‘an enticing mixture of fiction and commentary in the model of a ‘European’ cultural production’.
Richard Parry, Scottish Affairs
Scotland 2020: The Power of Hope
Gerry Hassan and Eddie Gibb
A unique feature of human consciousness is its inclusion of the future. Expectations strongly affect all aspects of human functioning. . . . Hope inspires a feeling of well-being and is a spur to action. Hopelessness, the inability to imagine a tolerable future, is a powerful motive for suicide.
Jerome Frank, ‘The role of hope in psychotherapy’ (1)
Scotland is a nation of narrators who tell and retell each other stories that turn into modern myths. Some myths have a power that changes behaviour: the Tartan Army have told themselves that they are the best football fans in the world so often that they have created a collective culture that promotes good behaviour among travelling supporters. In this essay, we consider how the stories Scotland tells about itself today have a bearing on tomorrow.
People of all countries tell themselves stories, of course. Stories allow ideas, myths and folktales to gain power through their constant telling and retelling, and passing down through generations. This can be seen in national discourse – the American dream, Poland’s sense of itself as a ‘chosen country’ and the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’.
Scotland has a number of these stories – the belief in an egalitarian ethos, the ‘democratic intellect’ shaped by the potential liberating hand of education, and a collectivist sense of looking after the most vulnerable. In recent years, particularly since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Scotland’s dominant stories and the way they are told have become increasingly problematic: as we argue later, pessimism has turned into fatalism.
We suggest that a useful antidote to this fatalism is the ability to think imaginatively about the future – or ‘futures literacy’, as we have called it. Imagining a better future for an individual or for a nation is a first step in creating one. Here we discuss how that capacity to imagine the future can be developed in Scotland.
Many Scottish institutions have already conducted exercises in futures thinking and Scotland 2020 is a project that has used futures thinking to explore the narratives through which Scottish aspirations are projected. It emphasised stories and storytelling, commissioning fiction writers alongside more traditional forms of scenario-building.
We believe that constructing new stories about Scotland is not just about the quality of the vision, but the way the story is created. Our main conclusion is that Scots from all walks of life and corners of the land need to be involved in a ‘mass imagination’ exercise that develops new, shared stories about Scotland’s future.
Looking back to the future
Fifteen years ago – the same time frame that we are looking forward – the main animating idea of Scottish politics was the redeeming power of the Scottish Parliament. But the shared aspiration for a Parliament has not been matched by an enthusiasm for the actions of the institution itself or the actors who inhabit it.
This negative response has specific Scottish conditions, but also taps into a wider global pessimism, which goes well beyond the merits or not of devolution. A new political culture and ethos has not flowed from new institutions and processes. Devolution has not restored faith in politics in the way that had been hoped, and any sense of shared optimism about a different kind of political culture in Scotland is waning. Instead, the experience of recent years has strengthened the powers of pessimism and fatalism.
Why should this be? We suggest that there are three Scotlands, which can help us to understand the stories we are told. Traditional Scotland is characterised by pessimism about the future, due to the erosion of distinctively Scottish values. It may not be the official story, but it pervades much of Scottish public life. Modernist Scotland is the official vision of the future based on an optimistic view of the benefits of economic growth. Scotland’s ‘official future’ has the backing of government institutions but most Scots do not enthusiastically subscribe to it.
The third emerging Scotland is the subject of this essay: we have called it hopeful Scotland because it is optimistic about the future while acknowledging its unpredictability. In a hopeful Scotland, unqualified optimism would be replaced by ‘learned optimism’. In the process, its sense of what is possible, both individually and collectively, would be transformed.
That is why a new understanding of futures literacy, and how to cultivate it, is crucial to a renewed sense of possibility and shared hope. In the rest of this essay we explore the three Scotlands, analyse the experience of engaging local communities in futures thinking, and make recommendations for future investments in futures thinking.
The three Scotlands
There are two Scotlands, the traditionalist and modernist, with which people are familiar, but a third – hopeful – has begun to emerge. The characteristics of the three Scotlands are:
• Traditionalist – This is conservative with a small ‘c’, can be left, right, centre or not think of itself in these terms and is opposed to the claims of modernisation. Whether this is Old Labour fighting to retain a more collectivist approach, traditional Nationalists seeing Scottish identity being eroded or the Catholic Church opposing social reforms, there is a common strand of resisting the encroachment of the modern world. Some of them hanker after a supposed past defined by certainty.
