söndag 22 maj 2022

Counterfactual thinking as a strategy for engaging with desirable futures (paper)


I recently wrote the first-ever blog post about our research project "Beyond the event horizon: tools to explore local energy transformations", but the blog post was for the most part about the prehistory and the run-up of the research project. This blog post instead treats the first output from that project in the form of an scientific article. We recently handed in a draft version of a full article to an upcoming conference that will be held in Gothenburg a few weeks from now.

The Nordic Environmental Social Science Conference (NESS) at the University of Gothenburg is primarily a "container" for upwards to 20 parallell 3-day "workshops" between June 7-9. Participants attend one single workshop for the duration of the conference. 

The Nordic Environmental Social Science Conference (NESS) workshops follow a standing session format, which allows for substantive discussions on research in progress. The conference invites scholars from multiple disciplinary backgrounds in environmental social science. The overall objective of the workshop is to facilitate and encourage collaboration between younger and more established scholars.

I got an invitation to submit a contribution to the workshop "Imagining transformation: Urgency, emergency and hope in a time of multiple crises" from one of the workshop organizers (Alexandra Nikoleris, Lund University) already at the end of October last year. The Call for Papers (full pdf here) was very interesting:

Living in an era of multiple ongoing crises – climate change, mass species extinction, pandemics, economic instability to name a few – requires that the imagining of alternative futures is encouraged, to enable a perception of how actions in the present can shape the world to come. There are a range of ways in which such transformations can be imagined, for example as scenarios, creative design, fiction, participatory performances, or experimentation. While diverse in their aims, they all invite us into a world that is different to the one we experience today, and help us rethink the crises that unfold in the present. But how can such imaginations of transformation catalyse the forms of political, economic and cultural responses required to move beyond, and out of, these crises? Which are the techniques of imagination that become most effective for certain audiences, in certain contexts? How do different narratives, and the techniques by which they are employed become engaging? What are the dangers and advantages with a multiplicity of stories and hegemonic visions? Papers that reflect on these and similar questions are invited to this workshop. Both theoretical/conceptual contributions and reflections on empirical cases of specific interventions are welcome.

The workshop invited papers about (among other things) "exploration of different techniques of imagination" and "participatory future-making", so the fit with our research project was excellent. We therefore submitted a 300-word abstract in December and found out it had been accepted to the workshop a few months ago. We then had until May 20 to write a (draft of a) full-length article (5000 - 10000 words), and we just submitted our 7000-word article, "Counterfactual thinking as a strategy for engaging with desirable futures" this past week! 

The authors are Minna Laurell Thorslund, Daniel Pargman, Elina Eriksson and Mia Hesselgren (the exact order of the authors has not yet been determined). Our article will be discussed at the conference and we will then have the opportunity to improve it. The workshop organizers in fact hope to be able to publish workshop submissions in a special issue of the journal Futures. I have not seen any of the other papers. but some of the (preliminary) titles are very intriguing:

  • Artists on climate change: imaginations of futures 
  • Effects and Effectiveness of Climate Imaginaries
  • Beyond the Fossil Era: Post-fossil pedagogies and speculative futures in Swedish education
  • From imagining utopia to enacting it: a role for Utopian Demands?
  • The 8th continent

Although I would have liked to go to Gothenburg, my son graduates from high school during the very same days, so only Minna will attend the conference and represent our research project.

This is the first time we write about the counterfactual/allohistorical workshop methodology we have developed in the research project and that we by now have used in a number of workshops. In that way it was an easy paper to write (we have so much to say about the topic), but it was also hard to write because we are all pressed for time at this time of the year... 

Here's the abstract to our just-submitted draft paper, "Counterfactual thinking as a strategy for engaging with desirable futures":

Given that the world’s multiple crises take place elsewhere and elsewhen (e.g. not right here and not right now), it is hard to engage with them and go from knowledge to action. We become paralyzed – think of a rabbit caught in the headlights – when it comes to formulating radical alternatives. It is painful for all of us - albeit to varying degrees - to step away from our own comfort and formulate, willingly accept and mentally inhabit low carbon practices and lifestyles. How can we break away from practicalities such as norms, politics, professional roles and built infrastructure, which limit our thinking and prevent us from discovering futures that are not merely extensions and timid variations of business as usual?

In this paper we describe how we have developed a workshop methodology, using counterfactual scenarios of low carbon societies. This methodology is promising for concretizing and bringing urgently needed societal transitions closer to people and their communities. By collaboratively imagining an alternative, more desirable present – a sustainable society that could have been – workshop participants are freed from practical aspects of modern life and the modern world. Furthermore, the participants also explore what needed to happen in the recent past in order to reach that more desirable present. When brought back from the counterfactual world, the participants are introduced to the notion that what they have formulated is a blueprint for what must actually be done in the decade(s) to come. We have run the workshop in two local settings, and our experience so far is that addressing hard issues as if they have already been fixed in an alternative, more desirable present, and then imagining what we “did” to fix them in the recent past, is liberating and generative of ideas for action.

This is a key paragraph from the Background (about Counterfactual Scenarios) and a compact description of what we have been up to for quite some time:

A central tenet in allohistorical narratives is the establishment of a divergence, a point in time where the world took a different turn (Duncan 2003). After a divergence has been established, the second and larger task is to explore the “timespace cone” (Gilbert & Lambert 2010)) of ripple effects that follow from that divergence. The process of establishing a divergence in the past and then “unconditionally” exploring the ripple effects forward in time is equivalent to “a forecasting exercise that is set in the past”, or, what Bendor et al. (2021) refer to as “recasting”. We are however interested in exploring normative scenarios, much like what is done in backcasting exercises (Wangel 2011) where a future desirable goal is posited and the (research) question becomes one of exploring how we can steer or veer away from business as usual in order to reach that more-desirable future. The equivalent counterfactual/allohistorical version of a backcasting exercises is to posit a more-desirable alternative present (of for example a more sustainable Sweden of 2022) and work our way backwards to a point of divergence in the past from which we chose a better path - a path that led to a more-desirable present. This is what Bendor et al. (2021) refer to as “pastcasting”, e.g. a backcasting exercise that is set in the past and that ends up in the present (albeit an alternative more-desirable present).

Here is a key paragraph from the Method section of the paper:

The process of developing the workshop format can be divided into three phases, or “loops”. In the first loop, we gathered initial knowledge and used this knowledge to create a prototype workshop format. The second loop involved testing and developing the prototype workshop format. In the third loop, we have held the workshop multiple times in its intended context (e.g. with local participants in different parts of Sweden). We describe the three loops below as well as outcomes of the third loop and of running a number of workshops in different parts of Sweden. The work process has been extensively documented mainly through a collaborative research diary that we revisited and drew from when we wrote this paper.


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