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The future of the Western world: the OECD and the Interfutures project

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 February 2019

Jenny Andersson*
MaxPo Center for Coping with Instability in Advanced Market Societies, Sciences Po, 28 Rue des Saints Pères, 75005 Paris, France
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


In 1975, the OECD created a research committee entitled ‘Interfutures. Research project into the development of the advanced industrial societies in harmony with the developing world’. The purpose of Interfutures was to examine how the new tools of futures research could be put to use in order to shape strategies for dealing with a new phenomenon of ‘interdependence’, and to set out a ‘long-term vision’ of the Western world. This article argues that Interfutures was appointed in order to draft an alternative image of the future to two radical visions of the early 1970s. The first was the so-called New International Economic Order. The second was the 1972 Club of Rome report, The limits to growth. As a response to these two visions, Interfutures presented a vision of globalization as a process oriented around an expanding world market, piloted by Western interests and continued resource extraction.

© Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 All archival references are to the OECD archives, in particular the Interfutures folders, 1975–1979, MAS 80.9, ED 80-11, FUT (henceforth OECDA, Interfutures), a very large collection of material digitalized by the OECD.

2 OECDA, Interfutures, Draft of background paper, proposed meeting of senior policy officials, 5 February 1978; Facing the future: mastering the probable and managing the unpredictable, Paris: OECD, pp. 4–5.

3 OECDA, Interfutures, First draft of main issues paper, 19 May 1978.

4 OECDA, Interfutures, Mission statement, Description of the research project.

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10 Meadows, Donatella, et al., The limits to growth: first report of the Club of Rome, New York: Club of Rome, 1972 Google Scholar .

11 The closest argument here is Garavini, After empires.

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14 Matthew Connelly, ‘Future shock: the end of the world as they knew it’, in Fergusson, et al., Shock of the global, pp. 337–51.

15 See Solovey, Mark and Cravens, Hunter, Cold War social science: knowledge production, liberal democracy, and human nature, Amsterdam: Springer, 2012 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

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17 Ibid.; Seefried, ‘Globalized science’.

18 Royal-Dutch Shell was one of several corporate actors involved in the discussion of the long-term future of energy resources of the early European Community, which was itself a construction of several so-called prospectivistes, including Jean Monnet and Louis Armand.

19 Seefried, ‘Globalized science’; Rindzeviciute, Egle, The power of systems: how policy sciences opened up the Cold War world, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016 CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Andersson, Jenny and Rindzeviciute, Egle, eds., The struggle for the long-term in transnational science and politics: forging the future, London: Routledge, 2015 CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Andersson, Future of the world.

20 See Lesourne, Jacques, ‘L’exercice Interfuturs: réflexions méthodologiques’, Futuribles, 26, 1977, pp. 2038 Google Scholar ; Michalski, Wolfgang, ‘The OECD Interfutures project revisited 20 years later’, in Jean Thépot, et al., eds., Décision, prospective, auto-organisation: mélanges en l’honneur de Jacques Lesourne, Paris: Dunod, 2000, pp. 318331 Google Scholar .

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25 Sibylle Duhautois, ‘Un destin commun? Études sur le futur et formation d’une conscience globale 1945–1989’, PhD thesis, Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po, 2017, ch. 4.

26 See Rindzeviciute, Power of systems, pp. 137–9.

27 Abdalla, Ismail, Abdalla, Ibrahim, Fadil, Mahmoud, and Nassar, Ali, Images of the Arab future, London: Francis Pinter, 1983, pp. 2425 Google Scholar .

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31 Berger, Mark T., ‘After the Third World? History, destiny and the fate of Third Worldism’, Third World Quarterly, 25, 1, 2012, pp. 939 CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Dirlik, Arif, ‘Spectres of the Third World: global modernity and the end of the three worlds’, Third World Quarterly, 25, 1, 2012, pp. 131145 CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Garavini, After empires.

32 Edwards, Paul, The closed world, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010 Google Scholar ; Rindzeviciute, Power of systems.

