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COMPLEX QUESTIONS 
FOR FUTURES STUDIES

A report on the 17th international conference of the World Futures Studies FederationMany cultures, One World: Globalisation and Local Development, in Romania, 5-9 September 2001, commissioned by Futures, a multidisciplinary policy, planning and futures studies journal published by Elsevier Science Ltd. See Futures Volume 34, Issue 2, March 2002, Pages 205-212.

The 17th international conference of the World Futures Studies Federation was held in Brasov, a medieval Saxon trading town on a high Romanian plain ringed by soaring mountains. 

Summer had just passed and the locals were preparing for the season to come, the slow rhythm of rural folk swinging their scythes across their fields as generations before them have done;the fecund smell of freshly cut grass drying into winter hay; of potatoes being dug from the still-warm earth;of smoked ewes-milk cheeses, sausages and thick salamies hanging from the rafters; of seed stored for next year's crops. Such simple acts of faith in a future that's so deeply rooted in the past. 

The setting seemed idyllic and yet this plateau has been invaded, conquered, and 'liberated' in more battles than have ever been recorded. Every imaginable atrocity has been committed here (and many more besides), and every human soul has been threatened with every kind of damnation by the princes and prophets of some of history's most powerful empires -- yes, since even before Rome and Byzantium. Because this town is in Transylvania, a frontier territory which is both a nineteenth century fiction created by an Irish novelist, populated with vampires, werewolves and a particularly nasty Count, and a very real province of what is now Romania, inhabited by the descendants of every tribe that has ever trekked from Asia into Europe, or from Europe towards the east. 

And we too invaded, another tribe of strangers who brought with us all the cultural baggage of our own diverse lives: suitcases and backpacks bursting with all our unexamined assumptions, conflicting epistemologies and incommensurable ontologies, even cosmologies. While some took pride in their 'scholarly detachment' and so-called 'objectivity', others found it impossible, even irresponsible to remain 'detached' and 'objective' about the future. A few even burned with the same evangelical zeal that must have fired Johannes Honterus, for example, the first Lutheran minister of Brasov's thirteenth century Roman basilica, the one with the six-ton bell that started tolling the hours each morning before dawn. Dong, Dong, Dong as I buried my head beneath the pillows. 

This heterogenous tribe of very interesting individuals, from several different continents and several different islands in several different seas, arrived to talk about cultural diversity, local development and globalisation, as if this trinity were something new. We stumbled across the medieval cobbles in our global Nikes and Adidas to check our e-mail at a local internet cafe, socialised under Coca Cola umbrellas in the old piata, and stubbed our cigaretes and cigars (metaphorically at least) in the Marlboro-branded ashtrays without ever noting that native Americans were the first to smoke tobacco; that the coffee we sipped originated in Ethiopia via Arabia; the pasta we ordered came from Italy via China, and the tomatoes, corn and Hungarian paprika in the salad were introduced from the Americas by Spain's global conquistadors. So many other luxuries we now take for granted have also been traded (and taxed) across this plateau: tea, spices, dyes, salt, fine silks, fine carpets, perfumes; ivory, ebony, pearls, and even tulip bulbs from Turkey. And some of Europe's most foundational concepts, which were begged, bribed, bought or simply plagiarised from much older civilisations to the east, across thousands of years of what we now call 'globalisation'. Who remembered, for example, where zero came from as you counted those hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Romanian leis across the counter to pay your hotel bills and conference fee? 

Back to the past

Ah, but that hotel, the Aro Palace! That relic from yet another fallen empire, the one which was to be the dictatorship of the proletariat, but turned into something else. Certainly Brasov's proles and peasants rarely saw the inside of this four-star institution, with its crystal chandeliers, starched white table linen and timber panelling, unless, of course, it was to wash the dishes or sweep the marble stairs. Because the Aro Palace was built for the kind of Very Important People who might spill state secrets into the microphones that were allegedly hidden in the ashtrays and lampshades! This exclusivity meant that the workers were generally spared the indignity of having their most private conversations monitored in the secret rooms in the bowels of the building, but only if they remained in their concrete apartment towers on the outskirts of town, or in the factories and fields producing the exports required to pay for their late former dictator's meglomaniacal excesses.

