Who can use the future?

In late August, I was asked to participate in Knowlab, “a knowledge lab to evaluate and improve the use of foresight in addressing societal challenges,” organised by UNESCO , with support from The Rockefeller Foundation , and hosted by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. To get a less filtered view of the event, check out the #knwlb Twitter stream.

In this piece, I’m going to very briefly summarize what I learned about the practice of foresight and futures studies (roughly interchangeable terms), share some thoughts about what it means to “use the future” (a key theme of the convening), and ask, essentially, “who is foresight for?” Or, in other word, Who can use the future? In a follow up note, I will share some resources I gathered at the event to put the idea of “foresight” into practical perspective, in case readers would like to use the future, too.

What is foresight?

Foresight is a practice in search of a theory. – overheard at Knowlab

Forty days ago, I had not heard of “foresight” as a profession or community of practice, which means that anything I have to say about it has both the benefit and handicap of a newcomer’s perspective. I was somewhat relieved to learn I hadn’t missed something obvious in my work to date when I read in the Wikipedia article on foresight (futures_studies) that it is a practice that has played out largely in European governance and civil society (I am based in the US). But foresight has become a global pursuit. At the event, I learned that a major university in Taiwan (I believe Tamkang University ) requires all of its students to take a course in futures studies – which means that the discipline has been incorporated into the higher education of 80,000 people in that region. One participant informed me that there are roughly 1,000 active foresight professionals worldwide.

For others new to foresight, I think it is helpful to point out that practitioners define their work in contrast to the predictions made by “pop futurists” (think Popular Mechanics or Wired magazine ). In fact, that is why you will almost always see the word “futures” in its plural form when interacting with the field.

The construction of multiple scenarios is a key method in foresight.I learned to think of foresight work as reverse engineering long-term planning and policy decisions using multiple, divergent potential futures as starting points. The promise that this approach can lead to more adaptive, resilient policy processes suited for a increasingly unpredictable world is a consistent theme in the foresight field. Foresight embraces and attempts to operationalize (or make useful) lessons learned from complexity science and systems theory, using both quantitative and qualitative social science methods. It is possible the field lacks a unifying theory, but that is likely a consequence of the fact that futures methods are usually applied in policy and institutional planning.

One of the simplest explanations I received during the event is that foresight makes explicit often implicit assumptions along the dimensions of:

  • Plausible futures based on what we know about current systems.
  • Probable futures derived from known current trends of change.
  • Possible futures concerned with low-probability, high impact events (aka “black swans [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory]).
  • Preferable futures which introduce a wider scope of choice and human agency in creating best possible outcomes.

In my own work exploring the innovative edge of philanthropy, I have seen a pattern where the plausible and the probable become enemies of the preferable when discussing the field’s potential for change. In other words, “well that’s not very likely to happen” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that limits the range of design for excellence. So I felt that I had met some fellow travelers at Knowlab when I discovered that most of the energy and excitement of the field has to do with generating preferable futures.

Image source: Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, by Jessica Bland and Stian Westlake

Using the future?

The key organizer of Knowlab, Riel Miller of UNESCO, wants more people and institutions to “use the future” in creating collective decisions today. At first, I wrestled with this phrase, “use the future.” Does “the future” exist? If the future exists, it is ephemeral, uncertain by definition, and highly contested. Meanwhile, most people are struggling to prepare for very immediate futures in daily, weekly, quarterly, or sometimes annual time frames. It was difficult for me to imagine anything so far out of touch being of much use to anyone.

Not so long ago conceptual frameworks like complexity science or “design thinking” were arcane terms, but more recently their influence is being felt in many areas. The conceptual leap I had to make to understand “using the future” is that futures exist in our individual and collective imaginations. Anticipation is a deeply human trait, and our anticipations for the future, both long and short-term, inform our daily decisions by shaping our understanding of the range of possibilities before us. In some sense, those futures use us. Riel and his colleagues are offering a “discipline of anticipation” to create greater moments of agency and choice as we enter uncertain times.

Who is foresight for?

Setting my deeper questions aside, it is clear that some people are using the future already. And those people tend to lead large, well-financed institutions that make policy decisions that affect the lives of millions. UNESCO, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the JRC are just a few examples of institutions invested in using the field of foresight in their planning and decision processes.

It is clear to me that foresight practitioners working with influential institutions are aware of and concerned about the bias an institution’s agenda can introduce into a foresight process. The idea that the future can be a “safe place for reflection and exploration” was a common theme at the event and in the literature I have scanned since. However, I get a sense that this often translates into safe places for institutional staff and advisors to explore the possible and the preferable freed from the day-to-day politics and bureaucratic constraints of their organizations.

