• Fayaz Ahmed

The Art of Thinking about Future: An interview with Professor Sohail Inayatullah of UNESCO

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Fayaz Ahmed: First of all, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

Sohail: I was born in Pakistan and have lived in Bloomington, Indiana; Flushing, New York; Geneva, Switzerland; Kuala Lumpur; Malaysia; Honolulu, Hawaii; and, Mooloolaba, Australia. Home now is in Brisbane, Australia.

I did my PhD from the University of Hawaii, Department of Political Science. I focused on the South Asian Philosopher, Shrii P.R. Sarkar. I examined his theory of history. I compared and contrasted his spiral theory of history with other macrohistorians such as Ibn Khaldun, Karl Marx, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee. This thesis was published by Brill in 2002 as Understanding Sarkar: The Indian Episteme, Macrohistory, and Transformative Knowledge.

I sought to explore and integrate the western notion of linearity, development, with classical shall we say, Asian positions of the cycle. These grand patterns of social change contrasted with the trend analysis I was seeing in conventional Futures Studies. Trends overly stated continuation, while macrohistory sought to move towards an understanding of the grander patterns, past and future. They add a realism to scenarios, which while useful in exploring alternatives, can be fanciful.

I also worked for the Hawaii Judiciary for a decade in Honolulu. We developed the Court's foresight program, anticipating future trends and issues that could impact the courts. We explored the rise of attorneys, mediation, the rights of robots, the use of artificial intelligence in the Courts, the need for a specialized Science Court to address the exponential increase in technologies.

Fayaz Ahmed: Please tell us about your role as Chair in Futures Studies at UNESCO and why it was established?

Sohail: UNESCO has a global chair system, to spread and integrate knowledge. My role as the Chair of Futures Studies is to move foresight from a strategy of planting seeds of change, to growing these trees, to creating a forest of foresight. This is to help develop the foresight abilities of individuals, organizations, and indeed, the planet. Futures literacy is the ability to read the future with greater effectiveness so that tomorrow's problems can be solved today, so that emergent opportunities can be used to enhance well-being. Prevention of disease, of calamities, of social problems is crucial in this work. The notion is moving global, national and organizational policymaking based on anticipatory sciences instead of as Ian Lowe argues, "organized superstition" - policymaking based on the whims of political leaders. We ask what is changing, what is the same, and what should change, and what should not. Thanks to the intervention of Riel Miller UNESCO has numerous chairs in the field, in Futures Studies, anticipatory systems, organizational futures, futures literacy, and more.

Fayaz Ahmed: What is very exciting about working as a futurist and what does a futurist do?

Sohail: We get to help others and in that process change ourselves. We work with different groups from all ages around the world. These include the very important - Prime Ministers, CEOs, Chairs of major boards, to the powerless, children, and others whose concerns for the future need to be heard, understood and acted on. We always ask in foresight interventions, who is missing in room, whose voice do we need to hear. And, how can we best listen to the voices of future generations.

Futures work has a clear structure. I use the six pillars approach. In this we first map out the past and the vision of the future. Then we ask what might disrupt that image. Then we search for the levers of change, how to use change for change. Then we go deeper, moving to the core stories, powerful metaphors of transformation. Then we manage uncertainty through scenarios. Finally, we focus on transformation, on how to make the vision real, how to use future to change.

Futures work does not get boring because we deal with authentic concerns, real issues humans are facing. For example, recently at a meeting in a drought infected area, we went through a process that attempted to understand the futures of that area, the Granite Belt.

We first examined the used future of the Granite Belt. This was the view that water was plentiful and that would continue with the same agriculture paradigm. We then explored the disruptions - focusing on a long term drought and a decline in entitlements. From here we explored scenarios linked with guiding narratives. The historical past was the Food Bowl. But climate change was threatening this history. This would lead to the Dust Bowl - the deadening of the region. This would result in an exodus, with the likely future being the begging bowl, with Granite Belt residents leaving the region and moving to Brisbane as climate change refugees. They would be second class citizens there - poorer in need of help, and susceptible to politicians using migrants from other parts of the world as political fodder to divide the community. The last future was the Green bowl. This was the preferred future. In the backcast next steps part, we worked on strategies including permaculture, water from air, water efficiency, green design, cooperatives, a federal government where science decided policy instead of, as environmentalist Ian Lowe suggested, "organized superstition." The session concluded with an inner guided visioning session where individuals focused on their own calling and strategy.

