From A Curag et el, editors European Education at the Crossroads, Springer Science, Heidelberg, 2012, Chapter 48.

Ziauddin Sardar

Futures studies has had a lukewarm reception from the academia. Conventionally, a new discipline is said to have emerged with the publication of a couple of dedicated journals. Futures and foresight have a string of journals devoted to the field  – Futures, Foresight, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, World Futures and the Journal of Futures Studies – yet it is not seen as worthy of being taught at a university. There are a few courses devoted to this area of inquiry, but as a whole futures studies is conspicuous largely by its absence from the university curriculum.

Part of the problem is that the area of enquiry we call futures studies does not see itself as a conventional discipline with well established disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, the problem begins, as I have argued elsewhere, with the name of the field itself (Sardar 2011a). But a bigger hurdle is the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary nature of the field. Given that it straddles a number of disciplines across the academia, it is not easy to decide what to include or what to exclude from futures studies. However, not all disciplines with ‘studies’ in their academic prefix (such as cultural studies, women’s studies, or philosophical studies), which signifies a heterodoxy of methods and approach have fared badly. So why has futures studies singularly been neglected so much? An overall problem in teaching futures is the lack of general theories that shape the field of enquiry. And associated issue is the lack of ‘Great Men’ who ideas have to be studied. In fields such as cultural studies there are specific theories to focus on and giants in the field who ideas have to be wrestled with. In contrast, futures studies seem only to have methods.

But these conventional shortcomings of futures studies are set to become its major strengths. In postnormal times, when complexity, uncertainty, contradictions and chaotic behaviour are the norm, modes of enquiry grounded in a single discipline are becoming increasingly irrelevant (Sardar 2011b). Complex, wicked problems need to be tackled from a number of different perspectives and requires a host of different methods to understand. Not surprisingly, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research is increasingly taking a center stage in research agendas (Lyall et al 2011) – providing an opportunity for futures studies to come into its own. Moreover, exploration of futures spaces acquires a prominent importance in times of uncertainty. Complex problems can only be solved in the future, so an understanding of what the future may look like, or has to offer, becomes paramount. Already, a number of disciplines, from architecture to urban planning, geography to evolutionary psychology, sociology to economics, have increasingly become concerned with future developments. This trend will not only increase but would become an essential way of understanding and dealing with problems – making futures studies an indispensible tool in the academia. Universities and academic institutions would therefore neglect futures studies at their peril.

There is another reason why futures studies cannot be ignored in the academia. The notion of the future is not something that is limited to the future itself. It is one of the main instruments through which we make sense of the past and understand the present. To educate a student holistically, as Gidley (2011) shows, requires imparting a notion, an image, a vision of the future that equips the student with the relevant insights and skills to think critically and creatively about the future and engage positively in shaping it. We may learn from our past, we may understand the future, but the only arena where we can actually make a difference is the future. Given current global issues, from climate change to depletion of oil, social unrest to market meltdown, and accelerating rates of change, the future could be a rather uncomfortable and hazardous place. In any case, it would be radically different from the present. A student unable to think about the future, a space that is increasingly becoming all important, will be a truncated individuals unsuited to the complexity and plurality of the times to come. And a university that does not tackle foresight and futures in some way would simply not be fit for purpose in the future.

In particular, universities would have to shift from the industrial production model where students are processed from the beginning of their course to graduation as though they were ball bearings. As Alfonso Montuori has argued, universities the world over are still stuck in the industrial age, producing ‘reproductive education’ and seek to prepare students for a static world of conformity (Montuori 2012). The future, in contrast, requires a different set of competencies. Higher education, notes Marco Rieckmann, now has to ‘enable individuals to reflect on their own actions by taking into account their current and future social and environmental effects – from a global perspective – and to intervene productively in shaping them in a sustainable manner’. Students must have the ability to envision better futures and be able to understand links between long term goals and immediate actions.  Rieckmann used a Delphi study, involving experts from Europe and Latin America, to identify key competencies crucial for surviving the future, including systematic thinking and handling complexity, anticipatory and critical thinking, ability to work across disciplines and cultures, and empathy and open mindedness (Riechmann 2012).

Montuori argues that the future demands that ‘learners move from being consumers to creators and from bystanders to participants in the postnormal dance of knowledge’. In a world where what we always assumed to be ‘normal’ is disappearing rapidly, imagination and creative inquiry must be at the heart of scholarship. Montuori offers a very specific take on creativity. ‘Creative inquiry’, he writes, ‘involves the cultivation of a fundamental attitude to the world that actively embraces uncertainty, pluralism, and complexity, and sees them as potential sources of creativity. It recognizes that making meaning in such a world is itself a creative act, indeed a co-creative act’. Thus creativity requires much more than the simple creation of tradition ‘products’ such as thesis and dissertation. Rather, ‘it is a way of approaching the world that recognizes the personal and social dimensions that go into our particular understanding of the world (and inform any view of the world), the possibility (and likelihood) of other perspectives, as well as a perceptual choice to remain open to experience with all its ambiguity and complexity rather than immediately superimposing an interpretive framework’. In such a framework, life itself becomes ‘an ongoing process of inquiry, creation and exploration. It assumes that understanding is by its very nature hermeneutically circular and indeed recursive, beginning not from a God’s eye view from nowhere, but in the very middle of existence, viewing learners as participants, not bystanders’.

