Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Reading:: Future Workshops

Originally posted: Tue, 16 Sep 2003 19:38:00

Future Workshops: How to Create Desirable Futures
Robert Jungk, Norbert Mullert

I had to get this book through interlibrary loan, and when it came time to link to it, I had to go to amazon.co.uk rather than amazon.com. This book has not had a wide circulation within the U.S. And that's understandable. The book reads like a breathless political tract, or even a religious tract, in which we're urged to resist the evil forces that seek to take control of our lives. Here's a sample:

"What is a future workshop all about? Well, the man in the street has practically no say when it comes to jobs, the environment or the way the future is shaped. All of these aspects of our lives are in the hands of the politicians, the industrialists and the experts. To remedy this non-democratic state of affairs and to show that things can be done better, Robert Jungk and his co-workers, over a decade ago, developed the future workshop method. The idea behind it is that the silent majority actually has plenty to say about what our towns and neighbourhoods should be like, about jobs and industry [and] energy and all their other needs." (pp.51-52)
And so forth. It has the sort of fervor mixed with simple hope that one would expect from a Green Party rally or a self-help book. And it's easy to dismiss the book and its bifurcated view of powerful/powerless. But one has to remember that this book was written by a German who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and attempted to alert the European media to the menace -- and it was written a couple of years before the Berlin Wall came down. Jungk and Mullert specifically cite Lech Walesa as an influence. Jungk's Future Workshops approach is clearly an attempt to encourage workers to take control of their lives in the face of nascent totalitarian regimes.

One can see why this idealistic, vaguely socialist approach was adopted wholesale by the Scandinavians as they developed participatory design. Even though the book wasn't published until 1987, the FW approach has been around since the 1960s and clearly influenced the Scandinavians deeply. The powerful/powerless dichotomy became mapped onto the capital/labor dichotomy that drove PD at the outset. What really interested me about reading this book, though, was that Jungk saw entrenched union leaders as the powerful! He suggests that future workshops should involve, not elected union leaders or their representatives, but rank-and-file workers who have volunteered in response to direct appeals by the FW organizers (p.79). What an about-face this approach took in the hands of the Scandinavians, where the oppressors became the oppressed. The more I look into this line of research, the more fascinating it gets.

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