I learned of several cases where such institutions attempted to convene diverse participants into their processes. However, I get the sense that this often means “diverse experts” or that participants are identified and recruited by experts. The institutional allegiance to “expertise” can introduce its own set of biases, and spaces controlled by large institutions and their circle of advisors may or may not be perceived as “safe” by any number of people whose input would generate value.

Expertise is a problematic construction in a networked world. First of all, the rapid pace of change calls established expertise into constant question. Knowledge is so widely available that it can be acquired and utilized without institutional credentials or recognition. Additionally, networked individuals and “small groups” can now have the kind of influence in shaping the future that was once only attainable by incorporated organizations controlling large resource pools, introducing a new element of chaos and unpredictability into the system, while simultaneously generating new areas of knowledge and expertise “on the ground” where geopolitical and economic changes are experienced first hand.

So, can anyone use the future or do foresight exercises need to originate from foresight professionals? Can foresight professionals share their tools and democratize the practice? Are they willing to lose some “ownership” of the practice, and are they open to seeing what can happen with futures imagined at the grassroots level? In any case, who is the primary beneficiary of foresight activities? If futurists want more people to “use the future,” it is incumbent upon them to articulate the value of their practices. As someone who has incorporated elements of foresight (systems theory, the power of narrative, etc.) into my work without being aware of the field of foresight and future, I am convinced that there is enormous value here. But how does it translate into a broader network of new practitioners and how do those translations return and inform the professional field?

Meanwhile, I would argue that leaders and networks outside of the field of professional foresight have been using the future quite successfully. Edgeryders is one example. A colleague of mine, Nettrice Gaskins, is incorporating frameworks of Afrofuturism and black futurism into art criticism and integrating what she’s learning into Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) training for young people often marginalized by traditional educational practices. I also think about Allied Media Projects, which has been convening grassroots change makers for sixteen years to leverage media and technology for social change. In recent years, AMP has taken an explicitly futurist turn, incorporating science fiction motifs and exercises to re-imagine the future of Detroit (its home base) from a technologically empowered grassroots up. In re-imagining Detroit, AMP is opening new spaces for the futures of all post-industrial cities and connecting with global participants.

In other words, the future is not the sole domain of the full-time futurists. If there is a shared goal for more people to use the future, I hope the foresight field will take a broader view of where futures expertise lives. I believe there is a lot of potential in sharing what has been learned in formal futures and foresight settings, but conversely a lot for the field to learn from those who are actively embracing and creating futures, but may be too involved in that creation to date to have connected with the formal networks of the futures field. The future is potential. I only hope that potential is universally accessible and useful.

1 Like

Paragraph alert

@NathanielJ, I think maybe a copy-paste as text issue took away your paragraphs… have you noticed?

thanks for heads up, fixed!

What do you think about the content btw?

The grim science strikes again

This may be a bit cynical, @NathanielJ, but if I am reading your piece right what you are saying is: “this futurism thing looks quite interesting, but it seems it is jealously guarded by about one thousand people worldwide who seem very reluctant to step down from the conference podium and engage in conversation, so it can never scale”. Well, here’s the thing: maybe 950 of these people are consultants. Consultants are lousy at sharing their tools and intel; they are trying to keep an edge on the market. They may be individually good, even brilliant, but it is quite hard to get the kind of broader network you suggest based on them.

As for the other 50, they are science fiction writers (would they be what where referred to as “pop futurists” in KnowLab?). Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, Hannu Rajaniemi are known to have done consultancy on futures; I would be surprised if people like Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, Charles Stross, Peter Watts, Greg Bear had not done the same. Now, these people have a different set of incentives, because they sell books. They are incentivised to share insights and tools, because the more people know they are brilliant thinkers the more books they sell.

So, if the future of futurism is to become more distributed, to mobilise a vast and diverse network of people, existing practitioners might be a dead end. Better to invest on the science fiction writers and, maybe, the top-notch consultancies out there, who feel confident enough to try and create an ecosystem around them.

Also, I am not sure I would emphasise tools so much. I recently attended a conference called Foresight and Development, organised by some of the better minds at UNDP and featuring some of the same people that were at KnowLab (at least John Sweeney). To my great surprise, their tools were very “soft”, very narrative oriented. My own modest attempts at using network science and panel data econometric methods to extract collective intelligence from online conversations seemed to be among the hardest approaches in the whole conference, producing something similar to a falsifiable conclusion – or at least explicitly trying to. When I talk to hard scientist, they think I am prone to handwaving and could use more rigour, so I don’t think there is a lot of academic credibility in futurism right now.

