Futures research


Strategic management is about acting to influence future developments in future contexts. In management, futures methodology is part of the strategic toolbox. In environmental management – as illustrated by climate change – this is particularly evident as we have to act now to anticipate or counteract situations that will develop over decades. Understanding future problems and contexts is essential to develop relevant long term strategies. It raises, however, major theoretical and methodological challenges.

In Sustainable Development of the Biosphere, a pioneer 1986 book, the editors Clark and Munn insist that one of the challenges of sustainable development is to design new futures studies methodology for the new challenges we face. In the book, Gary Brewer proposes the idea of policy exercises, an adaptation of military or business strategic gaming methods to issues of sustainable development policy.

My interest in game-based approaches made me join the small network of  IIASA researchers and associates involved in developping and testing the approach and, from 1986 to 1993, I designed and facilitated a number of exercises testing various possible designs for policy exercises. Most of the exercises themselves went well, leaving participants and organisers quite excited. However the bottom-line, be it in terms of academic production or of really new policy insights (the two expectations behind policy exercises), was disapointing and the methodology never really took off. See for instance the following document :

and others in the publication archive page (1991, 93).
Analysing the reasons for this outcome, my main explanation was that there were not adequate conceptual, fundamental reasons to use a game-based simulation approach. For instance the necessity to ensure sets of thorough preparation arrangements for complex operations, which will have to be implemented very swiftly, in reaction to sets of possible situations, a need which is the central rationale for military gaming, is lacking in sustainable development issues. It’s not that we shall have very little time to act when the time comes: the time is here, and we have a problem of collective action, rather than of strategic planning!

This made me turn, in 1995, to a completely different kind of work on environmental futures, with a focus on the rationale and grounds for the various tools and approaches to futures that were used in the environmental field. This resulted in organising new training modules on environmental futures methodology and conducting critical research on environmental futures approaches. A summer workshop for scientists in 2001, two doctoral dissertations (Sébastien Treyer, Ruud van der Helm) and other work with junior researchers (especially Hubert Kieken) led to a 2005 book reviewing the state of the art and putting forward a series of proposals for new developments in environmental futures.
Some of the most important are (a) to place less emphasis on and trust in self-standing futures studies methods and procedures and more on adapting interventions to the specific demands of political and cognitive contexts, (b) to stop confining futures studies to the science-policy interface and make futures research increasingly a part of academic work itself, (c) and as a result, to develop futures research not only on interdisciplinary interfaces, but increasingly within various disciplines.

These are summarised in a 2009 paper. Since then, my work follows these proposed tracks. With Audrey Coreau, we work on developping innovative futures research within ecology. With Sébastien Treyer and Benoît Labbouz, we work on the complex dynamics of politics and science that fuels current debates on the futures of food and agriculture. And I am still waiting for the opportunity to launch new research projects mobilising the humanities to deepen research on scenario methods, for a much needed rebalancing of the current domination of computer modelling.