What is exciting then is looking at how individuals and communities can create preferred futures. How they can move from the disarray and turmoil of the present to a different world. This is not the search for the utopia, but as my own mentor has written - the creation of a eutopia, a good society. A good society is aware of its contradictions, as Johan Galtung has argued, understands that each situation, each phase in history creates the seeds of its destruction.

And as Riel Miller has argued, Futures Studies helps us understand novelty, but also contingency as well as creates tools and methods to optimize strategy. However, for me, as Miller would agree, visioning or creating the preferred is as important. Indeed, Futures Studies is about challenging today and creating a different tomorrow. It is not just about mapping the world we see, analysing reality, but changing the world we see, both through epistemology - ways of knowing - and ontology, the world that is, as it is.

Fayaz Ahmed: In 2010, Shaping Tomorrow Foresight Network awarded you with the Laurel award for all-time best futurist, tell us a bit about this award and why they chose you?

Sohail: Colleagues were generous. The network chooses colleagues who have made unusual contributions or who are unusual themselves. I believe this was perhaps from research work on 1. Causal layered analysis, a theory of knowledge that assumes four levels of reality. The litany or day to day. The system or the next level of causation. The worldview or deeper perspectives of stakeholders (the Chair, the CEO, workers, partners, competitors) or stages of time (ancient, modernity, postmodernity). This approach ensures there is depth,not just breath to foresight. 2. Macrohistory - the grand patterns of history. 3. Narrative foresight - the use of story for individual and organizational transformation. It is the latter work that I focus on mostly these days. This is especially satisfying working with individuals. As the world changes, figuring out our role, how to manage this change, flow with this change becomes increasingly difficult. One CEO, commented, he no longer knows what is expected of him, how he is to act. Seeing life as a tennis court, he said he was an expert on hard courts, but now when he goes to a meeting he no longer knows which court he is to play on. Is it grass? Is it clay? Will there even be a court? We worked together to develop a new metaphor, storyline - this was the person who could play on many courts. Practically, this meant, learning new skills for a changing world: emotional literacy, technological literacy, and spiritual intelligence.

Fayaz Ahmed: Please help us understand the basics of futures thinking.

Sohail: In my work, there are a number of core concepts. These are:

1. The used future - what we are doing that does not work but we continue to use it. Used futures are built into our ways of thinking and institutional practices. They ensure failure. For example, the factory model of education where surveillance and standardization are primary, instead of the co-creation of knowledge. They also keep the system safe from innovations that may doom.

2 The disruption - what is likely to change. For example, the implications of artificial intelligence on work and the futures of work

3 Scenarios or alternative futures.Given the rise of AI, what are our teaching and learning futures we can ask. In scenario one, the no change future, we can teach and train for the 1950s. In scenario two, the marginal change scenario, we engage in catching up - learning coding and learn a few more languages. In scenario three, the adaptive future, we scan the changing world, and develop national or organizational strategies to adapt and lead, for example, in climate change energy solutions, in 3D printing, in peer to peer energy platforms, in therapeutic robotics, in aged care, in conflict resolution skills. In the last scenario, the radical future, we explore a world after work - how to do we teach and train for a world where jobs have practically disappeared because of technological disruptions.

4. The preferred future - which future do we truly want.

5. The supportive narrative - what is the metaphor that will align with strategy to help create the desired vision. For example, one employment agency had as its metaphor - bludgeoned by the present. They were so caught up in the day to day - horizon one -they could not see the future. They changed their metaphor to a flock of eagles. Within this narrative, they could see emerging opportunities and are now playing a national role in the conversation and strategy around work futures.

Fayaz Ahmed: What are the main tools and methods needed for structured futures thinking?

Sohail: As discussed above, I use the six pillars approach. In the mapping phase, most useful is the futures triangle. The triangle has a quantitative aspect (the pushes of the present), a qualitative aspect (the weight of history) and a visual aspect (the pull of the preferred future).

In the anticipation phase, my preferred method is the Molitor s-curve or emerging issues analysis. Instead of focusing on the current problem or trends we focus on disruptions, emerging issues. For example, twenty-five years ago, while most researchers were focused on over-population, we were writing on de-population in European and East Asian nations as well as the anticipated dramatic shift in the worker-retiree ratio in China. In the 1980s, we explored the rise of China to number one status by 2020. In the 1990s and early 2000s we were exploring the shift from traditional meat to the new meat (invitro meat, cellular agriculture). Of course, with emerging issues analysis insofar as the issues explored have low supporting data points one can easily be wrong, and if policymakers act in a preventive way, they can ensure that the issue does not become a trend and problem, i.e. they can solve tomorrow's problem's today.