• Modernist – This is the ‘official future’ of Scotland. This is the world of government, public agencies, ‘the system’ and the idea of change as ‘the machine’. The focus is on institutional notions of change, policy delivery and levers. Seeming truths such as ‘the knowledge economy’ and ‘growth as a policy priority’ are discussed in agenda-setting, aspirational documents such as ‘Smart, Successful Scotland’. While modernist Scotland invokes the mantra of ‘change’ constantly, it reinforces a deeply conventional and orthodox view of the world.
• Hopeful – This is an emerging and increasingly influential group, the least homogeneous of the three and containing people within ‘the system’ as well as artists, thinkers and imagineers. It argues that ‘the machine’ way has been tried and found wanting, and that we need to embrace a different approach based on hope, deep change and complexity.
The three Scotlands think in fundamentally different ways about the future. Paradoxically both the traditionalist and modernist accounts of Scotland share a marked sense of fatalism, springing from the belief that the future is an inevitable continuation of present trends. Geoff Mulgan has described the damage which fatalism can bring about:
Fatalism is the worst thing that can happen to any area. And fatalism is the worst thing that can happen to any society. That’s why retaining the confidence that the world is malleable, that what looks natural is wholly man made, is the greatest gift that the policy community can offer. (2)
The traditionalist perspective believes that what makes Scotland distinctive is being slowly eroded. In it, Scotland ceases to exist as a place different from anywhere else in the world, and culture, traditions and identity are seen as fragile and under constant attack. In this world, Scottish distinctiveness is always under threat from something or someone, whether it is social reformers wanting to liberalise attitudes and services to sexual health, or New Labour economic reforms being seen as weakening collectivist values.
The modernist perspective is based on the idea that Scotland’s future is positive if it can follow a diagnosis based on embracing economic growth and an individualised, marketised, consumption-based view of the world. The Australian academic Richard Eckersley calls this a ‘go for growth linear optimism’ which unquestioningly assumes that tomorrow will always be better than today if we continue to embrace and accelerate economic growth (3).
It is also a technocratic, soulless and managerial vision of the world which is silent on important aspects of human well-being, emotional, social and spiritual. This is a world of winners and losers, where failure is seen as personal, permanent and pervasive, and people are left feeling they are powerless, as helplessness turns into hopelessness. The modernist world is one that does not encourage hope.
The third perspective – hopeful Scotland – is characterised by a sense of optimism, but of a very different kind from the modernists. This is what Eckersley calls systemic optimism: a view that believes we need to change the underlying principles on which organisations and whole societies are based. Its view of the future is filled with a sense of impatience at the lack of dynamism and drive within the system, and a growing realisation that the way government and public agencies think about the world no longer corresponds to reality. It believes the central purpose of ‘a viable global future’ is, in Willis Harman’s words, ‘to advance human growth and development to the fullest extent [and] to promote human learning’ (4).
The three Scotlands are, of course, a simplification. In truth, people, communities and organisations move between the three, and sit in different places at different times and issues. But together they illustrate some of the key faultlines and tensions in Scotland, its cultures and institutions.
The limits of ‘the official future’
The modernist perspective is ‘the official future’ of Scotland – the perspective offered by the main political, governing and institutional elites of the country. Peter Schwartz, the doyen of futures thinking, describes the official future thus:
It stands for the set of implicit assumptions behind the most institutional policies – that things will work out okay tomorrow once the proper people get into power and can put their policies into effect. (5)
Most ‘official futures’ according to Schwartz turn out to be ‘mere propaganda’, and yet at the same time ‘everybody in an organisation subscribes to them almost unconsciously … working towards an impossible or undesirable goal’ (6).
The ‘official future’ is based on a set of assumptions that have become unquestioned across the world: economic growth, consumption, competition and choice are good, and that we operate in a new economic and social paradigm where individuals have to look after themselves, not rely on others and certainly not on government. One of the main issues for this perspective in Scotland is improving economic growth, which has been lagging behind the rest of the UK for the last 35 years, and it has become the mainstream consensus that this is one of the main issues for government and policy-makers to address.
