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