Learning to learn about futures thinking

Session format: 15 min talk + x hr workshop | Lead by: Nadia EL-Imam and (you?) | Instructions for participants: more info soon | Documentation: more info soon

Recently I have been involved in several conversations in which participants are trying to figure out how to solve different kinds of “big” and “messy” problems. Some of the protagonists are grassroots activists, social innovators, cultural practitioners and successful entrepreneurs. Others are deep state actors, veteran politicians and experienced civil servants. I have no idea what will happen when we come together at #lote4 next month but everyone is welcome to join us in shaping it here.

Ahead of our gathering to share experiences and forge plans, I think it is important to flag that we need to learn new ways to think and talk about “the future”.

This all came to a head last month during the KnowLab, an event organised by Unesco, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and hosted by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (I was there as a participant and Edgeryders is involved in the project design and execution).

What came out of the Knowlab is a powerful insight: not everybody can use the future – in fact most people cannot. The ability to do foresight, and learn from foresight done by others has to be forged. So I’m facilitating a session at LOTE4 on futures literacy.

I have identified five waypoints on the way to futures literacy – each of them an ability itself. For each waypoint, we could interview wise or remarkable people ahead of LOTE4 and ask them how they acquired that particular ability.

The first ability is the ability to learn to look beyond one’s construction of reality. One person we could learn how to develop it from is network scientist Duncan Watts. Watts is the author of a book called Everything is obvious (once you know the answer), in which he passionately and convincingly argues that common sense is lousy at navigating situations that feature a great many agents interacting with each other. In those situations – which, not coincidentally, include almost all real-life business and public policy decisions – common sense is actually a liability, and we need to learn to mistrust it and, instead, “trust the data”.

The second ability is the ability to understand that the outlook on the future is contestable ground, and why that matters for the present. We could ask how to do this to Riel Miller, head of foresight at UNESCO. Riel has long cultivated a “militant” approach to foresight, and is convinced that the way we see the future will reverberate on present decisions, therefore changing the future itself.

The third ability is the ability to think like a complexity scientist, leaving behind narrativised accounts of reality and teaching oneself to recognise emergence and self-organisation. We could ask how he did that to Sander van der Leeuw, archeologist of innovation, Santa Fe Institute scholar, and Dean of the School of sustainability at Arizona State University, who has relentlessly pursued a very long-term view on social and economic system dynamics –  and this has recently led him to conclude that “innovation is a Ponzi scheme”.

The fourth ability is the ability to learn from others already using the future. Here we draw on the experience of Giulio Quaggiotto, currently heading the UN Pulse Lab. He has systematically worked to build an ecosystem of colleagues and practitioners of foresight (and other things) to learn from, with particular attention to outliers, radical experimenters and, recently… big data.

The fifth ability is the ability to manage the tension between the need for sense-making and the need to act. Perhaps we could ask Vinay Gupta how he developed his. He is a scholar and a practitioner of foresight, but he is also a doer, spearheading his own game-changing effort in the resilience crowd, particularly with the Hexayurt project.

Yes I know it’s all men and predominantly from certain parts of the world. I got the ball rolling now I need help from you to make this more diverse :slight_smile:

Do you have other people you would like to learn these abilities from? Why? Let us know who they are and what your reasons are for wanting to learn from then, and we will see what we can do to accommodate you.

Please share your thoughts in a comment below or email nadia@edgeryders.eu

Date: 2014-10-25 13:30:00 - 2014-10-25 13:30:00, Europe/Brussels Time.


Association of Professional Futurists

There are two masters programmes in Futures in America, one in Huston, one in Hawaii. The two are both well established, dating (I think) back to the 1970s or so, the golden age of Herman Kahn and all that. There’s a real problem in Futures with defining what makes a “professional futurist” different from, say, an engineer who’s making projections of technological development over the next 30 years, say.

There are two critical distinctions that I see. The first is that futurists know the history of futures: they know the work going back fifty years or further, the trends and waves of analysis and styles of thought which defined them. Secondly they know, from that study, that predictions are only ever correct by accident in any area where human behavior and culture are factors.

Futures without prediction as a goal (“all previous generations of futurists were wrong, and therefore we know we will be too”) then becomes, what, precisely? This is an active topic inside of APF and recurs regularly; I’ve posted this link there and hopefully one or two of them will come over for a chat.



https://www.youtube.com/embed/cnmmfc1zxLEis a talk I did at the Association of Professional Futurists conference a couple of years ago, it covers some of the professional ethics issues in the field…

Here’s a talk I did at the Association of Professional Futurists conference a year or two ago. It raises some of the issues about professional ethics which are relevant to these debates…

EdgeRyders and Riel Miller

I’m extremely glad to see the relationship flourishing between Nadia and Riel (two ace people IMHO) … if you can skip through the academic tedium, catch the main thread and get to the last part, you’ll see EdgeRyders and the art of conversation through the Anticipatory futures literacy process that Riel mastered forms the crux of my recommendations.


(I also recommend a read of the Antjie Krog excerpt - which you’ll find in the footnotes)

The deepest question is about who is developed and who is not.

