Cultural Engineering Group

Services & Ressources en ingénierie culturelle

No future : how to embrace complexity and win / 1

Riel Miller*, un de nos membres les plus actifs, nous fait l’amitié de nous autoriser à diffuser une de ses récentes contributions, dans le cadre du rapport annuel de l’Observatoire pour les Marchés Extérieurs et du Département Innovation, Universités et Entreprises (Gouvernement de Catalogne).

Sa contribution est selon nous essentielle pour établir les axes de réflexion qui suggèrent quelles attitudes et quels processus adopter pour tenter de surmonter les problématiques auxquelles nous sommes confrontés dans la gouvernance de nos systèmes, systèmes pour le moins secoués par la crise financière, économique et sociale.

Ce texte extrêmement concret n’interdit aucun parallèle avec la gouvernance culturelle bien au contraire et c’est pourquoi nous le publions. Les acteurs de la culture sont en effet, tout particulièrement en France, dans une situation contrainte et paradoxale.

Contrainte, c’est une évidence, par la difficulté d’articuler les moyens, les ambitions et les équilibres entre l’offre et la demande ; par la fin de l’ère de la subvention annoncée depuis un moment déjà mais qui prend une toute autre ampleur ces derniers mois ; par les vieilles habitudes de gestion au détriment de l’action ; par la faiblesse des repères donnés par les institutions pour développer un avenir, etc.

Paradoxale, parce que la culture est (pour reprendre la théorie de Jean-Muchel Lucas), cette coquille de noix qui flotte toujours à la surface de l’eau, qu’elle soit en haut de la vague ou dans le creux de la vague, quelle que soit la force des courants ou des tempêtes. La majorité des acteurs culturels français flottent au gré des courants sans qu’aucun cap ne soit jamais fixé ni tenu suffisamment longtemps pour que le voyage en vaille la peine. Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, cette théorie prend une tournure cruelle et les acteurs et les institutions semblent se trouver prisonniers d’une seule alternative : s’adapter ou résister ? On en connaît déjà l’issue.

Dans ces conditions, nous avons toujours tendance à trop faire de prospective pour l’exercice de la prospective en soi. Ce n’est certes pas stérile sur le plan structurel mais nous nous fourvoyons dans l’idée qu’il faut anticiper et que, d’une certaine manière, nous pouvons prédire le futur.

Nous nous en remettons donc aux cabinets de consultants, dont certains ont la fâcheuse tendance à faire avaler beaucoup de couleuvres ambitieuses à leurs clients, pour ne parler que de l’exemple désastreux et pharaonique du Pont du Gard, obligé de fermer de novembre à mai. Nous nous en remettons aussi et heureusement aux élus pour développer de vraies visions mais cela n’exclut pas les défauts de vision pour autant, comme l’exemple du 104 rue d’Aubervilliers à Paris nous le rappelle depuis 4 ans et dont la démission des deux directeurs intervenue il y a quelques jours à peine (mais qui était courue d’avance depuis plusieurs mois) vient clore un bilan bien mitigé.

Peut-être faut-il rappeler quelques principes sages, des principes qui génèrent beaucoup moins d’impacts négatifs en cas de défaut de pertinence vis-à-vis de l’avenir. Peut-être faut-il éviter toute idée de prévision du futur et véritablement s’emparer de la complexité pour trouver de véritables stratégies gagnantes à long terme. Ce sont ces principes que Riel Miller nous explique, en anglais dans le texte et en trois parties. En voici la première.


“It is increasingly clear that the current downturn is fundamentally different from recessions of recent decades. We are experiencing not merely another turn of the business cycle, but a restructuring of the economic order. For some organizations, near-term survival is the only agenda item. Others are peering through the fog of uncertainty, thinking about how to position themselves once the crisis has passed and things return to normal. The question is, “What will normal look like?” While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years. The new normal will be shaped by a confluence of powerful forces—some arising directly from the financial crisis and some that were at work long before it began.”

Ian Davis, McKinsey, Worldwide Managing Director, March 2009

According to the weather service the sun will rise tomorrow at 6:46. There is a fair degree of confidence in this prediction. A meteor might hit the earth between now and then or space aliens might tow the earth to a new location. But these are low probability events when compared to tomorrow’s sunrise. What about the future of the global economy? What can be predicted about economic performance over the next five years?

It is probably safe to say that in one form or another economic activity and the global flows of goods, services, capital, labor, and ideas will continue over the next five years. Productive economic activity and some degree of cross boundary, over the horizon interaction, has characterized human societies for millennia, so it is a safe bet that economic growth and globalization will continue into the future. But the expectation that economic growth might be plus or minus a couple of percentage points and that global flows will continue does not tell us much about what to actually do.

Which sectors will be winners? Where will margins be squeezed by competitors or declining demand? Which technologies will diffuse fastest or change the rules of a specific market (like MP3’s for music or the iphone for smartphones)?  How will supply chains change? Where will innovation come from? Without a more precise prediction of what will happen specifically, to your sector, to your products, to your market, to your sources of capital, to your margins – what good is a general forecast that things will muddle on more or perhaps, as Ian Davis of McKinsey prognosticates in the opening quote, much less than is usual? Isn’t there a model that offers safe and accurate predictions of how global flows and prospects will enter into the value-chain that generates revenues and profits for your firm, your region?