In the Timing phase, the best tool is macrohistory less a a theory of time, but as a diagnostic, asking which parts of the organization are exhibiting linear patterns, which part cyclical, which part pendulum and is there the possibility of spiral transformation, where progress plus tradition are critically combined. I also use the Sarkar game, a process invented by Voros and Hayward based on the work of P.R. Sarkar. In this game, we explore how power is used and attempt to have actors create a successful society by working with each other and by developing leadership skills where they serve others, are protective, create novel ideas, and use finances for the good of all.

In the Deepening phase, I use Causal layered analysis. We dig deeper beyond the headlines and attempt to understand the core issue for the organization. We then move to the transformation phase, creating the new metaphor. For example, with many energy organizations, they know well that they need to begin to understand the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. CLA has helped energy companies in Europe, Africa, South-East Asia and Australia make this transformation. Here is an example of CLA in action from five years ago.

In CLA, while all levels are important, the metaphor is crucial in ensuring that there is an overall story that can drive the organization. One large corporation seeing the need for flexibility in the energy markets argued that today they were like a rusting tanker and in the future they wished to be like Optimus Prime - a flexible and adaptive leader.

Another suggested that they there were now the pretenders, with great visions that no one believed in. In the future, they wished to be like a energy genie, anticipating and delivering on the changing needs of citizens.

The CLA process works at the external level, but equally so for inner development. Recently a marketing executive used the process to transform his life story. He wrote: " The rebel archetype has permeated my sense of self as far as some of my earliest childhood memories. I have always felt the "Abrahamic tension" of a man going against the world to eventually change it. That was my metaphor until I met Professor Sohail Inayatullah who taught me about the CLA of the self process. I learnt that a better, more realistic yet hopeful alternative was possible. That was when I realised that interdependence with like-minded individuals and organisations was a more viable path. That was also when, to my son's delight, I decided to become one of the Avengers - the rebel yet heroic spirit enabled by fluid partnerships. It's been over a year since my encounter with the inner CLA process, and the metaphor has since materialised. I've changed and the world around me has changed with that.

In the Creating Alternatives phase, we develop scenarios. While there are many scenarios methods - bivariate, organizational, archetypal - the one I use the most is the integrated. With Jose Ramos and Rob Burke, we have developed this extensively. The first scenario is the preferred. The second scenario is the disowned, what one cannot see, what one has pushed to the unconscious. The third scenario is the integrated - this united the first and the second. The last is the outlier. One policy advisor, for example, used this to explore regional futures. In her preferred future, there is considerable investment, population shift, growth in regional centres in her state. However, as she discussed this with workshop participants, it became clear that most prefer to live in city centres - jobs, economies of scale, global airports, cultural diversity. Her preferred future seemed more like a pipe-dream. In the integrates scenario, she focused on "leadership through stars" that is, choosing a few regional cities to focus her funding on. Once these were successful than she could move to finance the entire region. Her last scenario was "Ghost towns" i.e. climate change and other factors making living in regional areas impossible. She, of course, could have focused on the opposite ie because of 5 and 6g, true population distribution could result with everyone working remotely.

The last pillar is Transformation. In this we develop the shared vision and use backcasting to create it. Along with backcasting are action learning experiments. For example, an organization may have a new vision. However, the transition to that vision can be difficult. Action learning takes a few experiments with real funding and develops those experiments. They become the bridge to the new future. Action learning works well as change is within one zone of control, in areas one can make a difference. Having a backcast where all change-events external - market crash, a war, a technological breakthrough - are interesting but not overly useful for creating plausible change. Backcasting creates the bridge between today and tomorrow.

Finally, is the inner visioning. In this process, we take individuals and have them meet a mentor from the future or their future self. This self gives advice, offers gifts, and guides the person from the desired future to the present. With all these processes, the goal is to make the desired future, more real, lived. One senior government executive told me recently, a decade ago, they would send Ministers and policy researchers around the world to see what were the latest innovations. For them, seeing was believing. Now that they were the world's number one, believing was seeing. There is no where to visit but their imagination.

I have recently been writing on a stage theory of foresight - to meet the person where they are at. For example, I find that if a group feels disempowered, then visioning or metaphors will feel like fairy tales. It is first important to use CLA to unpack power and possibility. Action learning processes that enhances power - that moves from fatalism to anger that creates change - are equally powerful. Once this is done, then organizations prefer to thinking about risk mitigation - how do they keep their new found power or wealth. Tools like emerging issues analysis are excellent here From here, we can move toward scenarios which can enhance opportunity creation.. Once we have done this, then I can move toward directionality, where do we wish to be. I then move to making the vision real - through backcasting and action learning. Then I find the supportive metaphor. The narrative helps in making supporting reality. Finally, I use the CLA of the self process to aid in personal transformation. Recently, using the work of the late Dada Prana, I use sacred sound or mantra to help create a metaphor that represents the deepest part of the psyche.