One of Nicolae Ceausescu's most 'meglomaniacal excesses', the Palace of the People, The historic heart of Bucharest was bulldozed for this building. Photo by Merrill Findlay, September 2001.

Many Romanians now recall this grim past with nostalgia because it at least provided a few certainties in their lives: a job, somewhere affordable to live, childcare, a pension ... Today those old certainties have been replaced by the competition of the global 'free'-market, and, as too many Romanians are discovering, not everyone is a winner in this new casino economy. 'We had such hopes after the revolution,' one well educated young Romanian called Magdalena told me, on behalf of her whole generation. With a monthly income of $US100 a month, an average middle class salary, she can afford to rent her own flat in Bucharest and make regular weekend visits back to her village in the Transylvanian mountains, so by Romanian standards her life is very comfortable -- and yet she despairs. Like many of her compatriots she consoles herself with dark jokes about Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu or the alleged corruption of the contemporary political system, and prays that her country will be accepted into the European Union as soon as possible. Even those who are most successful in the global marketplace, like Transylvania's tourist entrepreneurs in their Jeep Cherokees and Daewoo minibuses, look to Brussels for their future salvation.

Fundamental issues?

It is such glocal futures that we members of the World Futures Studies Federation gathered under the crystal chandeliers of the anachronistic Aro Palace to discuss, in an underground bunker fitted out as a 1960s music hall or cabaret, complete with red velvet curtains, mirrored wall panels, flickering candles, and lush red velvet-upholstered chairs neatly arranged around little tables draped in yet more starched white linen. In front of us a long row of grey-haired men and one diminutive woman solemnly sat behind a formidable bank of tables covered in yet more starched white linen, with an apparently empty red-velvet chair, which, we were told by our retiring President, was filled by a child who is yet unborn: the person to whom we all must answer. As the morning progressed the white linen tablecloths looked increasingly like shrouds for this invisible child and her siblings. 

But this first plenary was about Federation politics, about diplomacy and ritual: all the Very Important People who must speak in this 1960s cabaret before the rest of us could be heard. And so we listened to what many of us already knew: Romania's 'excruciating'  journey to modernity (evidence of which we could see all around us); the dilemmas we all face given the intrinsic unpredictability of a future we humans are, never-the-less, the collective 'architects' of; and the impact our species is having on 'the basic conditions we all depend on'. 

Despite the very best intentions of our guest speakers and the rest of us 'the basic condition of the patient has deteriorated' over the last 30 years, we were told. Oh dear, those white linen shrouds! 

But since the future is unpredictable, and since collectively we humans are, never-the-less, its architects, neither those of us alive today, nor that unborn child, are necessarily doomed. Are we? 

This, I suspect, is the fundamental question Futures Studies was invented to answer, and the reason the World Futures Studies Federation was founded in Bucharest in 1972, when systems theory was the only game in town and Romania was already a 'Stalinist state', as one speaker noted. For the then-young humanists of Europe's New Left, Futures Studies may have been an antidote to their own deep sense of despair. 'The future' itself may also have seemed much more certain then, a nice neat linear extrapolation from 'the present'. But after the Cold War failed to freeze into Nuclear Winter as predicted in the 1960s, after the world failed to run out of oil in the 1970s as the Club of Rome said it would, and after the Berlin wall 'collapsed' so unexpectedly in the late 1980s, and with such apparently unforeseen consequences, 'making forecasts is now extremely difficult', as a distinguished Romanian guest observed. 

Futures methodologies 

Yet some 'futurists' still make a handsome living out of their forecasts, as do some astrologers and soothsayers. The success rates for both approaches are probably very similar, although I have no empirical evidence to support such an heretical suggestion! The Swedes, Finns, and Eastern Europeans, including the Russians, seem to have retained their confidence in forecasting as a futures methodology, however, and presented some very nice numbers to support their prognoses - but with a warning that the accuracy of their forecasts decreased as time increased! The Eastern Europeans offered their own 'objective approach to the problem of the future' while acknowledging that their part of the world still bears the scars of all those top-down Soviet-style Five Year Plans which failed to take into account people's diverse aspirations. 

