Reflection on the Future: Its Possibility and Usefulness

Article excerpt


This paper examines whether reflecting on the future is an activity that is distinct from reflecting on the past or present, and, if so, what are its distinguishing characteristics. The argument begins with a review of Dewey's (1933) concept of reflective thinking, still not surpassed in its detailed analysis. Dewey's model of reflection is discussed and some limitations noted. An alternative model to Dewey's, labelled "reflection as comparison" is outlined, and shown to include the essential components of Dewey's model, while also extending it to cover assumptional filters. An important role of reflection is to articulate these filters. To demonstrate the reflection-as-comparison model, a case study is presented: a feasibility study for an online community information system in rural Australia. This is asserted to comprise reflection on the future in that it considers alternative futures, actively seeks to identify and bypass assumptional filters, and reperceives this problem situation as a set of interlocking social systems as well as an online information system.


Given the long lead times and life cycles of IT projects, Information Systems managers need to reflect on the future. This paper considers the possibilities of reflection on the future: whether this is an activity that is distinct from reflecting on the past or present, and, if so, what are its distinguishing characteristics. The paper distinguishes two kinds of future: future as extended habit, and future as taking new, unpredictable paths. The focus here is on the latter kind of future, which is often more relevant in the development of complex information systems. By creating a new perspective of reflection, labelled the "reflection-as-comparison" model it becomes clear that reflection on the unexpected future is possible; and a later case study demonstrates the usefulness of this model of reflection.


Though the online encyclopedia Wikipedia offers 10 distinct meanings of "reflection", this paper focuses on the meaning attributed for education - summarized by the Wikipedia as simply "the art of turning experience into learning" (Wikipedia 2005). Reflection appears to have first been used in this sense by Dewey (1933), in parallel with the more explicit term "reflective thinking."

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines reflection, in the context of philosophy: "the mode, operation, or faculty by which the mind has knowledge of itself and its operations, or by which it deals with the ideas received from sensation and perception" (Oxford 1973). The first reference in this sense was dated 1690. However, the original sense of reflection was the optical, which the Shorter Oxford dates from 1555, and defines as "The action, on the part of surfaces, of thrown back light...falling upon them" (Oxford 1973). Given this primacy of the optical sense of the word, this paper uses an optical metaphor to illuminate the philosophical meaning.

Though reflection in the philosophical sense has a very long history - for example, it is very close to the theoria of Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (Russell 1961) - this discussion begins with the work of Dewey.

Dewey's model of reflection

Dewey's book How We Think appears to be still the most comprehensive work written on reflection (from a philosophical standpoint). The first edition of How We Think was published in 1910, with an enlarged and slightly revised second edition in 1933.

According to Dewey (1933, pp.107ff), "reflection occurs when one thing signifies or indicates another." Dewey here is suggesting that full reflection produces a theory of cause and effect. For Dewey, reflection begins with a "perplexed troubled, or confused situation," and then entails five phases:

1. Suggestion: the mind leaps forward to a possible solution. If the solution seems feasible, it is applied, and full reflection does not occur. …