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35 Connelly, Matthew, Fatal misconception: the struggle to control world population, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010 Google Scholar .

36 Jenny Andersson and Sibylle Duhautois, ‘The future of mankind’, in Sylvest and van Munster, Politics of globality, pp. 106–25.

37 Rindzeviciute, Egle, ‘Purification and hybridisation of Soviet cybernetics: the politics of scientific governance in an authoritarian regime’, Archiv fur Sozialgeschichte, 50, 2010, pp. 289309 Google Scholar .

38 Rindzeviciute, Power of systems, pp. 129–35.

39 McFarland, Victor, ‘The new international economic order, interdependence, and globalization’, Humanity, 6, 1, 2015, p. 220 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

40 Sargent, Daniel J., ‘North–South: the United States responds to the New International Economic Order’, Humanity, 6, 1, 2015, pp. 201216 CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Glenda Sluga, ‘The transformation of international institutions: global shock as cultural shock’, in Ferguson, et al., Shock of the global, pp. 223–37.

41 Maier, ‘Malaise’, p. 32.

42 ‘The imperatives of growth and cooperation’, Ministerial meeting, OECD, 28 May 1975, quoted in Schmelzer, Matthias, The hegemony of growth: the OECD and the making of the economic growth paradigm, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016 CrossRefGoogle Scholar , p. 317; OECDA, Interfutures, ‘Midway through Interfutures: a first assessment of world problems’. See also Michalski, ‘OECD Interfutures project’, pp. 326, 330.

43 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘Midway through Interfutures’.

44 OECDA, Interfutures, Newsletter, summary of the RIO report, July 1977; Summary of discussions, 13–14 October 1977; Summary of discussions, 19 January 1979.

45 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘Midway through Interfutures’, p. 7.

46 OECDA, Interfutures, Seminar on the use of global models, 26–27 January 1978; Background paper, meeting of the Steering Committee, 15 February 1978.

47 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘Searching for a new order of the world economy: resumé of the Interfutures conceptual framework regarding the Advanced Industrial Societies Rigidities’.

48 Garavini, After empires, p. 207.

49 OECDA, Interfutures, Midway through Interfutures, ‘Cooperation with the LDCs’.

50 See UNITAR, Documents of the New International Economic Order, 1976–1979; Samir Amin, ‘Self-reliance and the New International Economic Order’, Monthly Review, 29, 3, 1977, pp. 1–21.

51 OECDA, Interfutures, Midway through Interfutures, ‘The international division of labour’.

52 Ibid. See also Samuel Beroud, ‘Positive adjustments: the emergence of supply side economics in the OECD and G7, 1970–1984’, in Leimgruber and Schmeltzer, The OECD and the international political economy, p. 237.

53 OECDA, Interfutures, Midway through Interfutures, ‘The international division of labour’.

54 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘Resumé of the Interfutures conceptual framework regarding the Advanced Industrial Societies Rigidities’. See also Malkin, D. and Sacco, G., ‘Interfutures: the OECD research project’, Futures, 9, 3, 1977, pp. 255259 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

55 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘National and international institutions’, p. 41.

56 Michel Christian, ‘Unctad and the regulation of international trade in the 1970s’, in Michel Christian, Sandrine Kott and Ondrej Matejka, eds., Planning in Cold War Europe: competition, cooperatioon, circulation, (1950s–1970s), Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018, pp. 285–315.

57 The UN had a programme on world goals, and world planning was a key element in Tinbergen’s RIO report. See Erwin Laszlo, Goals for mankind, New York: Club of Rome, 1977.

58 OECDA, Interfutures, Seminar on the use of global models, 26–27 January 1978.

59 OECDA, Interfutures, Main issues paper, September 1978, p. 40; Midway through Interfutures, ‘The evolution of international relations’, p. 45.

60 Matthias Schmelzer, ‘The crisis before the crisis: the problems of modern society and the OECD, 1968–74’, European Review of History, 19 6, 2012, pp. 999–1020.

