An Insight into Foresight with Dr Sohail Inayatullah


By Umar Sheraz

Dr. Sohail Inayatullah holds the UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies at the Islamic Science University of Malaysia (USIM) and a professor at Tamkang University (Taiwan) and an associate at Melbourne Business School (Australia). He has worked extensively with governments, international corporations, and non-governmental organizations around the globe to re-author their futures. He is co-editor of the Journal of Futures Studies, associate editor of New Renaissance and the author of more than 300 journal articles and books including The Causal Layered Analysis Reader and Globalization and World Systems. He was a presenter at the USIM-COMSATS International workshop on Foresight and Innovation held in Malaysia. He graciously agreed to give some time for an interview and the excerpts are given below.

Umar Sheraz: Dr. Sohail, Thank you very much for your time. So what is the role of a futurist and why is foresight important?

Dr. Sohail Inayatullah: The role of the futurist is dependent. Some ministries have them and their role is to help the government in anticipating new problems, identifying emerging issues and developing new solutions.

Second, many nation states have developed National foresight projects. The role of these foresight projects is to imagine where the country would be in a given time period for example Malaysia 2020.  So you set up a vision and a target and that vision then funnels energy, resources and direction for implementation. So the role of a futurist is to anticipate the future and to anticipate opportunity. Second is to focus on a national vision or a corporate vision to give direction.

Umar Sheraz: How do use the outcomes of foresight workshops, to influence future strategy?

Dr. Sohail Inayatullah:  Right now we are part of a capacity building workshop on futures, but client based workshops are more important. So for example a company wants to figure out the future of X. This is what we are struggling on in terms of the uncertainty of the future, so please help us out in exploring the future of this particular issue. In such cases there is a particular focus and there are resources which are allocated.

So recently I did a project with Victoria rural health, in Australia.  There were about 50 CEOs in that room and for the first one day and a half; we imagined the future of health which was predictive, personalized, partnership based, participatory and preventive. On the second day, one of the directors was very upset and his view was that the work being done was great but the vision was too far into the future.  We need something tangible.  Then we broke into open space Technology and 7 CEO’s showed their interest to lead.  They came up with 7 different research projects and the other people formed groups with the projects that they wanted to work on. Then we spent about two hours outlining the seven different projects. At the end of the second day, the head of the organization declared that he would provide funding to all the 7 projects. So that created dynamism, innovation and energy. And because the funding was allocated there was certainty about moving into the future space.

The head of foresight exclaimed that what we are doing is great; you are funding 2020 but what about 2030. So the head declared that 25 % the budget goes into the radical vision and the rest of the budget would go to the projects which create tomorrow. So this way client based workshops are more focused and you walk away with a sense of contributing towards the future. I helped them in trying to figure out the direction of the future and what alternatives exist.

Umar Sheraz: Some part of your work also includes fantasizing and storytelling. This is quite contrary to the work which we do in planning where there are lots of numbers and statistics.  What is the role of storytelling in foresight?

 Dr. Sohail Inayatullah: Forecast is rational and quantitative and the question that comes up is that do we have the ability of fulfilling that forecast. Story telling is based on metaphor and the hypothesis is that it is a different way of thinking about things. Stories are a deep ways of understanding who we are; they provide insight. II was involved in one project with a law enforcement organization. Now this group was thinking about genomics, about e-health, about new types of crime areas but those were the content areas. The issue for the head was how we design the project. So I asked her what is the metaphor of your project? Her reply was that right now the law enforcement community in this country is in a village and a tsunami of crime is coming and we are not ready for that tsunami. So then I asked her what is your role? She said that I am the officer with a machete and I am going to go through the jungle and make a clearing. I will then tell the law enforcement agencies to come with me to avoid the tsunami. So now through story telling she was able to know her purpose. Then we developed an integrated scenario in which she was the person with the machete creating the pathway. the law enforcement officers in the village are about to drown. “Will they go with you?” she said, “ Probably not they do not want to go in the Machete ride”. Then the new scenario was that she takes them to a half way place where they are safe. Then we asked her HR colleague “what is your story?” She said “I am the white witch. I am the seer who gives advice to my friend who has a machete”.  So as a team, one of them is a seer (the overall strategist), the second one is a doer. So within the metaphor, they found a way in which they could act and try to create a different future. That became very powerful. So the metaphor helps us to develop the capability to change.

Umar Sheraz: You are involved with foresight work in different parts of the world.  In your observation, what is that nightmare scenario which is going to hit humanity really hard?

Dr. Sohail Inayatullah: The time between transfer of power between hegemons is disturbing. So when one hegemon controls the world, the world usually hates the dominant hegemon. When the dominant hegemon declines and emerging hegemon arrives there is a period of 10 to 20 years which is very difficult. I believe that we are in that transition; the rise of China and the decline of the US. There are going to be a very uncomfortable next 10 years. The old hegemon could be wise and say this is the emerging world. So let’s make treaties and let’s move forward and make a safe transition. Or they could choose to fight which creates a possibility of real wars. That worries me and when I look at south east asia I can easily see this area as a site for major naval battles. And this is scary for me. Other than that my kids living in 2080, in an era where there is smog everywhere and dramatic climate change. That is really scary for me. So I guess the issue is governance. We are not wise enough to make a transition to a better global governance system. We are going to have this conflict between China and the US and everybody loses in this fight.

Umar Sheraz: You have been following Pakistan for quite some time and your article on the pendulum shift between the military and the democratic governments is very popular. How do you see the future of Pakistan?

Dr. Sohail Inayatullah: I really believe that by the end of this century we will have a Confederation in South Asia, similar to the European Union.  This might be hard for many people to digest. A Confederation in South East Asia, where nation-states exist but the identity will be more Asian. Going by the Asian episteme of thinking, this is definitely going to be about tradition; it is more spiritual and more positive. Other than a confederation, I cannot see the solutions to the problems which these countries are facing in any other way. I remember Islamabad used to be green and beautiful but now it is polluted and it looks more like Rawalpindi. So the situation now is that Delhi pollutes Lahore and Lahore pollutes Amritsar; so everyone pollutes each other. So there is no way we could survive without a Confederation.

Umar Sheraz is a futurist based in Pakistan and can be reached at This interview originally appeared on the Centre for Policy Studies newsletter and has been republished with permission. 


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