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The Pakistani Nostradamus

Updated January 11, 2015

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Photo by the writer
Photo by the writer

Born in Lahore, Sohail Inayatullah is a professor of Futures Studies — the study of alternative futures, and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. The futurist charts out possible, probable, preferred alternative futures to not only solve tomorrow’s problems today but to also find tomorrow’s opportunities today.

Inayatullah teaches at Tamkang University, Taiwan. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia, and Associate of Mteliza Executive Education, University of Melbourne. He is the author of over 300 scientific articles and book chapters, and has authored and edited over 20 books.

Futures Studies, as a practice, begins with identifying the default future and questioning it, and thus creating alternative future. By mapping alternative futures, one has a better idea of what is emerging, and thus one is able to more successfully navigate change. By using scenarios, one is better prepared for contingencies and far more ready to make necessary changes as the world changes.

In recent times, the focus of Futures Studies has seen a shift from prediction and accuracy to scenarios and uncertainty. Modern efforts have focused on not getting the future particularly right but on creating reflective, adaptable learning organisations and cultures. Here we speak to Mr Inayatullah about his work

Has this been a difficult journey?

I have really enjoyed my work in Futures Studies. Over the past 20 years, Futures Studies has taken off throughout the world — in the offices of prime ministers, in corporations, in NGOs and with individuals. There is a great need and desire to explore alternative futures, envision the preferred and develop transformative strategies to achieve the desired.

Why do you see a growing use of such techniques by both governments and businesses?

There is more and more uncertainty, and individuals and organisations desire a map of the future so they can make more effective decisions.

I have just finished a project for the office of the Canadian Prime Minister on the social disruptive futures of Asia 2030. A few months back, I did a project on the implications of the youth bulge, ageing and migration, on the Middle East and North Africa. And earlier this year, I presented a session on foresight methods and tools to the Science and Technology Policy Institute, Government of South Korea.


At the same time, we have seen great success in using futures studies in developing areas such as Malaysia, and poorer areas such as Bangladesh. It is crucial for the developing world to unpack its current view of the future — is it only playing catch-up? If so, what are some other models? For the developing world, other stories are also required.


The crises and the foundational changes of the past few decades — the collapse of communism, the Asian financial crisis, SARS, the global financial crisis as well as stunning shifts in world geopolitics — the rise of China — digital disruptions with the growth of the internet along with advances in genomics, in preventive, personalised and participatory health — all require a different way of understanding the future. More complex and nuanced maps are required. And as the future keeps on changing, our maps need to be more robust. We often forget that the future changes with every step we take. Where do we wish to go? Every decision, every future has a cost.

This way of thinking of futures leads to better strategies, more informed decision-making, longer term decision-making, and more importantly, decision-makers who are reflective of their own life stories and organisations, who begin to move toward becoming learning organisations.

Is long-range planning possible?

Futures Studies is not long-range planning. It is not “The Plan” — which is static, owned by the government. Rather, Futures Studies is challenging the present, opening up alternatives and developing inclusive approaches to policy making. Certainly from strategic foresight — an overview of how technologies are changing — one can articulate strategic plans. But the first step is the scan — how is the world changing?

Global Futurists is a very small community, how does it build its niche in the developing world or is this just a super-power thing?

Certainly, foresight work has taken off in wealthier areas as they can afford to invest in the knowledge economy, in ideas that make a difference. At the same time, we have seen great success in using futures studies in developing areas such as Malaysia, and poorer areas such as Bangladesh. It is crucial for the developing world to unpack its current view of the future — is it only playing catch-up? If so, what are some other models? For the developing world, other stories are also required.

Surely you must have studied Pakistan through the Future Studies prism? What’s your take on the country?

At the national level, Pakistan needs a new narrative, as it has been defined firstly as non-India and then not-West. Or, in the last 20 plus years, the future has been cornered by a particular extremely conservative, rear-view looking brand of politics.


The greatest weight is the worldview of geo-politics, of the international relations paradigm, where everything is a “card game” and each nation is fighting for supremacy. It is not that we do not live in a jungle of nation-states; it is that this mind-set overwhelms other possible ways to see reality and the future. It is a zero-sum game that destroys the ecology of thought.


While there, historically, have been multiple contending images of Pakistan — I tried to explore these in research on images of Pakistan’s futures — the Islamic socialist (roti, kapra, makaan), the Islamic rightist (the Land of the pure); threatened sovereignty (from within and without); the grand disillusionment and the planned disciplined capitalist economy (like South Korea), the last decade has seen the choices narrow with the contending images of the land of the pure, threatened sovereignty and the grand disillusionment dominant.

Recent politics has been an attempt to find a way out of these limiting images, to break the pendulum between rule of the military and landlords, and the attempt of the maulvis to control both.

In Pakistan, certainly, new measurements of growth are required, that go beyond GDP. Extensive systemic reforms are required that encourage cooperatives, the social economy, reducing the power of the State as ensuring that the playing field is fair. And a forward looking worldview with a new metaphor is needed.

What potential do you see within Pakistan’s ecosystem? Is there space for a mind-shift?

Each nation has different pulls of the future, imaginations of what is possible. And each nation has different weights or deep structures that prevent possibility — time, the bureaucracy, the mind-set of nothing is possible, the power of the landlords, for example.

Pakistan, for sure, has more weight than imagination. But the same drivers of change are here — the need for renewable energy, the need for better infrastructure, the impacts of globalisation, digitalisation, for example. Thus, in Pakistan the possibility of agency is more challenged. And yet, there, within one’s zone of control, many things one can do.

At foresight workshops in Pakistan, there has been a dramatic interest in scenario-writing, in using narrative-based foresight methods, in back casting, in strategic transformation and in types of interactive pedagogy. Thus, certainly change is possible.

However, the greatest weight is the worldview of geo-politics, of the international relations paradigm, where everything is a “card game” and each nation is fighting for supremacy. It is not that we do not live in a jungle of nation-states; it is that this mind-set overwhelms other possible ways to see reality and the future. It is a zero-sum game that destroys the ecology of thought.

And what of corporations and their focus on the single bottom line and quarterly returns?

In Pakistan, certainly corporations are not strategic. They focus on implementation and operations, rarely looking at what’s next — new technologies, new opportunities — and success often only occurs through the cultivation of personal relationships.

But if Pakistani corporations wish to go global, certainly having a clear vision, articulating scenarios, searching for outlier events and emerging issues can reduce their risk and enhance opportunities. The issue is if the leader and the board merely wish to be more efficient in the current game or do they wish to create new game, to excel at the emerging landscape. I have worked with hundreds of corporate leaders and most want both — to keep on getting returns in the short run but also to have an eye out on the changing world, so that they are not disrupted.

How often do you find people apprehensive to your way of approaching an issue or a national crisis?

The people I work with are rarely apprehensive. They are excited to be part of a process of transformation. They are excited to be creative and find new solutions. They are excited to design new products. They are excited to challenge their own paradigms and create new possibilities.

They do worry that if they change and others stay in the old world, will they feel left out, too far ahead of the mass? That is the main concern, being too far ahead and perhaps not so easily intelligible.

However, those interested in futures tend to be idealistic while very grounded in strategy and data. They seek change, and know that current models do not work. Disruption and innovation will occur, the issue is whether they, Pakistan, will be part of that change. Will they be inventors of the future, or passive recipient of the words and stories of others?

Puruesh Chaudhary is leading the Pakistan Foresight Initiative, a project of AGAHI.

She tweets @puruesh.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 11th, 2015

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