61 Eric Jantsch, Technological forecasting in perspective, Paris: OECD, 1967.

62 Viteszlav Sommer, ‘Forecasting the socialist future: prognostika in late socialist Czechoslovakia’, in Andersson and Rindzeviciute, Struggle for the long-term, pp. 144–68.

63 Jantsch, Technological forecasting in perspective.

64 Schmelzer, Hegemony of growth, p. 252; Eric Jantsch, ed., Perspectives on planning: papers from the Bellagio conference, Paris: OECD, 1969.

65 Schmelzer, Matthias, ‘Born in the corridors of the OECD: the forgotten origins of the Club of Rome, transnational networks, and the 1970s in global history’, Journal of Global History, 12, 2017, pp. 2648 CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Jantsch, Perspectives on planning; Peccei, Aurelio, The chasm ahead, New York: Macmillan, 1969 Google Scholar .

66 Brooks, Science, growth, and society.

67 Schmelzer, Hegemony of growth, pp. 268, 281.

68 Ibid., p. 283.

69 See ibid., pp. 284, 315. See also Michalski, ‘OECD Interfutures project’, p. 326.

70 OECDA, Interfutures, Midway through Interfutures, ‘Present perceptions of long term problems’, p. 5.

71 Temps X, ‘Jacques Lesourne et l’avenir’, 29 November 1981, available at (consulted 12 November 2018).

72 Lesourne, Jacques, Les mille sentiers de l’avenir, Paris: Segher, 1981, p. 18 Google Scholar .

73 OECDA, Interfutures, Midway through Interfutures, ‘An assessment of world problems’.

74 OECDA, Interfutures, Midway through Interfutures, ‘Present perception of long term problems’, p. 14.

75 Ibid.

76 OECDA, Interfutures, Summary of discussions, 13–14 October 1977.

77 OECDA, Interfutures, Letter from the Japanese government to the Secretary General, 9 May 1975.

78 Jantsch, Eric, ‘Technological forecasting in Japan: notes from a brief visit’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 2, 1970, pp. 325327 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

79 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘New elements and their policy implication in AIS’, 16 May 1978.

80 Kogune was an economist who wrote the report Changing value patterns and their impact on the economic structure, Tokyo: Tokyo University, 1982.

81 OECDA, Interfutures, letter from Oshima to Lees, 24 December 1975; memorandum, 12 December 1979, signed by Oshima; ‘Proposed financial contribution from a private foundation to the Interfutures project: note by the General secretary’, 24 May 1977, C (77) 89; Press release, 28 January 1976.

82 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘Proposed financial contribution from a private foundation to the Interfutures project: note by the secretary general’, 24 May 1977, Annex A, ‘Changing value patterns and their impact on the economic structure, a report to the Toyota Foundation’, 8 January 1979.

83 Crozier, Michel, Le phénomène bureaucratique, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1963 Google Scholar . Crozier was also a member of the French Plan Group in 1985.

84 Brzezinski, Zbiegnew, Between two ages: America’s role in the technetronic era, New York: Viking Press, 1970 Google Scholar .

85 OECDA, Interfutures, Chapter draft, ‘National and international institutions’, p. 17; Lesournes, Les mille sentiers, p. 18; Houghton Library, Harvard University, Bell Papers, Daniel Bell, ‘The next twenty-five years’.

86 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘National and international institutions’.

87 OECDA, Interfutures, Draft outline of background paper to the meeting of senior officials, 5 February 1978; Main issues paper, September 1978.

88 Schmelzer, Hegemony of growth, p. 317; Paul McCracken, et al., Towards full employment and price stability: a report to the OECD by a group of independent experts, Paris: OECD, 1977.

89 OECDA, McCracken folders, letter from Emile Lennep to Paul McCracken, 15 April 1976.

90 OECDA, McCracken folders, draft of the McCracken report by Assar Lindbeck, n.d.; Memorandum, second meeting of the McCracken group, 22–23 January 1976.

