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An exercise in addressing the future critically

Lecture-workshop | 1.45min (can be reduced to 1h) | contact me if interested

This lecture-workshop is built around two parts: the first part is aimed at deconstructing the common sense built around the future as conceptualized in a Western perspective; the second part aims at reconstructing another concept of future, thought of as a process “in the making”.

VERSIONS SPECIFIC TO EACH CONTEXT AT: 23.10.18 at Ponderosa, Brandenburg (DE)| 10.03.19 Virtual Viewpoints – 12-week on-line course with Deborah Black | 5-6.04.19 Human Living Center#2 at Inkonst, Malmö (SE) | 26 & 29.05.19 at Festival Butterflies & Camels at Communitism, Athens (GR)


Before beginning, I ask the participants to write down where they see themselves in 10 or 20 years from now (depending on the audience) – a question which is thematised at the very end, so as for them to measure the understanding won during the lecture-workshop and take a critical look at their own envisioned future.

The first part invites the audience to take a step back and analyse their own images of the future. The lecture thus starts with a brief history of the future in the manner of history of ideas, taking over Lucien Hölscher’s Discovery of the Future (1999, 2016) which contends that the concept of the future as we know it was born with The Enlightenment and its technical breakthroughs. Follows a survey taken together (24 to 42 questions, 15 to 25 min including results and discussion) based on Boschetti’s Myths of the future (see below), which helps uncover the cultural narratives or myths which underline the ways in which we make sense of the future.

The second part opens on a short overview of Future Studies as a scientific discipline and the basic issues which come with the main concepts of the future in use in the field and elsewhere in science. I then draw a fundamental distinction between the future as a goal (Zukunftsbild) or the future, rather futures, as a process “in the making”. The latter is the focus of my attention with Riel Miller’s notion of the “possibility space” (see below). This second strand of the future as a process “in the making” can be linked to the notion of intensive learning societies and to what has been coined by social theory as “practice movements” (The Commons, Buen Vivir, Ubuntu, Degrowth,…).

Future-modern phenomenon John Gast 1872.001
Slide to Lucien Hölscher’s Discovery of the Future | Work by John Gast, “American Progress”, c. 1872

“Myths of the future”

Fabio Boschetti, Jennifer Price & Iain Walker (2016) “Myths of the future and scenario archetypes” Technological Forecasting & Social Change 111: 76–85

This research on “Myths of the future” stems from findings in social cognition and cultural theory concerning patterns of shared values and beliefs about society and the environment and how they relate to each other (Myths of physical and human nature). Analysing about 600 foresight processes, Boschetti demonstrates that this body of theory is also relevant to the future: visions of the future also fall into six main overarching Myths (see below). This means that the future too is always a story of the relationships between the natural, the social, and the technical worlds.

In this second part of the lecture-workshop, a game-survey (taken over and adapted from Boschetti’s original survey) helps the participants uncover the “Myths of the future” by which they go. The aim is not so much to categorize the participants (which generally fall into different categories) but to provide them with a way to take a step back from their attitudes and beliefs about the future and open up alternative images and ideas about the future.

The eco-crisis myth: environmental conditions and natural habitats are likely to decline and lead to social unrest. The social crisis myth: traditional values, social order, and human competence are likely to decline in the future. The power and economic inequality myth: big business and governments are likely to become more powerful and cause social inequality and economic crisis.
The traditionalist environmentalism myth: biotech and nanotech entail risks for the environment as well as for humanity, which is likely to return to simpler ways of living.
The techno-optimism myth: science and technology are likely to create innovations that improve quality of life. The social transformation myth: society is likely to become more decentralized, caring, and collectively empowered.


Future as a target or future as a process “in the making”

Riel Miller (2007) “Futures literacy: A hybrid strategic scenario method”, Futures, Vol. 39: 341­–362

In the futures studies, they are two main school of thought. You can think of the future as a target in a future time-space or of the future as a process “in the making”. The two differ in as much as in the first, the future is closed – a “colonized future!” claim its adversaries; whereas process-oriented futures are wide open.

In the first model, it is about envisioning a future in the explorative (plausible, probable futures) or normative modes (preferred futures), and devise of ways to reach your vision. In the second model, you make use of the open future (possible futures) to uncover other ways of knowing and acting in the present.

Riel Miller, Head of Foresight at UNESCO and a future practitioner, has developed a line of thinking around this last strand, whose originality lies in overcoming the “limitations imposed by values and expectations when thinking about the future”. To that aim, the method focuses first on the task of “rigorous imagination” with the help of social theory: the idea is to “open up a possibility space” where variables (taken over from sound social theory) form the x/y axis of a speculative futures space. From then on, the task is to formulate possible outcomes from all points of this space (what if?) and finally use those thought experiments for decision-making. In this way, values (preferred futures) and predictability (probable, plausible futures) don’t a priori enclose futures – as is most often the case in foresight and beyond. This approach in turn helps uncover other ways of knowing and acting in the present.

For Miller, this method can build into an embodied capacity, a “future literacy” as he calls it, a way of making decisions in the present informed by its many unknown possibilities for the future, or in Miller’s words: “Dancing on the unknown”. This approach can be linked to what has been coined “practice movements” in social theory (such as The Commons, Buen Vivir, Ubuntu, Degrowth,…) as well at to the concept of intensive learning societies.