This mindset never acknowledges that for all Scotland’s slow post-war growth in comparison to the rest of the UK, the last 35 years have seen Scottish GDP double in size, and on current trends it will double again before 2040. Is this really the Scotland we want to live in, and would this ‘official future’ actually bring us more happiness and contentment, or would more wealth, consumption, competition and inequality result in less happiness and a more mean country and culture? One of the major dialogues in this collection casts serious doubt on the link between economic growth and life satisfaction (7).
This ‘official future’ invokes a worldview which emphasises how powerless we all are in the face of huge global and societal forces and change. It invokes the Thatcherite mantra ‘There Is No Alternative’ to brush aside dissent or discontent. Despite its rhetoric of change, choice and opportunity, it contributes to a sense of widespread pessimism and fatalism about how much influence people can have on the future of their lives and societies.
The power and grip of this mantra in Scotland and across the Western world is directly linked to political disconnection and disillusion, because people feel they are not being valued or listened too. It is a powerful message to send out: the future has already been decided.
The ‘official future’ is the new grammar of politics – the language of choice for the governing classes. People use its language and phrases such as ‘the knowledge economy’, ‘globalisation’ and ‘value added’ often without defining, or understanding them. Many people feel they have little choice but to use these terms to gain access to the policy community and governing circles.
Scottish fatalism can be seen across a number of areas of society. It can be seen in the stories we tell each other. The historian Tom Devine has commented that many of the stories we use are frequently characterised by ‘melancholic negativism’ and ‘introspective navel gazing’ (8). It can be seen in the country’s appalling public health record and the degree of poverty and inequality in the most deprived communities in the country.
The most striking feature of public health and poverty in Scotland, apart from the scale, is the widespread acceptance of and resignation to it. For a country that prides itself on its egalitarian ethos and its belief that we are all ‘Jock Tamson’s Bairns’, there is an ominous silence at the heart of Scottish public discourse about the scale of poverty and exclusion.
For Scotland to challenge the ‘official story’ it needs to embrace the idea of hope. Much public discourse in Western societies has seen the displacement of hope by cynicism and critique. However, hope is a vital virtue according to John Braithwaite, who argues that we need to institutionalise hope by supporting focusing adaptiveness and active coping, reducing denial and preventing disengagement (9).
Thinking optimistically about Scotland’s future is crucial, but it is not enough. Instead of linear optimism, we need systemic optimism. This is a clash of very different philosophies. Linear optimists inhabit the world of business and politics, talk about fine-tuning and trying to perfect institutions, and believe in material progress. Systemic optimists sit within and outwith the system, believe in whole-system change, instead of piecemeal reform, and advocate a more sustainable idea of progress. One is centred on the pursuit of individualism and the maximal self, the other on interconnectedness and a social self.
Systemic optimism has much in common with what the American psychologist Martin Seligman has called ‘flexible’ or ‘learned optimism’. This recognises the complexities and different challenges we face. The power of pessimism can in certain circumstances be a force for good, such as when we face significant risk or a life-threatening situation, and ‘learned optimism’ combines this with the strength of ‘optimism with its eyes open’ (10). The potential of hopeful Scotland is a mindset of learned and systemic optimism, whose recognition of the need for whole-system change is conducive to thinking differently about the future.
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
The concept of ‘futures literacy’ is central to our argument that thinking about the future is not something that can be safely left to futurologists. Futures literacy, as described in a later chapter, helps us challenge our everyday assumptions and leads to better decision- making. To be futures literate means thinking imaginatively about the future but also to be able to act in the present.
That is why we have suggested that futures thinking should be a participative exercise that involves people across the whole of Scotland, rather than being confined to the powerful institutions that are usually asked to think about our future on our behalf. We see the development of futures literacy as a direct challenge to the fatalist streak in Scotland.
