Changing the future means changing our narrative

By Carly Benson

In this interview with Professor Sohail Inayatullah, the conversation focuses on how ‘futures-thinking’ (also known as strategic foresight) can help individuals and organizations navigate a world of increasing uncertainty, where hope can sometimes be a rare commodity.

‘Futures thinking’ deals with uncertainty. Unlike forecasting, futures thinking does not attempt to predict the future. Rather, it uses creative and exploratory approaches to embrace divergent thinking about the future and to acknowledge uncertainty. It is a different mindset from analytical reasoning that employs convergent thinking to seek the right answer and reduce uncertainty.

Professor Inayatullah is a renowned futures studies researcher and political scientist who works with organizations to develop visions of transformational change for the future. He is most recognized for pioneering the causal layered analysis, an approach to creating transformational change.

The following conversation with Professor Inayatullah is to better understand how futures thinking can be used by emergency management organizations facing a rapidly changing future. To help illustrate how futures thinking can apply to emergency management, Professor Inayatullah shares examples of work he has done with organizations around the world to chart a path to transformational change.

CB: For those who are unfamiliar, can you describe what futures thinking is and how it can help individuals and organizations navigate uncertainty?

SI: Certainly. During the political and social upheaval of the 1960s, there was growing interest in forecasting, which attempts to predict certain economic and demographic trends into the future. Can we forecast the future? Largely, we cannot. Further developments arose as growing uncertainty and the accelerating rate of change prompted us to consider alternative futures, the idea of multiple potential alternatives based on significant structural changes. Then we developed critical futures, which asks, “What is my story within the event”? In the old paradigm, we sit in the room with development agencies and say, “we are here to do this for you, we will fly in and solve the problem.” Within the critical narrative paradigm, we are in this together.

No one knows the future. Forecasting tries to tell us when the next disaster will be. But critical futures says the future is not inevitable and we are in it together. With many different perspectives, we can co-design the future.

Holding space for both crisis response and visions of the future

CB: Many emergency managers go from crisis to crisis, still recovering from the last emergency when they respond to the next one. It seems like foresight asks us to ignore the present in favour of long-term strategic planning. How can you bridge the future and the present in moments of crisis?

SI: First, look at the narrative of the organization. For example, a few years ago I worked with an emergency services organization in Queensland, they identified their narrative as the heroes who save the day for their community. But as we looked at the risks emerging over the next 20 to 30 years, we could see that this narrative wouldn’t continue to work. It was a scary idea, both for the organization, because this was their identity, and for citizens, who like the idea that superman lives around the corner.

However, this narrative could not keep up with the pace of change. Communities are building in places where there will be fires. It goes against the current culture to say “we can’t protect you if you build there,” and can create a lot of anger, but it is true, and we can’t keep ignoring it.

We had to reimagine emergency services in an era of climate change. So we used three horizons. The first horizon is now, the superhero moment, and we mapped out what is and is not working. Then we looked at the third horizon, the vision of where we want to be. What metaphor creates that third horizon? The organization chose the metaphor of the community climbing the ladder of resilience. In this ideal future, we have shifted to a world where citizens have been empowered to design their own emergency management and don’t need to be saved at all.

The second horizon is the transition, how we get from here to there. And it too has a narrative to support the shift from quick response to long-term prevention. Instead of an ambulance waiting at the bottom of the hill to take people to the hospital, we would build a fence at the top of the hill. Instead of the thrill of responding, we measure success in ensuring there is no fire.

With this mindset, we need leaders who understand both emergencies and vision. Leaders who go from responding to crises to lobbying for a way to change the culture, to invest in the technologies and capabilities that will create the future in which citizens don’t need us to save them because we’ve climbed the ladder of resilience together.

This painting is a representation of the strategic discussions with the emergency services organization in Queensland and the multiple layers of metaphor. The three circles represent the past, present, and future. The wreath symbolizes a funeral commemoration for the “white knight” – the hero who saves the day – a metaphor no longer needed in a society that has successfully eliminated fire hazards. Painting by Jan Archer, reproduced with permission. 

Your Indigenous leaders in Canada have this tradition already, in the seven generations approach. In this approach, we are aware of the spiritual forces guiding us in the present, we honour and acknowledge the generations who came before us, and we make decisions that will benefit seven generations to come.

CB: I can imagine an emergency manager in the midst of a response saying that they’re too busy. That the demands of the present are too overwhelming.

SI: You have to work with the audience. One organization we worked with had trouble thinking into the future because the managers were so busy. So we asked, “When won’t you be busy?” And it made them think. In some organizations, being busy is part of their story. They are always busy and are only going to be happy once the checklist is done – and the checklist is never done. Part of the work of strategic foresight is external, looking at the environment and what is changing. But part of it is internal, not just to the organization but inside the minds of the people who work there. If your mindset is about always being busy and always putting out fires, how can you do the work to build the ladder of resilience with community?

