Máire A. Dugan

July 2003

Original Publication July 2003. Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in February, 2021


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It is sad to read about Máire's Race Relations 2020 project, which was developed in the early 2000s to examine what race relations might look like in 2020--and now realize what it actually did look like in 2020. One could conclude from that, that trying to envision the future is worthless. But I would argue that it is not. I often tell my students that you can't get to a place if you don't know where that place is.  In my class on reconciliation, I argue that you can't work for reconciliation if you don't know what reconciliation is.  And part of knowing what reconciliation is, is having an image of what a reconciled society would look like.   More...


"I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge -
That myth is more potent than history,
I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts -
That hope always triumphs over experience -
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death."
 -- Robert Fulghum taken from http://www.robertfulghum.com/

For most of us, the future is unfamiliar territory, a land for poets and dreamers, to be visited by mere mortals only through an occasional work of science fiction. Thinking about the future is often relegated to the young, as in, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The rest of us merely bemoan, along with Yogi Berra, that "The future ain't what it used to be."

This is not to say that there is no future orientation in everyday life. Much of human ingenuity and creativity is focused on the future -- whether it be the search for a better light bulb, the effort to put a person on the moon, or strategies for balancing next year's budget. The same can be said of conflict resolution. For a mediator or conciliator, the focus is on helping parties move away from a present burdened by conflict and into a future of greater harmony or, more modestly, on moving toward the cessation of hostilities. But these common efforts are typically focused on a short-term future, where the issue is concrete and specific. (Although sometimes rather improbable, as putting a person on the moon must have seemed to many when President Kennedy announced it as a goal in the early 1960s.)

Our tendency to shy away from imaginative engagement with the future is problematic when we find ourselves in conflict. The difficulty is magnified when the conflict is complex, painful, and intractable. Conflict is in the present and has its roots and origins in the past. But if we're going to find our way out of it, we need to move toward a future different from the past and present. Grappling with intractable conflict requires us to create a path to a future so different from the present that it is hard to imagine.

How we go about defining that future is the business of envisioning.

Ways of Looking at the Future

In The Future is Ours, Graham H. May explores ways of looking toward the future. He divides approaches to the future into three categories: foreseeing, managing, and creating.

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Foreseeing. Methods of "foreseeing" range from the oft-maligned unscientific arts, such as astrology, to intricate extrapolations based on careful study of social and economic determinants, as exemplified by the best-selling Megatrends series. Depending on the credibility of the forecast, people may find predictions helpful in deciding how to prepare for what's coming. For example, we are more likely to bring umbrellas with us if the weather person warns that a front is moving into the area and will bring rain. Such predictions may succeed in helping us prevent inconvenience and cost, or maximize the likelihood of enjoyment or other benefits. We may, for example, delay a trip to the beach if rough weather is probable, or take the same trip as scheduled because the prediction indicates an ideal time for swimming, surfing, or sunbathing.

Yet the undependability of weather forecasts offers us insight into general problems with depending on predictions. After all, weather can be so erratic that observation of divergences from weather forecasts helped to lay the foundation for the development of chaos theory. The farther into the future a forecast goes, the less we can depend on its reliability. Even short-range forecasts can be quite inaccurate. When dealing with a human system, such as conflicts, we should expect predictions to be even less dependable.

Managing. May's second approach to the future, "management," is a less problematic approach than foreseeing. Projecting a range of likely futures, we can try both to be better prepared to handle the most likely contingencies and to steer things toward preferred outcomes. Oftentimes, the process used to identify likely futures is a combination of extrapolation of current trends and the development of scenarios ranging from best to worst case. Once likely futures are identified, important questions can be raised. For instance: How should our constituency (organization, community or nation) respond to maximize its benefits in the case of an optimal future? How can we minimize our losses in a worst case? How can we make the optimal case more likely? What can we do to block the occurrence of a worst case? The management approach assumes not only that we are able to envision future with some degree of accuracy, but that we are also able to influence it -- to move things in the direction of a more desirable future.

Additional insights into envisioning are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.