There is growing evidence that giving people a stake in the future encourages them to think long term and to make better decisions. The political argument in favour of developing asset holding makes the link between a stake in the future and better decision-making by individuals and communities. As Michael Sherraden, Director of the Center for Social Development at Washington University, has argued:
We say that people have assets when they accumulate and hold resources for the longer term. When this happens it has many positive effects for individuals and families (not merely deferred consumption). These positive effects include greater long-term thinking and planning for the future, increased participation in the community and investments in oneself, financial products, property, and enterprise for greater returns. (11)
We believe that asking people to think about their community as an asset in which they have a real stake and whose future needs to be secured has the potential to generate positive engagement. Scotland 2020 found evidence of this power in a public engagement experiment in Nairn, which is examined later. Involving the public in generating practical solutions to long-term community problems would require a greater capacity to think about the future, or futures literacy. As Zygmunt Bauman has argued, the idea of progress has always been about ‘the self-confidence of the present’ (12).
Politicians across the Western world are always talking about the need for hard choices, but in reality only offer a narrow, proscriptive future. Citizens often seem to be ahead of politicians in thinking honestly about future prospects. The sense of disengagement from current institutions may be one manifestation of this. This offers some positive signs that the general public across the Western democracies may be open to futures literacy. But to express shared hopes and participate in collective solutions, people need shared institutions and processes.
Fundamental to this goal is developing a two-way conversation between voters and politicians. Recent exercises such as Labour’s ‘Big Conversation’ or the Conservatives’ attempt to position themselves as ‘the listening party’ are unlikely to achieve very much. They are attempts to break political disillusion and the sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, but they have both foundered on the prevailing dynamic of an enclosed, adversarial politics.
Genuine dialogue means shifting the balance from Hirschman’s ‘exit’ – taking one’s custom elsewhere – to ‘voice’ – the power of argument and persuasion (13). This means giving citizens more options for expressing their views than switching or withholding their vote and instead exploring new ways for people to contribute to the way they are governed.
According to Peter Kellner, such politics requires a different kind of politician: ‘Respect is deserved by those who know both when to lead and when to listen.’ Kellner’s prognosis for aiding this include allowing politicians to be more human and make mistakes and gaffes such as John Prescott’s famous left hook in the 2001 election when he hit a voter who threw eggs at him. The alternative is ‘politicians drained of humanity, humility, life and candour’ (14).
Such a politics has to be more local. We know from numerous social surveys that people relate national policies to their own experience. Yet at the same time, local services are consistently seen as good, whereas the same services at a national level are viewed as poor. It is quite common for people never to make the link between their own experience and national policy – whether it be in hospital, school, or Gordon Brown’s Working Person’s Tax Credit. Any realistic rebalancing of the central–local relationship will require a renewal of local capacity in local government and beyond, and a less centralised politics and media coverage.
A futures literate public would embrace the capacity to think and talk about the future, using a new language and grammar of politics. Developing a futures literate culture would be one that recognised that thinking about the future means embracing a world where there is uncertainty and unpredictability, and where there are many futures and many future Scotlands.
Nairn Day: futures thinking in a small Scottish town
Nairn Day was an experiment in local democracy that focused on participation rather than consultation (see chapter 20 of ‘Scotland 2020’ for a detailed account). Nairn Day showed an appetite and indeed an aptitude for members of the public to think about the future of their community.
Communities often complain they are over-consulted. Their frustration may come from the feeling that they are being asked the wrong questions, or that the choices on offer do not allow for a discussion of the decisions already taken. A public consultation over where to site a new school may close down a debate about whether a new school is needed, or what kind of education parents want for their children.
Similarly, in hotly contested decisions to close local hospitals, the debate about the future of an institution becomes a poor substitute for wider discussion about public health. Local campaigns to overturn decisions about schools and hospitals often focus on inconvenience, but the anger that fuels them is a sense that decision-making processes are remote from the effects of the decisions that they take.
Nairn Day was an unusual exercise in that there was no agenda, beyond the encouragement to think about the future of the town and surrounding area. Participants were self-selecting, although we made some efforts to ensure diversity. We were encouraged to hear people say that it was not just the usual suspects who turned up.
The fact that over 70 people turned out to a meeting with no real agenda and certainly no influence over decision-making is, we think, evidence of an appetite for deliberation over long-term issues. This was not an expression of Nimbyism, but something more creative, imaginative and forward-looking.
