Futures Thinking in Humanitarian Scenarios
“Dr Randolph Kent is a Visiting Professor at the African Leadership Centre and a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to those appointments, he directed the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College London 2004-2016.”
From: Kent, D. R. “Professor Randolph Kent, Visiting Professor. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/randolph-kent, (2019)
Below is a Q&A interview with Dr Randolph Kent where he discusses the trigger for his interest in Futures, how Futures has been applied in the context of Humanitarianism, its positive and negative outcomes, and where Futures Thinking may lead to in the future. Dr Kent’s insights are so valuable I have provided his response in full below.
I thank Dr Randolph Kent for his time in providing me with his responses.
1. Steven: Dr. Kent, you have had a solid career within the Humanitarian sector dating back to 1987. And you’re also currently writing a book ‘Cassandra’s Challenge: Planning from the Future for the Future*’. At what stage did the concept of Futures Thinking enter your experience? Was there a particular trigger for it?
* (NB The book is now titled: Planning from the Future: Humanitarian Action in a Transformative Age. As noted below).
Dr. Kent: To a very significant extent the trigger for my interest in futures thinking stemmed from my experience as UN Humanitarian Coordinator after the Rwanda genocide [1994-1995]. The UN system in the aftermath of the genocide provided an enormous amount of relief supplies. However, when a nation has witnessed the death of over 800,000 of its citizens in three months, there in retrospect was a clear need to provide psychological and social-psychological assistance. We didn’t, and while I should have been more sensitive to the need for new types of requirements, I eventually began to recognize the fact that we had to think differently, in a more anticipatory and adaptive way. Linked to that was a growing awareness that the types and dynamics of future crisis drivers were increasing; and, here again, humanitarian organizations were going to have to be better prepared for an ever more uncertain and complex future. Hence, both factors – our failure to anticipate relevant postgenocide requirements and the likelihood that future crises will be increasingly different – led me to focus on the plausible consequences of future crises, leading to futures thinking as one tool to enhance the adaptive and anticipatory capacities of humanitarian organisations.
[By the way, the revised title of the book is Planning from the Future: Humanitarian Action in a Transformative Age.]
2. Steven: The resultant toolkits on the humanitarian futures website (humanitarianfutures.org) indicate you have been involved in quite a number of Futures workshops for Humanitarian Organisations. Can you describe some of the processes these workshops took on, and the sort of outcomes that were produced? What defines a successful outcome in a Futures workshop?
Dr. Kent: We have indeed been involved in a variety of workshops, from regional organizations such as ECOWAS and ASEAN, to UN agencies such as the World Food Programme and UNDP at headquarters and in-country levels, to governments such as Tajikistan, Colombia, the United States as well as to a number of NGOs and NGO consortia such as Save the Children and the Start Network. In listing these, you will see from the website that we principally used ‘tools’ such as Futures Roundtables, Futures workshops and small conferences as our ‘processes.
If I reflect on the various outcomes that resulted from these events, I would broadly speaking break them down into three categories. The first reflected a disappointing spectrum that spanned lack of interest to skepticism. While I would like to think that this first category was a minority, there were clearly events in which some of a majority found our futures scenarios too implausible or irrelevant to the needs and work of humanitarian organisations.
A second category might be described as the ‘enticed’. I recall a session that we gave in Canada for a group of large NGOs, and it seemed at the time that for the most part they were intrigued, even excited about our futures presentations. And, as the meeting came to a close, one of the participants stood up, and thanked us enthusiastically for the meeting and its fascinating substance. He then concluded by saying, ‘and very unfortunately, I now have to go back to work.’ In other words, there seemed to be real interest, but at the same time a division between ‘the theatre’ which most probably felt to be enticing, but not part of the daily reality with which they had to contend.
Another category comprises those that could be described as ‘the converted’. Under this heading would go those events – principally Futures Roundtables – in which senior managers, directors and strategy planning people were normally involved. Perhaps the fact that they were particularly attracted to the potential realities of the roundtables might have had something to do with the nature of their positions, the far more interactive nature of the process and the considerable levels of expertise that our outside presenters brought to the events.
3. Steven: Futures Thinking is focused on methods of exploration and creation of hypothetical solutions of imagined future scenarios, and to provide tools for reframing the present (i.e. plan from the future). Have you seen evidence of, or been involved with, Futures Thinking workshops in Humanitarian scenarios that have led to results for communities beyond scenario creation? i.e. led to a policy change, a new service or product, or solution, rather than more typical outcomes like scenarios and artefacts? Can you give an example? Or is this not how Futures Thinking is applied in your experience?
Dr. Kent: I unfortunately cannot point to a specific policy change or a new service or product that came out of our efforts, per se, with those with whom we worked. In part I believe that our approach to futures is ultimately about changing attitudes, perspectives, which in turn is a relatively slow process that is generally reinforced by what one might describe as ‘the external environment’. We in our efforts plant seeds – which normally, when they do take hold – are slow growing. That said, as noted in the previous question, our efforts have in various instances, particularly when it came to Futures Roundtables, generated positive thought and reflection.
At the same time, there is a contagion factor that I sense is important in this context. That factor stems from a more general uncertainty about the complexity and dynamics of the present world order, which in many instances results in a kind of paradox. On the one hand, participants ‘close down’ on anything that might add to even greater complexity, while on the other, there appears to be greater openness to new ideas such as the importance to enhance organizational anticipatory and adaptive capacities. This point very much relates to what I noted above as ‘the external environment’, and I should add that over the past three to four years, I have sensed less resistance to the purpose of our futures approach than previously. I do not believe that that has anything to do with any product change on our part, but a greater willingness to try to understand the wider longer-term contexts.