A couple of Swedes showed us how the age structure of populations could be used to predict economic trends, such as periods of inflation and growth. Not surprisingly this work was commissioned by a Swedish financial institution, although the World Bank has also shown an interest, because the demographics demonstrate, in cold, hard numbers, why developing countries should invest in their young people by providing primary health care and education. It seems obvious, I know, but apparently the Bank and/or politicians in either developing or donor countries need more numbers to 'prove' that healthy, well-educated girls and boys tend to grow into productive middle-aged adults, who buy a lot, don't cost governments much to keep and yet pay nearly all the taxes. Which would be very nice for some developing countries, especially those that are home to the billions of people who now live on less than $2 a day, and are lucky if they ever reach what people in developed countries consider 'middle aged'.

Governments all over the world have based their social and economic polices on all kinds of nice numbers and very pretty projections prepared by professional forecasters, but, as the OECD speaker pointed out, this process has often led to what he politely called 'serious policy failure'. There was an urgent need for greater flexibility in policy processes to take into account the increased complexities and uncertainties associated with globalisation, he said. 

The OECD's alternative to forecasting was a 'territorial prospective process' involving the full democratic participation of all regional stakeholders. From the OECD's perspective this process is, in itself, a form of 'territorial governance'. A number of other practising futures-workers within the Federation reported on their own involvement in such processes, notably in Belgium and France, although they emphasised that full participative democracy was not possible within existing political systems, so opted for what one speaker called 'deliberative democracy'. 

Most conference participants seemed to conceive Futures Studies as a 'symbolic domain' and 'a catalyst to engage in a process of forward design'. For them 'the future' was inherently unpredictable, a very fuzzy 'zone of engagement and influence', or 'networks of possibilities' emerging from 'multiple pasts' and many 'converging presents'. Instead of forecasting, they spoke of back-casting, even middle-casting, or about our 'innate human capacity' for foresight. While many used scenarios as a way of developing models of alternative futures, they remained critical of this methodology. As a Greek environmental planner noted, normative scenarios, in particular, often fail to take into account significant global factors, while, at the other end of the scale, global scenarios were 'disconnected from vitally important local factors'.  And, of course, as a French speaker emphasised, scenarios, indeed all futures tools, remain subject to the GIGO Effect (Garbage In Garbage Out)! 

For many people working with local communities one of the most difficult and messiest challenges is turning scenarios into sustainable development strategies and then trying to achieve community consensus to implement these strategies. While some kind of general community consensus is a fundamental prerequisite for any implementation phase, 'consensus is at the expense of new ideas', which is very dangerous when communities 'need to manage complexity and uncertainty', as the environmental planner observed. Other participants from Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Finland, France, India and the Philippines, all of whom were doing both practical and theoretical futures work with local and regional communities, expressed their own concerns about the limitations of conventional futures methodologies and called for new tools, which, as a one speaker expressed it, 'go deeply into our human core.'

These and other speakers also called for new questions for these new times. Questions like What makes people believe that one scenario is possible and another is not, and how can we integrate these psychological factors into our decision-making and evaluation processes? Or How do you open communities up to new ideas and possibilities and still achieve the consensus required for sustainable development? How do you convince people that the future is important when they have no sense of it, or no belief in their own power to effect change? And those deeper 'human core' type questions about subjectivities, values, perceptions, belief systems, language. About making new meanings together. About difference. About engaging with the 'Other'  while changing ourselves. About equity, gender, justice and peace. 

What's new about Globalisation? 

That the complexity and uncertainty associated with globalisation was highlighted as a primary challenge for Futures Studies is hardly surprising, but is there anything new about what we're now experiencing, or is 'globalisation'  merely 'a cheap explanation' for the powerlessness so many people are feeling in their lives, as one Romanian participant asked. 

Another speaker quoted a rather famous but now-deceased 'futures thinker' who observed that 'Before all events were separated, and now everything is brought together'. We all nodded at these words, but they were written in Latin 22 centuries ago, by Polybius, a Greek historian who accompanied a Roman general, Scipio Africanus the Younger, on his campaign against Carthage, and later wrote the 4O volume Universal History justifying Rome's conquest of so much of Europe, southwest Asia and north Africa. His words could also have been written in Pali, Persian, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, Arabic or in many other languages across the millennia. Post-1492 they could also have been written in Spanish or Portuguese; or later in Dutch; or French, and, in more recent times, in this 'mongel language' English. So what's so different about now? 

