CONNEXT – Social Futuring Center

Csák János

The great Hungarian political reformer of the first half of the 19th century, Count István Széchenyi closed his treatise „Hitel” (Credit) with the words: “many people believe that Hungary belongs to the past, but I believe firmly that Hungary is not a part of the past but the future." Most probably, the colleagues working for the Social Futuring Center established at the University share this view. So far, they have staged three workshops with the titles of Social Futuring- Concepts and context, Social Futuring- Expectations and risks and Social Futuring- Changes and Communities. Their very first international conference will take place in March with a line-up of world-renown speakers. We have taken this opportunity to introduce the research unit to our readers.

The head of the project team is Mr. János Csák Honorary Professor, former Chairman of MOL (Hungarian Oil and Gas Company) and former Ambassador of Hungary to the United Kingdom. We interviewed him about the philosophy and approach of the Social Futuring Center.

“Social Futuring” may have several meanings. Should it be understood as an adaptational capability to new and fast changing situations, be they climate change or a new economic context?
Social futuring is the feature of social entities signifying their capacity to interpret the developments occuring around them and ensuring their preservation and reproduction by interpreting them, that is, how far they are able to organize themselves in order to influence their future, manage their destiny. To give a simple example, when we take a three-year old child to a swimming lesson or a six-year old to school or to a language class, we are not yet aware of his or her future, or the changes he or she is to cope with in the future, but we are trying to equip him or her with as many capabilities as possible. Professor Tamás Roska, the excellent man and outstanding scholar, who passed away a few years ago and was an international authority in bionics maintained that successful civilizations and cultures in the long run rest upon their capacity to interpret the world in a precise and realistic manner and to organize themselves accordingly in order to influence their future.

Could resilience, an ability to resist negative trends be such a feature? Or the ability to form, shape the future?
We are talking about a complex, multidimensional concept. It includes the reactive ability to cope with changes, something needed for instance during a natural catastrophe or an attack on an entity. Then there are a number of proactive abilities, which are applied when the entity shapes future trends and circumstances. Furthermore, there are active abilities meaning the creative exploitation of the changes in progress, when the entity captures the wind that is blowing anyway in its sails. Interestingly, while this approach sounda pretty simple , it has just now emerging as a whole new research field globally.

You mentioned that in order to appraise ourselves, we need social self-awareness. Is the center planning to take up research in that field?
We are not planning to do basic research or to proprietory data collection. We are rather relying on the findings of a number of disciplines and seek, together with colleagues of various backgrounds, to elaborate a framework in which the futuring of social entities can be understood and measured. Such entity can be the family, for instance the Ford, the Bertelsmann or the Esterházy families, it can be a country, a city, a company, a foundation, a church or the entire culture, civilization…

Our goal is to develop the Social Futuring Index. There is vast array of indices for measuring the economic aspects of an entity, if we only think of the GDP. An index can only be sound if what it measures is unambiguously defined. There are also several indices that try to capture the quality, of human life in entities, the UN’s Human Development Index for instance is a summary measure assessing the human development in a broader context. As a matter of fact, every decent research center or consulting company develops some kind of index to represent and explain the differences between entities investigated. In each scholar’s life there comes a moment when through classifying facts he or she creates a systematic comparison of the research subjects. They might, nevertheless, not call it an index. Let us take, for instance, the simple question of “what is the good life” that is worth preserving and reproducing. This ancient philosophical question had been addressed by Aristotle and Plato. What are the attributes of the good life? How should one shape one’s individual and community life to make it good and worth preserving?

Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics seeks to answer the question of how man can achieve happiness. The focus of his ethics is eudaimonia, literally translated as the “good-spirited” life. The Social Futuring Index handles these qualities and ambitions for both the individuals and the social entities simultaneously. While modern western thought promotes the individual, it is rather difficult to imagine the individual’s “good-spirited” life without the social entity behind it being “good”, and vice versa. Our research objective is to capture the notion of “good”, something that had already been sought for by the ancient Greeks, in a systematic way. This notion implies a state of social entities that is equally good for the individual and for the community. We hope that such an index, a ranking of the various entities will inspire the members and leaders of social entities to think systematically about their current situation and their future.

What are the specific areas of your enquiries?
We examine four pillars, the fist being the ecological- geopolitical background. It makes quite a difference, for instance, if a country is located by the sea or is land-locked, if there is an abundance of natural resources, arable lands, water in its territory or its land is bare and infertile. All this was described by the representatives of the French Annales school focusing on social history through the broad notion of “space”, i.e. how a people, a culture can articulate their abilities, how they can shape their future within that space. The second pillar is technology. I am referring to human-inflicted changes of our natural and human environment, and even the human being itself. Arguably, they have an enormous impact on the futuring of social entities.

The third pillar is the socio-economic one. Economy does not exist in itself, only within the metaphysical and ethical context of a social entity. Take alternative sources of energy such as solar or wind, for instance. Insofar as they are cheaper and entail better externalities, they logically decrease GDP. Nevertheless, we try to develop them as we do not only consider merely economic aspects, but socio-economic reasons as well. Another example would be the effect of purely economic decisions related to the systems of human “reproduction”, the family and educational institutions on the given entity’s ability to embrace the future.