91 OECDA, McCracken folders, McCracken report, ‘The origins of the present problems’.

92 Michalski, ‘OECD Interfutures project’, p. 327.

93 Facing the future, p. 195.

94 Malkin and Sacco, ‘Interfutures’.

95 Particularly Louis Armand, Pierre Masse, and Jacques Delors.

96 Lesourne wrote a series of books, including Technique économique et gestion industrielle, Paris: Dunod, 1958; Les systèmes de destin, Paris: Dalloz, 1976; Les mille sentiers: la fin des habitudes, Paris: Seghers, 1985; and L’économie de l’ordre et du désordre, Paris: Economica, 1991. The book of essays in Lesourne’s honour includes statements on their former student by Kenneth Arrow, Robert Solow, and Hebert A. Simon, all arguing that Lesourne’s perspective on the economy as an interdependent system was novel and original. See Thépot, et al., Décision, prospective, auto-organisation. See also Daniel Bell, ‘Reflections at the end of an age’, in ibid., pp. 361–7.

97 Polh, Manfred, Handbook on the history of European banks, New York: Edward Elgar, 1994, p. 249 Google Scholar . SEMA published a periodical on investments in Middle Eastern and African economies, Cahiers SEMA. See ‘Le developpement internationale du groupe METRA’, in PCM: Revue publiée par l’association professionnelle des ingénieurs des Ponts et Chaussées et des Mines. Les entreprises françaises à l’étranger, 10, 68, 1971, pp. 93–9; Stephane Cordobes and Philippe Durance, ‘Entretiens de la mémoire de la prospective: Jacques Lesourne’, Paris: CNAM, 2004. Michel Godet, Lesourne, and Crozier also contributed to the Institut Auguste Comte, whose mission was to educate managers of corporations and administration in ‘solving complex problems’. See Mitchell, Timothy, Carbon democracy: political power in the age of oil, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2011 Google Scholar .

98 See 1985: la France face au choc du futur, Paris: Commissariat Général au Plan, 1972, pp. 192–7. The report included Crozier and Bernard Cazes and many of the themes of the Interfutures group.

99 Sauvy, Alfred, Le tiers monde, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1956 Google Scholar ; Prospective 3, ‘Rapport de l’Occident avec le reste du monde’, April 1959, pp. 11, 22.

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102 OECDA, Interfutures, Jacques Lesourne, ‘L’exercise Interfuturs’; Facing the future, pp. 4–5; OECDA, Interfutures, ‘World models’ and ‘Scenarios of world development’.

103 OECDA, Interfutures, Main issues paper for the meeting of senior officials, Paris, 2 February 1979.

104 OECDA, Interfutures, Midterm meeting, Summary of conclusions.

105 OECDA, Interfutures, ‘The evolution of international relations’; Summary of conclusions of the 4th meeting of the steering committee, 20–21 October 1977.

106 OECDA, Interfutures, Annex 1, to note 2, decision by the Council, 1977, on meeting to be held with senior civil servants to allow them to think about the long term.

107 Beroud, ‘Positive adjustments’; Gayon, ‘L’OCDE au travail’; Laurent Warlouzet, Governing Europe in a globalizing world: neoliberalism and its alternatives following the 1973 oil crisis, London: Routledge, 2018.

108 Michalski, ‘OECD Interfutures project’, p. 320.

109 Abdalla, et al., Images of the Arab future, p. 8.

110 OECDA, Interfutures, Emile van Lennep speech, 1981, ‘North–South mutual interests in greater reliance on markets’; Staffan Sohlman, address to symposium on the role of the OECD in the twenty-first century, Tokyo University, 20 October 1994, (consulted 12 November 2018). Helmut Furer, The history of the official development assistance committee, Paris: OECD, 1994; Dustan Wai, ed., Interdependence in a world of unequals: African–Arab–OECD economic cooperation for development, Boulder, CO: Westview, 1982.

111 Shell energy scenarios to 2050, New York: Shell International, 2008; Christina Garsten and Adrienne Sörbom, ‘Risk, resilience and alternative futures: scenario-building at the World Economic Forum’, unpublished paper for the 14th EASA Biennial Conference, Milan, 20–23 July 2016, available at (consulted 12 November 2018).