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EPPA Pillar: Futures

One of the major challenges for Public Administration is to anticipate the futures and to include this knowledge and capacity in policies and governance. Public Administration research and teaching runs too much behind the facts; however it should also be in front of the facts, it should not just push realities but also pull realities. 

According to this logic it is important to bring not just scenario’s, but also ´utopias´ back to social sciences. ´Utopia´ is in this sense one method to develop ‘possible futures’. For Elias ‘utopia’ becomes part of a social science research toolkit, just like critique of sources, statistics, studies of trajectories, reconstructing networks, content analysis, reception studies, comparison, etc. (Elias, 2009). Utopia as a social science technique allows one to look at potentials for realization, a gap analysis, and possible futures. Utopias also put more emphasis on teleological rationality, rather than causality, of change patterns. They put path dependency, bifurcations, and constraints in the perspective of reverse logics, backward mapping, effect/cause or objective/means logics much more central. For Elias this helps to re-evaluate the role of imagination in social sciences and opposes the fatalism of incrementalism and pragmatism in research and policies.

The purpose is to keep an eye on the future: How can we learn trusting utopias and distrusting dystopias, learning to think beyond short-term problems and solutions, but trying to be as realistic as possible.


Summary

EPPA and Futures (20-21 October 2016 in Leuven)

The aim of the EPPA Futures Seminar - which took place at KU Leuven on the occasion of the Leuven city festival ‘500 YEARS UTOPIA’ dedicated to Thomas More ́s ‘Utopia’ published in 1516 in Leuven - was to bring ‘utopias’ as one method to develop ‘possible futures’ back to social sciences and especially to Public Administration. We need to keep an eye on the future, learn to think beyond short-term problems and solutions, asking how we can learn to trust utopias and to distrust dystopias, but trying to be as realistic as possible. In five sessions on “General futures and innovations”, “Futures cities, utopian architecture”, “Future citizens and diversity”, “(Big) Data & IoT” and “Ecotopia” the participants discussed approaches to envision possible futures and future challenges for the public sector as well as for Public Administration as an academic field of study.

In the end, the seminar created more questions than answers, but at least very salient and productive questions. Summing up the many inputs and intense debates during these sessions and as a starting point to follow-up on the discussion about the future of the European Public Administration, the following seven 'lessons learned' can be highlighted as a very short summary:

  1. Problems with utopias? PA scholars are not used to think about and with utopias, because utopias have a strong normative connotation. In general, this way of thinking is hard to combine with traditional social sciences, but we need to find more relaxed ways to cope with utopias. 'This is utopian' should not be the end of a debate, but a beginning.
  2. Utopia by whom and for whom? Where do utopias come from: technocrats, visionary entrepreneurs, civil society? We have to be aware that there are many sources of utopias, and none of them is without its own problems. We should trust and distrust them all, but we should be especially aware of blindly trusting experts telling us how things will be.
  3. PA is not a trendsetter? In its own view PA is too often running behind the trends, only reacting towards developments which are already happening. But why should that be the case? If the aim is to shape the future agenda - and we should not leave that to all kinds of other, often very unscientific , discourses - we have to engage more with the future, not less.
  4. Different rationalities? As always there are different ways to understand not only the past, but also the future. So we should be aware of different utopias concerning how a legal, efficient, effective and legitimate public sector could and should look like. But we should also be aware that there are perhaps other, until now neglected rationalities? 

  5. Scale and scope? Should utopias be more local or more global? Should they be long term oriented or should they be about our immediate future? There is no definite answer. We need to be open to different provocations.
  6. Utopias for some, dystopias for others? Yes, obviously we will not agree on utopias. While some may strive for a totally transparent and open society, for others this may be the road to serfdom. We have to live with deep and unresolvable contradictions and ambiguities. We have to accept indeterminable ambiguities as a fact of life.
  7. Dangers of utopias? Yes, trying to realize utopias may create severe problems. We have ample experience of that in the last century. But it would be a strange lesson, that we therefore should stop thinking about possible futures and how to achieve them. 


The overall challenge is how to organize and institutionalize teaching and research in the future, taking ‘futures’ into account.

see more EPPA: "Futures Seminar"