In everyday life, the expressions “our way of thinking, our way of life” indicate the metaphysical and ethical context as well as the basic value and belief system of an entity. We examine the meaning of these expressions in our research. What is the way of life of the given entity like if its goal is to bring about good individual and community life? What is to be preserved and what is to be changed?

We have now reached the world of values, haven’t we?
We have, in fact this is the fourth pillar, cultural relations and the spiritual foundations of social entities. Understanding and mapping the world of values is indispensable for social futuring. We are thinking about such concepts as the image of man, a community’s view of the human person, about the entity’s organic and durable existence, its understanding of itself in the changing world. Our index will be tested when for instance, we will check what data from the 1980s would have predicted as far as futuring is concerned and where the social entity in question actually is in the present.

Who is involved in these research projects? I assume that you did not only invite researchers from the Corvinus University?
We invite a wide range of researchers and will continuously upload the findings on our website. We co-operate with a number of Hungarian research groups and universities as well as with Chinese and American institutions. We have invited three eminent speakers, George Friedmann (Geopolitical Futures, Austin, TX), Huang Ping Director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing and Albert-László Barabási one of the greatest authorities in network science (Northeastern University, Boston, MA).

Many think that futuring depends on our ability to get involved in various networks. Is the future really about networks?
Ever since the world has existed, the key to futuring has been the ability to connect to networks. There existed networks within tribes, villages, larger settlements and entities, and the individual’s destiny have always been largely influenced by the quality and strength of his or her connections, be they kinship or relations beyond blood. The social being lives and unfolds within the context of networks defined by space, technological, socio-economic, cultural-spiritual factors. This therefore is not a novelty. Owing to technological developments, however, we can gain unprecedented knowledge about the functioning of mass society in the form of digital information. Until recently, sociologists had gained information, beyond the data collected through large statistical surveys, by observing certain populations or information that was based on self-declaration. The late Professor Rudolf Andorka himself had us conduct time-use survey through self-declaration. By contrast, nowadays the information on where people are located, with who and – to a certain extent – what they are doing is available, obviously ona population-level, without individual specifics. What is the movement pattern of people? How much time do they spend and on what subjects on the internet? Putting together this vast quantity of factual information is essential for portraying ourselves in a more precise and perhaps less flattering manner than we would have preferred to see ourselves. It shows who we actually are. As a matter of fact, networks have always been present in our lives, but today we can know way more than, say, 20 years ago. If we raise the right questions, we are able to learn a lot about human life and networks.

Although with a different research objective, futures research had already existed at the University headed by Professor Erzsébet Nováky. I believe that one of your first tasks was to demarcate the two research areas…
Certainly, futuring is a multidisciplinary area that exploits the synergies between sociology, network science, and as you said futures studies, sustainable development, demography, philosophy, psychology, economics, political science. Three of our key studies have served to specify our research area. The study by Professor Petra Aczél analyses the scientific discourses on the future and identifies the conceptual-linguistic-cultural characteristics of futuring. Tamás Kocsis examines the differences between the approaches of ecological sustainability and futuring. Eszter Monda presents the differences between futures studies and futuring.

As the University might also rely on these research projects to build its strategy, may I ask how you are planning to make available your findings within and outside the University?
The center is characterized by utmost transparency. On the one hand, owing to the publication of the methodological premises that is coordinated by Zoltán Szántó who is also the Head of the Research Center. On the other hand, due to the fact that we use publicly available databases, and as a result, anyone can check our findings both with regard to data and method. We are currently working on the specific components of the index and will share our findings at conferences going forward. We are trying to achieve similar transparency with respect to the normative framework that serves as a basis for our research projects. This area happens to belong to me, expert consultations are underway which will be followed by the publication of the framework.

What do you mean by normativity in the context of research?
I will tell you an example. In a country or in a city the percentage of one-person households increases by 20% in ten years. This in itself is a data, but is that good or not? It is obviously good for the electricity utility company since each household consumes electricity, it is good for the TV broadcasters, the book publishers. It might, however, not be good for producing children. It might allow people to contemplate as they are not disturbed in their thought by anyone. This social development may, however, have unintended personal and socio-psychological consequences. The question of what is “good” cannot be avoided. Our Research Center is concerned with what is equally good for the social entity and the individual as this what we consider as one of the key aspects to futuring.

A huge challenge…
It is, and that makes it so exciting.

Your personal attachment to the University is indubitable. Why have you taken up the challenge in the light of what you have achieved so far?
I graduated from this university in 1987 in Finance and Sociology. Since then, I have mainly been active in business and cultural endeavours. In retrospect, my life, my work seems to have always been dedicated to contributing to the futuring of entities, be it MOL, Central Europe, my loved ones or persons I mentor. How and by what can I help a person or a social entity to preserve what seems to be good in an unknown future? Even when I am not there anymore. I am delighted that my relationship with the university has recently become tighter, besides my work at the Futuring Research Center I have also been awarded an honorary professorship by the Faculty of Business and Management of Corvinus. It is an honour to share my experience in this temple of systematic thinking and to learn just like in 2009 when I spent nearly a year in the US as a visiting researcher in political economics and energy security. I hope that my mentor Professor Andorka enjoys what he sees when he looks at me from the heaven above.