Present futures from Grunwald

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 2.1 Futures

One of the focal points of Armin Grunwald’s work is the theory of technology assessment, which has never been interested exclusively in technology as such but has deliberately included political, social, and economic consequences from the very beginning1. By acting at the interface between the future, technology, and society, Grunwald repeatedly offers valuable suggestions for futures studies. In his article ‘Wovon ist die Zukunftsforschung eine Wissenschaft?’2, he described many fundamentals for the scientific handling and discussion of future statements, which were also relevant to the approach of this thesis.

Present futures

The article describes that the fundamental understanding of the future is only accessible linguistically and cannot be observed in any other way. We can formulate our ideas about the future but have no further access to it. It has proven helpful to differentiate between present futures and future presents. According to Grunwald, the latter can be described as a thought experiment in which one imagines a future point in time. However, as the notion of present futures makes clear, this imagining always happens in the present (“immanence of the present”):

“Future as a term of reflection on “what is possible” is something that is ever in the present and shifts with the changes of the present.”3

That means, especially for futures studies as a science - which has to work under the criterion of falsifiability - only the consideration of the present futures comes into question.

The relevance of the distinction between future presences and present futures plays a decisive role in the self-conception of futures studies and in investigating societal debates about the future.

“There, futures (e.g., forecasts, scenarios, or visions) are complex constructs consisting of knowledge components, ad hoc assumptions, relevance assessments, etc. They are only partly based on knowledge, often assume that present knowledge may be extrapolated into the future, and are frequently grounded on more or less well-founded assumptions about peripheral conditions. Components not supported by knowledge are supplemented or compensated for by plausibility assumptions and normative determinations (about values or according to specific interests).”4

This is the conception of futures on which this thesis is based. Accordingly, futures are linguistically expressed ideas about the future in the present, which are composed of knowledge and assumptions, for which normative aspects such as values and desires also play a role.

Thus, according to Grunwald, futures studies are not concerned with the question of whether a future statement will come true in the future, but why what knowledge and assumptions were selected in a present future to make that future statement plausible (“validity”).

Components of futures

For this purpose, it is necessary to describe the components of the futures in more detail. Grunwald distinguishes in the epistemological investigation between different knowledge components and premises that have been factored into the futures.

  • Present knowledge that is proven to be knowledge according to recognized (e.g. disciplinary) criteria […];
  • Assessments of future developments that do not constitute present knowledge but can be justified by present knowledge […];
  • Ceteris paribus conditions: certain continuities, “business as usual” in certain respects, or the absence of disruptive changes are assumed as a context […];
  • Ad hoc assumptions that are not grounded in knowledge but are “set” […]”

Once the various components of a future have been identified, they can be examined and examined according to “discursive standards under aspects of validity”5 and compared with other futures.

Hermeneutic orientation through present futures

The goal of the scientific study of futures on the basis of this understanding is to offer various addressees in society – from business to politics to civil society – orientation in dealing with divergent futures for their decision-making.

In a 2015 article, Grunwald questions the possibility of orientation by looking at futures because of their increasing divergence:

“The divergence of futures reflects the plurality of the present, and this is not only a plurality of values, but also one of scientific and non-scientific opinions about epistemically unclassifiable images of the future. Thus futures tell, if prognostic or scenic orientations do not succeed, exclusively something about us in the present.”6

Based on this observation, among others, Grunwald develops the concept of hermeneutic technology assessment, which aims to derive insights about “social practices, subliminal concerns, implicit hopes and fears”7 from the components of technology futures. The goal is to make debates about the future in society more open, transparent, and deliberate.

(Sociotechnical) futures in society

In March 2016, the leading thinkers and practitioners of technology assessment (TA) in the German-speaking world came together in Karlsruhe for a workshop at the Institute of Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) entitled ‘The Present of Technical Futures - Theoretical and Methodological Challenges of Technology Assessment’; among them Grunwald. They aimed to formulate a joint response to the increasing need for orientation knowledge in society and politics.8

Together, they sought an approach for an “expansion of far-reaching discourses on the future” in the public sphere, which encompasses the “major transformations such as energy transition, measures against climate change, Big Data, etc.”. For this purpose, they defined the working concept of socio-technical futures, which expresses the close connection between technical developments and social changes. Under the term, they collect a variety of futures on different levels. Sociotechnical imaginaries (cf. chapter 2.3.3) also appear here.

The workshop documentation contains numerous considerations that are also relevant for the critical consideration of futures in general. In addition, there are various references to futures, which in their description are helpful for a possible understanding of Future Imaginaries.

