Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Power of Utopia

One of my favourite engagements of the past year was a panel about The Power of Utopia with accomplished artistic activists Terry Marshall (co-instigator of Intelligent Mischief, a creative studio dedicated to “unleashing Black imagination to shape the future”), and Cory Doctorow (bestselling science fiction author and journalist whose work includes How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism and Walkaway, among many other titles).

The Center for Artistic Activism (C4AA) hosted the event as part of its Revolutionizing Activism series, a brilliant resource for agents of change to practise infusing radical imagination into present action. Afterwards, the organisation shared some key takeaways from the event under the title How to strengthen the vision of your advocacy.

Video of the full conversation is embedded below.

> Imagination Is a Commons: An experiential futures project for UNDP (02021)
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures / EXF (02017)
> FoundFutures: Chinatown: Green Dragon (02007)
> Critical activism: An interview with Anab Jain (02019)
> The New York Times Special Edition (02008)
> Future documentary (02016)
> Guerrilla Futures: Strategic foresight meets tactical media (02014)
> Dreampolitik: On the political importance of impossible dreams (2008)
> The Tao of Steve (02011)
> Guerrilla Futures C4AA webinar (02017)
> The School of Worldbuilding (02019)

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Participatory futures for democracy

The White House just took a big step towards making futures thinking a more common practice.

As the year comes to a close, some great news for foresight and public imagination from the Biden-Harris Administration: the Fifth U.S. Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) was released this week, and it includes a move for participatory and inclusive futures engagement over the next two years.

The new plan, developed in a collaboration between the U.S. federal government and partners in civil society, has a cross-cutting theme of “advancing equity and inclusion for underserved communities”.

It sets out around 30 federal-level commitments that seek, among other things, to ensure public access to government data, information and research, to involve citizens in the work of government, and to transform service delivery. As the introduction notes, “While U.S. support for open government has always been crucial, it is especially vital today. . . . at a time when the principles of equality and democracy are threatened across the United States and around the world.”

There’s a lot more to the document, but of particular relevance to the foresight/futures community is a specific commitment to “pilot new forms of public engagement to inform policy and program implementation”, with a strategy for pursuing this in the form of a framework that “will engage diverse and inclusive public participation to better define and imagine emerging challenges, opportunities, and possibilities for our shared future”.

The effort is to be spearheaded by the General Services Administration (GSA), an independent agency of the U.S. government set up in 01949 “to help manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies”.

In other words, the White House has just officially promised to engage the public in imagining alternative futures –– with a view to this feeding into national policy and implementation.

This is a very exciting development.

I have already noted at this blog the “tremendous expansion in awareness of and interest in futures/foresight work”, and remarked on mounting evidence that “the conditions for social foresight are ripening, with experiential and participatory futures approaches migrating and spreading across contexts –– from academia and activism, to arts and culture, to business, politics and governance.”

Futures/foresight as a field, or family of practices, continues to progress on institutional and cultural fronts alike. Some of the most promising steps, I think, come when the strategies of institutionalisation and acculturation coincide. (A hat tip here to my friend Honor Harger, a futures-oriented artist/curator, for helping me appreciate these as a complementary pair.) And as I've been saying for quite some time, the bigger story or context for foresight practitioners, whatever their practice and whoever their clients, collaborators or students happen to be, lies in finding ways to advance futures not solely through formal processes of organisations and governance, but through ordinary thinking and action –– the futures of everyday life.

In this U.S. government plan we find, at the very least, another encouraging signal of progress towards augmented participation, distribution, inclusivity and visibility for alternative futures.

But as the plan starts to be concretised and carried out in months to come, in the ideal, it might just prove to contain the seeds of greater things.

I’m pleased to have played, at the request of a colleague leading the charge at GSA, a modest part here by providing light advisement and enthusiastic encouragement to help get this commitment approved in black and white.

I also find it heartening to note the rationale for this aspect of the plan:

“Stories of possibility can provide opportunities to express emerging challenges and opportunities through creative and engaging narrative. At their best, stories can inform our collective imagination and create inclusive space for meaningful conversations — and then drive action to choose new possibilities.”

Hear, hear. Something long understood to be self-evident in futures circles, namely the central importance of images of the future to shaping the world we end up in, is coming to be more widely grasped.

