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.

No comments: