Winter 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 4 // Forum // 4FUT1

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Developing an Innovative Culture


Michael Quinn Patton
Minnesota Extension Service-St. Paul

Being a futurist is a state of mind for individuals. For groups, a futurist orientation is a matter of culture. In each case, it means thinking about the future, paying attention to past and current trends affecting the future, and being prepared for the future by thinking through different possible scenarios and their consequences.

Can an entire nation become futurist in orientation? Australia is finding out. The Australian experience with a national futures process may hold lessons for efforts in the United States. Australia is using a future studies, public policy education process to build an innovative culture.

Future Options

In late 1984, Australia created a Commission for the Future. The commission was announced by Minister for Science, Barry O. Jones, author of an important futures book, Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work.1 The Commission for the Future represented a visible, nationwide commitment to become futures-oriented. The commission planned its strategies for a year before becoming fully operational in early 1986.

Five major participatory, public education strategies are being used: conferences, seminars and workshops, public communication through print and electronic media, a clearinghouse on futures issues, and a community-based science and technology network. The goal of the Commission for the Future is "to foster the development of a productive, innovative culture in Australia, and to encourage all Australians to become involved in shaping their future."2

A major mechanism for involving Australians in considering future options is a Future Options Information Kit.3 The kit provides a framework for broad discussions by people of all ages throughout Australia. The kit consists of six pamphlets, each four to eight pages, on the following themes:

  1. Science, Technology and the Future
  2. Information, the Economy and Society
  3. Work, Technology and the Future
  4. Education, Technology and the Future
  5. Bio-medical, Technology and the Future
  6. Environment, Technology and the Future

The Commission for the Future is also publishing a bimonthly popular magazine distributed free of charge and called IN FUTURE.

Elements of a State Futures Initiative

The Australian effort to involve an entire nation in thinking about the future holds lessons for what might be involved in a state futures initiative. The themes that follow constitute elements of a comprehensive, participatory approach to creating a futures-oriented community or state.

Questioning the Future. Taking a futures perspective involves asking questions. The Australian Commission has developed a paper series as a forum for personal views of futures issues by eminent Australians aimed at stimulating debate and raising questions in vital areas. Questions being raised include the following:

  • Manufacturing - A Future?
  • Science and Technology - For What Purpose?
  • Australia - A Post Industrial Society?
  • Information Technology and Australian Cities: A Promethean Dilemma?4

A participatory futures process, then, involves questioning the future.

Creating the Future. A second motif is that raising questions ought to be done not simply for the sake of intellectual debate, but rather to prepare citizens to be proactive in shaping the future. The overall theme of the Australian futures process is "Developing an Innovative Culture." That is also the title of the commission's Annual Report.5 An innovative culture is futures-oriented, proactive, and forward-looking. Moreover, the focus on culture means that this orientation goes beyond a small number of people or an elite; the innovative culture perspective is broad-based and meant to be widely shared throughout the population.

Future Options and Alternative Scenarios. Raising questions in the context of being prepared to create the future includes examining future options and alternative scenarios. A major methodology of futures studies is building alternative scenarios and considering various options. These scenarios are based on trends, speculations, and holistic analyses of what might occur in the future under varying assumptions. The typical plural form - futures studies rather than future studies - is meant to communicate the importance of considering alternatives and options as a futurist.

Two messages are part of developing futures options and alternative scenarios. First, there's an implicit message in building multiple scenarios that we can't know what the future will be like, so we must be mentally prepared for a range of possibilities. The second message is that, while we can't know which scenario will emerge, the very process of deliberating on the future will affect ultimate outcomes making it more possible to be proactive in shaping the future world.

Values-Based Futures. The heavy emphasis on technology and information in futures studies can appear to suggest that the future will be primarily technology-driven. However, by incorporating the idea of culture into futures studies, these studies become fundamentally values-based. Cultures are undergirded by fundamental values. A major part of the proactive stance in a futures process is clarifying those values that will shape our future world and thereby become the basis for controlling technology, information, science, and development.

Balanced Futures Perspectives. The futures literature sometimes seems to be either pure doomsdayism or glorious science fiction. The doom-and-gloom perspective focuses on negative scenarios, while the glorious science-fiction scenarios focus on the marvelous potential of future knowledge, technology, and human progress. It's important in a broad-based participatory futures process to include balanced perspectives. That's why scenario development typically includes at least three scenarios: one gloomy scenario, one optimistic scenario, and one middle-of-the-road scenario balancing optimism and pessimism.

A Global Perspective. Any future scenarios and options must be considered in a global context. Whether the futures process is taking place in a county, state, or nation, the only meaningful context for any realistic futures assessment is that of a global community and world economy. Australia is holding a series of seminars and developing papers on Future Challenges.6 A focal point of these challenges is the role of Australia in the larger world and the way in which Australia will be affected as a participant in the global village of the future.

The Future of the State and Nation: Integrating Issues and Initiatives

As Extension moves increasingly towards issues-based programming and broad initiatives that cut across programs, there emerges the danger of fragmented, specialized perspectives on those issues and initiatives. One solution is to create an overarching theme within which various issues can be considered and diverse initiatives undertaken. The Australian experience suggests that FUTURES provides such an overarching theme.

A FUTURES perspective can provide a common set of methods and a holistic way of thinking that can undergird separate and diverse issues and initiatives, thereby providing linkages and cohesion among those different efforts. By so doing, we can combine process and content in the best traditions of adult education, teaching people to think about the future for themselves.


1. Barry O. Jones, Sleepers Wake! Technology and the Future of Work (London: Oxford Press, 1982).

2. World Future Society, "Australian Future Commission," Future Survey, IX (May 1987), 15-16.

3. Australian Commission for the Future, Future Options Information Kit (P. O. Box 115, Carleton South, Victoria 3053 Australia [$8.00 Australian by international money order], 1986).

4. Australia Commission for the Future, Questioning the Future, Occasional Paper Series I (Same address as #3 above [$3.00 Australian each], 1986).

5. Australian Commission for the Future, Developing an Innovative Culture, Annual Report (Same address as #3 above, 1986).

6. Australia Commission for the Future, Future Challenges for Australia, Occasional Paper Series II (Papers serving as background for Future Challenges Seminars [modeled somewhat after America's Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future]). (Same address as #3 above, 1986.)