This essay briefly explores the links among critique, futures fluency,
and creativity. It highlights similarities among the three skills
and suggests ways in which they might reinforce each other. Critique
as used here means the excavation and unpacking of internalized
assumptions about the way the world works, about who gets to influence
its workings, and about what directions those workings will take.
This unveiling of assumptions is meant to unfetter people's thinking
from the cognitive and affective structures that constrain our behavior.
Futures fluency refers to proficiency and delight in the creative,
critical, and constructive uses of rigorously imaginative speculation.
Its five cornerstone activities are 1) looking for, and monitoring,
change; 2) critiquing the implications of change; 3) imagining difference;
4) envisioning ideals; and 5) planning achievement. Finally, this
essay taps de Bono's concept of lateral thinking as a means
consciously to expand the skills of critical futures fluency.
Critique and Futures Fluency
We live surrounded by the reified visions of the centuries. Cooptation
is the first line of defense for the status quo and so every living
vision must undergo continual revision for renewal's sake. That
means challenge and revolution must also be continual, and the "happy
ever after" ending foregone. Discussing Nietzche's concept of critical,
or 'effective,' history, Foucault notes,
History becomes 'effective'
to the degree that it introduces discontinuity into our very being...
'Effective' history deprives the self of the reassuring stability
of life and nature, and it will not permit itself to be transported
by a voiceless obstinacy toward a millenial ending.1
An imperative of revisioning,
he seems to be saying, is shattering the single into the many: dissipating
the whole, making discontinuous the continuous.
The purpose of history,
guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity
but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define
our unique threshold of emergence, the homeland to which metaphysicians
promise a return; it seeks to make visible all of those discontinuities
that cross us.2
One way to break the
constraints of the old vision is to consider alternatives. Loosing
our imaginations to invent discontinuous possible futures enriches
our ability to envision preferable futures: imaging difference heightens
our potential for envisioning the ideal.
Habermas agrees, suggesting
that ideological criticism begins with a "counterfactually projected
reconstruction" of what social structures people might hypothetically
design if they were given the opportunity to work together to determine
their needs collectively. Communities should develop visions collectively;
the revolutionary process of envisioning a preferable future and
critiquing the present must be a participatory process. A vision
which ignores some voices will oppress even before it reifies. Castoriadis
sees participation as critical to developing universal autonomy
Praxis is a
type of action which involves taking others into account and regarding
them as autonomous beings capable of developing their own autonomy....The
revolutionary project builds upon the creativity and autonomous
aim of praxis. It is, in essence, the project of a radical
transformation of society with a view to the autonomy of all,
'the reorganization and reorientation of society by the autonomous
action of [people].'3
People acquire autonomy
through self-conscious reflection. Taking others into account when
practicing vision empowers them to question themselves, to critique
social structures, and to image new realities. People learn best
by doing; visioning creates autonomy.
The practice of social
criticism through vision is emancipatory. It dares the imagination,
challenges assumptions, and declares its independence from traditions.
Visioning is not for the nervous. Problematizing the present through
vision erases the security that springs from the taken-for-granted.
...the will to knowledge...ceaselessly
multiplies the risks, creates dangers in every area; it breaks
down illusory defences; it dissolves the unity of the subject;
it releases those elements of itself that are devoted to its subversion
What is subverted and
destroyed in Foucault's perspective are the structures of dominance
hidden in our language, our habits, our manners, mores and traditions.
Imaging alternative futures and envisioning preferred futures act
also to create dangers and break down defences. Participatory imaging
of alternative futures engages the community as a whole in dissociating
the structures of reality, and reassociating them into the possibilities
of new realities.
What would a social reality
look like if constructed to legitimate the endless search for structures
of dominance and thus to legitimate endless subversion, revolution,
and revisioning? It would be anarchic, playful, experimental, flexible,
free, and scary as hell. As our degrees of freedom and potential
for creative action multiply, so do our risks. We trade the security
of objective stability to gain autonomy; autonomous individuals
must create their own security as well as their own values and vision.
Which brings us full circle: joining others in the social construction
of a vision engenders a secure community which celebrates autonomy
and creativity. How, then, do we take the first step, strengthening
our creativity in order to strengthen our skills of imagination,
vision, and critique?
Basic Skills: Brainstorming/Lateral
We normally get our
picture of the future by extending present trends and anticipating
convergences where different things come together to produce a
new effect. There are times when we need to get a richer view
of the future and to seek possible discontinuities. For that we
Unfortunately, the traditional
Western, industrial-oriented education does not promote creativity.
In fact, it irons most of the creative wrinkles out of our cerebra.
Our educational systems are designed to produce prompt, polite,
pragmatic, present-oriented, productive workers. We are rewarded
for identifying problems, managing complex systems, critiquing the
present state, but rarely praised for generating wild ideas or focussing
on far horizons. One of the first techniques designed to help people
generate ideas, wild or otherwise, is brainstorming. It is simple,
easily taught, and fairly effective at generating ideas quickly.