Envisioning is a central component of the third approach to the future -- "creating" it. Here, we not only assume that we can influence the future and make an optimal future more likely, we also free ourselves from the notion that certain solutions are less plausible than others. Such an approach is of great import when dealing with an intractable conflict. The intractability itself suggests that forecasting will be of little consolation. We already know that unless something changes, the conflict and its attendant damages will continue. Management offers little help either, since violent conflicts tend to spiral out of control. While management may help us to limit loss, it cannot by itself enable us to prevent it. So, we try to figure out what can be done to create a new future that will bring the conflict to a constructive conclusion.

Another way of looking at conflict is to think in terms of alternative futures that can be classified as plausible, probable, or preferred.[1] Once again, the intractability of the conflict renders focusing on probable or even plausible futures of limited value except, possibly, in terms of doomsday rhetoric. When dealing with intractable conflict, it is most useful to focus on preferred futures. Markley offers the notion of "normative" preferred futures. A normative preferred future is one that is preferred because it corresponds with one's values. It is a future...

worth spending time to envision, talk about, and work towards, even before all the details have been worked out regarding how it might "work," and become fully plausible to all who need to pull together or make it happen. The purpose of most normative futures research and forecasting is thus to help facilitate the process of moving a specific vision of future reality through the following sequence as time unfolds: preferable -> plausible -> probable -> realized.[2]

The Envisioning Process

Undertaking an envisioning process may seem a challenging task even with a group not experiencing conflict. How do we call upon participants to exercise powers of imagination that they do not normally use? Imagination is like any other mental power; it requires practice to develop.

Fortunately, there have been a number of strategies developed to help us harness our imaginations in the service of creating new and better ways of dealing with organizational problems and strategic planning. With some refinement and re-design, they can prove useful in dealing with intractable conflicts. While teaching a course on "Envisioning in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution," I developed such a hybrid process. I now use it for Race Relations 2020, a project in Columbia, South Carolina, whose purpose is to reduce racial tension and increase interracial collaboration. Initial work with the process has proved fruitful and it may serve as a paradigm in other intractable conflicts.

The process relies heavily on two preexisting envisioning processes, Futures Invention[3] and the Search Conference.[4] I initially described its stages in a presentation at the National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution in 2001:

Goal Statement. In the first stage of the process, participants are asked to work individually, focusing on the conflict arena. They are asked to think about a time in the medium-term future (I normally use a timeframe about 20 years in the future, allowing sufficient distance from the present that participants consider it theoretically possible that the situation may have changed substantially while still being within the lifetime of most of the participants) and to describe in a sentence or two their community as they would like it to become. In other words, participants are asked to identify their normative preferred future. I ask participants to consider goals that are important enough to them that they want to work for their achievement, and to which they are willing to commit themselves. I encourage them to free themselves from what they think likely or even possible, to be free to invent the best possible situation.

Clarification. In the clarification stage, participants are divided into small groups of two or three and asked to help each other clarify their goal statements. The purpose here is not to judge or even influence, but merely to work on the goal statement so that all participants will have the same understanding of exactly what the person stating the goal means. A brief story may help illuminate this process. In my own first "futures invention" exercise, I mistakenly assumed that the phrase "world peace" adequately conveyed exactly what I wished to see 25 years in the future. Warren Ziegler helpfully pointed out to me that other people would impose their own vision on this generalized statement and that precisely because it could mean everything, it really meant nothing. My partners then helped me elucidate what I actually meant when I used the term "world peace." By the time I finished this part of the exercise, not only was I better able to convey my meaning to others, I was clearer about it myself.

Indicators and Consequences. The next two exercises help participants in their efforts to firm up their vision statements. In the first, I ask participants to list a number of things that would let them know that their goals have been achieved. If they were suddenly catapulted into the year in which their visions have been achieved, what sorts of things would they look for to verify their achievement? I encourage them to use all of their senses as well as to think about documentary evidence. The consequences exercise asks participants to identify likely results of their visions, both positive and negative. No move is without negative consequences. If we think about these drawbacks ahead of time, we may be able to reduce or mute them. Some consequences may be so horrific as to suggest significant revision of the goal; others suggest slight modifications.