Some argued that the movement of $1.5 trillion of promiscuous capital around the planet every day is different, although others pointed out that the level of foreign trade and investment was significantly higher in the later nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. (Remember cotton, coffee, cocoa, opium, rubber, tea, wool, whale oil and all those other colonial commodities, including convicts, slaves and guns?) The global movement of people was also much higher in these periods, as it was in the middle of the twentieth century when the immigration policies of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand encouraged millions to voluntarily leave their homelands, while, at the same time, various decolonisation and nation-building processes were displacing others within their own territories, forcing them to become refugees. 

The movement of people has now slowed to a relative trickle, while capital continues to gush around the planet at electronic speeds -- which means investors can instantly shift their money to wherever they can make the greatest profit, while local communities just have to cop the consequences, as many speakers pointed out. 

But what's truly new about the contemporary phenomenon we call 'globalisation', according to another expert, is this: that today we live in a world in which a child in the most isolated place 'will go for a Coca Cola, even a malnutritioned child.' 

This simple statement highlights what many people consider one of the most fundamental dilemmas of our time: that while Western corporations do indeed have a global and even predatory reach, the benefits of such influence are so unequally distributed amongst this planet's 'stakeholders'. If Coca Cola and its sibling multinationals can change people's behaviour in even the most isolated and poorest places, one might ask, then why is it that even a single child on the planet remains malnourished? Or, to pose the question in a more sophisticated way, Qui bono? Who benefits? 

Given the diverse, even conflicting perspectives from which Federation members view the world, and the many different development theories they subscribe to, there are probably many answers even to this simple question, with enough theoretical justifications to fuel many bonfires long into many Transylvanian nights. One faction, for example, fears that the terms 'globalisation' and 'development' have come to mean 'Westernisation', an all-embracing neo-colonising concept that leaves no space for those of us who view the 'globe' as a whole planet rather than a marketplace, with ourselves not as consumers but rather 'as entities of being'. As people. Nor does it leave any space for the billions who are not 'in' the West, and who might wish their futures to proceed along very different paths. 

And what about all the inequalities: that malnourished child and her bottle of Coca Cola, somewhere in central Africa, say? Is there a necessary causal relationship between economic globalisation and inequality? 

No, argued one old timer, citing his own research in the Netherlands. It's quite possible to have a very globalised economy and yet institute social policies that promote equality, he suggested. Other participants, from both developing and developed countries, were quick to express their scepticism, emphasising that his research only looked at policy outcomes within a single Westernised state, without considering the inequalities between countries and regions, or the impacts of colonisation -- and so the fault lines within the Federation widened. Most participants seemed to agree, however, that there were no alternatives to globalisation, only alternatives within it. They also agreed that some of these alternatives just might be empowering even for the most marginalised cultures and groups within cultures. And, dare I suggest it, they might even bemore 'ecologically sustainable',  to introduce yet another problematic term into this necessarily biased report. 

Cultural diversity 

The globalisation discourse seems to have moved on in the last couple of years from linking economic globalisation with 'homogenisation', to acknowledging the extraordinary diversity that exists within nations and amongst nations. As one speaker suggested, the old homogenisation argument 'builds on the strong anti-American sentiments of the MacDonaldisation debate', and assumes that people are 'passive receivers of cultural influences and artefacts'. It also assumes that multinationals are blind to the economic advantages of being sensitive to local cultures or social movements, when a little local re-jigging of globally mass-produced products could result in increased profits for the parent company! To emphasise this new corporate 'sensitivity' to cultural diversity one of the Federation's few free-marketeers mischievously invited us all to a enjoy a MacTaco in his native Venezuela or a MacFalafel in Cairo, and, instead of lynching him, many of us spontaneously laughed! Because nothing is as simple as it used to be any more! Even in the USA itself, which, as one US national observed, can no longer be modelled as a 'melting pot', because it's so extraordinarily heterogenous, a State of multiple nations consisting of individuals claiming multiple identities. 

But 'culture' remains a critical futures issue within the Federation. As a speaker from Taiwain commented 'For people in developing countries, culture is all we have.' And what happens to local cultures when the global market intervenes was demonstrated only too clearly at our conference dinner. 

