Network Form in the Futures Studies Field

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Jose Ramos et al.:

"The emergence of the network form in futures studies predates the birth of the internet, when in Oslo in 1967 the seeds of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF) were sown in a gathering called Mankind 2000. According to van Steenbergen, the Oslo meeting was a reaction to the close ties US futures studies had with the military-industrial-complex. Thus, the WFSF emerged as the network association which would hold an alternative position with respect to global political-economy. And while allied and supported by UNESCO it would have “features of an international social movement more than of a strictly professional and academic organization” (van Steenbergen, 2005, p356). Ronfeldt (1996, p.15), drawing on Gerlach and Hine (1970) argued the modern emergence of the network form emerged with new social movements or “segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated networks” (SPINs). Parallel to this was the founding of the World Future Society (WSF) in 1966, which brought together diverse professionals from around the world in conference meetings. Like WFSF, the WFS also operated like a platform for networking and exchange, rather than a strictly professional and academic organization. Both organizations embodied elements of cultural ‘horizontalism’ (Tormey, 2005), a feature that paralleled the horizontal-izing nature of the internet.

The Global Business Network, founded in 1987, drew a network of colleagues and associates together, who acted as a think tank to consult for clients. The shift from think tank as institution (e.g. RAND) to network would later be (somewhat ironically) paralleled by Arguilla and Ronfeldt’s research from within RAND on the emergence of the network form (Ronfeldt, 1996). In Australia, the Futures Foundation, founded in 1996, played a similar role, linking government and corporate clients with a network of futurists.

Early practices in crowd-sourcing foresight can be seen in two prefigurative examples from the 1990s. The Millennium Project (MP) was founded in 1996 as a global distributed think tank that would grow to 40 nodes and more than 5,000 contributors. From these contributions the MP then publishes its State of the Future report. The TechCast Project, founded in 1998 by Georgetown professor William Halal, created a virtual think tank which brings together hundreds of experts from around the world in a network process of forecasting, which is then used to advise government, business and civil spheres. Both these early examples showed an emergent capacity for engaging a global civil sphere in collaboration on future oriented collective goods (Ronfeldt, 1996, p.17).

Shaping Tomorrow first launched in 2003 and went on to become one of the first web 2.0 participatory foresight platforms in 2005 when the site was changed to allow anyone to add their own scanning hits. Shaping Tomorrow was set up with the ambitious target of helping “every organization in the world to use foresight in their strategic decision making.” To support this aim, Shaping Tomorrow offers a variety of pay-for services that augment the core website including tailored consulting and stand-alone versions of the site. The core site is publicly available and free to join, additional materials and the ability to keep some material private depends on subscriptions and level of service. Parallel to this, Wikistrat claims to have created the world’s first Massively Multiplayer Online Consultancy (MMOC), bringing subject experts together using an interactive crowd-sourcing methodology for strategic forecasting.2 Other commercially sponsored sites such Vodafone’s FutureAgenda developed an interactive site to promote discussion on megatrends.

Here, it is important to note that, while the network form is ascendant, this does not preclude hybrid forms. Indeed hybrid forms may be a key feature of networked foresight initiatives in a world dominated by Institutional and Market actors.

Further to this hybridity, government institutions are adopting the network form as a mode of strategic foresight intelligence. Finpro, a core member of the Finish Foresight Network (KEV), is a consulting service which supports the internationalisation of Finish companies, and employs a crowd-sourcing method using its staff members as scouts. Employees are incentivised to capture a number of emerging issues each month. Employees load these emerging issues on to a website developed by Data Rangers, a data mining software company. The target is set low enough to not create a significant overhead for staff. These issues are then analyzed by the core Foresight team. The results are reported as trends or scenarios which highlight weak signals. These are used by Finnish businesses in their strategy and innovation processes (Hiltunen, 2011). Likewise, the UK’s Sigma Scan 2.0 is a repository of futures research and interview material intended to provoke and disturb future oriented assumptions.4 The European Commission created the iKnow futures project, which like Shaping Tomorrow allows for crowd-sourced and collaborative environmental scanning, as well as large-scale analysis of research databases, applied to foresight and innovation. Prediction Markets are mostly concerned with short term predictions of discrete events, and thus should not be considered true futures research. Nevertheless, they are potentially significant because they are very new and still being refined, with funding connected to the US intelligence community through the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which funds two projects, Forecasting World Events and Forecasting Ace.5 The Institute For The Future (IFTF) is perhaps the best example of hybridity, straddling Institutional, Market and Network forms. IFTF, founded in 1968, was a spin-off of the RAND corporation, with an early focus on academic and government advising, and later corporate services. Importantly, it played a critical role in researching the impacts of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which would later become the internet, and the impacts of collaborative (later ‘web 2.0’) software. IFTF later developed the Foresight Engine, one of the most successful innovations in crowd-sourcing foresight. Recent clients include the Myelin Repair Foundation, the US Navy and Magnetic South (on behalf of the City of Christchurch, New Zealand), and the Rockefeller Foundation. In each case a short introduction video is made available to the (as much as 10,000) players to set the scenario context. They then play cards such as ‘Positive Imagination’ and add Twitter length text explaining their forecast. Players can add a new card of their own or add to another’s card. This adding to or challenging another’s card allows a conversation style development of the original idea. Points and awards are given to the players with the best ideas (as judged by the IFTF and client analysts) adding to the overall ‘gamified’ nature this process. Catalysts for Change, sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, is the most recent iteration (2012) aimed at addressing global poverty and is “based on the premise that collaboration on a global scale can yield unique insights into ways to create a more prosperous, equitable future.”

These last few examples are more indicative of a more mature network form: The Open Foresight Project (OFP), led by Venessa Miemis, has run ‘The Future of Money’ and ‘The Future of Facebook’ series. The first was initially developed for SIBOS (a finance conference) in 2010 which included a presentation and video.

This was followed up by the Future of Facebook. Similar to the Future of Money, most of the project was crowd-funded, and made use of existing network resources such as: YouTube, Twitter, Quora and Facebook. Fifteen questions based on the STEEP model were developed and used in video interviews with thirty experts; these questions were also put on the Quora site to enable public participation. The best responses were incorporated into the video series along with the expert analysis. The videos are in the process of being loaded onto the Future of Facebook website at the time of writing.

Evolver is a global, progressive social network which emerged from the online magazine site "Reality Sandwich" in 2009. Initially conceived as an online networking site for the reader community of Reality Sandwich, the management team - apparently noting the emergence of localised groups in the network - launched "Evolver Spores" in late 2009. Spores are local, in-person meetings of Evolver members. A Spore meeting is organised around a theme (such as "Water", "Noosphere", "Unified Field Theory") and organisers bring together local speakers on the topic and relevant movies or other media with interested audiences. These themes are globally coordinated by the management team in New York City using a deliberative process in consultation with local leaders through the medium of a discussion list. Spores happen all over the world on roughly the same theme (local leaders have latitude to adapt the theme) at roughly the same time (within the same week or so).

Recently, Noah Raford (2011) developed “large-scale participatory futures systems” for web 2.0 style scenario generation, building a variety of systems for a number of clients, the International Futures Forum (IFF), Cognitive Edge and Superflux.

Not all of these are examples of AD per se, but they do provide a rich picture of the emergence of the network form in the futures studies field. These examples provide a starting point to consider the network form’s implications for AD." (