Future Present Moment. This exercise is one of the most exciting parts of the process and also probably the most difficult one for most participants to undertake, at least initially. In it, participants are asked to imagine themselves living in their desired futures. It is important that they be as concrete as possible. I therefore ask specific questions: Where do you live? What is your living environment like? How do you spend your day? What do you do when you wake up in the morning? How do you feel? What are you excited about? What do you fear? As participants get in touch with their own personal experience in their imaged future, they become more able to express the future itself in concrete terms and to determine whether there is anything they would like to change in their goals statements.

Futures History. The futures history is the part of the process most difficult to explain to people who have been trained not to use their imaginations. It is a challenging process. In this exercise, participants move into their projected futures as they do in the Future Present Moment, but now ask themselves how they and their colleagues reached this point. In other words, how did your future come into being? The exercise calls for them "to remember" key events, working backward in like-sized time intervals, until finally they identify a key event in the time period immediately following the present time in which they are doing the exercise.

Futures Sharing. During this stage of the process, the participants render their goal statements, indicators, consequences, and futures histories on large sheets of paper and display them around the room. Participants read one another's visions and note similarities and differences. After having read all materials, the participants engage one another in clarifying conversations, noting whose visions have the most in common with their own.

While participants may feel that many of the preceding exercises are empowering but difficult, this stage tends to be purely inspirational. People may have deep-seated enmities and distrust in the present, but they often find a great deal in common in their visions of the future. And even if there are differences, the differences tend not to fall neatly along party lines.

Policy Team Formation. When working with a large group, or if goals are strongly divergent, it may be helpful to allow the participants to divide up into teams. In this case, I ask participants to gather themselves into teams around common visions and to begin once again the steps described, this time developing group goal statements and futures histories. The idea is to reduce the general spread of the large group into a smaller number of "scenarios whose proponents could maintain the integrity of their individual images while at the same time generating a commonly-held future which represent[s] their collective intentioning."[5] (Italics in original)

Present System Analysis. In this portion of the envisioning process, I ask participants to focus on the system they're working on, and to identify its "strengths and weaknesses, what to keep, drop, and create."[6] Theoretically, such a list could be developed at any point in the process. Because it does serve to provide a shared analysis of the problems to be overcome, it might be tempting to do it early on. I strongly recommend, however, waiting until future goals are concretized before focusing on the present. It is naturally difficult for people to free themselves from the pressures of the conflict system before defining their goals. If they are asked to begin by evaluating the current situation, it is more difficult for them to accurately express their goals for the future. Therefore, it is important that the goal identification and development exercises precede the present-system analysis.

Constraints and Opportunities. After having discussed the system in its own terms, participants look at it from the vantage point of their desirable futures. In particular, what are the aspects of the present that can serve as resources for moving toward the desirable futures, and what are the inhibitors? How can the resources be utilized effectively, and how can the constraints be bypassed?

The discussion of constraints proved particularly powerful in one group with which I was working. After having identified constraints in the present, they were overwhelmed by the obstacles that seemed stacked against the achievement of their vision. In the midst of their "desperation" (the word they used to describe their angst at discovering the impossibility of achieving their stated goals), they undertook their own reframing exercise, evaluating the resources available to them. As they worked through this, they felt a need to revise their goal statement and then to look again at how to get around constraints and utilize resources. This reframing process could be induced in a similarly desperate group by focusing on resources, rather than constraints alone.

Consensus Development. Up until now, the work has been done individually or in policy teams. Now it is time for everyone to look at all of the visions, and see how they feel about one another's futures, whether they are merely different, mutually supportive, or actually in opposition. Can the full group use each policy team's work as a resource in moving the full group forward to a commonly shared, desirable future? If the answer is yes, it is time to develop a coherent strategic plan. If not, it is important to note where the futures diverge and use that as a resource for either redoing some of the exercises or for returning to more standard conflict resolution devices, empowered by the greater clarity and mutual respect the foregoing exercises should have engendered.

