Images of the Future from Inayatullah

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 2.1.2 Pull of the Future from Polak

Sohail Inayatullah - the first ‘UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies’ - has a lasting impact on futures studies, especially on critical futures studies, with more than 300 articles and chapters for publications and 20 books of his own. His publications contain various aspects that broaden the understanding of futures in the context of society for this thesis.

Complementary future concepts

Inayatullah has formulated several specific concepts of futures1 to take a more nuanced view of the roles that futures can play in organizations and society.

These include the “used futures.” Inayatullah uses the metaphor for images of the future that are adopted even though they are already outdated. He explains this using the example of many Asian cities that follow the model of many Western cities years ago in their urban planning. The consequences of uncoordinated growth without regard for the quality of life are visible in many places in the West today. Nevertheless, many Asian cities follow this “used future.”2

Another concept is “disowned futures”: “It is the self-disowned, the future pushed away, that comes back to haunt us.”2 It is often one’s success that causes blind spots to emerge or futures to be deliberately blanked out because they no longer fit one’s self-image.

The third concept that Inayatullah formulates is “alternative futures,” with which he not only alludes to the diverse present futures (see chapter 2.1.1). He is primarily concerned with the psychological factor of focusing entirely on an expected future or believing that only one future is possible and then experiencing “future shock” when this future does not materialize.2

“Alternative futures thinking reminds us that while we cannot predict a particular future always accurately, by focusing on a range of alternatives, we can better prepare for uncertainty, indeed, to some extent embrace uncertainty.”3

These three concepts deepen the understanding of how futures are dealt with and what effects they can have. Therefore, they are also relevant for considering collective expectations of the future in society and their impact.

Three epistemological dimensions of examining futures

Inayatullah describes three, and later four4, research dimensions within futures studies, each of which he links to epistemological positions:5

  1. The predictive (empirical) dimension deals with forecasting the future.
  2. The cultural (interpretive) dimension is concerned with the meanings attributed to data and the associated cultural linkages.
  3. The critical (post-structural) dimension deals with what does not appear in the respective version of the future.

The predictive dimension is still the predominant approach on which most applied foresight work for politics and business is based. Not only does this build on the assumption that the world is primarily determined, and the future can therefore be predicted, but it also leads to experts being privileged. The future is then constructed so that experts can monopolize it.

The recipients in politics and business have often developed a symbiosis with foresight practitioners, in which the recipients usually only expect a confirmation of their “preunderstandings of past, present, and future,” which foresight research delivers with the help of predictive methods and is commissioned further for this purpose. This leads to the solidification of expected futures.

The cultural dimension, in turn, is relevant for this thesis because it shows many cross-connections to sociology and anthropology (cf. chapter 2.2). It deliberately looks at the cultural context of futures and questions which ideas and values have been incorporated into them and how meaning is created:

“The assumption in this thinking is that there is no one way to constitute the real, the future; by examining how different groups see the real, we can learn from their efforts and see ourselves anew. We can then see the limits to our own future thinkings. We can then see our own peculiarities, instead of insisting that they are universals. We thus see that the real is culturally bound, and that our notion of the category ‘the future’ as well as the contents of the future are bound by and intelligible in various cultural contexts. The future then becomes subjectivized, now located within phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions.”6

The critical dimension, the design of critical futures studies and the methods derived from it are probably Inayatullah’s most potent contributions to the canon of futures studies.

As mentioned in chapter 1.4, Inayatullah’s core thesis is that epistemological assumptions underlie every image of the future. This is precisely where his critical dimension comes in. Instead of developing new futures, he first examines concepts and unspoken assumptions in future predictions for their hidden histories of origin and value structures. By historicizing and deconstructing futures, critical futures studies create “new epistemological spaces that enable the formation of alternative futures.”7

To this end, Inayatullah draws on the post-structuralists, who understand reality as a social construct that is constituted in particular through language. They believe individual truths exist for different regimes that define how we create our world from language.8

This, in turn, allows Inayatullah to examine and interrogate futures with a “poststructural toolbox:”9

  • Deconstruction: the breaking down of a future into its visible and invisible components. Example: Who does not appear in this future?
  • Genealogy: the historical development of a concept through various discourses. Example: What discourses successfully constitute the present?
  • Distance: A core concept of poststructuralism, which makes it possible to question the present starting from the image of the future. Example: What scenarios make the present special?
  • Alternative pasts and futures: Inayatullah looks at the past in addition to the futures to question the present as well. Example: Which interpretation of the past is emphasized?
  • Reordering knowledge: Inayatullah emphasizes insights through analysis, such as how knowledge is structured in different civilizations. Example: Which future metaphors work only in Western countries?

As can be seen, these five critical perspectives are ultimately about examining the present and identifying the discourses that have made the present what it is. This is done explicitly with the help of the images of the future:

“Scenarios become not forecasts but images of the possible that critique the present, that make it remarkable, thus allowing other futures to emerge.”10

The poststructural toolbox might also be potentially helpful in identifying and analyzing Future Imaginaries, as the question formats allow to make unconscious aspects visible (cf. chapter 4.1).

