Development team members at City of Espoo creating future scenarios with Futures Platform 

In the Midst of Dramatic Changes

How Can Organizations Prepare for the Future?

May 17, 2017, Sohail Inayatullah

"We had the perfect strategy for yesterday's future," a CEO once commented to me.  External changes in the past decades the Asian and global financial crisis, the rise of augmented reality, the peer- to-peer revolution, the return of extremist political movements and leaders, climate change, to mention a few disrupt the familiar plan-budget-delegate-review cycle. In a world full of change, an in depth approach to foresight is needed, encouraging organisations to transition from technical fixes to adaptive responses, or even transformative journeys where they change as they create new futures. 

The next twenty years promise to bring about even greater change. For example, ILO suggests that 90% of Southeast Asian workers could be out of work because of automation, with companies like Adidas moving back to Germany to develop shoes made by robots.

Augmented and artificial intelligence transforms occupations like health care (smart floors signal if the elderly fall), accounting (AI will do what they do today) and indeed any field where the tasks are repetitive and predictable. Driverless cars promise not just to make cities safer, but move the debate from ownership to mobility. Peer-to-peer governance and economy disintermediates the middle man, allowing for, for example, Wikipedia to end the reign of Brittanica. Falling prices in solar energy disrupts the current coal based energy system, allowing households to not just become energy producers but become part of community energy cooperatives.  

Given the magnitude of change ahead, what principals work in preparing for the future? I have found the following three principles to be crucial.


Challenge the 'Used Future'


Every organisation has practices that do not necessarily reflect their preferred future. Indeed, they often live strategies that contradict their vision. In the foresight process, I ask participants what these routine practices – their "used futures" – might be.

In the education sector, the used future that emerges over and over again is classrooms designed around desks in rows, which is not student-centred or technology-friendly, not to mention exams or the current "one size fits all" approach to learning.  At the global level, as artificial intelligence/robots/apps begin to take over traditional unskilled and indeed skilled work, the job may soon become a used future -useful at a particular stage in history but far less relevant going forward.


Create Alternative Futures


The trajectory of an emerging issue is difficult to predict, and culture is hard to change. Alternative futures, or scenarios, can help us become more flexible and adaptable. I have found the most useful approach to explore alternatives is to challenge one's core assumptions about the way the world is and the way the world is developing. In terms of the futures of work and education, there are a number of scenarios.


  1.  Teach and train for yesterday's jobs. In this future, education and training continue the factory-exam model, focused on creating compliant students for jobs that no longer exist. Youth enter the market, unemployed and angry, easily swayed by a demagogue.

  2. Teach and train for the emerging future. In this future, organizations anticipate the emerging jobs, whether in caring for the aged, social entrepreneurship, peer to peer networks, robot design, 3d printed health care, organic foods and create systems of learning where students can creatively map out their future and contribute to the emerging market. The tag line in this future is:  "How well do you get along with your robot?".

  3. Co-teach and design for a world after jobs. In this future, the main strategy is helping individuals and the planet in the transition to a world after capitalism; in a future where the focus is on people, planet, prosperity, and purpose. With AI replacing or augmenting human-based work, a guaranteed basic income will become foundational to ensure that the narrative moves from a safety net with holes to a trampoline.


Find the Worldview and Narrative


The trampoline works as a metaphor in that protects the bottom, but allows us to rise and challenge, to create the impossible. But the meta issue is that the capacity to change is not just linked to workforce capabilities, but also to the deeper inner narratives. Narratives are not right or wrong. The critical question is whether or not they support the vision of the future. Without an understanding of the narratives, strategies often fail – culture ends up eating strategy for breakfast.

One organization I worked with had as its core metaphor: "Being pummelled by the present". They were so overwhelmed by emergencies that they had lost focus and were being drained of energy. Through the narrative foresight process, they transformed their story to: "A flock of eagles". This, in turn, led to a strategic shift, focusing not just on finding jobs for youth but working on high impact strategies at national and global levels. They reported that while previously they had been feeding their worries, now they were creating possibilities.


In order to transform the current global crisis, we need to challenge the used future, articulate alternative futures scenarios to create new strategies, and ensure these strategies are supported by new core narratives.


Sohail Inayatullah
UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies; Professor, Tamkang University; Associate, Melbourne Business School; and Adjunct Professor, the University of the Sunshine Coast


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