Strategy Development and Assignments. Presuming that the full group can develop consensus on a desirable future toward which to work, it is now time to develop a specific plan of action. This should include specific assignments and a time line. Who in the group is going to do what and when are they going to do it? When and how will they check in with one another to report on how things are proceeding? How will they go about redesigning as they run into unforeseen impediments or opportunities?

Implementing the Process

The question remains: Who are the envisioners? In an intractable conflict, who must be involved in the imaging process in order to have an impact on the conflict?

To answer the question, I turn to the pyramid John Paul Lederach has developed to remind us of the different types of actors within conflicting parties. Broadly speaking, the pyramid is divided into three levels. The top level includes leaders with broad name recognition and constituency bases, "the key political and military leaders in the conflict."[7] The middle level includes "persons in leadership positions within a setting of protracted conflict, but whose position is defined in ways not necessarily ...controlled by ... the formal government or major opposition movements."[8] At the bottom of the pyramid are the grassroots.

Lederach himself gives great attention to the middle level. Such leaders are not beset by some of the constraints of those at the top who are in greater public view and are likely already tied to specific positions. But they have important linkages both to top leaders and to the grassroots. For these reasons, Elise Boulding chose people from this middle level to participate in "Imaging a World Without Weapons," the best-known example of using Futures Invention for conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

However, other exigencies may suggest other types of actors. If the conflict is at a conflagration stage, one may want to include the top leaders themselves in envisioning efforts. If this is not possible or ill advised, at the very least one would look to the highest echelons of the middle level. Where massive violence is imminent or already occurring, the closer one can get to decision-makers who can call a halt to it, the better.

On the other hand, many intractable conflicts are not encumbered by broad-scale physical violence at the moment. Rather, there are deep and long-term divisions within communities. Such is the case in my own focus of work: racial tension in U.S. cities. Here, the grassroots is the proper locus of action. There are numerous reasons for this, but two stand out. First, any significant change has to be supported by the allegedly "silent" majority. Although they are not vocal or active politically, they can still undo policies they do not support, by voting the proponents out at the next election, for example. Involving the "silent majority" from the outset should help to generate buy-in to new ideas.

The second reason is less obvious in a culture overly impressed with narrow definitions of expertise. People at the grassroots level have creative ideas. When there is protracted conflict, ordinary people live their lives in its maelstrom, without the shields from its impact afforded to the elite. They know the problems in an intimate way on an everyday basis. When provided with an environment that allows them to develop some trust for their counterparts in the conflict, and invited to share their perspectives and visions, they generate wonderfully imaginative normative futures and strategies for achieving them.

One problem remains. If the masses are by definition not the top leaders and decision-makers, how do their ideas impact the top? Further, how does the likely small number of participants impact the great numbers of their fellows at the grassroots? Heidi and Guy Burgess refer to this as the "scale-up problem" -- how one moves from a small group of people transformed by a process to larger and larger groups of people, equally transformed, until the whole society can see the future in a new (and hopefully brighter) way.

Race Relations 2020 deals with this conundrum by drawing its participants from established organizations within the community, primarily neighborhood associations and churches. Columbia, South Carolina, has an impressive infrastructure of neighborhood associations through which residents can make desired changes not only in their individual neighborhoods, but in their larger communities and the city itself. Located in the heart of the South, most residents are actively involved in their faith communities, which then contribute directly to the quality of life in the larger community. Race Relations 2020 participants are invited as delegates and asked to relay their learning to their constituencies, as well as to invite their constituencies to join in projects to actualize their visions.


While some may think it overly optimistic to think that people engaged in intractable conflict can work together on generating common visions for the future, visioning may in fact be a key part of finding a path to peace.

For example, at the end of World War II, Europe was devastated. Cities were bombed out, populations decimated, economies in tatters. The Marshall Plan is often credited with Europe's miraculous recovery, and while its impact should not be underestimated, it is also important to look at what Europeans themselves were doing. They alone could provide leadership to deal with yet another consequence of the war, one perhaps more daunting than the others: the ongoing enmity between France and Germany. Europe had experienced two devastatingly destructive wars in little more than two decades, and France-German hostility and competition contributed greatly to both. Given that the discord went back generations and had caused or exacerbated earlier armed hostilities, there was every reason to fear that it would fuel yet another continental conflagration.