In related news, a report called Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy, by Suzette Brooks Masters and Ruby Hernandez, was released just a few weeks ago by Democracy Funders Network. I found myself in excellent company as one of the interviewees for the project. And as it turns out, some of the steps now being prepared by the federal government appear very much in line with the key recommendations coming out of that research: to strengthen the positive visioning ecosystem by investing in infrastructure and relationships; model what’s possible and fund experimentation; and strengthen narrative systems and amplify positive, futures-oriented content.

Finally, and in a similar vein, my coauthor Filippo Cuttica and I were thrilled to learn this month that our work to help introduce foresight at the BBC, which culminated in the recent publication of a toolkit called The Futures Bazaar, seeking to bring these ways of thinking to wider publics around the world, has been recognised by the professional futurist community as a Most Significant Futures Work of the year – taking home the award for advancing Inclusive Foresight.

So as 02022 comes to an end, here's to a 02023 filled with inclusive co-creativity, narrative invention, public engagement, meaningful conversation, and concrete action towards the preferred possibilities that result!


The full text of the Fifth U.S. Open Government National Action Plan is available in html and pdf. Thanks and godspeed to the public servants responsible for making it happen.

> Foresight is a Right
The Futures of Everyday Life
What Is the Value of Futures and Foresight?
> Where Do You Stand? Or, The Polak Game
> Welcome to The Futures Bazaar
> Introducing Participatory and Experiential Futures at the BBC
> Exploring Technology Governance Futures with the World Economic Forum
> Using the Future at NASA
> UNTITLED: A Bold New Experiment in Public Imagination
> American Futures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
> Knowledge Base of Futures Studies

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A new collection on Speculation in Design

The University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design has published the latest edition of its periodical LA+, an interdisciplinary journal dealing with landscape architecture –– and more, as the name hints.

The topic and title this time out is SPECULATION, a multifarious and richly intersectional theme on which contributions appear from Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Javier Arpa Fernandéz, Min Kyung Lee, and Ytasha Womack, together with many others, all marshalled by the issue editor Christopher Marcinkoski and editor-in-chief Tatum Hands.

I had the pleasure of taking part in the project via a conversation with a wonderful transdisciplinary practitioner of landscape architecture and media arts, professor Aroussiak Gabrielian of University of Southern California's Architecture school. As a taste, below is one of my favourite questions posed by Aroussiak, and the thoughts it prompted.


AG: I’m wondering how you feel about the pitfalls in speculative design, given the criticism it has received for being speculation for speculation’s sake or that its focus has been very techno-scientific, or product driven – pushing forth the same capitalist system by inventing objects that we might consume in the future.

SC: Yeah, I think that those are definitely ways the work can fail to live up to its potential. Sometimes, especially early on, practitioners might find themselves using an excess of whimsy on one hand, or an excess of capitalist realism on the other. To me, both are ways of missing the mark, but I think it would be unfortunate if that were to lead some observers to think that the whole enterprise of using design and the arts to explore futures is without value. That would be a grand-scale throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. It’s possible to write bad poetry, too, but that doesn’t mean all poetry is bad.

I would say that some of the criticism drawn during the recent wave of speculation in design, while fair enough, is really responding to a sort of belated unleashing of creative energy that was previously stifled by a so-called human centered, but, let’s be honest, capital-centered, paradigm where the use of imagination is highly constrained, and aspirational only within tightly defined limits. You take those constraints off, and people go wild. That is actually kind of cool to watch, but is it the end state for the practice? I don’t think so. Once people have gotten some of that initial rambunctious energy out of their system, there is a sort of getting of wisdom in play. You can see this with [card game] The Thing from The Future. To start with, many players revel in the license to run free, be silly, and have fun. Then, after a while, they start to get a little bit more critical and search for ideas with more substance. The novelty of the very idea of something ostensibly coming “from the future,” perhaps exciting enough in itself to begin with, wears off, and players start to want to know more about what future it’s from, and how it might work, and how it’s different from what they’ve heard before, and whose interests it represents. This is part of why, having created the game, Jeff [Watson, cofounder of Situation Lab and professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts] and I kept adapting and modifying it, and using it with different groups to help push the general vogue for speculation past this initial flare-up of excitement and crappy ideas that we all tend to have when first invited to roam freely in the space of alternative futures.

