Review of Urry, What is the Future?

Review of John Urry, What is the Future? Polity, 2016, ISBN 978-0-745-69653-9, 200 pages.

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Reviewed by David Tyfield, Lancaster University


Nothing is surer to block the advancement of human understanding than the conceit that we understand already that which we do not.  Time, surely, is amongst the many important, existential issues that continue to elude our understanding.  And time looms large, at least for this reviewer, in reading what turned out to be John Urry’s last book.  For starters, the untimely loss of this singular champion of the social sciences (and friend and collaborator) feels as if it was but yesterday – even though nearly two years have already passed at the time of writing.  But, of course, this is also a book about time, and specifically about the future and social science: the need for social science to engage more concertedly and centrally with the future; vice versa, for futures thinking to take social science more seriously; and hence, by implication, for the future of social science to be a future-oriented enterprise.

The book is a classic outing in Urry’s avuncular company, displaying his singular talent for engaging, synoptic, highly readable introductions to new and exciting frontiers for social science. Even discussion of catastrophic dystopic futures is somehow reassuring in his hands.  Indeed, as previously for oil, offshoring, climate change, mobilities, cars, tourism, ‘economies of signs and space’, globalization, complexity…, here again we are treated to his signature capacity to turn a seemingly ‘obvious’ and unexceptional feature of contemporary social life into an agenda-setting discovery – that is itself then as obvious, albeit in a new way, as gravity after Newton.  Moreover, it is presented with his usual perspicacity, lightness of touch and generosity, offering yet another hugely wide-ranging synthetic prologue – never a full-fledged manifesto or the final word – that invites interlocutors of all stripes to gather in further exploration of the issues raised.  Indeed, Urry’s genius was perhaps to be able to seed such productive conversations, built upon an intuitive grasp of and respect for the dynamics of intellectual discussion, both professional/academic and, crucially, lay.  Certainly, everyone will learn from and enjoy this book.

This is thus a book of abstract insights, chewy golden nuggets and profound and timely questions.  For instance, his discussion of the ‘history of futures’ raises the tantalizing hypothesis that knowing the future could be the original and ultimate spur for the historical development of knowledge per se. While elsewhere, his rich juxtaposition of ideas and literatures suggests for this reader that modern Western fascination with ‘lost civilizations’ actually offers acute insight into our own social psychology, perpetually haunted by the unspeakable threat of future apocalypse and civilizational collapse.

As in previous books, however, the clearest message of this one concerns Urry’s argument regarding the urgency of redirecting social science towards a hitherto neglected issue, in this case the future, and for social science to have a central role in future thinking and action concerning it.  This is underpinned, as ever, by a quiet but fervent normative purpose – like AJP Taylor’s ‘strong views, lightly held’ –, to “mainstream and democratize” (p.192) the issue at hand.  In this regard, we see Urry’s lifelong philosophical and political foundations; a loose ‘critical realism’ (e.g. Keat & Urry 1975) which sees the social sciences in essential, emancipatory roles in creating better worlds, but by looking closely and imaginatively at the world as it actually is today.

This argument for convergence of social science and futures-thinking (or, henceforth, ‘social futures’) starts with a fascinating discussion of their historical divergence, particularly through the 20th century.  Arguing that the former was perhaps haunted by the most high-profile attempt to marry the two, Marxism, and its apparent and deepening failure as the century wore on, Urry shows how a mutual blindness emerged between them, reinforced by institutional divisions.  Social science became the preserve of the academy, searching for scientific respectability and carefully self-policing along the fact/value binary, while futures-thinking was developed in particular by large strategic operations, such as the military and the oil business.  Even as academic ‘futures’ journals proliferated from the 1970s, then, there remained no ‘futures’ departments in universities, nor much engagement from social science specifically with the question of the future.

Yet this now appears to be changing, and for fairly obvious reasons.  For whether in terms of the primary challenges of contemporary social and political life, or the illumination and analysis thereof to which the best of contemporary social science has contributed, it seems evermore apparent that the future is not something that we can take for granted in ways that we have done so in recent decades (and arguably centuries).

Taking the latter lens, Urry effectively summarizes this change in terms of three ways of thinking futures in the social sciences.  First, there is an individualist approach that seeks to explore the (possibly aggregated) effects of the decisions of individual, more-or-less rational agents.  Secondly, there is a structural approach that explores instead how supra-personal structures may evolve to their own rhythms.  Finally, though, and Urry’s clear preference, framing the rest of the book, is a third approach that explores the evolution of societies as complex systems.

In fact, this is arguably not just a matter of preference. Implicit in Urry’s exposition is another argument: it is only the third of these that both can and must take the future seriously as an issue in its own right.  For both of the first two, the future is simply a matter of extrapolation of a posited present. Only with the non-linearity, openness, uncertainty and multi-factorial nature of complex systems does the ‘problem’ of the future really arise – or rather, arise anew, taking us beyond the historical anomaly of positing progressive asymptotic perfection of scientific control.

