Future Search The Method

Creating the Integrated Economic Development Plan for County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland
By Aideen McGinley, Chief Executive, County Fermanagh (Dr. McGinley has recently been appointed Permanent Secretary for Arts, Culture and Leisure for NI's new joint government)

County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, January, 1999: Fermanagh has a reputation for innovation, so the first county-wide future search has been added to a distinguished list of firsts. The county is rich in community and voluntary activity in which people have a strong sense of pride of place. It is a rural county in the most westerly part of Northern Ireland and on the edge of Europe, yet at the forefront in its thinking and use of technology. The high quality of the environment, the rich historic past and the rural nature of the settlements create a perfect backdrop for tourism, which is one of the many solutions the community is considering to help alleviate the serious agricultural crisis.

Fermanagh District Council is the only democratically elected body in the County and has played a catalytic enabling role over the years to develop the county and alleviate problems of emigration, unemployment, housing unfitness and declining health and education services. The Council is committed to "inclusion" as a principle and in wanting to frame a truly integrated development strategy for the county. It therefore recognized in future search the vehicle to achieve a truly representative and effective strategy for the county's future development.

How It Started

The process started after the experience of the Women's Network in Newcastle, where I was particularly impressed by the energy and commitment the process had released. A local steering group was formed to organize the Fermanagh Conference and to identify stakeholders and themes and organize venues.

There was a high element of risk in pulling together 90 people from a very wide variety of backgrounds in a way that challenges the usual conference format, where you can choose to involve yourself as little or as much as you want. The selection Lusty Beg Island for the future search was symbolic in creating "the social island" innate in future search theory and the physical distance by crossing water (in snow and gales) that generated a strong sense of community and ownership of the process.

An Extraordinary Process

The process was extraordinary. People were genuinely honored to be part of the conference (indeed the difficult part was having to exclude so many). The signed mindmap is a tangible expression of the creativity that was released. This is a superb piece of public art, which a local architect is getting framed to hang in our new Interactive Technology Center (INTEC) at the start of the new millennium.

The creativity, camaraderie, humor and reflection that was generated in building the future scenario was unbelievable. Relationships were forged, barriers breached and so many people were re-energized by the whole event that time flew as participants committed wholeheartedly to the process.

Another interesting phenomenon was related to what is called "Fermanagh time," which relates to the reputation for people to be laid back and late. This myth was firmly dispelled. The 8:30 start was just that and people worked on until they had their tasks complete. Over the last week, may people have fed back positive reactions. It works at two levels: Though a few of us were "dying" wit the flu, we were "cured" of our ills while involved in the process; and all our batteries were charged though we were all physically exhausted, for a variety of reasons, at the end.

At an organizational level, it was surprising how many people did not know one another, even though they knew of one another. The opportunity to network was superb, and many new strategic alliances have been forged, "silos" of defined activities have been challenged and now broader approaches and thinking have been injected into all our work. The synergy was palpable.

A Risk Worth Taking

Managing the output will now be the key challenge. So much has been sparked from within. We will harness the energy into creating a superb, truly integrated development strategy for our county that will work because it belongs to so many. It was truly a risk very worth taking. Future search is summed up by a quote from George B. Shaw:

You see things and you say why? But I dream things that never were and I say 'why not'?

It enables people to say "why not?" and to be the optimists who covert stumbling blocks into stepping stones.


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