Imagine a snow-white fort built high on the top of a mountain in 1580, by one mob of invaders (the Saxons) to keep another mob out (the Turks). Two bus loads of new invaders, a long winding road through a dark sylvanian forest, and at the end, a thimble full of traditional Hungarian apricot palinka -- because Transylvania was once part of Hungary. A large white-washed room with ancient rafters, dummies in shining suits of armour, miscellaneous weapons of medieval death and destruction, large canvases mythologising the past, red velvet and lace curtains hanging from cheap plastic rings, fake pot plants, contemporary light fittings, bottles of local pinot noir and riesling -- and while we eat, the entertainment. A small orchestra, a soprano in slinky long emerald green, a bevy of high-heeled dancers, slim and young and pretty: black mini-dresses with blue tulle frills. More singers, more popular arias, more costume changes. A baritone in black-tie, a mezzo-soprano in long ruby red. By now the orchestra's playing Come to the cabaret, and the dancers are bopping a coyly choreographed charlston in body-hugging, crutch-revealing iridescent blue.

'Is this real or what?' my dining companion asks. 'It's unreadable in sociological terms!' She's cringing because she's remembering all those 'ballet, tap and acro' classes from her own British past. And then Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, then Bizet: Carmen in a red gypsy skirt and a sultry pout, but she's so good that the surrealism, the unrealism melts away, the cameras come out, the videos, and we forget that outside there are real gypsies, or Roma, attempting to maintain their own cultural traditions within this new global market place. 

And then silence. The first violin, a small man in a plain white shirt, red tie and old fashioned Soviet-style glasses, stands and walks to the centre of the floor. He lifts his instrument, bends his head towards it and moves his bow to the strings. He doesn't smile, he hardly moves. But his music says everything he needs to say. Throughout the long and difficult years his country has faced you know this man has dedicated himself to this: to the music of Romania's greatest twentieth century composer, George Enescu. 

Despite the circus he is part of, despite all the compromises he has had to make, all the cliches and lies with which this restaurant is attempting to woo us new invaders, this man has maintained his integrity, and the future of the music he loves is safe. He hardly acknowledges the applause, simply bows and returns to his seat. Around him, the conversation collapses into a Babel of different languages as we relax back into our own cultures. The pretty dancers return in yet more flesh-revealing frills and flounces, the singers with their light opera, and what's that musac the orchestra's playing? I heard it in a subway in some other city only a few days. Or was it on pulp-radio? 

We could have experienced this evening in any country in the world, except perhaps for the Enescu. What we were served were a few 'ethnic' bows and baubles stuck on to a globalised, homogenised, mass-produced product designed to fool us that we were getting something authentic. But in the end the pastiche fooled no-one. If it hadn't been for the first violin, I for one, would have starved, despite the veal and apricot sauce. The only consolation would have been that we'd helped the dancers, singers and musicians pay the rent for another week, because we did nothing to support Transylvania's rich and complex cultural diversity. We only helped propagate a lie. 

End note

As we were returning from Brasov to our various homes and miscellaneous other destinations, several small groups of 'strategic planners' were implementing their own futures scenarios from several airports in North America. They didn't worry about achieving community consensus before implementation, they simply believed in their own power to effect change. And they did. The World Trade Centre, the symbol of everything people both hate and love about economic globalisation is, as I write, a heap of rubble, the tomb of 3-4,000 people. 

The next WFSF conference will be near the city of Hiroshima. This name too lives in our memories, as a blinding flash of light, a mushroom cloud that changed the future. Is there anyone now who really believes it's OK to be 'objective' and 'detached' about how this next century might proceed? Is there anyone who would dare predict it? And is there anyone who doesn't feel an urgency, a deeply human need to do everything most wisely possible to ensure that their worst-case scenarios are not fulfilled? 

Because if you don't, what are you going to say to that invisible child still waiting to be born in that red velvet chair back in the Aro Palace bunker? Or even to that malnourished little girl now drinking her Coke somewhere in central Africa, she who so defines this time we're living through? What are you going to answer to them? 

Merrill Findlay
Budapest, September 2001. Published in Futures, March 2002.

 

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Content last updated February 2006.