Of course, it is also the case that the emerging paradigm of complexity thinking, and its ongoing percolation into social science, is also a parallel development with identification of complex realities that exceed the familiar 20th century social-scientistic paradigms of agency vs. structure.  Whether in terms of ongoing processes of innovation of post-human technologies, or our deepening intercalation with planetary forces in the emergence of the Anthropocene, or the simple uncontainable overspill of social forces beyond nationally-bounded ‘societies’, such ‘wicked problems’ elude description – much less ‘solution’ – in terms of agency or structure or some combination of the two.

By contrast, a complex systems approach seems to capture perfectly the fundamentally non-linear, uncertain, multi-factorial and emergent nature of these developments – and what they may mean for the development of human lifeworlds.  As Urry notes, therefore, the way in which a complexity perspective ‘steers a tricky course between determinism and openness’ (p.13) thus seems tailor-made for the societal predicaments confronting contemporary social science and the new urgency of understanding social futures.  In particular, such complexity thinking and methods seem to enable exploration of sets of diverse path-dependent – but not path-determined – futures, where these may be considered as ‘heuristic devices for examining and critiquing contemporary societies’ in ways that may enable desired changes in socio-technical trajectories.

Underpinning this argument here, though, is another key element of Urry’s account of futures and social science, namely the central role accorded to utopias.  Again, looking back over his whole oeuvre, this is arguably always there in his work, albeit never in a stridently ideological or heavily conceptual way.  Yet when he quotes Anatole France (“Utopia is the principle of all progress” (p.23)) or Zygmunt Bauman (“the presence of a utopia… may be seen… as a necessary condition of historical change” (p.94)) approvingly, it is clear that he too sees utopian thinking as a key element of engagement with futures, including for the social sciences.  Indeed, he profiles a list of six possible ways in which we may think futures social scientifically of which only one is ‘utopian thinking’.  Yet, utopianism is actually implicit in all six, at least on his account, the other five being: historical analysis of past visions of futures; studying failed futures; developing dystopic thought; extrapolating present trends; and scenarios (chapter 6).  Here he follows Levitas (2013) in advocating a specific kind of ‘open’ utopianism.  This involves imaginative and emancipatory exploration of the future in order to illuminate the present, rather than a ‘closed’ utopianism of strict deduction from supposed theoretical truths… likely followed by their equally strict ideological policing, as the 20th century evidenced in blood-soaked abundance.

This centrality of utopias will, no doubt, resonate strongly with the zeitgeist today – as will the book’s fascination with their flipside, of dystopias and catastrophism.   For there is surely no denying that all these new, ‘wicked’ complex problems are not just cognitively confounding to the intellectual, but, first and foremost, existentially challenging to one and all.  Contemporary fears of emerging dystopias or a new barbarism thus not only go hand-in-hand with a new public appetite for utopian thinking (albeit perhaps ‘realistic’), but are, of course, a fundamental driver of it.  But simply to recognize this is in itself to go quite some way towards affirming the intellectual respectability, if not necessity, of social scientific engagement with imaginaries of utopian/dystopian futures, given their causal significance in shaping social dynamics.  And this before we have made any allusion to the need for social science to be committed to making better futures.

So it would seem that, true to form, Urry has again penned a clarion call for a new direction in social science at just the right moment.  But, of course, there are questions unresolved in his exposition.  I will just mention three briefly, all of which emerge as more problematic in the final section of the book, where illustrations of futures thinking regarding several key issues – manufacturing, urban mobility and climate – are presented.

First, there remains an unresolved contradiction between planning and complexity.  As described above, the turn to complexity appears fundamental for a new ‘discipline’ of social futures, both in terms of offering ways to think and do such research, and in terms of the future being a question in the first place.  This, in turn, depends upon confronting the seeming paradox that the future matters, and so we must try to ‘know’ the future, precisely because it is uncertain and effectively ‘unknowable’.  Complexity seems to offer ways in which to square this circle, not least in terms of cultivating different relations to our knowledge in the first place and what it can and cannot tell us, definitively or provisionally.

Yet, while explicit statements (e.g. “There is really no science of the future” (p.87) or “a planned future may not be possible” (p.191)) seek to draw a wedge between how such complexity thinking can help understand and affect futures and the mid-20th century dreams of planning – which were so influential also upon the social science orthodoxies still largely taught at undergraduate level – it is not clear that this has actually been achieved.  For instance, substituting ‘planning’ by central authority with ‘coordinating’ of multiple agencies around various visions of social futures, as a “way of bringing back planning for the future, but under a new framing” (p.191), arguably does not constitute that significant a break with the planning paradigm.  In particular, it still presumes forms of agency, albeit now more distributed, that are little short of ‘planning’ in terms of their capacity to mobilize and unify, and then to shape the future as they wish it to be.  Of course, this also raises fairly fundamental questions about the extent to which ‘social’ futures are just that – social – not also and inescapably, planetary, geological, climatic etc… and, indeed, technologically post-human and hence beyond the current imagining of any ‘plan’ in some, possibly fundamental, ways.