Yes, Vinay, there’s much of what you’re saying that I fully agree with – you’ll enjoy some of the quotes from Adebayo Akomolefe.

Love to you all


Talking about the future

I recently freaked out at yet another mention of government internet policy being “unsurprising” in its disrespect for human rights, due process and empowerment of the individual. This refers of course to the present policies being “unsurprising” with respect to what was previously suspected.

However, the inability to be surprised about things which are not cool in the present, also causes a feeling of despair for the future. How can we ensure that all of this foresighting, forecasting and prediction doesn’t in fact just lead us to feel that both the present and the future are inevitable?

In my view there is still a lot of wisdom to be drawn from George Bernard Shaw: “the unreasonable man therefore is the beginning of all change”. Being unreasonable, un-forecasting and hopeful are important qualities of humanity. I see a danger in where, even with the best of intentions, the discussions about the future - in so far as they get populated with people who have hope - get dismissed as naive, which is actually often the case.


Doing and sensemaking

Yes I think you have a point there. Two beginnings of thoughts:

Make it real.I think prototypes that embody in some form an alternative that you can interact with are very important. Which is why I am very sceptical of any talking exercise, whether it is foresight or something else, where there is not space or effort made to encourage “building out”. You know when we did the original Council of Europe project I was adamant that there was no point unless it actually went into building real things without us beyond some report for a policy maker to read or disregard at will. We could make that transition because we thought about project design in terms of infrastructure for collaboration and emergence: build stuff so that people can do all kinds of things with it independent of the involvement of the initiators. We made design decisions and had set appropriate social protocols at the beginning of the project that facilitated it.  So for me building and talking need to go hand in hand when exploring futures.

Diversity. Something might feel unrealististic because you don’t have access to the people with skills, outlook, temperament and other qualities needed to develop hopeful and naive intentions into something real and therefor suddenly realistic. Or even stories that make it plausible: examples of people doing novel and unrealitic things in contexts  not unlike your own Sometimes the resources needed are right under your nose but you need someone with “fresh eyes” and a different perspective to see something you take for granted as an asset.

Presencing as Doing/Thinking…?

Maybe something along the lines of otto scharmer’s work around presencing (Theory U, leading from the future as it emerges) would be helpful in this process somewhere…

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Some Theory U

I like the idea of including some Theory U in this session

Thanks, will look this up

I remember reading something about this fleetingly but never dug into it. Now I have an excuse :slight_smile: Thanks! Was there any exercise in particular you were thinking of?

Theory U

There is quite a good executive summary available for free online of “Theory U: leading from the future as it emerges”. Theory U Exec Summary.pdf I don’t have a particular exercise in mind, although I am sure there are plenty - I will have a think. I like it mainly because it helps to frame enquiries, reminding me how things don’t go in straight lines and that all change and learning is an uncertain and mysterious process, that does have a certain shape.

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“My job is making windows where there were once walls” -Foucault

Vinay is spot on. As a student in the Hawaii Futures program, I’ve had the good fortune to learn the history and see how poor a job most, but apparently not all, folks are at “predicting” the future(s) [doubled singular/plural on purpose]. There’s been quite a bit of buzz around this lately, which has much to do with this rather bland, and slightly stupifying, piece on “superforecasters” from FT. However, I’m not in the prediction business, and Foucault aptly begins the quote with “I’m no prophet.” Tech forecasting, as Vinay points out, has been the bread-and-butter of foresight for decades, but the other stuff–the messy, but fun, cultural stuff–often gets tossed aside, perhaps for political reasons. Our program resides in the Political Science department, and we’re taught early on that the future is (and ought to be) a contentious space, especially given the inequalities and power dynamics of the present. In keeping it open, and radically plural, futurists (at least others that do this) commit to an open politics–driven by aesthetic or aleatory forces. With that said, I tend not to work with corporate clients. I don’t want to help certain agents create their future.

Thus, I would say that without predication that Futures and/or Foresight becomes the window-making-out-of-walls business (there’s that open politics). Opening up possibilities beyond the probable and plausible. Are lots of other folks doing this? Yes. Futurists certainly don’t have a monopoly on critical thinking and/or innovative means to enact change, which, in many but not all sectors, is a constant. I say “many but not all” as the rich are still rich and the poor are still poor.

As Nadia points out, Futures tends to be dominated by particular demographics, but there are many amazing futurists voicing local, regional, and global perspectives from around the world. The WFSF isn’t as robust as the APF, but it has a truly cosmopolitan rank and file.

As an aside, my (now retired) advisor would always tell the story of futurists (himself included) from both sides of the Iron Curtain began meeting in the 60’s and 70’s to figure out a way to prevent armageddon. They often met in (now former) Yugoslavia with “stout guys wearing dark hats” in the back of the room. They did this for nearly a decade.

Nadia, if there’s anything I can do to assist you on this sojourn, I’m stoked to help!!!

Yes please! this wouöd be great!

I would love to depart from Teirdes’s point above. About naivite, hopefulness and dismissals of being unrealistic. It’s the giant elephant in the room somehow and the most interesting challenge I think…any ideas?