Brainstorming has a very
simple basic rule: don't judge. Simply lob ideas out as they come
to you. Let other people do the same. The facilitator's primary
job in a brainstorming session is to keep ideas flowing. This means
acting as an enforcer of the groundrules that people agreed upon
at the beginning of the meeting.
Why do we need the sort
of group trust that good facilitation builds? Because creative thinking
is risky. Good group process creates a temporary, synthetic culture
which offers participants safety and security for risky thinking.
It also offers techniques to combine, overlay, transform, and develop
individual products of creative thinking into community projects.
Edward de Bono, author of over forty books on the theory and practice
of consciously applied creativity -- or what he calls "lateral thinking"
-- thinks brainstorming overrated. It is, he critiques, a shotgun
approach to idea generation, developed initially for use in advertising,
which produces too high a percentage of crazy or unworkable ideas
per session. Advertisers can find productive uses for seemingly
unrelated but exciting concepts, but in most other venues greater
focus in idea generation pays off more.
De Bono argues that our
brains simply aren't designed to be creative in the first place.
They are designed to absorb information and arrange it in patterns.
Our brains thereafter attempt to fit all additional information
into those established patterns and do so, unless extremely provoked.
He thus suggests deliberately provoking the brain in order consciously
to leapfrog those established patterns -- hence "lateral" thinking.
Lateral thinking is conceptualized
as the necessary balance or complement to vertical thinking. Vertical
thinking follows and reinforces established patterns; lateral thinking
smashes across established patterns, transforming them and creating
With vertical thinking
one concentrates and excludes what is irrelevant, with lateral
thinking one welcomes chance intrusions.
Vertical thinking is selection by exclusion. One works within
a frame of reference and throws out what is not relevant. With
lateral thinking one realizes that a pattern cannot be restructured
from within itself but only as the result of some outside influence.
So one welcomes outside influences for their provocative action.
The more irrelevant such influences are the more chance there
is of altering the established pattern. To look only for things
that are relevant means perpetuating the current pattern.
follows the most likely paths, lateral thinking explores the least
Lateral thinking can be deliberately perverse. With lateral thinking
one tries to look at the least obvious approaches rather than
the most likely ones. It is the willingness to explore the least
likely pathways that is important for often there can be no other
reason for exploring such pathways. At the entrance to an unlikely
pathway there is nothing to indicate that it is worth exploring
and yet it may lead to something useful. With vertical thinking
one moves ahead along the widest pathway which is pointing in
the right direction.6
This is precisely the
sort of creative thinking futures fluency requires. Futures fluency
starts with the assumption that the pattern of the future, whatever
future emerges, will be vastly different from the current pattern,
and that our first task must therefore be to imagine difference.
Futures fluency further assumes that exploring the least obvious
possible future will prove more useful than fully describing the
"most likely, most probable" future. In short, the requirements
of futures fluency map neatly onto the characteristics of lateral
This becomes more evident
when you compare De Bono's exercises to enhance lateral thinking
with the workshop exercises to facilitate futures fluency. With
provocation as his primary goal, De Bono invented a word, po,
which he suggests using as a signifier to warn people they are about
to hear a deliberate provocation: Po, in 2043 tourism will
cease to exist. Listeners then ask themselves and each other, "tourism
in what sense?" "Why will it cease to exist?" "What transformations
will the industry, the customers, the destinations, or society undergo
that might make that statement true?"
Po can be used
as shown to unleash a provocative, seemingly nonsensical statement
for group discussion. It may also be used to link a random word
to a concept, goal, or product in order to elicit innovative idea
associations: rapid transit po helium (I chose helium as
an example by letting my dictionary fall open and blindly putting
my index finger down on a word). What qualities or characteristics
do participants associate with helium? How might those characteristics
relate to rapid transit design?
Other exercises De Bono
suggests are challenge, exaggeration, distortion,
reversal, and wishful thinking. Challenge basically
refers to recapturing that childlike innocence about why things
happen they way the do: why do we all drive cars to work? why do
women shave their underarms, but men don't? Exaggeration
takes some idea, quality, or trend and inflates it ad absurdum:
washing and waxing your car once a week prevents rusting and maintains
the finish -- why not a self-washing car that cleans itself immediately
as needed? Distortion asks participants to transmute the
familiar and render it unfamiliar: housekeys truly become house
keys -- musical signatures that define your house's decor,
unlock its computer functions, and combine with your car keys,
office keys, and RV keys to create your little signature
Reversal refers to restating an assumption, constraint, or
concept as its logical opposite: all dogs have fleas -- no dogs
have fleas (fleas become allergic to dogs? extinction of fleas as
species?). Finally, wishful thinking also asks us to recapture
a childhood skill -- daydreaming -- by stating our desires without
letting the pragmatic adult mindset edit them into nonexistence:
all children receive three nutritious meals a day.