There have been several experiments in linking public deliberation to local decision-making around the world. Perhaps one of the most famous of these is the participatory budget setting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. To combat decades of financial maladministration, where budgets were allocated on the basis of political patronage rather than social need, a new centre-left coalition government involved people directly, rather than through party representation, in the process of allocating municipal money.
In ‘Deepening Democracy’, Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright consider four innovative democratic experiments, including that in Porto Alegre. They give examples of what they called empowered participatory governance, which they describe as an attempt ‘to discover and imagine democratic institutions that are at once more participatory and effective than the familiar configuration of political representation and bureaucratic administration’ (15).
The key features of the form of governance that Fung and Olin Wright describe are that it:
• focuses on real problems
• involves ordinary people affected by those problems
• helps to solve those problems through public deliberation.
What was striking about Nairn Day was that although the event was not designed to consider a specific problem faced by the town, the participants themselves steered the discussions towards practical issues such as transport and safer streets. The participants were comfortable talking the language of priorities, which underpins all public policy deliberations.
Futures thinking has two advantages to offer the process of public deliberation. First, creating the opportunity to think about the future of a community seems to motivate people to get involved. Second, greater futures literacy would develop the capacity to think constructively about future priorities.
We believe that the appetite for public participation displayed in Nairn, combined with examples of practical local problem-solving such as in Porto Alegre, suggests that further democratic experiments at local level could pay off at a time of widespread concern about political disengagement. Engaging people in local politics requires opportunity and motive. It is our view that opening up a public debate about the future of communities in the vicinity of elected politicians provides both.
A self-governing Scotland
The pre-devolution expectations of the Scottish public coalescing around the hope for a ‘new politics’ of consultation, participation and transparent process have not been delivered. The sense of disappointment and disillusion which pervades large parts of Scottish public discussion has become the new post-devolution consensus: a mindset of negativity that reinforces the Scots’ propensity to face the same way, and ignores the complexity and diversity of any one moment.
Developing futures thinking could be a way to improve the quality of Scotland’s political culture and engage people in a form of practical problem-solving within their community. The practice of futures thinking offers a way to tip the balance of local and national politics.
But that is not the way things are moving in Scotland. The creation of a new national political institution has drawn power to the centre in a number of ways: institutionally, in the way networks and groups think and operate around government, and in the media. So, perhaps inevitably, devolution from Westminster has meant the increasing concentration of power in Edinburgh, while to others in the more far-flung regions of the country, it appears that the Central Belt is where attention and power lies.
In this context, the now familiar form of ‘localism’, which encourages participation in the management of services, is misguided: it implies that communities should be involved in managerial decision-making, when really they should be involved in devising local strategies. To put it simply, communities should participate in devising public health strategies, not running hospitals; influencing the educational opportunities available to their children, not running schools; or helping to articulate an approach to community safety, not determining the number of police officers on the street.
Consultation on public services tends to occur at a stage where a decision has to be taken, but a lot of assumptions have already been made. Futures thinking offers a longer-term perspective so that issues can be considered while more options are open.
In the context of science policy, Demos has helped to develop the idea of ‘upstream engagement’ of the public in shaping the direction of scientific research and technological innovation. The decision over whether to allow genetically modified crops to be grown in Britain was the textbook example of downstream engagement according to James Wilsdon and Rebecca Willis: ‘Possible risks [were] endlessly debated, while deeper questions about the values, vision and vested interests that motivate scientific endeavour often remain unasked or unanswered’ (16).
Any attempt to engage citizens in Scotland’s future must take this lesson firmly to heart. Scottish politics often look like municipal administration writ large. Party loyalties are an entrenched feature of local politics, particularly in Labour’s heartland of the West of Scotland. The paradox of Scottish political culture is that national government operates in a municipal fashion, while municipalities are ruled by parties whose ideological identity and support is largely based on their national profile.
However, there are welcome signs that vision might be emerging as a new dimension of Scottish political culture. George Reid, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, has announced his aim to create a futures forum that would help to make Scotland a world leader in futures thinking. This admirable idea risks perpetuating the desire to find a single vision for Scotland, to define a single Scotland.