The ideas of ‘the future’ in so far as I have seen them, have a lot to do with ‘buy and sell’ on the market of attention. Like any ‘production’, the generation and sale of models of the future by large bodies putting forward capital and ideology becomes a centralised process. The future turns from something none could know, to an academic discipline of forecast, paid in research grants by those with intent,  assuming a hubris that presupposes insight beyond the ‘three body problem’. It becomes a moniker in sloganry relating the special-interested power of people to come together around special-interest power and effect their will through the systematisation and distribution of that ‘Future’.

These centralizing systems of academia, research, are supported by the types of companies building futures models, and then investing hard in these collective desires rather than grounding in the present and putting the efforts into the immediate environment surrounding each one of us. This is a problem, not a solution.

We are existing in a world whose best chance is distribution of previously centralized power across as fully a connective topology as possible rather than be paying individuals to hone the art of self-denial in favour of self-interest among the self-interested.

There is nothing ‘special’ about the future.

(‘specialis’: latin - ‘individual’)

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It is hard to be unrealistic & down with preservationism

Hi Nadia and friends

I think the five step learning approach makes sense.  Of course it’ll be words about deeds and deeds explained with words… but still could be helpful.  Just a short word about being unrealistic - dumping the baggage is harder than it seems. Of course constraints are a necessity for creativity but too often the constraints are implicit and unconscious, as a result given the opportunity to invent a solution people simply reproduce what their assumptions about the future lead them to see as the attributes and options of the present.  It is hard to be “unrealistic” because to do so you have to understand why you think something is realistic and then throw both versions out since they are rooted in the same assumptions space.

On the issue of preservationism. I have no objection to the desire to survive.  But I think that the best strategy is one of diversification, which does accept losses and is much more at ease with the idea of discontinuous “resilience” that actually means death of the old through transformation. Predictive planning based preservationism is suicidal from a variety of perspectives. Not only does it impose mono-think and a rationality where the ends justify the means, both ethically unacceptable, it denies the fundamental unknowability of the future and fosters the kind of certainty that exacerbates brittleness and pedal to the floor smash-ups.

This is fun.


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Divergent And Diverse Approaches Exist

Hi guys,

this is my first post here and I love the discussion as it develops. I trained with the ‘Eastern’ futures tradition - Inayatullah, Bussey, Ramos etc - and our endeavour was always to deepen our understanding of the future through comprehension of the present. Our role, as it was once said, is as “ancestors of the future.” Prediction and the mechanical approach to crafting a particular future and devising its strategy - much like the US military futures approach - was something we grew to loathe because it didn’t create enough appreciation for the multiple factors acting upon the creation of the future as we speak. I appreciated the critical futures approach and though I may diverge from it at points I think it offers a solid base upon which to base futures praxis. This is the line of thinking I employ in my own work and being in a region which offers a unique environment to test the resilience of futures approaches and tools I’m finding it very effective.



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Eastern futures tradition?

Hi Abaas and welcome aboard :slight_smile:

I am curious to learn more about what you refer to as the “Eastern” futures tradition. Can you explain a bit more for those who are new to the context? What steps/elements are involved and what is important to keep in mind when exploring them?

Hmm ok so what should we include in this session?

Any ideas @JenniferR? or @johnasweeney?

what to include

Nadia, your introduction also makes me think about David Bohm (yes, another man I am afraid) and his work on dialogue, which was, as he explained: “…really aimed at going into the whole thought process and changing the way the thought process occurs collectively. We haven’t really paid much attention to thought as a process. We have engaged in thoughts, but we have only paid attention to the content not the process.”

Yet we don’t want, presumably, too much emphasis on talking in the session otherwise we will slip into old habits. Maybe you could map out a system in the room and get people to take up different perspectives, so that we can observe the system (or a representation of it) in action. I do this in workshops and it is always really powerful.

How about splitting into 5 groups

after a brief intro. One group/waypoint maps out how it works and then we look at how this all fits together. Probably we would need some background material/reading (but not too long :)) for us to discover questions we want to answer through the conversation both during and after the session.

When you have done the mapping out of systems in the past, what exactly did you ask people to do? Can you walk me through it?

Mapping the system

Hi Nadia, Normally when I do this, it is to show what goes on in a large multinational corporation. So typically I pick a large food retail chain and get someone to volunteer to be the CEO,  and then someone else to be shareholders, the board, middle managers, shop-floor staff, customers, suppliers,  activists, government,  the planet.  They arrange themselves in the space according to where they feel most appropriate (i.e.  how close they want to be to some and how far away from others).  Once the system is set up, we hold it for a minute or two to allow people to get a feel for the various relationships.  They are then invited to move, if they feel so drawn, to a place that suits them better.  I then ask them to comment on why they moved.  There are also various questions that can be used to draw out information. For example,  How are you feeling? If you want to change the system in a particular way, where would you start?  Where do you feel the power sits in the system?  If you wanted to say something to someone, what would it be and who would it be to?  It’s always revealing.

I do think it’s worthwhile to set it up with a written scenario, and highlight the questions you want to explore.

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