I am not pessimistic. Like you, I see potential. Hell, I am even spending my own time building methods that might be a step in that direction. But the road will be long, and – I am with you here – new people with new approaches need to be invited in, and welcomed as peers, if the discipline is to get out if its current niche.

getting side-tracked

Hey Nathaniel

Thanks for the blog post - I hope I can offer a few thoughts.

A first point, related to the wikipedia entry regarding future studies - I’ve been wrestling with the inadequacy of this entry for over 7 years.  The current iteration is a bit better than some previous ones (I gave up trying to amend it a while back) - still it is inaccurate to say that foresight is largely European.  I won’t go into the role of Rand, or Herman Kahn or the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Future Society, etc. that are all American.  Not to mention Alvin Toffler, and MIT’s role in the Club of Rome Limits to Growth, etc. I think it would be more accurate to say that if people haven’t heard about foresight or futures studies it is because it is simply not part of the dominant academic or pop-culture discourses.  Efforts to turn thinking about the future into a ‘rigorous’ field or ‘discipline’ have not been successful until now. Part of my argument is that the ‘discoveries’ in terms of both theory and practice that propel a field into existence as a meaningful and eventually legitimate discipline are shaped by historical context. Adam Smith, ‘moral philosopher’ started the field of economics, not because he dreamt up private property, transactions and specialization but because he noticed patterns and gave them names and described models to explain phenomena.  Same goes for Futures Literacy and the Discipline of Anticipation, if we are talking about it now, if it is only emergent and still obscure, it is because something that wasn’t really evident is now becoming relevant and meaningful.

I also appreciated your insight about back-casting or reverse engineering from many possible futures. However, there is again a distinction here that is important - the future doesn’t always need to be used to engineer tomorrow.  Not a point that computes easily given the dominant views of the instrumental nature of using the future to “make a difference”, but important nevertheless.

On the plausible, possible, probable, preferable distinctions - and the cone version of thinking about the future - I’ll admit that I’m on record criticising this position as hopping on one leg (see my article Being Without Existing: The Futures Community at a Turning Point). But it is mainstream.

Regarding the point you attribute to me, I may have given the impression that I want people to use the future more, but I was trying to make the case that we use the future a lot already, I’d like us to use it better.  I really appreciated the way you made the comparison to the challenge of wrapping our heads around complexity. Keeping up that paradigmatic shift idea means, at least as I see it, avoiding the cliche expectations of “greater agency” and “uncertain times” to see that it is about understanding agency differently (not-doing) and welcoming the fact that uncertainty is the one certainty and it is at the origin of our liberty.  Are our times more uncertain than 1939 or 1917 or 1848 or …?  Such ‘hubris of the now’ is common and is a symptom of a lack of Futures Literacy.

Now, turning to the closing section, I understand how the folks at Borghi represented the organizational folk of today - and that it seemed like “we” were worried about how “we” use the future. And certainly the thrust of the evaluation bit was about how “we” could improve the way we use the future. But I hope it was clear that at least for UNESCO the main point was about capacity building and shared sense-making that is not totalizing but empowering - at a grass-roots level.  In other words, obviously the ideology of management, the engineering of everything - design the future, command and control, etc. gives pride of place to the capacity of the captain (leader) to use the future to steer the ship of state, corporation, etc. But the whole point about changing the conditions of change, imagining ways and reasons for developing literate (reading and writing) societies, was that it simply opens up all kinds of new possibilities, good and bad, but most of all more diverse, more expressive, more respectful of a basic value choice regarding liberty and diversity. By casting your focus on the games played by the elites to keep their sinking ships of administrative determinism and anti-experimentalism afloat skews the whole point of Futures Literacy, like training the aristocracy in democratic methods. Amusing, but largely not the point - even if in the end in-fighting amongst elites can play a key role in creating a new regime. And this goes for the cult of the expert which is deeply connected to the fundamentally predictive premise of administrative/managerial systems. There may be subversive experts, ones who undermine their own hold on exclusive knowledge, but again that is not the point - the idea, which I tried to get across, I guess unsuccessfully, is that if people start using the phrase ‘using the future’ the meme is already unleashed, the fit of the virus to the context is general and specific. The time for FL has arrived, even if it is only the beginning. So we’re on the same page about accessible and useful, I just want to insist - not as a professional or as an expert - that if I’ve got an argument about why the world isn’t flat I need to insist that this doesn’t just mean everyone walks on the world so everyone already knows.

Sorry to go on for so long - and I hope this doesn’t sound too critical or defensive - just trying to contribute to getting a new story to be a bit more meaningful as something that is new. Not sure that paradigm shifts are doable using prose, but worth a try.

Thanks, Riel