Post Conflict Futures is an ongoing project, where displaced Syrian academics meet in Visioning Labs and a global scenario group to jointly reflect on possible future developments and to look for actionable leverage points to work proactively for sustainable transitions. The collective visioning aims to identify aspects that may be critical in strategies for sustainable post conflict reconstruction, notably in the socio-technical implications of different infrastructure options.
A crisis such as that in Syria creates shocks to infrastructure and people. These shocks generate emergencies and responses. But the collapse of existing structures can also open opportunities for a paradigm shift. In several cases, infrastructure shocks have opened opportunities that enable higher order learning with the potential to catalyse a transition towards sustainable and resilient structures (Broto et al., 2014) . This has implications to the design of processes and practices to rebuild communities.
The project will serve as a platform for catalyzing strategic knowledge using the impetus from infrastructure shocks which result from the ongoing conflicts in the region. In the Post Conflict Futures Visioning Labs, holistic and integrating understanding of complex and uncertain issues is supported by approaching the issues ’diagonally’ across institutional and technological scales, by using geographical localisation as conceptual scaffolding anchored in the material, and by focusing on the structuring and distributive implications of infrastructure options over time.
Conflicts rip apart the social fabric, and undermine relations of trust and solidarity that are needed to mobilize populations and support collaboration across communities. Problems in the coordination of reconstruction efforts involving multiple types of actors at different levels can lead to blind spots, bottlenecks and a loss of long-term vision. In the wake of open hostiliites, frozen conflicts may emerge, involving locked situations with absence of responsible government, or factions deliberately attempting to aggravate the situation and damage other parties.
When the conflict ends, massive reconstruction efforts and investments will be needed. Large-scale capital intensive projects involve strong actors who tend to set the agenda and shape overall structures. While certain technical choices have the potential to support reconciliation and empowerment of the most vulnerable, other infrastructure elements can function as mediums of isolation/domination. Infrastructure choices have consequences for livelihoods, relationships between communities, or access to and distribution of resources. They also create relationships of long term dependency and interdependency within and beyond national borders. Importantly, characteristics in initial structures will have implications for subsequent developments.
While post-conflict settings thus give rise to serious challenges, the overt failure of existing arrangements also opens opportunities for change and learning. Transitions (Geels & Schot, 2010) depend on simultaneous significant change. They involve changing ’culturally accepted beliefs and associated regulations’ (Broto et al. 2014) Such shifts might come about when there is a ’general attitude towards paradigm questioning’ (ibid.) Broto et al. further argue that: ”reimagining infrastructure may require anticipatory learning for innovation, of the type that reflects multiple values in society and acknowledges the uncertainties inherent to understanding a complex world”.
Scenario and visioning work creates flexible frames of relevance and prioritization anchored in human cultural significance, which is vital for both engagement and communicability. The communicability of such narratives is a key factor for shaping collaborative multi-stakeholder alliances across disciplines, sectors or localities. Transitions depend on mobilizing concerted collective action. There therefore is a need for shared visions that are convincing, understandable and anchored in cultural and material realities, both for self-organizing and in order to mobilize and synchronize efforts.
Scenarios and visioning further allow to reflect strategically in settings of extreme uncertainty characterised by rapid and unpredictable changes. They offer advantages by not being limited to a particular course of events, and by not presupposing agreement or consensus. Offering a framework for collective conversations and continued reflection, scenarios thus have eminently dynamic and heuristic qualities. They are particularly valuable in the face of extreme uncertainties (Schwartz, 1991). Rather than focusing on ’problems’ or ’solutions’, emphasis lies on exploring different possibilities and their implications. This helps envisage action in the face of uncertain futures, but also supports openness in imagining and discussing various options.
Narratives can function as bridging artefacts beyond the group where they were initially shaped, to the extent that they give sufficient contextual detail for abstract patterns of thought to be related to lived experiences, while not depending on disciplinary jargon or existing institutional framing. Further significant characteristics are that they support action by including designation of responsible social agents, clarifying developments over time, and providing suggestions concerning possible causal links and consequences. Scenarios can thereby offer scaffolding to become a starting point for further discussions, and provide a conceptual structured space for reflection, suggesting how different details fit in, are interconnected, and may evolve over time.
In contexts of conflicts and sharply diverging interests, taking a purely technological approach to the challenges is not enough (Aggestam, 2015). The aim here is therefore not to evacuate the political, but to revisit the issues from another angle. Back-casting uses discontinuity creatively, making it possible to step beyond the conceptual constraints of a status quo, but to subsequently re-anchor the strategy in concrete specifics of the present to make it actionable.
Finally, holistic reflection is supported by the compression that results from fitting highly complex issues into an ongoing conversation in a small group of people, with diverse backgrounds. The format makes it possible to draw on tacit and cultural knowledge, as well as the differing professional experiences of participants.
Aggestam, K. (2015). Desecuritisation of water and the technocratic turn in peacebuilding. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law & Economics 15(3), 327-340.
Broto et al. (2014). What can we learn about transitions for sustainability from infrastructure shocks? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 84, 186-196.
Geels, F. & J. Schot (2010). The dynamics of socio-technical transitions: a socio-technical perspective. In Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. London: Routledge.
Schwartz, P. (1991). The Art of the Long View. New York: Doubleday.