Saturday, April 30, 2016

Foresight is a right

Artwork: Mural by the Community Qolla Ayllu Cutimuy of Villa Elisa, La Plata, Buenos Aires[source].


A while back, a futures student posted on one of our community email lists a question that I've kept coming back to in my mind.

Is thinking about the future a right or a privilege?

This is interesting because it gets at a central paradox that one inhabits as a futurist. On the one hand, it's clearly a right. As human beings, whatever our physical limitations may be, we enjoy – as we must – a capacity to roam freely in the imagination. To hope, to dream, to explore. What could be more basic? (Zia Sardar's splendid 01999 collection, Rescuing All Our Futures, acknowledges and builds on this notion, looking at it primarily though a critical cultural and decolonial lens.) Consider too our historical situation: enmeshed in a fast-changing world, being able to think ahead is apparently a prerequisite for successfully navigating that change as individuals and as communities. So, yeah: foresight is a right.

On the other hand, foresight is evidently a privilege. Many people are so overwhelmed with the concerns and pressures of the day-to-day that the idea of spending time engaged with the longer term outside of the occasional daydream is a barely imaginable luxury. People are unaccustomed to thinking futures and tend to discount them: it was this recognition that prompted our first steps ten years ago towards what became Experiential Futures practice. Also, professional futurists are still a rare species, numbering in the hundreds worldwide. A majority of companies, universities, and governments lack proper mechanisms for incorporating foresight into their work. Similarly in the realm of education; despite basic education itself now being a global norm, few students even get to find out that the foresight field exists, let alone study it. Foresight is also a privilege.

A paradox then: normatively foresight is a right, descriptively it's a luxury. It's something everyone should be able to do, but in reality few have the opportunity. We need to close this gap, and there are some encouraging signs that things may be moving in the right direction.

There's Teach The Future, a project of long time futures educator Peter Bishop, "to establish futures thinking as a natural component of secondary, post-secondary and professional education". This wonderful initiative builds on a half century-old pedagogical tradition in futures studies, seeking to make it available to all.

There's the proposal by strategic consultant Jeff De Cagna that a Duty of Foresight be embraced by association boards alongside their existing legally established duties of care, loyalty and obedience. Law being part of my background, I find this very interesting: a legal obligation to think ahead more methodically could be quite a powerful measure.

This month (April 02016), there was a promising court decision where a federal US judge found in favour of a group of young people, aged between 8 and 19, seeking to sue the United States government for inaction on climate change, in light of harm to both their own interests and those of future generations.

And there are also assorted experiments with formal mechanisms embedding foresight in state governance. Some years ago Bolivia passed the Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra (Cormac Cullinan's wonderful book Wild Law covers this earth-centric legal territory very well). Sweden now has a Minister of Future Issues; her name is Kristina Persson. Finnish Parliament has a standing permanent Committee for the Future. In just the past week, my colleague Noah Raford shared the news that the Dubai Future Foundation has been established through a waqf, or perpetual charitable trust, "to shape the future of the strategic sectors in cooperation with the government and private sector".  Many jurisdictions have seen proposals or undertaken efforts towards various institutions of foresight – which, covered properly, would be a much longer post.

Admittedly this is all a bit impressionistic. We could stand to be rather more systematic about tracking signals towards what Richard Slaughter usefully described twenty years ago as social foresight; a collective capacity to engage the long term [full text].

It is more than a decade since Andy Hines, now head of the futures program at University of Houston, proposed an "audit for organisational futurists" [full text pdf] to implement and monitor progress within organisations. Perhaps the time has come for the field to take steps towards a larger-scale foresight audit – a Foresight Census, to monitor the shape of these activities and spread of capacities around the world.

Foresight is indeed a right, it seems to me. But we are extraordinarily fortunate to be part of an era in which it is also, Inshallah, becoming a norm.

> Dreaming together
Crimes against future generations
> Questioning hyperopia
Generational change
> Politicians discussing global warming


Bob said...

Stumbled upon this quote in Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams the other day: “In a world without future, each moment is the end of the world.”. That would certainly make it a right!

Stuart Candy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stuart Candy said...

Bob, thank you. Great quote and a super interesting book - one of my students recommended it and I just read it last year. For another with similarly mind expanding properties, have you come across Sum by David Eagleman? Reviewed here a while back. Hope you're well!

Bob Ryskamp said...

Yep, one of my favorites! Eagleman is a design hero of mine =)