Being able to see metaphors is so powerful. Kids do it naturally, and yet as adults, we push it away. We focus on strategy and analysis. Narrative foresight brings the story back in, the collective metaphor that brings people together and motivates human behaviour.

You can see the power of metaphor in the crisis in Ukraine. Both Vladimir Zelensky and Vladimir Putin use metaphors extremely well. For Russia, Europe has become a dangerous neighbourhood, full of hostile neighbours. Who can’t relate to that, to not feeling safe in your own neighbourhood? To connect on this level, to imagine an alternative future, we could talk about what it means to be a good neighbour. For Ukraine, this is an existential crisis. Zelensky invokes that imagery in speaking to other world leaders. He evokes the defender – the last line of democracy. For the United Kingdom, he uses the language of Winston Churchill and London bombings. Both examples show how important metaphor is to collective motivation and identities.

What to do when hope is out of reach

CB: The theme of this edition is Hope, something that can be hard to see sometimes when we look towards the future. In one of your papers, you end with the line “Futures thinking does not wish to condemn us to hope alone.” How can futures thinking build collective visions of hope?

SI: Hope is a powerful story. It can bring systemic change. But sometimes in a crisis, hope is too far. It’s worse than despair.

I worked with an organization in Croatia after the war [that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia], trying to help them create a vision of the future to guide reconstruction. But they couldn’t do it, we weren’t getting anywhere. Finally, we realized the problem. They said, “You’re giving us hope, but we just went through a war.” Hope was too far a conceptual feeling from where they were in that moment in the present. So instead, we mapped out alternative futures focusing on worst case scenarios. It was easy for them. Then, we looked at scenarios that were still bad, but a little bit better. And through that process, and realizing that they could survive even these worst case scenarios, we were able to get to more preferred futures.

Sometimes hope is too far, it doesn’t feel possible. You can’t force hope. So you have to think about what is the next step, then the next. Building up unrealistic and unachievable hope is even worse, because hope can very quickly turn to betrayal. If you look at the Islamic world in the 1970s, there was the hope that we would be able to join the West. But then it turned out no, actually, we can’t. There are barriers, and racism, and economic exploitation, and suddenly this feeling of hope turned into a deep sense of betrayal.

Hope based in reality to create the future we want

CB: When you’re working with organizations, how do you build inclusive images of the future where people can see themselves thriving?

SI: It can be very difficult. To facilitate these conversations, you need futures literacy and conflict resolution skills. You have to be mindful of the tension, of potential conflicting futures, and not be afraid to work through it.

I was facilitating a workshop with 500 people looking at environmental futures in Asia. We created four scenarios of possible futures, and then I asked which ones the participants wanted. They wanted the fantastic, transformative one, the green revolution. But then I asked which ones they thought were possible, and no one thought the transformative scenario was achievable. They said, “Yes, we want this, but we know how governments are.” This type of scenario doesn’t give hope, it doesn’t lead to action.

Idealist realism scenario: Dolphins return to the Yangtze. Designed by Lynda Windsor. © Sohail Inayatuallah, reproduced with permission.

So we looked at the other scenarios. One of the scenarios was the disowned future, where all the rivers run dry because we’ve used up all the resources. The third scenario was integrated idealism, the future we want within the reality of government bureaucracy. In this scenario, dolphins return to the Yangtze River. People could actually see this scenario, they could envision the steps we need to take to get from today to tomorrow, steps that are possible. And that creates hope.

CB: What emerging trends give you hope?

SI: Gender equity, especially in Asia. Singapore is the world leader in gender equity, Thailand is second. That is a huge source of hope, seeing the shift towards deep inclusion.

Platform cooperatives. This is the evolution from the technologies that gave us Uber, where the company gets the wealth but customers get the efficiency, to a cooperative model where employees co-design, co-create, and share wealth while customers still benefit from enhanced services.

The ability to produce large-scale localized agriculture, which is enabling the possibility of a shift towards renewables. The idea of distributed energy. All of these projects exist, but we don’t see them at scale yet. We need a transformational leap to get to that tipping point.

Creating transformational change requires a future orientation. We need to see and understand systems but also imagine new futures, to see possibilities that others cannot see and help create collective visions of hope.


Professor Sohail Inayatullah is the UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies at the Sejahtera Centre for Sustainability and Humanity. He is also a Professor at Tamkang University, Taipei. He was born in Pakistan, but currently lives in Australia. He co-founded the educational think tank along with Dr. Ivana Milojević and has worked with organizations all over the world to build visions of the future and create transformational change.

Carly Benson is an emergency management professional who has worked for municipalities in Alberta and British Columbia during large-scale response and recovery operations. She recently completed a Masters degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation, exploring how foresight and systems thinking can enhance decision-making during recovery. Her research project, Resilient Recovery: A systems analysis of disaster recovery in Canada, examines the barriers and opportunities for municipalities in leveraging disaster recovery to rebuild communities better prepared to face the risks of the future, not the past.