Yet within a remarkably short time, France and Germany not only ceased being enemies but gradually became partners and friends. At first this was on a limited scale in the form of the Coal and Steel Community. Gradually, it expanded to include more and more trade, monetary policy, and eventually even political connectedness in the form of the European Union, of which these former enemies are now the core.

This progression was hardly accidental. It was the carefully thought-out plan of its architect, Jean Monnet, who envisioned a united Europe. Monnet focused on the future even in the face of present crisis. Referring to the rapidity of the fall of Paris in June 1940, Monnet said, "From one moment to the next, part of the history of France had to be written in the past tense. It was urgently necessary to build a different future."[9] Commenting on Roosevelt's statement -- "It's not a matter of what we can do, but of what we must do" -- he noted that such a philosophy, "which concentrates on what is necessary, is more realistic than one which takes account only of what is possible."[10]

Armed with little more than his conviction that peace would not come to Europe unless it spanned national boundaries, and his philosophy of focusing on necessity rather than possibility, Monnet gradually succeeded in creating the infrastructure for a united Europe. He was elected to no political office in his lifetime. He was never a political party leader; in fact, he did not belong to a party. He was not a captain of industry. Yet he succeeded in making his implausible vision a reality.

Those of us dealing with intractable conflict can choose to be inspired by his example. And, like him, we can define our visions for peace, put our energy and talent to work, and create a world that few would have dared thought possible.


Current Implications

It is sad to read about Máire's Race Relations 2020 project, which was developed in the early 2000s to examine what race relations might look like in 2020--and now realize what it actually did look like in 2020. One could conclude from that, that trying to envision the future is worthless. But I would argue that it is not. I often tell my students that you can't get to a place if you don't know where that place is.  In my class on reconciliation, I argue that you can't work for reconciliation if you don't know what reconciliation is.  And part of knowing what reconciliation is, is having an image of what a reconciled society would look like. 

That is extremely important now, in 2021.  Many people, on both sides of our political divide are upset about the degree of political polarization in our country.  Most would like to see our Congresspeople work together more effectively, so that they could actually begin to solve our many pressing problems.  But few of these people, I suspect, know what a politically reconciled U.S. would look like.  

That's why we do a unit in my Reconciliation course that I call "prospective reconciliation." Here we look ahead and try to imagine what a reconciled society would look like.  That's not the same as imagining one's own perfect society, I point out, as one's own "perfect society" would probably not be desirable to people who do not share your values, your place in the world, and most importantly in the U.S. right now, your politics. I push my students to try to envision a world that "everyone would want to live in."  Guy tells me that such an image is similar to Rawl's definition of justice.  I can't find a Rawl's quote that confirms this, but according to Guy he argued that justice is a situation that you would find acceptable, were you to land in that situation as any of the people involved.  So if it would be equally good to be a Black or a White, a Trans or a Cisgendered Male, a young person or an old one in your reconciled society. That would, according to Guy, meet Rawl's definition of justice.  Even if Rawls didn't say that--if that's Guy's definition of justice, it seems like a good definition of true reconciliation too. And the only way to be able to reach such a point or place is to have an image of what that would be like before you start working on it.  Only then will you know what to work for.

In December of 2020, Ebrahim Rasool, a former ambassador to the U.S. from South Africa, gave a talk at the Alliance for Peacebuilding's meeting, PeaceCon2020, entitled Making Peace in a Polarized Nation.  In this talk, he gave seven ideas about how America might overcome its deep polarization and systemic racism, based on his knowledge of the South African struggle against apartheid.  The first of these was that you have to understand that "the other is here to stay."  The Whites in South Africa weren't leaving, nor were the Blacks.  Similarly, neither the Democrats, nor the Republicans are leaving.  Second, he said, you need to "start with the end."  In South Africa, he explained, the ANC started their struggle by defining their ultimate vision for South African society--that South Africa "belonged to everyone who lived there."  ... That not only [was] a statement of vision, it [was] an extension of friendship.  It [was] an act of generosity." Even as Whites continued to dis-empower (and often kill) Blacks in South Africa, the Blacks had the "supreme humanity to say that South Africa even belong[ed] to [the White oppressors as well as the Blacks]. That disrupt[ed] the little pictures [the Whites had] constructed in [their] minds" and allowed people to open themselves up to new ideas. [11]