Inayatullah and Imaginaries

Although Inayatullah does not explicitly mention imaginaries as a concept, approaches can be observed in his work at various points that point in the direction of fundamental social expectations for the future.

Thus, as early as 1990, he cites an article by Donald Michael and Walter Truett Anderson (1987), who propose the term ‘stories’…

“…as a a simple and common-sense way to talk about the human urge to create order in life, to assemble the events of individual existence within the framework of some larger structure of meaning and purpose.”11

This description overlaps with Taylor’s definition of Social Imaginaries (see chapter 2.2.2), three years before he was to publish it.

Michael and Anderson also explain what distinguishes a scenario from a ‘story’ to accompany their proposal.

“A story is not […] the same thing as a scenario. Futurists may create all kinds of scenarios in a playful exploratory way with no need to make any per- sonal commitment to one or the other; a scenario becomes a story when one begins to believe it.12

In this way, they offer an approach to distinguishing images of the future from expectations of the future and how they are connected.

In Inayatullah’s thinking, the traces of the ‘stories’ approach can be traced further.

“These images and stories at the macro level include the story of progress and rationality, of the rise and fall of man, of the transformation and the end of history, of the return to the Mother and the Earth, to mention a few. Images are more specific and tend to be derived from current social movements, current technologies, and various theories of social change, while stories are more sensitive to unconscious processes, to myths.”13

Thus, in his direct insights from the Michael and Anderson article, one can find the first ingredients for his [[ Causal Layered Analysis ]] (CLA) method popular in futures studies.

The core idea of CLA is to add a vertical dimension to futures studies – in addition to the horizontal consideration of several futures side by side – which analyzes future images in-depth on different ‘levels’:14

  1. The first level is the litany - the official public description of an issue or all that is typically reported in the news.
  2. The second level looks at the social context and the economic, cultural, political, and historical factors that could explain the litany. Here, mainly technical and academic views can be found.
  3. The third level deals with the discourse or worldview that underlies a topic. It examines the deeper structures in language, culture, and society.
  4. Finally, the fourth level goes to the level of myths and metaphors. Here we are dealing with primarily unconscious narratives and archetypes that are based more on a gut feeling than on rational concepts.

It is primarily the lower levels that are already recognizable in his considerations on ‘Images’ and ‘Stories’ quoted above.

Ten years later, Inayatullah included CLA in a theory of future thinking based on six pillars, each linked to specific methods. Thus, the pillars represent a process that can be used, for example, in workshops.15

CLA is linked to the fourth pillar, “deepening the future.” But already in the first pillar – “mapping the future” – he takes up the macro view of Michael and Anderson. He calls the corresponding method for this pillar ‘The Futures Triangle,’ in which, among other things, the “pull of the future” is examined. Inayatullah does not explicitly refer to Polak (cf. chapter 2.1.2). But the description (“The image of the future pulls us forward.”) is strongly reminiscent of him.16

Inayatullah himself identifies five archetypal images of the future on a global macro level:17

  1. Evolution and progress – technology, humanism, rationality
  2. Collapse – fundamentalism, climate emergency, tribalism
  3. Gaia - humans and nature in harmony
  4. Globalism - world society
  5. Back to the future - return to simpler times

In this list, one can see the influence of the macro-historians, with whom Inayatullah has dealt extensively18. The name Fred Polak also appears here, but without referencing the ‘pull of the future.’19

It remains to be noted that from Inayatullah’s earliest publications, there is an interest in significant social expectations of the future that have influenced his work to the present day.

  1. cf. Inayatullah, S. (2008). Six pillars: futures thinking for transforming. Foresight, 10(1), 4–21. 

  2. cf. ibid., p. 5  2 3

  3. ibid., p. 6 

  4. The fourth dimension: Anticipatory Action Learning – Linking participatory action research and action learning with futures studies. 

  5. see Inayatullah, S. (1990). Deconstructing and reconstructing the future: Predictive, cultural and critical epistemologies. Futures, 22(2), 115–141.; Inayatullah, S. (2013). Futures Studies: Theories and Methods, 30. 

  6. Inayatullah 1990, p. 123 

  7. ibid, p. 115 

  8. cf. Inayatullah, S. (1998a). Causal Layered Analysis – Poststructuralism as method. Futures, 30(8), 15. 

  9. Inayatullah, S. (1999). Critical futures research. Queensland University of Technology., p. 2 

  10. ibid., p. 3 

  11. Michael, D. N., & Anderson, W. T. (1987). Norms in conflict and confusion: Six stories in search of an author. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 31(2), 107–115., p. 109 

  12. ibid., p. 110 

  13. Inayatullah 1990, p. 124 

  14. Inayatullah 1998a, p. 820 

  15. cf. Inayatullah 2008 

  16. cf. ibid., p. 7 

  17. cf. ibid., p. 7 

  18. Inayatullah, S. (1998b). Macrohistory and futures studies. Futures, 30(5), 381–394. 

  19. ibid., p. 391 

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