The Prediction Machine: Futurology and Neoliberalism in British Government

Lecture format: on site + online.

Room: 2R-EG-07 (lecture hall of the Institute for Eastern European History).
Street address: Spitalgasse 2,  Campus of the University of Vienna, Hof 3.

When the Von der Leyen Commission took office in December 2019, the new President, Ursula von der Leyen, pledged to put "Foresight" at the heart of her agenda for Europe. But what is Foresight, where did it come from, and how did it attain such political prominence? Foresight and other forms of futures research have long been entangled with Europe's political and economic transformations in the post-war era. La prospective, "conjecture", "prognostika", and Foresight, to name but a few, all appeared between the 1960s and 1980s as forms of futures research that all, in different ways, articulated defended futures of liberal capitalism, state socialism, and approaches in between. This lecture and the paper it's based on explores how Foresight emerged from British government from the 1970s to the 2000s, and how this intersected with one of the key political transformations in recent history – the "market turn" to neoliberalism.

The paper begins with an overview of British futures research, from left-wing thinkers to national planners, and then moves on to explore the origins of Foresight in alternative futures research at the University of Sussex's Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) in the 1970s. Futures researchers at SPRU advocated for participatory, grassroots futures research, in opposition to the computational approaches exemplified by studies like the Limits to Growth. In the 1980s and 1990s, Sussex's futures research caught the eye of the British and Dutch governments, both of which funded the development of a new futures technique called "Foresight". This led to the creation of a Foresight Unit in the British Government's Office for Science and foresight exercises in the Dutch Ministry of Education and Science and Ministry of Economic Affairs. The European Commission also created foresight units, partly drawing on this Anglo-Dutch history, but also on the longer French history of la prospective. This paper will conclude by reflecting on how the market turn and the rise of Foresight were mutually constitutive, and so suggest ways in which the histories of futures research in Europe can help us better understand the recent history of Europe itself.

Jacob Ward is a historian of science, technology, and neoliberalism, and is tenured Assistant Professor in the History Department and Science and Technology Studies Research Programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University. He is the author of 'Financing the Information Age: London TeleCity, the Legacy of IT-82, and the Selling of British Telecom', which won the Duncan Tanner Prize from the journal Twentieth Century British History, and of the forthcoming Visions of a Digital Nation: Market and Monopoly in British Telecommunications (MIT Press, 2023/4).

Registration is requested only from those guests who would like to be connected via Zoom. Please feel free to visit the seminar without registration if you plan to take part live.