09- Content, Context, and Causes: Exploring how futures thinking can enhance the work of systemic design


Quinn Davidson, Robin Fribance, and Emily Krause

Participants in this workshop will explore and play at the intersection of systems and futures thinking. Using the established foresight technique, causal layered analysis (CLA), we will investigate potential futures that could arise when change is introduced into a given system. Facilitators will support participants in considering different levels of analysis and debate the merits of particular changes that may arise as a result of various possible futures.

This workshop will introduce the importance of pairing futures thinking with systemic design in order to better understand how to navigate existing tensions within complex systems. Specifically, workshop participants will work through an established futures thinking framework to identify and unpack the deepest underlying structures of a changing system, and together in small groups, ideate possible new narratives and future scenarios. In this way, participants will learn how to consider multiple possible outcomes and implications for the systemic interventions that might be made.

In alignment with the sub-conference theme “collaboration and transdisciplinary working,” we believe that it is critical for systemic designers and changemakers to not only understand how our systems are working today but also to take a futures thinking approach to understanding how the interventions that we attempt to enact in the present may play out in the future.

To this end, this workshop will introduce frameworks, concepts and methodology from the discipline of strategic foresight and engage participants in how they can draw on futures thinking in their own work as systemic designers.

Futures thinking and causal layered analysis

This workshop will introduce the CLA framework as a method to unpack and dig below the surface to understand the changes that we see in our world today.

CLA is a technique created by Sohail Inayatullah, a highly reputable strategic foresight researcher and practitioner. The CLA is used to frame a complex situation or domain and to better understand the underlying forces that are driving its current state, as well as to shape the future of that situation or domain, including systems-level changes. In strategic foresight, this technique is also used to consider how different potential futures might come about through a process of strategic scenario planning.

CLA layers

The layers that Inayatullah describes in the CLA are:

  • Litany, which includes quantitative trends and the most conventional understanding of the changes happening around us as portrayed by popular media and political discourse.
  • Causes that encompass the economic, socio-cultural, political and/or historical rationale or reasons for the trends that have been observed.
  • Structure and the discourse that legitimizes and supports the structure.
  • Metaphor and myth occupy the deepest level of our individual and collective worldviews.

CLA is used in strategic foresight and futures thinking and is similar to the popular systems thinking iceberg model that effectively works to look ‘below the surface’ to identify the patterns and trends, structures, and mental models underlying a given event in order to better understand how we might intervene to create change in the system where that event is taking place. The iceberg is often associated with understanding the deeply held beliefs about why things happen.

On the other hand, CLA is an approach that can be utilized to reconstruct a situation from alternative points of view. It is useful for understanding the evolution of long-term paradigms by placing the emphasis on narrative or cultural points of view. By using the CLA to workshop potential changes in a given system, participants can explore and begin to understand, by considering multiple potential and alternative futures, the various impacts and implications of those changes on tomorrow’s systems.


Facilitators are all strategic foresight practitioners and graduates of OCAD University’s Masters of Design Strategic Foresight and Innovation program.

Workshop format

90 minutes | TBA | Maximum number of participants 25

Workshop Agenda: Futures thinking

Part 1: Introduction (15 minutes)

Practically, the workshop will include a short presentation from the facilitators about the iceberg model and the CLA to help frame how and why we will be unpacking drivers of change with this particular methodology.

Part 2: Working groups (60 minutes)

Participants will break into small groups of 3-5. Given a list of drivers of change pertaining to the changing landscape of work, each group will choose one driver and work through the CLA framework in order to uncover the underlying myths and metaphors of that particular change.

Once identified, the group will then identify 2-3 alternate metaphors that might take the place of the existing one, and work back “up” through each of the layers of the CLA. By repeating this exercise, participants will learn how to develop and consider multiple possible futures, and in turn, develop a sense of how making changes today can have different implications as we move into the future.

Part 3: Debrief (15 minutes)

At the end of the exercise, facilitators will guide each group to share their insights and new metaphors. Facilitators will then lead a group discussion and debrief to share learnings and reflect on how different types of intervention might be made in today’s systems in order to move towards some of the more desirable futures.

the CLA iceberg shows the four layers

The CLA Iceberg. (Source: Inayatullah, Sohail, Appendices, The Causal Layered Analysis Reader, Theory and Case Studies of an Integrative and Transformative Methodology, Eds. Sohail Inayatullah, Tamkang University Press, Taiwan, p. 544)

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Author(s) (20XX). Article title. In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSDX) 20XX Symposium. City, Country, Month X-X, 20XX.

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