The need to critically examine sociotechnical futures is justified by the fact that it should prevent…

“… the future changes predicted by a dominant sociotechnical future from being regarded as the only promising future options .”9

This statement was one of the impulses for this thesis, as it provides both a possible description of a Future Imaginary (cf. chapter 3.2.1) and the purpose of dealing with it.

This purpose is complemented by “making explicit” motives, interests, ideas, and expectations incorporated into the future. This makes them conscious and negotiable.

A further aim is to examine the effectiveness of futures within the communication processes between various social actors. This allows to “understand the background of social controversies, to make their implicit basic assumptions analyzable and criticizable,” and to “gain insights into current social power constellations in the respective innovation or transformation context under investigation.”10

A model with two analytical dimensions was developed to investigate the impact of (socio-technical) futures. One dimension looks at the expression of society in the futures, the other at the effect of the futures in society:

“The first analytical dimension focuses on finding out which current social conditions are expressed in a sociotechnical future and in what way assumptions are derived from it about future options that are desirable or to be avoided, considered realizable, or also unattainable. On the other hand, the second analytical dimension focuses on capturing the effects (as well as performativity) of a sociotechnical future in its respective social context.”11

The first dimension describes the approach in hermeneutic TA and critical futures studies.

Sixty years earlier, Fred Polak had already dealt with the second dimension, the comprehensive effectiveness of futures in society, and demonstrated it using various historical examples.

Next Chapter: 2.1.2 Pull of the Future from Polak

  1. Paschen, H. (1999). Technikfolgenabschätzung in Deutschland - Aufgaben und Her- ausforderungen. In Technikfolgen-Abschätzung in Deutschland - Bilanz und Perspektiven (Bd. 6, S. 18). Frankfurt u.a.: Technikfolgen-Abschätzung in Deutschland - Bilanz und Perspektiven, 77f 

  2. Grunwald, A. (2009). Wovon ist die Zukunftsforschung eine Wissenschaft? In Zu- kunftsforschung und Zukunftsgestaltung. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg. 

  3. Original quote: “Zukunft als Reflexionsbegriff über „Mögliches“ ist etwas je Gegenwärtiges und verändert sich mit den Veränderungen der Gegenwart.” (ibid., p. 27) 

  4. Original quote: “Dort sind Zukünfte (z. B. Prognosen, Szenarien oder Visionen) komplexe Konstrukte aus Wissensbestandteilen, Ad-hoc-Annahmen, Relevanzeinschätzungen etc. Sie stützen sich nur zum Teil auf Wissen, nehmen häufig an, dass gegenwärtiges Wissen in die Zukunft extrapoliert werden darf, und beruhen vielfach auf mehr oder weniger gut begründeten Annahmen über Randbedingungen. Nicht durch Wissen gestützte Anteile werden durch Plausibilitätsannahmen und normative Festlegungen (über Wertvorstellungen oder nach ganz konkreten Interessenlagen) ergänzt oder kompensiert.” (ibid., p. 27) 

  5. cf. ibid., p. 32 

  6. Original quote: “Die Divergenz der Zukünfte spiegelt die Pluralität der Gegenwart, und diese ist nicht nur eine Pluralität der Werte, sondern auch eine der wissenschaftlichen wie der außerwissenschaftlichen Meinungen über epistemisch nicht klassifizierbare Zukunftsbilder. Damit erzählen Zukünfte, wenn prognostische oder szenarische Orientierungen nicht gelingen, ausschließlich etwas über uns heute.” Grunwald, A. (2015). Die hermeneutische Erweiterung der Techikfolgenabschät- zung. Technikfolgenabschätzung – Theorie und Praxis, 24(2). 

  7. (ibid., p. 68) 

  8. Lösch, A., Böhle, K., Coenen, C., Dobroc, P., Heil, R., Hommrich, D., et al. (2016). Technikfolgenabschätzung von soziotechnischen Zukünften, (3), 26. 

  9. Original quote: “… die von einer dominierenden soziotechnischen Zukunft prognostizierten künftigen Veränderungen als alleinig aussichtsreiche Zukunftsoptionen zu betrachten.” (ibid., p. 9) 

  10. ibid., p. 9 

  11. Original quote: “Die erste analytische Dimension konzentriert sich darauf, herauszufinden, welche gegenwärtigen gesellschaftlichen Zustände in einer soziotechnischen Zukunft ausgedrückt werden und auf welche Weise daraus Annahmen über wünschenswerte oder zu vermeidende, als realisierbar oder auch unerreich- bar angesehene Zukunftsoptionen abgeleitet werden. Die zweite analytische Dimension fokussiert dagegen darauf, Wirkungen (sowie die Performativität) einer soziotechnischen Zukunft in ihrem jeweiligen gesellschaftlichen Kontext zu erfassen.” (ibid., p. 11) 

Notes mentioning this note

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