating a resource that other Australians can use to conduct their explorations through strategic foresight
• Discover how science can contribute most effectively to people’s thinking about the future

The Australia 2050 project team interviewed foresight practitioners, systems thinkers, and others involved in facilitating strategic conversations among large groups of people, concluding that discussions are rarely held about Australia’s future. Most thinking about the future jumps straight to the specific interests of the particular group doing the thinking. So Australia 2050 tried employing “archetype scenarios.”

Archetype scenarios are general scenarios that have emerged from diverse groups around the world over more than 50 years. Research has found that when humans develop scenarios about their possible futures, they tend to fall into a few categories of stories, for example: continuous growth (in economy, population, standard of living etc.); restraint/discipline (living within our means); collapse (such as social deterioration, wars, famine, economic collapse); and transformation (new values emerging, new industries and economies, new ways of life, transformed identity for humanity).11,12 The most commonly-used approach to scenario development is to identify the uncertainties that are of most concern to a particular group and develop narratives to explore how those uncertainties might play out. The archetype scenario approach starts with the broad narrative and invites people who might have very different uncertainties and concerns to compare notes on how each archetype might arise.11,13-18

The archetype scenario approach suited the objectives of the Australia 2050 project, which included encouraging diverse ideas rather than a convergence of thought. We considered the archetype literature and published insights into the types of narratives that are common among Australians,19 and identified four archetypes that we considered to be most relevant to Australians (Figure 1). These are depicted as separate futures in Figure 1, but they might also be interlinked and the future that eventually emerges is likely to be a combination of all four.

Steven Cork
Figure 1: Four scenarios archetypes emerging from our review of the archetype literature and of narratives apparent in Australian society.

What’s Next?

An October 2013 workshop in Canberra asked around 50 participants with different backgrounds to immerse themselves in the four archetypes depicted in Figure 1 and to engage in a series of three-person conversations about how they interpreted each archetype, what it might look and feel like in 2050, and the pathways by which it might arise. Participants were encouraged to respect and value differences and not seek to reach agreement or convergence. The aim was to gather ideas about the future—ideas that any and all Australians can draw on to explore their own futures. The science community can use this material to focus its dialogue with Australian society, while Australians from all walks of life can start to think about how the ideas fit with their values, beliefs, and hopes for the future. The workshop identified key themes and messages, bearing in mind that they relate to the particular people involved in the workshop, and so are likely to be an incomplete set of Australians’ priorities and chief concerns. A report is in preparation. While modest, we hope that this might also be a catalytic contribution. Following the workshop we will encourage other groups promoting cross-society dialogue to draw on and build upon the outputs from this project.


The authors wish to acknowledge the support of the Australian Academy of Science for the Australia 2050 Project and numerous inputs to our thinking from participants in that project, especially from Professor Lesley Head, FAHA FASSA, Director, Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research, University of Wollongong.