To try to make the year 02050 matter right now is an important but difficult task. There’s no objective referent for a 02050 scenario – in contrast to trying to bridge into the shoes of someone historically or in the present, where you can at least partially ground-truth things. The inbuilt speculative challenge of futures is that they are not just epistemically but ontologically indeterminate. They are up for grabs. So we need to realize that when we’re making a hypothetical world specific enough to wrap our body-minds around, we’re making it artificially specific, just in order to be able to think and feel into it. We have to take the ability to inhabit this “what if” with a big grain of salt, because it’s not a question of getting it right or not, in a predictive sense; it’s a question of how rigorously and usefully we are deploying imagination to enable new perceptions and possibilities in the present.


If you're interested in the theme of speculation, as so many designers have been recently, check out the full piece (Futuring: A Conversation) and the collection as a whole (digital or print).

> Design and Futures (ebook and paperback)
> Critical activism: Anab Jain of Superflux
> I design worlds: Liam Young of SCI-Arc
> Using the future at NASA: David Delgado of NASA JPL
Gaming futures literacy: The Thing From The Future (pdf)
> An experiential futures interview 
> Designing futures: An interview
> Design is a team sport
> Killer imps: Bringing futures to designers at the Royal College of Art

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Welcome to The Futures Bazaar

The Futures Bazaar: A Public Imagination Toolkit is published by Situation Lab & the British Broadcasting Corporation

(Update 20dec22: The Futures Bazaar has been named a Most Significant Futures Work of the year by the Association of Professional Futurists! Winners of the 02022 #IFAwards were announced here. Many thanks to APF for this recognition in the Inclusive Foresight category, and gratitude again to our BBC collaborators and all who contributed to the project, listed in this post and also in the kit itself.)

Picture a wild and wonderful place where all alternative future possibilities co-exist at once, and can be physically encountered in real life; a kind of multi-dimensional exchange, where tangible objects are put on offer from countless possible worlds.

This crazy setting is not just an idea, but somewhere I’ve visited — twice, actually. And you can, too.

The Futures Bazaar: A Public Imagination Toolkit, created and written together with my fantastic design futurist colleague Filippo Cuttica, has just been released by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Situation Lab. It’s available to download for free from the BBC here.

Thinking concretely about times to come is harder and rarer than it should be. That’s why this is an open access public imagination toolkit. It’s designed to help make such thinking a bit easier and more common.

The Futures Bazaar toolkit is basically a turnkey framework for setting up a co-creative gathering or design jam where participants transform everyday objects brought from home into unique things “from” alternative futures, to provoke, amuse, and inspire each other. Every participant helps imagine and produce these future artifacts, and every artifact tells a story.

You know, the toolkit is itself a sort of artifact, with a story of its own.

A few years ago, before the pandemic, we staged the first Futures Bazaar for the away day of the whole design side of the BBC.

It was great. There was zaniness. There was creativity in spades. At the end, there was even beer on tap. More about this wild experiment we did with BBC designers can be found here.

Other things equal, perhaps that would have been the end of it. But soon afterwards, I ran a second iteration in my required design futures course at Carnegie Mellon. (This time, no beer.) It seemed like an appropriate way to introduce a roomful of undergrad designers to the idea that any item can mobilise an array of associations and tell a range of stories. Playing with the signs and sensemaking of material artifacts in this way proved a neat on-ramp to broader vistas of experiential futures practice.

Both bazaars went so well that the process seemed to be crying out to be shared with a wider audience. Then Covid-19 struck, and everything went on hold.

However, as time passed, and the pandemic wore on, the widespread need that prompted this project in the first place — the need to support shared spaces of imaginative engagement — has become only more obvious, and more urgent.

In order to adapt and distill the Bazaar design into a toolkit, Filippo and I spent months working on how to make organising one of these events as intuitive as possible, without us being in the room. Our aim was to enable any motivated gathering, equipped with a basic projector setup, some printouts, and ordinary household objects, to imagine countless possible worlds and bring them to life on the spot. 

The Futures Bazaar can now be run by anyone, anywhere. It is for players of all ages, in all fields. It is intended for use in public and private organisations, government bodies, schools, and nonprofits alike.