The kind of creative inquiry that Montuori seeks, and Rieckmann is suggesting with his list of future and sustainable competencies, require breaking of all artificial borders and boundaries.

Borders have been incredibly useful tools for higher education: they have served to keep disciplines ‘pure’ and manageable. They have also been used to control and contort the reality of other cultures and to maintain the hegemony of Eurocentric worldview. It is the site at which dominion over Others and other ways of knowledge has been constructed. All the definitions of borders and transitory states in modern and post modern theorising derive from the same source – the fear ridden insecurity of western self identity provoked by the expatriate experience of colonialism and the reverse process of fear of immigration of ex-colonial subjects into the metropolis. During colonialism the fear of ‘going native’, of contamination by closeness to and engagement with Other societies, was the neurosis encouraging emphasis on borders, boundaries, divisions and hierarchies. Ranked stages in scales of civilization were everywhere to provide borders between Us and Them, the conceptual distance that enabled, supported and justified domination, dispossession and despoiling Other ways of life and thought. With the end of colonialism, the reverse process begins. When Others arrive on the metropolitan doorstep they inhabit the transitory world of being required to change as the price of inclusion.

This Eurocentric outlook, as Vinay Lal (2011) argues, is intrinsic in many disciplines. Most of the disciplines taught in universities have evolved from the cultural milieu of western society and incorporate their concerns and prejudices within them. In a globalised world, where power in the next decades will shift from the West to the East, disciplines anchored in Eurocentricism will have little to say about rapidly shifting realities. By opening up social science and humanities disciplines to the concerns and outlooks of non-western cultures, universities can prepare their students for the future. Universities need to ask a few urgent questions. What relevance do borders have in a globalised world? Can societies and cultures exist without borders? How are fluid identities and multiple selves taking us to a different, more permeable, more porous future space? What kind of world would the world of inbetweeness be – the world our students would inhabit? How would we equip them to engage with a pluralistic world of mindboggling diversity? These and other questions cannot be explored from the standard, and failed, perspectives of modernity and postmodernism – we need to go over and above to a new transmodern perspective. What would a transmodern world look like? What new disciplines would we need?

To think beyond borders, to prepare our students for multiple futures, and resolve the awful legacy bequeathed by the 20th century, we must begin with three basic realisations. First, societies and cultures have seldom being bounded. Identity has largely been a permeable membrane formed by the interpenetration of diversity, the interaction of multiple mutual influences in plural worlds, of multiple conversations – or polylogue – between cultures. Far from existing in splendid isolation all cultures were surrounded by others with whom they maintained and sustained relations. The apparently hermetically sealed cultural borders, particularly of ‘the Orient’, were in fact porous. Second, our discourse has been totally dependent on just one civilisational and historic corpus. We must appreciate that the presumptive universality of our terms of reference are in and of themselves presumptuous, a false imposition on the lived reality of most non-European cultures. Third, much of the terminology we glibly band around is constructed and forged by a single, questionable discourse and now needs to be rethought: zones of transition, inclusion and exclusion, and especially hybridity, self and other are all ideas that have to go back into the melting pot of redefinition because they are the imposition of one worldview upon many Others worldviews. We need not only new ways of thinking beyond borders but also a new vocabulary for shaping new discourses. Borders and boundaries are the instruments that generate problems of living in heterogeneous societies. We have to unthink borders as we have known them at all levels of conceptualisation if we are to find paths across the no mans lands we create to enter the future domain of plural intermingled worlds.

Disassembling borders, creative inquiry and future competencies all require us to move beyond the dominant conventional and confining frameworks of modernity and postmodernism.

Modernity, a concept abstracted from this experience of western society, is predicted on the notion of progress. And, as we are discovering at the beginning of the 21st Century, what is progress but the visible real world success of domination. Modernity is a one way progress following in the wake of the apex of human achievement, a process of westernisation made in the image and with the defining features of how Anglo Saxon society and its inheritors became the dominant powers of the globe and took up the burden of teaching the rest of the world how to be properly human. It has been liberalised and democratised. It has been supremely successful in creating the opportunity for more and more individuals to attain material prosperity. But it has also created an unjust, inequitable world where greed, selfishness and short term interests have become the norm. Where non-western and indigenous cultures, as well as their flora and fauna, are decimated in the name of efficiency and progress. What modernity has delivered is an endless quest to own things shorn of all prudential values and decoupled from any exercise of civic virtue. The age of consumerism was ushered in by a renewed rhetoric of a property owning democracy but one that did not accept the concept of society. Consumerism is the ideology of individual choice, of personal prerogative to get and to spend; and it is the bedrock of modernity. Its consequence has been to breed insecurity and a proliferating sense of powerlessness. Social worth has come to be evaluated through conspicuous display of what we own. We shop for a lifestyle; we make eclectic choices from merchandised options for everything to define who and what we are. But we live with insipient fear, fear of the collapse of the very systems that have brought us our material well being. Talk of sustainable future is meaningless in a framework that generates endless wants and desires that have to be satisfied endlessly. Modernity reinforces boundaries, between cultures, between those who are ‘modern’ and those who are ‘traditional’ (and by definition backward), between economics and social justice, and between disciplines. As a system of thought and action, modernity is not amenable to complexity or transdisciplinary thinking, to empathy and respect for other cultures, to generating the type of creative inquiry that Montuori argues for.