Bearing in mind that, as you will appreciate, our efforts were not intended to predict, but rather to change the ways that organisations anticipate and adapt to change, I don’t believe that we saw significant organizational change in the shorter term. However, that combination of a changing external environment and some of the ‘lessons’ that may have been garnered from our futures events and tools might well have led or will lead to organizational adjustments.
4. Steven: The very existence of HumanitarianFutures.org does answer this question to some degree, but I’d like your view on it: Is it important for a wider group of facilitators to include Futures Thinking in their processes? Or should Futures Thinking be left to Futurist Specialists that are brought in as consultants and facilitators? Is there a danger of Futures Thinking being watered down and / or misinterpreted?
Dr. Kent: Another very interesting question on your part. My initial reaction is to explore what you mean by ‘futures thinking’, its purpose and to whom it is being offered. Futures thinking for me begins with an objective that has little to do with ‘prediction’ and more to do with organizational behavior. And, while I recognize that futures thinking is also not about prediction, per se, those who enter the futures world assume that one of its principal objectives is to explore ‘the weird and the wonderful’. In a recent Ministry of Defence workshop I attended, the organizers – in a fascinating event – showed how often the predictions of the science fiction literature of the 1920s and 1930s as well as those in the 1960s and 1970s were proven ‘correct’ by the time one arrived at the second decade of the 21st century. To think more speculatively and being more sensitive to the ‘what might be’s’ requires both a ‘futures specialist’ but also a range of other expertise, including social psychology, psychology, history, science.
In that sense, I believe that futures thinking needs to be inherent in all who attempt to explore the dynamics of human behavior. Futures Specialists can offer certain types of insights to those with different expertise, but that – other than sheer interest value – ‘futures’ has to be brought into the thinking of all who attempt to put the past and present in context. Our own work brought in industrial, outer-space, military, etc., experts, who because they were considered to be excellent in their respective fields, never failed to project well beyond the immediate. In that sense, I feel that experts from different disciplines have to be encouraged to think in the longer-term and share such reflections with their audiences. While inevitably their efforts might ‘water down’ aspects of futures, my inclination is to leave the Futures Specialist to focus on enhancing the capacities of those experts who should be explaining where and how their disciplines might move beyond the present into a range of future uncertainties.
5. Steven: Have you seen an increase in use and acceptance of Futures Literacy and Futures Thinking within the Humanitarian sector or is there reluctance to it due to competing priorities, short timeframes or budget constraints?
Dr. Kent: This is a complex question, because it has to be seen in terms of the perceptions of those with humanitarian roles and responsibilities about their purpose, the definition of ‘humanitarian,’ the responsibilities that humanitarians have when it comes to prevention and preparedness as well as response, so-called ‘comfort zones’ and ‘the donor factor’. As you will see from a four year old film clip, which I hope to send you soon, there is a general assumption that humanitarian action is predominantly concerned with the immediate and in the perceived framework of ‘the resilient North’ and ‘the vulnerable South. It is difficult – so says the director of UNICEF-UK – for the humanitarians to go beyond their conventional thinking.
That said, I do think for various reasons touched on in my response to Question 3, that the ‘external environment’ is making many within the humanitarian sector believe that thinking about the future is not totally irrelevant. To that extent there seems to be a modicum of reduced resistance to futures perspectives. However, such changes in attitudes are by no means sector-wide, nor are they particularly consistent; and, for those of us who tried to promote futures perspectives at the UN’s 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, there was more than a degree of disappointment.
A constraint on futures thinking, as suggested above, is ‘the donor factor’, and that is worth briefly expanding upon. The fact of the matter would seem to be that donor governments – the major contributors to the $28 billion provided for humanitarian assistance – are not particularly interested in going beyond the immediate requirements of the crisis affected. Of course, there are occasional exceptions, but the reality is that when it comes to responses to foreign crises, there is a growing resistance amongst tax payers to go beyond immediate needs and there, too, are the institutional barriers within relevant government departments, which do not see the value of longer term, ‘futures’-related preparedness.
6. Steven: What do you see as the future for Anticipatory Systems and Futures Thinking in general? Does Futures Thinking mark a new epoch for leadership acts for this century?
Dr. Kent: Somewhere between the phrases, ‘the future is now’ and ‘uncertain futures’ is my answer to this last question. I believe that the uncertainties that seem so apparent today amongst policy planners, strategists and decision-makers in public and private sectors is in part due to the perception that the cybers, the quantum, the climate factors, and aspects of outer space, etc., are all determinants of where we will be, where we might be and where we are now. To that extent, there is a wider community – though not necessarily the humanitarian sector – who regards futures thinking as relatively useful. Futures in this context are reflected in attempts to understand the significance of transformative technologies, etc., in a world that is in the present.
Of course, what remains unclear is the substance and time frame of ‘futures’, uncertain futures. Five years for some is futures, for others up to 2050 and beyond; for some the substance of futures is projecting what exists now into a future, while others see futures as moving into what I earlier called, ‘the weird and the wonderful’. Hence, as one looks towards the impacts of futures thinking and to a lesser extent anticipatory systems, much will depend upon how one reconciles the contending perspectives above.
Thanks for your time,