It offers a chance to expand horizons, explore new ideas, and develop capacities for foresight, creativity, and storytelling, all in just a few hours. It can be set up as a stand-alone event such as a company away day, or within a larger workshop, course, or event series.

Conceived in the traditions of experiential futures and participatory design, it might be part of a journey — as at the BBC itself — towards building foresight capability, engaging alternative futures in more open and creative ways, or it can be used more for fun — teambuilding through worldbuilding.

The toolkit is made up of three elements: Manual, Slides, and Printouts. The Manual (a complete guide for use in hard copy or on a tablet) helps you plan your own event, the Slides (to display on any large screen or projector) help you run it, and the Printouts (ready to go in either colour or B&W) are for distributing to participants on the day. All this has been packaged into a single zipped folder containing the full set of PDF documents for download here.

This project has been able to take advantage of some of the experiments and learning at Situation Lab, the creative research unit that I’ve run for the last nine years. The toolkit incorporates elements from our award-winning game The Thing From The Future, and it also builds on the participatory design events that we at Sitlab carried out with Extrapolation Factory; the Futurematic design jam series, held in the mid-2010s in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles.

The kit’s acknowledgements section tips the hat to the many folks who made this publication possible, but above all, The Futures Bazaar toolkit is dedicated to the memory of my dearly missed friend and longtime collaborator Jeff Watson of the University of California’s School of Cinematic Arts, co-creator of The Thing From The Future and co-founder of Situation Lab. The invention of openly available, playfully framed, creatively enabling frameworks and designs was among his great gifts, and an inspiration throughout the project.

Filippo and I, with our talented collaborators at the BBC, are delighted to be sending this toolkit forth into the world, hoping it will travel, and be taken up far and wide. We can’t wait to find out what people get up to with it.

If The Futures Bazaar sounds like something you might like to run, you can go ahead and download version 1.0 of the kit right now. If there happen to be folks in your world who might enjoy it, please share this article or the project link with them. We plan to make additional guidance available for those interested, so following Sitlab, Filippo or me on Twitter would be a good way to keep up with the latest news and announcements.

The world can be a frightening and unpredictable place. This project is not going to solve all its problems. But we are in earnest when we say that we think the capacity to imagine is key to shaping the futures, and this kind of collective play is key to imagination.

So get playing… we look forward to seeing you at the #FuturesBazaar! ✨ 

The Futures Bazaar invites you to expand horizons, explore new ideas, and transform everyday objects into things from the future


This article previously posted on Medium. A variant appeared at Situation Lab.

Gaming Futures Literacy (article on The Thing From The Future)

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Crystal Ball Game

Futurists, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A journalist contacts you. They’re reporting on topic X (sure!) and how it could change over the coming years or decades (great!) and would like to speak to a futurist (sounds good!)

Then comes the big question: “What do you predict for the future of X?”

To offer a more pluralistic response, describing alternative futures based on different sets of assumptions, often spells the beginning of the end of that conversation. This is too complicated for the story they want to tell. No sooner have you suggested it than the inquirer is already moving on, questing for someone else, a more innocent (or more jaded) colleague of yours perhaps; one willing to play the crystal ball game.

In futures practice this vignette is wearyingly familiar, and the tendency in popular media towards linear, predictive, and binary treatment of “the future”, singular, is pervasive; enough so that to call it merely a journalistic preference or a pattern is too mild. Pathology would be closer to the mark.

But when journalists insist on simplistic coverage of “the future”, this is not just a problem for futurists trying to practise more thoughtfully. It’s a problem for journalism, too, and for the audience it is meant to be serving.

Whether, in any given case, the reason is cynicism or ignorance, does not much matter. Suppose on one hand, they know deep down that they could do better than the crystal ball game, but blame the constraints of story length, or readers’ attention spans. Or suppose on the other hand, they are themselves trapped in limiting philosophical assumptions that they don’t realise they are making. The result is the same either way. Systematic public exploration of alternative futures is woefully under-served by journalism.

Thankfully, the seductiveness of reductiveness doesn’t afflict all journalism equally, and pockets of real plurality, criticality, and quality are vital bright spots to seek out and build on.