Postmodernism is what comes after modernity; it is post in terms of time; it is a natural conclusion of modernity. This is why it is sometimes described as ‘the logic of late capitalism’; in the subtitle of my book Postmodernism and the Other, I described it as ‘a new culture of western imperialism’.  It represents a liner trajectory that starts with colonialism, continues with modernity and ends with post-modernity, or postmodernism. It is not surprising than that postmodernism and traditional cultures are like two fuming bulls in a ring: they are inimically antagonistic to each other. Postmodernism states that all big ideas that have shaped our society, like Religion, Reason, Science, Tradition, History, Morality, Marxism, do not stand up to philosophical scrutiny. There is no such thing as Truth. Anything that claims to provide us with absolute truth is a sham. It must be abandoned. Moreover, postmodernism suggests, there is no ultimate Reality. We see what we want to see, what our position in time and place allows us to see, what our cultural and historic perceptions focus on. Instead of reality, what we have is an ocean of images; a world where all distinction between image and material reality has been lost. Postmodernism posits the world as a video game: seduced by the allure of the spectacle, we have all become characters in the global video game, zapping our way from here to there, fighting wars in cyberspace, making love to digitised bits of information. We float on an endless sea of images and stories that shape our perception and our individual ‘reality’. But if all is an image, what happens to real pain and suffering? If grand narratives are meaningless than what explains the rise of religion? If all is relative, then what happens to ethics and morality, to some notion of objectivity and rationality? In the end, postmodernism has only delivered a world of spectacle, more consumerism, more desires and even more consumption of the Other.

As such, both modernity and postmodernism are unsuitable philosophies for the future. The universities have been the cornerstone of modernity and postmodernism – embedded in these outlooks and perpetuating them. The future demands that institutions of higher learning free themselves from such monolithic, destructive worldviews. We need a new mode of thought and inquiry that takes us trans – over and beyond modernity and postmodernism into another state of being. That framework, I would like to suggest, is transmodernity (Sardar 2006)

We can best understand transmodernity with the aid of chaos theory. In all complex systems – societies, civilisations, eco-systems etc. – many independent variables are interacting with each other in great many ways. Chaos theory teaches us that complex systems have the ability to create order out of chaos. This happens at a balancing point, called the ‘edge of chaos’. At the edge of chaos, the system is in a kind of suspended animation between stability and total dissolution into chaos. At this point, almost any factor can push the system into one or other direction. However, complex systems at the edge of chaos have the ability to spontaneously self-organise themselves into a higher order; in other words the system ‘evolves’ spontaneously into a new mode of existence. Transmodernity is the transfer of modernity and postmodernism from the edge of chaos into a new order of society. Things change radically; but they also stay the same. Societies and individuals become transmodern while retaining the basic components of their cultural identity. In transmodernity, both sides of the equation are important: change has to be made and accommodated; but the fundamental tenets of culture and tradition, the source of its identity and meaning, remain the same.

This then is the ultimate goal of higher education: to prepare their students to move from postnormal times to a transmodern future. It is a journey that requires shedding the Eurocentric nature of disciplines and moving towards interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teaching and research. It is a transformation that cannot be achieved without creative inquiry or future competencies. Or, indeed, without dissolving borders that keep us separate and isolated.



Gidley, J M (2011) ‘Futures Studies in Crazy Times: Visionary Futures of “Futures Thinking”’, paper presented at this conference

Lal, V (2011) ‘The Politics and Consequences of Eurocentrism in University Discipline’, paper presented at this conference

Lyall, C et al (2011) Interdisciplinary Research Journeys: Practical Strategies for Capturing Creativity, London, Bloomsbury Academic.

Montuori, A (2012)  ‘Creative inquiry: confronting the challenges of scholarship in the 21st century’, Futures 44 (1) January/February  (in press)

Rieckmann, M (2012) ‘Future-oriented higher education: Which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning?’ Futures 44 (2) March (in press)

Sardar, Z  (2001) Postmodernism and the Other, London, Pluto Press

Sardar, Z (2006) ‘Beyond difference: cultural relations in a new century’ in How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations edited by Ehsan Masood, London, Pluto Press.

Sardar, Z (2010a) ‘The Namesake: Futures, futures studies, futurology, futuristic, foresight – What’s in a name?’ Futures 42 (3) 177-184 April 2010

Sardar, Z (2010b)  ‘Welcome to Postnormal Times’ Futures 42 (5) 435-444 June 2010