This persistent presumption of the centrality of the human cognitive social agent, however, also manifests in the two other issues.  Secondly, then, for all its likely resonance – and particularly, if tellingly, in the ‘West’ or ‘Global North’ – the focus on issues of utopia/ dystopia and the placing of this framing as front and centre in thinking social futures is not in itself unproblematic.  It may seem not only harmless, but even brave and positive, to declare that social science needs to engage with utopias (and vice versa) at a moment when there is such evident, legitimate and empowered anger and disorientation.  But as this book itself artfully shows, utopia and dystopia are really two sides of the same coin – and this works in both ways.

In other words, just as deepening angst about incipient dystopias will likely trigger a reinvigorated search for new utopias, we would do well to recognize that the latter also feeds the former.  For the more utopian political imaginaries and demands become, the more the present will seem, indeed, to be positively dystopian, hope thereby begetting not the ‘promised land’ but disappointment, disillusionment and anomie.  For instance, without being partisan, could Trump have become President were it not for the (inevitable?) disappointment of the reality of President Hope before him?  Similarly, in the efflorescence of a whole new genre of ‘respectable’ Western liberal declinism in 2017 (see e.g. Mishra 2017), what has actually been achieved?  While intended to ‘cry wolf’ and forestall the destruction of valued social and political norms and institutions – i.e. to preserve incumbent utopian values – the actual effect, arguably, has been to deepen the mood of impending doom. Yet the only winners from this are those bent on precisely such institutional destruction, while such tomes also further dispirit those who may have been expected to rally to their defence.  In short, if social futures thinking is to take utopianism and dystopianism seriously, as surely it must, it would do well to hold them also at arm’s length, so that it remains possible to examine and challenge their performative effects and offer different, meliorist non-utopian or –dystopian visions of the future, and not simply compound them.

Finally, this plays out particularly in the account of the different types of futures that the book suggests social futures thinking should consider, namely ‘the possible, the preferable and the probable’.  Alliteration aside, in the light of the foregoing arguments it is not clear that this is actually the most productive way to encourage, and then to prosecute, engagement with futures, not least from a complexity perspective.

On the one hand, it continues to impose a fairly strict fact/value distinction (viz. possible and probable on the one hand, preferable on the other), which makes it difficult to imagine how the analytical apparatus of complex systems thinking can be deployed regarding the latter. Does one first imagine a ‘preferable’ future and then backcast a possible, if speculative, route to it, or does one explore first what is possible, and then ‘choose’ a future? And, in both cases, to what (practical) end and on what grounds? Moreover, complexity actually problematizes the ‘fact’ side of the ledger too.  In particular, if the future really is uncertain, then talking of ‘probable’ futures – that is futures to which meaningful, dependable probabilities can be attached – goes out the window.  Indeed, even ‘possible’ is a challenge here.

On the other hand, there are other profound problems with the concept of ‘preferable’ futures, that echo the criticisms above regarding both planning and utopianism.  For if we may take any lesson from the 20th century, surely it is this: that not only may “what is preferable turn out to be the least probable” (p.11), but it may also turn out to be the least preferable! And especially so once unintended consequences, reversals, tipping points, Black Swans, emergent scales etc… , or the predictable unpredictability of complex systems, have also been factored in.

In short, against all three of these terms – possible, probable and preferable –, complexity thinking about futures seems much more constructively framed in terms of the exploration of plausible futures (e.g. Wilkinson et al. 2010), which are very definitely in the plural. The goal of such exploration is not to get the future right, thereby then to ‘implement’ it, as in a planning register.  Rather, it is to begin to take responsibility for a future that will always remain beyond our planned and intentional control, even collectively.  Plausible futures, thus, actually fit much more closely with the book’s more compelling argument that the goal of social futures is the cultivation of ‘future literacy’ (p.8) as a new form of knowledge and judgement.  Moreover, this is a project not just of knowledge – cognitive, abstract and academic – but of practice, actively engaged in demotic experiments of ‘future-forming’ (p.14); what I have described elsewhere in terms of the cultivation of phronesis, or situated practical wisdom (Tyfield 2017).

Stimulating both new avenues of enquiry and crucial, timely debates, therefore, this rich and thought-provoking book is surely destined to become another seminal touchstone in the evolution of the social sciences.  And it is hard not to mention the poetic justice of how Urry’s illustrious body of work ends looking to the future, where it will surely continue to stimulate just the kind of research he was always calling for.



Keat, R. and J. Urry (1975) Social Theory as Science, London: Routledge.

Levitas, R. (2013) Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mishra, P. (2017) ‘What is Great About Ourselves’, London Review of Books 39(18): 3-7, available at

Tyfield, D. (2017) Liberalism 2.0 and the Rise of China: Global Crisis, Innovation and Urban Mobility, London: Routledge.

Wilkinson, A., R. Kupers and D. Mangalagiu (2013) ‘How plausibility-based scenario practices are grappling with complexity to appreciate and address 21st century challenges’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change 80: 699-710.