For the past year I’ve been working with Matt Thompson, editor at The New York Times, on the new initiative he leads there, Headway, to investigate global and national challenges through the lens of progress. Matt and his team at the Times have an implicitly forward-looking remit, and in the course of our collaboration, we’ve also been exploring questions around how to support journalism and journalists to become more skilful and responsible in dealing with futures in the plural.

A few months ago we had a public conversation on this topic hosted by the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And for the next edition of South by Southwest, we’re looking to take it a step further. You can find the description for our proposed session How to Cover Futures, and a short video we made about it, here.

The challenges are more multifaceted than what I’ve sketched above, and the opportunities to work on them are manifold. This post doesn’t get into all that, but we hope the session will.

We’re aware of colleagues with much to offer on this topic — journalists with futures in their work, and futurists with journalism in their background — and we are keen to widen the exchange in both directions.

This proposed session is just a next step in progressing a bigger dialogue over the long term. For the stakes seem clear enough, and they are high: any society where thinking ahead is properly embraced, distributed and embedded would necessarily have normalised foresightful practices in media and journalism. Put another way, it’s hard to imagine a more sustainable, wise, or foresightful culture coming about, in any form, without society’s purveyors of news and commentary getting a lot more sophisticated in this area than they are today.

In the near term, then, we’d appreciate you sharing this with anyone you think might find it interesting, and voting at the link below by this Sunday [21aug22], to help improve the chances of it happening next March in Austin. 👇🎸✨🌱🤞

And we hope to see you there!


Adding here at TSF, for the record, our session description for How to Cover Futures:

Journalism is often described as the first draft of history. But it strives to frame the future. Journalists deal in a constant stream of predictions, promises, and forecasts, yet often address times to come in damaging ways: extrapolating linearly from current events, without much attempt to understand the full range of possibilities; outsourcing statements about the future to pundits and experts with little accountability for or follow-up on claims that turn out to be false; and giving far more weight to past events than to future possibilities in coverage. So what might a journalism look like that took the future seriously –– and playfully? How might we embrace both rigor and imagination as part of our responsibilities? In short, how do we cover the future?


This post previously appeared on Medium and LinkedIn.

> A TSF post from 02006 that makes basically the same point as above
> In Memoriam (on the bizarre experiential scenario we staged at SXSW in 02008)
> Design Fiction (recording of a panel with Bruce Sterling, Jake Dunagan, Jennifer Leonard, Julian Bleecker, and our late colleague Sacha Pohflepp at SXSW in 02010; the Internet Archive is awesome)
> Journalism from the Future (on efforts to report "from" various futures)
> The New York Times Special Edition (The Yes Men & Steve Lambert's guerrilla futures project)
> US Presidential Election 02024 (from 02008)
> Christchurch, New Zealand in 02031 (from 02014)
Transforming the Future (a book about futures literacy)
> For further reading offsite, check out Jamais Cascio’s classic 02006 post Twelve Things Journalists Need to Know to Be Good Futurist/Foresight Reporters

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

What is the Value of Futures and Foresight?

The Experiential Futures Ladder. Diagram by author. See articles The Experiential Turn (02016) and Designing an Experiential Scenario (2017) co-written with Jake Dunagan

There has been a tremendous expansion in awareness of and interest in futures/foresight work recently, especially those approaches that intersect with the arts, media and design. Projects and publications, courses and conferences on these topics are flourishing like never before.

As Cher Potter and I wrote in our introduction to the collection Design and Futures in 2019:

Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon famously observed: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”.

Designers and futurists, it turns out, have a great deal in common. This mutual recognition is reaching critical mass as each comes to appreciate how their respective traditions have much to offer to making urgent change in the world, and even more so, together.

It is increasingly acknowledged within the futures studies community that operating with a largely verbal and theoretical bent over the past half century has afforded too little impact on actual future-shaping behaviours. Meanwhile, those in the design community recognise a need to interrogate higher-level consequences — the futures, the worlds — that their products, systems and other outputs help produce.

Part of what bringing design and futures into sustained dialogue does is to allow each field to become more fluent in a second language which is the other’s native tongue.

This was published before the Covid-19 pandemic kicked in, but if anything, already established trends in practice have only continued to accelerate since.

