Future Search

In my quest for large-group participatory techniques one of the most promising by far has been Future Search.

Future Search is a planning method designed by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff and first published in the mid-nineties. It involves groups of 60-80 stakeholders working together and in small teams across various sessions over the course of three days. For larger groups it can potentially accommodate as many as 300 people working in parallel conferences.

As collaborative methods go this one is on the far end of the co-creation spectrum. Weisbord and Janoff advocate a particular structure with a hands-off approach to facilitation.

Service designers can learn quite a bit from these techniques but the method itself isn’t a design tool and despite occasional forays into that area its founders contend that their approach is not appropriate for short-term problem solving. Instead, they frame Future Search as a way for groups to find common ground on a vision and roadmap five to 20 years out.

They’ve published a number of case studies that are worth skimming through to get an idea about how Future Search might be adapted to the types of problems service designers face. Their work with the Federal Aviation Administration [PDF 212k] and IKEA [PDF 876k] are good examples.

Whether the techniques are used for acute or chronic problems the principles remain largely the same. Here’s an excellent overview from Future Search in Education [PDF 68k] from the book Future Search in School District Change:

  • “Get the whole system in the room. By whole system we mean diverse stakeholders who have the authority, resources, expertise, information, and need to act right away if they choose.
  • “Explore the whole before seeking to fix any part. When people put in what they know, all will gain an understanding of the whole that none had coming in, making possible actions built on a shared frame of reference.
  • “Put the future and common ground front and center. Problems and conflicts become information to be shared, not action items. The agenda is a search for shared goals and mutually supported plans.
  • “Invite self-management and responsibility for action. Groups can do much more than what is customarily asked of them. Each time leaders or consultants do something for a group they deprive everyone else of ownership.”

The Future Search Network has a good overview of the techniques involved with a typical conference. It’s a rigid structure with an established time-table but Weisbord and Janoff encourage participants to “trust the process.”

The timelines and mind maps should seem familiar to most service designers but some exercises like “prouds and sorries” are further afield. Working in stakeholder groups and in mixed groups attendees form a collective understanding of the system and begin to imagine future scenarios. The conference culminates in a reality dialog where participants confirm common ground while acknowledging disagreements. Attendees form voluntary groups to discuss action plans and follow up after the conference.

The goals for a Future Search are four-fold:

  • A new understanding of the whole by all present
  • Shared vision based on common ground
  • Joint implementation plan with authority and commitment
  • New networks and projects beyond the conference

Facilitating a holistic understanding of the system is a key area of interest for service designers and any techniques that can bring about that understanding should be in our arsenal. The principle of having the “whole system” in the room is something that seems particularly important and shows up again and again in participatory literature.

Future Search also draws a fair amount of criticism. Angela Oels addresses some of the friction arising from the rigid structure of the conference in her chapter of the book Public Participation and Better Environmental Decisions:

Participants are expected to follow the instructions of the facilitators in an unquestioning way, often without understanding the overall purpose of a conference task. This has made a number of conference participants feel as if they were subjected to a large “social experiment.” Also, the procedure prescribed for the identification of the common ground (aggregation rule) was regarded as unfair by a majority of conference participants, as key issues were filed away as “unresolved differences” without further discussion.

The conference only addresses those issues on which everyone agrees. It isn’t a forum for debate or coercion. Any conflict that isn’t immediately resolved is tabled in the interest of moving forward. Oels points out that this results in a lowest common denominator outcome, but Weisbord and Janoff counter that the design results in real rather than reluctant alignment and demonstrates a preference for action.

Future Search isn’t a panacea and the authors readily concede that it isn’t a design tool. But designers can gain insight from these techniques and those of similar large group planning methods. Robert Jungk’s Future Workshop method predates Future Search by twenty years and his book (published in 1987) draws on some of the same principles. For working with large groups this literature should be on our radar.

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