Reid has already indicated that he plans to reject the Finnish model of a parliamentary committee for the future. The Finnish committee is in effect a parliamentary think tank, with MPs taking evidence from a range of experts and delivering reports to the Parliament. We believe the futures forum should, as its defining characteristic, make a commitment from the centre to stimulate, support and resource widespread engagement in futures literacy among Scotland’s communities. Instead of just thinking about this, it would practise a new kind of process which included the following elements:
• a new kind of political centre – one that is enabling, facilitative and offers resources in a hands-off way; while the centre agrees to facilitate futures thinking, local governance should feed back deliberations to the centre;
• avoidance of the trap of posing futures thinking as some kind of received wisdom;
• support for multiple Scottish communities – perhaps starting geographically, but eventually including communities of interest;
• more empowered, emboldened, confident communities and a centre that is ready to evolve and adapt in response;
• a readiness to embrace and invent a new relationship between citizen and state, remaking the idea of government, governance and what ‘governed’ means.
This could have a huge impact on local communities. We believe exercises similar to Nairn Day should be encouraged as part of the local authority electoral cycle. A programme of local futures activities conducted ahead of the four-yearly council elections would encourage an articulation of a vision for an area by both voters and politicians. We believe such processes should encourage involvement by insiders and outsiders, and involve artists, ideas people, imagineers and other storytellers who can assist in developing different ways of telling the stories of the future.
Developing futures thinking capacity at a local level could have a number of advantages and spin-offs. It would be a symbolic commitment, which also helped to improve the context – the climate of conversation – in which political decisions are taken. It could begin a process of genuine democratisation and self-government across Scotland, which goes far beyond political structures, helping to refresh local governance and deepen the pool of talent feeding our representative institutions.
The long-term goal is a different, more mature public leadership and public conversation. This in turn could strengthen a prefigurative politics for a future Scotland – one that is a decentralised, self-governing group of communities and networks maintaining a shared responsibility for an open, and hopeful, future. Such a strategy will take time, patience and learning. We believe it is worth the effort.
1. J. Frank,’ The role of hope in psychotherapy’, International Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 5 No. 5 (1968), p 393.
2. G. Mulgan, ‘Essentials of change’, speech to Joseph Rowntree Foundation centenary conference Poverty and Place: policies for tomorrow,2004 (available at: www.jrf.org.uk/conferences/centenary/pdf/essentialsofchange.pdf).
3. R. Eckersley, Well and Good: how we feel and why it matters (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Group, 2004),p 18.
4. W. Harman, ‘Global dimensions and the plausibility of whole system change’, Technological and Social Change., Vol. 49 No. 1 (1995), p 10.
5. P. Schwartz, The Art of the Long View: planning for the future in an uncertain world (London: Doubleday,1996),p 203.
6. Ibid, p 203.
7. For a further examination of this argument see D. Bell and D.G. Blanchflower, The Scots may be Brave but they are neither Healthy nor Happy (Stirling: Scotecon, 2004).
8. T. Devine, Speech to Scotland’s Tipping Point conference, Glasgow, 2nd December 2004, quoted in A. Young, ‘A sigh of relief, the apocalypse has been postponed until 2017’, The Herald, 10th December 2004.
9. J. Braithwaite, ‘Hope and emancipation’, paper for Hope and Governance seminar series, 2003 (available at: http://regnet.anu.edu.au/research/Hope_Gov/Hope_Gov.htm).
10. M.E.P. Seligman, Learned Optimism: how to change your mind and your life (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1991).
11. M. Sherraden, in W. Paxton (ed.), Equal Shares? Building a progressive and coherent asset-based welfare policy (London: IPPR, 2003).
12. Z. Bauman, The Individualized Society (London: Polity Press, 2001),p 110.
13. A. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations and states (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1970).
14. P. Kellner, ‘Britain’s culture of detachment’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 54 No. 4 (2004), pp 840,841.
15. A. Fung and E. Olin Wright, Deepening Democracy (London: Verso, 2003).
16. J. Wilsdon and R. Willis, See-through Science: why public engagement needs to move upstream (London: Demos, 2004).