In the past handful of years, diverse organisations — cultural ones like the BBC, multilateral ones like the United Nations Development Programme, scientific ones like NASA JPL, and humanitarian ones like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies — have embraced experiential futures as part of the very different things that they do in the world. The largest futures event ever held, a Futures Literacy Summit hosted by UNESCO with over 8000 registered participants, took place online at the end of 2020. Also late last year, a collection of us spread around the planet launched the UNTITLED futures festival, likewise staged largely online thanks to the pandemic, but planned to iterate annually through 2030. This month, a show called The Great Imagination opened in Madrid, surveying the history of images of the future (and featuring our experiential scenario NurturePod), and a major exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, FUTURES, for which I served on the advisory Working Group, just opened on the National Mall in Washington DC. In addition, since last year I’ve been collaborating with the World Economic Forum to help explore the integration of foresight approaches, and especially experiential futures, into their research work, as well as convenings such as the annual Global Technology Governance Summit, held for the first time in April.

It was also last year that the United Kingdom’s RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) released a report about “realising the value of futures and foresight” called A Stitch in Time? The authors had reached out to me to ask questions on this topic, and I shared some thoughts in reply. Now, since these kinds of issues are arising more and more––and evaluation of foresight work is also a live topic of conversation among professional and academic futurists––here is the full Q&A.


RSA: What is the value / distinct offer that experiential / ethnographic futures brings? Are there particular settings they work well in, and how do such approaches land with clients, particularly policy-makers––is it helpful, or seen as wacky?

SC: There are a few threads in this first point. I’ll try to tease them out briefly.

The distinctive value of experiential futures practices comes from how they help people connect to potential realities in waiting as more than just as ideas or thought experiments. There’s a one-pager from The Economist here, a recent piece I wrote for the Cooper Hewitt (Smithsonian Design Museum) here, and for more background and nuance, a journal article from Futures, a deep dive into the design of a card game we created as a distillation of experiential futures ideation, and a book-length exploration describing a kind of foundation for these practices.

Ethnographic futures work is about researching how people actually perceive, think and feel about the landscape of possibilities. Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF) is a process for bringing the above two traditions together, so it’s really scaffolding for making people’s images of alternative futures (a) legible, and then (b) graspable using whatever means fit the context — immersive experiences, performance, physical futures artifacts displayed in a museum or sent through the mail, etc. There’s a journal article about EXF here, or an earlier blog post with I think more images.

These approaches are by no means intended solely for consumption by “clients” — they can also augment public conversation, with much wider or more open-ended audiences, which has since we started doing this ~15 years ago always been a priority.

The extent to which the interventions reflect or deepen, vs push back on or challenge, the thinking of the people encountering them varies enormously. I think it’s usefully regarded as one of the main design variables; that is, something you make choices about, not at all something preordained, automatic, or identical across projects.

How do you evaluate foresight work? Is it possible / needed / appropriate?

How you evaluate something depends entirely on what you are trying to do with it. I’ve suggested (in The Futures of Everyday Life) that education, exploration, evangelism (persuasion) and entertainment are among the diverse purposes that might attach to different experiential futures projects or interventions. Naturally you’d bring different evaluative lenses to bear on each.

One of the main evaluative questions that I think is too often overlooked is “how does it affect the people doing it?” as opposed to “how does it affect someone else?”

How does futures work (especially experiential futures) evolve in this “new normal” period when our experience of reality is so heightened and visceral?

One move is to create online experiences. For example, we’ve been staging experiential scenarios online based on published visions in the public domain. Recently we created an immersive experience of the world decades after the Green New Deal has passed into law, based on the book A Planet to Win by Kate Aronoff et al; and another experience inspired by CEO Kickstarter Yancey Strickler’s book This Could Be Our Future; one using Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto as a starting point, and so on. This work hasn’t been written up as an article yet but you can see a bit more about it at the page for this event we ran back in April, The Time Machine: An Anthology of Visions (click “View details”).

I’ve also written a piece about lessons from directing a global online game for pandemic preparedness, called Coral Cross, funded by the CDC, a decade ago.

Is the field gaining traction as a result of Covid-19? What barriers do we need to overcome for its adoption as a valuable asset for decision-makers and planners? Do you see specific opportunities opening up?

Since Covid, people now seem to have less trouble coming to the premise that thinking about alternative futures might be useful for their organisation or context. So actually some of the main challenges I see at the moment are not necessarily “barriers to adoption” per se, because there’s a great deal of uptake and adoption — the demand side is healthy.

