Avainsana-arkisto: unintended consequences

Visions and ethics

Matti Minkkinen

Visions and visionaries drive societal change. This notion is widely shared among futures researchers, academia and also the public at large. We believe that bold ideas, promoted at the right time, have the power to influence change towards a desirable future. Therefore we should encourage visionary thinking at all levels in society — we should think bigger and bolder rather than following well-trodden paths. I agree that we need bold ideas and initiatives to make a better future. However, in this blog post, I would like to raise some ethical questions that are related to visionary thinking. My basic argument is that if we take visions seriously, we also need to consider questions of power, responsibility and uncertainty when we promote visionary thinking.

A vision is an idea that combines a preferable future with deliberate change that is needed to reach it. Futurist Ruud van der Helm defines a vision as a “more or less explicit claim or expression of a future that is idealised in order to mobilise present potential to move into the direction of this future”.[1] Visions are used to foster change in a variety of contexts: in business, policy, backcasting studies, community issues, religion and personal life. In each setting, visions are likely to have distinct characteristics but the basic idea remains: visions are images of the future which are intended to inspire action towards reaching that future.

So what are the ethical issues related to visions? Firstly, as van der Helm states, visions close the future rather than opening it.[2] Uttering a single vision means that discussion is over and everyone should be committed to reaching this vision.[3] There are obvious power and authority issues here. Who is the author of the vision? Who gets to say the final word about the desirable future? Is the vision really reached through a participatory process or has it actually been decided beforehand by a limited group of actors or even a single person? If there is a participatory process, are all relevant stakeholders heard and do their views have any influence on the resulting vision?

The second question is related to means and measures. Even if we agree on the end, can we agree on the means to reach it? If we are striving for a sustainable well-being society, this may imply almost diametrically opposite actions and policies for persons with different values. There seems to be a trade-off involved in visions. If a vision is very broad, it can be widely shared but it risks being meaningless. On the other hand, if a vision is very specific and takes a stand on the means to reach it, it is not likely to be widely shared.

The third ethical question concerns unintended consequences. If we accept a particular image of the future as desirable and we more or less agree on the means to reach it, there are likely to be unintended consequences when we try to find our way there. Unintended consequences are not simply unfortunate events: they are unforeseen consequences of deliberate choices. In the worst case we may head in the wrong directions due to mistaken assumptions and mistaken policies. Unintended consequences happen because we can’t know everything about how societies work: causes, effects, mechanisms, feedback loops and path dependencies. Societies are complex systems and thus societal change can be surprising and counterintuitive. Famous examples of unintended consequences include prohibition (the criminalisation of alcohol in the 1930s led to lucrative opportunities for organised crime) and the Peltzman effect (safety regulations may increase risky behaviour and lead to less safety).

The final ethical question is about the long time horizon of visions. Projecting our wishes onto the future is valuable but great care is needed when making decisions that will affect future generations decades or even centuries from now. This challenge relates to the previous questions. Future generations cannot participate in discussing today’s visions, and those creating the visions will not be alive to face their consequences. Unintended consequences are also amplified when we consider the long-term future because our knowledge of long-term effects is often extremely uncertain.

If these are the ethical problems, how could they be tackled? I don’t think there are any quick and easy answers, but I think reflexivity could be a good catchphrase for the attitude that is needed.[4] Reflexivity here means firstly listening to different actors and taking their interests into account rather than aiming for a premature shared vision. Social debate and deliberation are key to dealing with power issues.[5] Reflexivity also means acknowledging that knowledge is uncertain. The problem of long-term unintended consequences demands some humility in our claims to shape the future in the face of complexity. Having some kind of precautionary principle in mind is thus one side of the coin. On the other hand, reflexivity also demands active experimentation and adaptiveness. The notions of adaptive foresight and adaptive management in the field of ecosystem management are good examples of this emerging reflexive and adaptive approach.[6][7]

To be clear, I am not arguing that there is something wrong with visionary thinking as such or that we should discourage it. Moreover, I am not promoting endless pondering and deliberation instead of concerted action. On the contrary, I argue that we should take visionary thinking and action more seriously than we do at present. This means openly acknowledging the challenges that we have to face when we imagine and strive towards a better future. So let’s be bold and future-oriented but also reflexive and inclusive in our efforts to shape the future of complex systems.


[1] van der Helm, Ruud, The vision phenomenon: Towards a theoretical underpinning of visions of the future and the process of envisioning, Futures, 41 (2), pp. 96—104 (2009). doi:10.1016/j.futures.2008.07.036.

[2] van der Helm, Ruud, The vision phenomenon: Towards a theoretical underpinning of visions of the future and the process of envisioning, Futures, 41 (2), pp. 96—104 (2009). doi:10.1016/j.futures.2008.07.036.

[3] Against this tendency, Tuominen et al. (2014) argue for incorporating pluralistic backcasting and multiple visions into policy planning. At present “multiple visions” sounds like an oxymoron, but it is an important discussion whether this needs to be the case. See Tuominen, Anu; Tapio, Petri; Varho, Vilja; Järvi, Tuuli and Banister, David, Pluralistic backcasting: Integrating multiple visions with policy packages for transport climate policy, Futures, 60, pp. 41—58 (2014). doi:10.1016/j.futures.2014.04.014.

[4] The broad notion of reflexivity is influenced by the work of Mats Alvesson. See Alvesson, Mats and Sköldberg, Kaj, Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research, (2009).

[5] Adam, Barbara and Groves, Chris, Future Matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics, (2007), p. 185.

[6] van der Voorn, Tom; Pahl-Wostl, Claudia and Quist, Jaco, Combining backcasting and adaptive management for climate adaptation in coastal regions: A methodology and a South African case study, Futures, 44 (4), pp. 346—364 (2012). doi:10.1016/j.futures.2011.11.003.

[7] Eriksson, E. Anders and Weber, K. Matthias, Adaptive Foresight: Navigating the complex landscape of policy strategies, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 75 (4), pp. 462-482 (2008). doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2008.02.006.