The short answer, not a surprise, is no.

Economic change is too open ended. As pragmatists point out and recent cyclical events underscore, things can change quickly and yesterday’s anticipatory assumptions – the basis for the predictions used to make decisions – can look fairly foolish only days or months later. The potential for variance is too large and the number of causal factors that might account for such variance greater still. Worse, even if we had perfect information, knew everything about everything, phenomenon like economic change and globalization are fundamentally indeterminate. This compounds the fact that we do not in fact know everything about everything.

Thus when it comes to the future ignorance combines with the creativity of our universe to render prediction either a game of imposing our will on what ever happens or a way to deceive ourselves. The former may be justifiable in circumstances where the ends are so important that the means can be imposed – even if the outcome is often not at all what was intended originally. The latter can be important for our confidence and maybe, at least up until now, psychologically necessary for making the choices and taking the risks that generate change. But fundamentally, the impossibility of prediction is good news for our ability to imagine and exercise freedom.

Either way – because of our ignorance or fundamental indeterminacy – there is no future, in the sense of predictability, for complex phenomena.

If there is no future, then what?

Lacking an effective way to predict the future of economic change what options are available if we still want to take the future into account when we make decisions in the present? What is the alternative? Do we give up and let fatalism reign? I don’t think so. Like the thinkers obliged to revise their view of the cosmos when Copernicus overthrew Ptolemy, there are new ways of looking at the world based on an acceptance of both ignorance and fundamental indeterminacy or openness. This is what embracing complexity is about.

One way to still exercise our volition, indeed it is a moral obligation to address the flaws in the world around us and pursue our aspirations, is to improve our anticipatory systems in ways that take fundamental openness into account.  The alternative to the predictive approach is to construct stories about the future that are inspired by the present and past but do not pretend to offer a probabilistic assessment of how likely any one future may be.  This Futures Literacy approach has the virtue of achieving two goals that are critical for decision-making.

First rigorously imagined exploratory scenarios help to reveal the anticipatory assumptions, the images or idea of what the future will be like that people use to make choices. Second these non-predictive stories about how things work in the future can be quite imaginative, painting a radically different picture of the future. This, in turn, allows a re-evaluation of the way we see the present, what choices are on offer by altering the anticipatory assumptions used to make decisions in the present.

Rigorously imagined exploratory scenarios that are at the core of a Futures Literacy approach are not the same as the typical scenario used by businesses and governments. The more common types of scenario are used to plan, like in a chess game. The purpose of these scenarios is to think through different ways of getting to the same goal using given resources and given rules of the game. Here the different ways, within given constraints, of getting to the predicted objective offer an opportunity to select the best path.  These “optimization scenarios” help us to take the optimal route to our planned goal.

Another common type of scenario is the what-if simulation, meant to test and improve the capacity to respond in the face of an external event like a catastrophic flood or an unexpected run of good luck.  In playgrounds children rehearse different situations, learning to respond to the actions, good and bad, of their community.  Pilots use flight simulators to practice for all sorts of wildcards like freak storms, mechanical failures and even perfect landing conditions in a variety of airports. Getting ready for things that happen using “contingency scenarios” is common for emergency crews, soldiers and good strategic and competitive intelligence teams.

However both optimization and contingency scenarios are limited. Optimization assumes its goal, and to be effective also needs to make assumptions about the means and methods.  Planning to build a bridge without funds, engineers or the know-how necessary to organize construction, doesn’t make much sense. When you know you want to build a bridge you set out the parameters and then ask about different ways of configuring the rules and resources to get to your goal.  This is optimization thinking.

Contingency is similar.  Although it is hard to predict exactly what kind of external event will impinge on your daily life, manna from heaven or a bolt of lightening, you can prepare for both and be ready.  Such readiness as a mental state and materially in terms of storing or constructing precautionary resources is the basis for survival. We build houses to shelter us from the elements and we simulate disasters to understand how to keep calm and communicate in ways that allow for the coordination of a response that is appropriate to the surprise.

When it comes to complex evolving systems like the future of economic change and globalization, there is little point in developing either planning or contingency scenarios. What you predict and then carefully optimize by looking at a number of scenarios, like a good chess player, ends up being beside the point when the rules of the game, and even the goal, change. Dealing with the indeterminacy of open systems requires a radically different point-of-view – one that does not seek to know or predict what might happen in the future.

Instead the aim is to better understand how our ideas, images, expectations and assumptions about the future enter into our decision making in the present. This involves two key steps: one is becoming more aware of our typically implicit assumptions about the future; and two is challenging and developing alternatives to how the future shapes our picture of the present.  We need to discover the many dimensions of the now that are influenced by the way we imagine the future.