Despite the fact that Máire's Race Relations 2020 project didn't foresee what happened in 2020, her process was a good one, and improved race relations, at least over the short term, in Charleston, South Carolina.  Another approach to envisioning that Máire didn't mention was the envisioning workshops that Elise Boulding used to run about imagining a world without weapons.  Early on in the history of Beyond Intractability, Julian Portilla interviewed Elise and they talked about these imaging workshops.  In that interview, she said she got interested in future studies through Fred Polak, who theorized that societies that have positive images of the future are empowered by those images to act creatively in the present.  Societies that have negative images, he said, will just wither away. [12] Elise said that she went to a conference on disarmament in Sweden after World War II.  At that time she asked the disarmament experts, "If we really had disarmament, how would the world function?" She continued in her interview, "Not a single person on that panel had anything that they could say. I realized that the peace movement was working on peace without knowing what a peaceful world would look like. They didn't know what they were working for." So she began using imaging workshops to help people imagine what such a world would look like, and then she had people work backwards to the present, trying to figure out how one could get from where we are now to that desired future. I do this exercise in my reconciliation course, and it always yields interesting ideas. 

Elise linked her imaging notion to her husband Kenneth's "First Law" --"What exists is possible."  That meant, she pointed out, that since other societies had emerged from war, from very difficult conflicts, to live peacefully--that such an emergence is possible.  "I would say for any peacemaker, that the best example that you can think of is possible, and it is important. I would advise people to spend some time doing some imagining about what kind of world they are working for. Doing their own personal imaging. Knowing what you are working for affects your choices and what you do now. If you are reaching a difficult decision point in your own life, then think about that image of what you are working for and which way to go in relation to that. This would not necessarily answer it, but it would help." [13]

-- Heidi Burgess, Feb. 2021.

Back to Essay Top

[1] MarOliver W. Markley, "The Fourth Wave: A Normative Forecast for the Future of "Spaceship Earth," [article on-line] (University of Houston-Clear Lake, accessed 30 September 2002), 3; available at http://www.inwardboundvisioning.com/Docs/SpaceShipEarth.htm, Internet.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Warren Ziegler, Mindbook of Exercises for Futures Inventors (Denver, CO: Futures Invention Associates, 1978); Elise Boulding, Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World (New York: Teachers College Press, 1989); Ma'ire A. Dugan, "Imaging the Future as a Tool for Conflict Resolution," in Peacebuilding: A Field Guide, eds. Luc Reychler and Thania Paffenholtz (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2001).

[4] Merrelyn Emery and Purser, Ronald E. The Search Conference: A Powerful Method for Planning Organizational Change and Community Action (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).

[5] Warren Ziegler, Ways of Enspiriting: Transformative Practices for the 21st Century (Denver: FIA International LLC, 1994), 246.

[6] Emery and Purser, 184.

[7] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1997), 38.

[8] Ibid, 41.

[9] Monnet, 1978, p. 21

[10] Ibid, 173-174.

[11] Heidi Burgess, "Ebrahim Rasool on What America Might Learn From South Africa's 300+ Years of Struggle" Beyond Intractability. December 16, 2020. https://www.beyondintractability.org/cci-mbi-cv19-blog/ebrahim-rasool and "Making Peace in a Polarized Nation" PeaceCon2020, December 8, 2020. https://events.bizzabo.com/PeaceCon2020/agenda/session/420070

[12] and [13] Elise Boulding talking about Visioning and Future Studies, Interviewed by Julian Portilla. 2003. https://www.beyondintractability.org/audiodisplay/boulding-e-3-future-studies1   

Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Envisioning." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/visioning>.

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