It’s the supply side that is bottlenecked, so in some ways it may be more a matter of “barriers to skilful implementation”. There are more people wanting to do this work, freshly trained or newly experimenting with it, than there are really good, experienced futurists to help guide them. This means there’s room for legitimate concern about insufficiently supported, under resourced, or hastily executed work delivered in or to organisations that have less experience — and the risk is less robust outcomes in the short term, followed by disappointment, and then some time will pass before they try again and, hopefully, do what they should have done in the first place!

Do you think there are valuable insights from aligning / working with other fields or disciplines?

Futures is by its nature a transdisciplinary field. It always involves engaging with a range of other fields and perspectives, and this is among its greatest and most distinctive strengths, I think, as well as an important part of what keeps it interesting.

Are you teaching this as a stand alone course, or a module for those taking other courses? And do you find that people with a particular mindset or personal attributes are better at this work or adopt it more easily?

In keeping with the point above: I think it’s useful to see futures/foresight as a set of competencies that anyone can learn and use over time, and that cut across and complement other fields. I see great value, and even a civilisational imperative, in distributing futures fluency or literacy more widely throughout our communities and culture, which is part of the long-run orientation that we sometimes speak about in terms of developing “social foresight”.

There’s certainly increasing demand for futures training in many quarters, yes, including students, and our evil plan to normalise or integrate futures thinking as a part of design has come along in leaps and bounds over the last decade. We also work with a real range of organisations in various capacities, from US Conference of Mayors, the BBC, Skoll World Forum, IDEO, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to the Smithsonian Institution, UK National Lottery, Alaska’s Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and so on. Regarding aptitude, people with a cultural fluency or orientation tend to pick it up really quickly. I especially like working with museums and other cultural organisations, because I think they’re among the best avenues to social foresight — getting wisdom into the water supply, so to speak.

What might you wish for in the further development of this field?

Futures work is highly relational. It’s about not just when, but also who, and where you are. It’s not a compliance process you can just step through automatically, checking boxes; much less a product to buy and be done with it. It’s more like dancing. I expect to see more organisations realising they could use a few dancing lessons, and reaching out for help with that. They will have to be prepared to take risks and missteps, though, or how will they ever learn? And it might seem embarrassing at first, but the sooner they’ll do it, the faster they’ll learn and benefit, and maybe even have more fun. By the way, this seems to be happening quite a bit more quickly in the nonprofit and public sectors than in the business world. To generalise a bit, the former tend to be better equipped for, as my friend Michelle King puts it, “learning in public,” while the latter are often concerned about a commercial confidentiality that can really get in their own way. Over time, though, those two different stances, one more open and the other more closed, seem likely to yield the results they deserve.

We’re writing this short provocation report for a lay audience, the intellectually curious, who are unlikely to be experts in this space. Is it possible to identify the two or three things that you wish everyone knew about the field (or perhaps myths you’d love to bust)?

No one, including futurists, can tell you what the future will be. If someone tries to sell you that, don’t hire them.

Folks in the field generally refer to it, almost interchangeably, as futures (oriented around the subject matter) or foresight (oriented around the competency), not futurism or futurology. By and large that’s almost a litmus test of whether you’re dealing with someone who knows the field or not.

Futures is a container or meta-perspective that includes, classically, multiple modalities to address — and we can simplify a bit here, borrowing a classic typology — possible, probable and preferable futures. Each of these conversations inescapably involves engaging different kinds of knowledge, so the practice is bound to be part art (what could happen?), part science (what can the evidence tell us?), and part politics (what do we value; what should we do?) If that seems messy, just look at how messy the world is.

I would be most suspicious of any perspective that pretends complexity can be simply tamed. Futures or foresight offers the necessary structures and spaces to help integrate reality’s mess with the organisational dialogue. Among other things, it’s an orientation to constant learning. As my colleague Jake Dunagan (now at Institute for the Future) and I are fond of saying, “It’s better to be surprised by simulation than blindsided by reality.”


For further reading, here is the full RSA report: A Stitch in Time: Realising the Value of Futures and Foresight.

And finally, just published in the past week by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies is a report looking at how arts and futures work intersect, including the rise of experiential futures practices: Futures Shaping Art / Art Shaping Futures.