Profile: Scanning the horizon

How did the International Futures Forum (IFF) come into existence and what did you hope to achieve with it?

The IFF was set up by a network of people who were puzzled by the same questions. We believed that there was a ‘conceptual emergency’, meaning that we had burnt out ways of thinking about the challenges of the modern world. The IFF was concerned with finding alternatives to the dominant, ‘rational’ approach to understanding, which we felt was not able to deal with complexity and change very well.

At the heart of the IFF’s work is the World Model, a diagram that depicts the 12 key challenges facing modern society – from climate and energy to governance and wellbeing – as ‘nodes’ on a circle. Why did you see a need to develop such a model?

Dividing the world into categories that are managed separately makes no sense because it prevents us from seeing the picture as a whole. As a society, we’re not equipped to deal with what Thomas Homer Dixon, a Canadian professor specialising in global security, calls ‘synchronous failure’. We find it hard enough to cope with just one emergency, let alone with, say, a financial crisis, a peak oil crisis, a pandemic and an earthquake all at the same time. The World Model helps people to recognise that certain trends and discontinuities can occur simultaneously. We need to develop longer-term resilience if we are to deal with the totality of the global challenge.

Do you think that the World Model could become a valuable tool in the policymaking sphere?

Definitely. I’m currently working on a Foresight project, using my experience of systems mapping to predict the impact of climate change, and I believe that the World Model could be a core tool in this area. More broadly, it has the potential to improve the way in which government departments coordinate. Complex systems have emerging properties that you can’t predict, so it’s absurd to think that one department changing one policy can fix the whole problem.

How has the evolution of the World Model into the World Game enabled you to address specific challenges at the community level?

We did various experiments to turn the World Model into a World Game, with players imagining that they were running the world for a day, and found that it really got people excited. So we organised an event with the RSA in Scotland to encourage citizens to explore possible futures for Dundee. Twelve of the players – some of whom were Fellows – volunteered to play the part of government ministers and had to identify how some of the global challenges in the World Model might interact to affect the future of Dundee. At the end of the game, each minister had to declare what he or she saw as the critical agenda for the city. Some powerful ideas emerged, such as the need to restructure the relationship between the city council and local community.

How do you think the World Game can help policymakers and citizens work more closely together?

The World Game is congruent with the current direction of policy, which is about increasing the capacity of civic society. I believe that the game has the potential to bring about better conversations between policymakers and local communities keen to improve their own resilience. As citizens, we should not always look to others to solve problems. Instead, we should take more responsibility for our own way of life – while always recognising that there are planetary limits. I hope that the World Game is a contribution towards releasing the incredible capacity that people have to deal with world problems when given the chance.

What are the next steps in the evolution of the World Model and World Game?

The World Model is the beginning of a much longer research project. First, I want to explore cross-disciplinary thinking – for example, involving people from the arts in the visualisation of future scenarios. Second, I think that the model could form the basis of a strategic services business that would be far more effective than straightforward scenario planning. Finally, we’re liaising with the Nesta Futurelab in Bristol about the possibility of turning the World Game into an educational board game or web-based activity for children.

How are you working with the RSA to take your project to the next level?

When the RSA Scotland set up its Venture Fund to provide grants for Fellow-led projects, I put in a bid, together with a few other Fellows, to organise a research seminar on community resilience, which was held on 9 December 2009. We looked at some ideas from ecology, such as the concept of ‘panarchy’, which is about cycles of development, collapse and regeneration, and ideas from complexity science about how to design a super-resilient society. I hope that some of this thinking, as well as the World Game itself, will prove useful for the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. There’s a tremendous amount of talent in the RSA and its Fellowship that connects with this area of thinking, so I’m optimistic that some good conversations will take place over the next couple of years.

Find out more

To find out more about the World Game, visit the IFF’s website.

If you’re interested in using the World Game as part of an event of your own, email Tony Hodgson.