These five exercises
problematize the ordinary. Compare them with the assumptions and
processes of futures fluency: futures fluency exists to challenge
the assumptions with which we operate in the present, by telling
us the only certainty is change. Emerging issue extrapolation is
basically exaggeration: from the trends of increasing credit
card use and ATM card distribution, exaggeration develops a scenario
for "smart money." Cross-impact analyses enable us to distort
the roles, patterns, and objects we take for granted now into some
transformed future: tourism becomes at-home recreation with the
advent of virtual reality CD's of Hawaii, of the Serengeti, of the
Reversal and wishful
thinking are the heart of vision workshops. Reversal is the
quickest way to get people from a cathartic statement of their woes
to a wishfully thought out vision of a preferred future: the U.S.
court system is slow, ineffective, and intolerant of other cultures
-- the U.S. court system of 2025 acts on cases within a week, resolves
90% of the cases to the satisfaction of the parties involved, and
requires cross-cultural training of all affiliated professionals.
That is obviously wishful thinking, and it was achieved
via reversal. Because reversal is a simple logical process,
most people will simply go ahead and do it when asked, without invoking
their internal "yes, but..." editor. It is thus an effective springboard
Futures fluency problematizes
the present -- which for most of us is the ordinary. But
in order to achieve fluency in thinking about all the futures possible,
we must challenge the mundane within our own minds. Lateral thinking
skills enlarge the scope and flexibility with which we ask "why?"
and "what if...?" The matrix below suggests three exercises to pry
people's thinking out of accustomed paths.
new concepts and assumptions; highlight and challenge current
|The Persistent Child
and challenge assumptions usually considered "givens;" brainstorming
new associations among ideas; transform one aspect of present
When Provoking Alternative Futures, facilitators begin by
offering everyone (or each working group, in a larger workshop)
a po. For example, in a community planning workshop, facilitators
might begin: Po, no-one owns their own home. For fifteen
minutes people then brainstorm supporting statements that would
make this provocation true, explain how it works, and suggest what
impact it has on community life.
Some of the explanations
may contradict each other. If so, participants may arrange their
list into groups of ideas and concepts that are internally consistent.
These groups are, in essence, the foundation of possible scenarios
of alternative futures for the community. This exercise forces thinking
out of accustomed tracks and gives the facilitators an opportunity
to reward such risky thinking.
The assignment of The
Persistent Child is to ask "why?" and "why?" and "why?" again.
Participants first identify target assumptions. Within a city government
or a corporation, the most rewarding targets will often be "how"
-- how do we do this? The city generates revenue from taxes, from
fines, from municipal bonds; the snack-food corporation distributes
all its goods in convenience stores. Why? Why not a lottery, or
foreign aid, or a mandatory service year, to enlarge city resources?
Why not distribute snack foods at bus kiosks, offer them on airplanes,
attach dispensers to phone booths?
This exercise asks people if they are living or working in a rut:
are they continuing along a certain path "because it's always been
that way?" Has it always been that way? What other options
exist -- or need review, if suggested previously? Have conditions
changed? The Persistent Child asks that people look closely
at the "givens" in their environment -- and evaluate whether they
really are givens.
To generate transformations
or distortions that help open a window to a possible future, participants
first choose something in the present as a focus, say houseplants.
De Bono suggests that nouns make better random word provocations
than other types of verbs, so assume the randomly chosen noun is
chorale. The random provocation is thus "houseplants po
What possibilities does
this combination conjure up? The example was chosen with malice
aforethought: one possible future this provocation suggests is described
in J.G. Ballard's "Prima Belladonna." In the future within this
story, bioengineering has produced orchids that sing, and can be
trained to sing chorale works en masse. The provocation of
this unlikely pairing distorts an ordinary piece of the present,
houseplants, into an alien, if beautiful, artifact from a possible
Other exercises featuring
lateral thinking with a futures focus are possible. In Serious
Creativity, De Bono suggests that lateral thinking provides
a unique tool for thinking flexibly about the future:
Creativity is also
required for laying out the possible future in which we may have
to work. ...creativity is needed to produce the discontinuities
that will not arise from the extrapolation of present trends.7
that there might be alternatives and the search for those alternatives
is a fundamental part of creative thinking. Indeed, the different
techniques of lateral thinking are directed to finding new alternatives.8
The exercises described
stretch people's thinking about the present and the future. They
enhance our ability to see things differently, to break out of our
assumptions, prejudices, and worldviews. Thus they provide the initial
momentum for acquiring a critical futures fluency.
- Foucault, Michel.
language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews.
Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 154.
- Foucault, p. 162.
- Castoriadis, p. 106,
as quoted in Thompson, pp. 19-20.
- Foucault, p. 163.
- De Bono, Edward. Serious
Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New
Ideas. New York: HarperBusiness [a division of HarperCollins
Publishers], 1992. p. 205.
- ... Lateral Thinking:
a textbook of creativity. London: Ward Lock Educational, 1970.
- ... Serious Creativity:
Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas. New
York: HarperBusiness [a division of HarperCollins Publishers],
1992. p. 72.
- ... Six Thinking
Hats. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985. p. 155.