Exploratory scenario exercises still use frames, a few fixed parameters (givens), but they are generally only pre-conditions for action (like the sun will rise) and what is the point (to eat, make a profit, etc.).  To some this may seem just like a question of degree or specificity, but there is a decisive difference between seeing a telephone exclusively as a tool for inter-personal communication and seeing it as a computing device that can serve a myriad of functions like music player, geo-locator, payment instrument, etc.. Similarly a company that supplies gasoline is not the same as one that aims to provide energy – in whatever form and organization. Lastly a nation, may embrace the general goal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but the meaning of life, liberty and happiness do not stay the same, nor do the ways in which the nation achieves such objectives.

An obvious example of an open ended, exploratory way of thinking about the future is the way we look at ageing. It is commonplace to expect that as a person gets older their tastes, values, and capabilities all change. When recounting the story of a person’s future we naturally take into account the fact that what a child wants to become at 10 is not likely to be what they want at 25. We also know that what our parents or grandparents wanted us to become, or could even imagine us becoming, is too limiting. Not only do vocabularies (what can be articulated as an aspiration) change, but so too do enabling and constraining conditions (like authoritarianism, mass-production, etc.). It is obvious that a European child born to the war torn middle of the 20th century could not tell the same story about their future as one born today (without in any way making a judgment about the superiority or inferiority of their speculations).

Combining the assumption that changing contexts change not only what is possible but what is imaginable with the value statement that it would be wrong to insist that future generations must hold the same values as we do today, eliminates one of the key expectations typically attached to a foresight or scenario exercise. Which is to plan how to get from A to B. The implicit (sometimes explicit) expectation is that scenario exercises can help people to change what they do today by contrasting current choices with either a more desirable future or a more probable future.[1] The so called normative future offers an “ideal” benchmark, while the probable future (typically based on a predictive model) offers lessons on what to do or not to do if one wants to either accelerate or avoid the scenario that, from today’s perspective is deemed more or less probable. Both are rooted in a planning paradigm that uses scenarios as a way to improve blueprints for the future.

An alternative, what I call a Futures Literacy approach, uses scenarios as a tool for calling into question current decisions without any expectation that the scenario used today will correspond to the scenario developed tomorrow. Jettisoning the planning premise may seem like a subtle distinction. For instance critics of foresight in general might point out that in any case, both in practice and in principle, scenarios are usually assigned a low probability and hence are not a dependable planning tool. But by altering the premise that underpins the way decision makers typically use scenarios, particularly by explicitly not accepting the dual planning oriented imperatives of fixing a target [2] for the future and seeking the highest probability prediction (despite formal proclamations to the contrary), the scenario method advanced here is at once more modest and less constrained.

It is modest in terms of the imposition of today’s values on a long-run future. It is modest in terms of the predictive value of the scenarios. And it is modest in terms of the realization that even if the scenarios are highly imaginative and get “outside-the-box” that so often constrains thinking about the future, there is no way to know if we are inventing the vocabulary of tomorrow or not. Yet, this approach is also less constrained, less modest, when it comes to throwing off the limits imposed by both the search for predictive accuracy and projecting today’s values into the future. And it is much more ambitious when it comes to both detecting and acting on the potential of the present – taking off the assumptions about the future that stop us from seeing what is around us right now.

The practical question then is how to apply a non-deterministic, imaginative and exploratory approach to the future for making choices today.  Everyone still needs to be able to answer the question – what do I do now?

Fin de la première partie.

Pour lire la seconde partie, cliquez ici.

Published in: OME (2009), Annual Report 2009 – Reglobalisation: Underlying transformations and new opportunities in a post-crisis world. Foresight Observatory for International Markets (OME), ACC1O, Department of Innovation, Universitites and Enterprise (Government of Catalonia),  2009.

*Riel Miller est un spécialiste de la réflexion stratégique à long terme. Depuis plus de 20 ans, son travail se concentre sur l’évaluation et la conduite de la transformation socio-économique des secteurs privé et public. Il figure parmi les meilleurs praticiens des méthodes de scénarios et a développé des « scénarios stratégiques hybrides » un peu partout dans le monde. Son travail traite de nombreux sujets comme le futur des services publics, de l’éducation, de l’Internet, de l’identité, de l’information et des technologies, de la société de la connaissance ou de la finance.

Il conçoit et implémente la scénarisation de processus qui révèlent des hypothèses sous-jacentes dans les politiques actuelles mais également le potentiel qu’elles contiennent souvent de manière insoupçonnée. Utilisant une approche qu’il nomme « rigueur imaginative», il aide à la construction de nouvelles décisions qui permettent rendre possible et d’augmenter progressivement le rôle de l’innovation dans le développement des organisations.

Des défis spécifiques du secteur public comme le futur des finances des institutions jusqu’à des défis plus sociétaux comme le futur de la globalisation dans la société de la connaissance, Riel fournit une expérience riche et un réseau international étendu qui ont bâti la solidité et la créativité de sa réputation.

[1] It is also common to use scenario exercises to build up better communication and a shared understanding of values and expectations. But this type of scenario exercise does not usually target specific policy issues.

[2] A single target because even if the scenario process generates multiple scenarios the policy choice is made in terms of avoiding the bad scenario or achieving the good one. Sometimes policies are elaborated or judged in terms of being able to accommodate multiple scenarios and this polyvalence is deemed a useful criterion. However this is still a planning perspective only using a set rather than a single target.


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