Fayaz Ahmed: Why do we need futures thinking and how can this way of thinking help us transform the present as well as future?

Sohail: Futures as I have learned from Michel Focault and Michael Shapiro is about creating an epistemological distance from the present. The future helps see the present a new, it makes the present remarkable. Scenarios, understood in this way, are less about contingency of clarifying alternatives, and more about transforming today. They help us see what is right and wrong about today, and what a new future can be. The present, as we know, is highly politicized with actors fighting over the present, using fake news, bots, and other weapons of knowledge to allow their interests to win over others. It is a quicksand morass where few come out alive. While we need to be aware of contemporary politics, futures suggest we also need to ensure we are imagining different realities, different worlds.

The three horizons approach is very useful. The third horizon is the long term - the space of visioning the impossible, the truly desired. The second horizon is the space of uncertainty and of creative destruction, where the new emerges and the past is still alive. The six pillars approach helps in his space - it maps, anticipates, times, deepens, explores alternatives, and transforms. The first horizon is present and the next few years - this the space of current problems with seeds of change suggesting direction change.

Fayaz Ahmed: But if futures thinking is so important, why don’t more people do it?

Sohail: There are numerous reasons:

1. Our brains are wired for the past, we have to train the brain to understand possible and emergent futures. 2 Futures literacy takes time and effort as any skill. We do not invest in this skill. Schools are already busy teaching too many subjects. 3. It could be that we are still collectively in the "rush." By this I mean we are like teenagers, unable to deeply reflect, looking for the latest high, not responsible, broken up into tribes. We are not adults who have learned from the past, who have a developed brain, who take prevention seriously. We do not have global governance structures where anticipation is built into what they do. 4. Finally, the education level of many leaders is low - they are in power not because of their understanding of science and possibility, but because they use fear to stay in power. Ivana Milojevic is doing cutting edge research in this area, called Futures Fallacies.

Fayaz Ahmed: Given that future of the world is inseparable from the future of energy. What role futures thinking can play in developing a new energy development model, compatible with environmental and climatic goals?

Sohail: As the examples above, futures is crucial to help in the energy transition. As Sohail Hasnie paraphrasing Sheikh Yamani has said, it is not due to a lack of stone that the stone age ended. Yamani could see the end of the oil era, not necessarily the end of oil. Similarly for futurists, we are likely at the end of multiple eras - the end of patriarchy, the nation-state; fossil fuel; meat, American centrism; one way of knowing. Instead, we see the possible transition to: (1) A global governance system certainly a planetary wide anticipatory system; (2) a shift from meat to protein; 3. A move toward gender partnership; 4. A move toward Asia as the centre; 5. And the possibility of neohumanism, or identity that is planetary not ego or nation or religion based.

However, as we know from Sorokin there are pendulum swings, fight-backs from the old era. In one nation, when we were working on the national energy plan, it became clear we needed to shift from nuclear and fossil fuel to solar and wind. And then develop continent wide peer to peer solar energy sharing platforms.The project had excited everyone, however, the CEO was soon indicted for corruption for allegedly taking bribes from the nuclear industry. And as the previous head of the European Parliament stated - we know what the right thing to do is - with respect to climate change - but we can't get elected on it.

I am confident we will make the transition. Not making it, is too horrible to contemplate, as we are seeing with the global rise of fascism today.

We must imagine and create a different future. Futures Studies can assist in this process.

Sohail Inayatullah

UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies


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  • Inayatullah, Sohail. 2008. “Six Pillars: Futures Thinking for Transformation.” Foresight 10 (1): 4–21

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  • Inayatullah, Sohail. 2015. What Works: Case Studies in the Practice of Foresight. Tamsui: Tamkang University Press.

  • Inayatullah, Sohail, and Ivana Milojević. 2015. CLA 2.0: Transformative Research in Theory and Practice. Tamsui: Tamkang University Press.

  • Miller, Riel. 2018. Transforming the Future. London: Routledge

  • Milojević, Ivana, and Sohail Inayatullah. 2015. “Narrative Foresight.” Futures 73:151–162.

  • Molitor, Graham. 2003. “Molitor Forecasting Model.” Journal of Futures Studies 8 (1): 61–72.

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