L’High-Level Futures Literacy Summit organised by UNESCO took place last December with the intention of promoting Futures Literacy to show how being ‘future literate’ changes what people see and do.
-skopìa took part in the event presenting its Futures Literacy projects for organisations, enterprises, public administrations and schools and offering its strategic consultancy services.
To underline the importance of the event and the need to train new skills to understand the future and use it in the strategies of the present, Sara Boller, Elena Petrucci and Ilaria Rinaldi interviewed Riel Miller.
Riel Miller holds the position of Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO in Paris. He is one of the world’s leading strategic foresight designers and practitioners. He is an accomplished and innovative designer of processes for using the future to make decisions in the present. He is an experienced keynote speaker, project manager, master of ceremonies, university lecturer, workshop leader, and group facilitator.
First of all, we would like to ask you to talk about your role within UNESCO as Head of Futures Literacy and the path led it.
Of course, thank you for the question. I have a PhD in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York and I started my professional career in early 1982 at the OECD in Paris in the Economics Department where we were responsible for forecasting. As you know, forecasting is one way of imagining the future, it is a specific data and model based, econometric approach. What I noticed at the beginning of my career was that expert forecasters, such as those at the OECD, were well aware of the limited accuracy of their forecasts. They knew full well that their models focused on a narrow set of variables and that risk, as a calculable residual of the equations, did not encompass uncertainty, which could not be modelled. Bottom line, our forecasts were not very accurate. When past forecasts were compared to what actually happened the analysis showed large discrepancies, particularly when it came to the crucial events like peaks and troughs of economic cycles.
Nevertheless, what was striking was that the presidents and prime ministers, who at that time would actually congregate at the OECD for the announcement of the new annual forecast, treated these prognostications as accurate predictions of what would happen. Even though they were well aware that there was a very good chance that elements of risk, uncertainty or both would render such predictions inaccurate. What seemed fascinating to me at the time was the desire or need to predict the future wearing the mantle of authority and certainty. Why foster the illusion that the future can be predicted in this way? Why encourage expectations of certainty? Why adopt a position that renders the world as it is – full of creativity, surprises, novelty that is unknowable in advance – as something that is threatening because it might upend our pretensions to predict and control the future? These questions set me off on a decades long learning voyage, an effort to understand why and how humans ‘use-the-future’ to engage with certainty, uncertainty and the relationship between the two.
I have had the good fortune to be able to orient my career towards the exploration of this challenge, primarily by designing processes for thinking about the future. As a designer I’ve been able to explore the reasons and methods for imagining the future and thereby how different anticipatory systems and processes shape humanity’s relationship to certainty and uncertainty. My first big design project was in 1988 when, through a strange serendipity of circumstances, I was hired to be the first Manager of Policy and Research at the Ontario Council of Regents, the statutory agency responsible for over-seeing the community-college system. My primary assignment was to design and implement a two-year participatory exercise to explore the future of Ontario’s community colleges. The project was called “Vision 2000”. The difficulties of designing the process combined with direct experiences I had with groups across Ontario as they attempted to imagine the future helped me to appreciate that for the most part people are unaware of the origins and structures of their images of the future. I saw first-hand that it is not only difficult for people to generate images of the future but that very often they are unaware of the power of the images of the future they carry around unquestioned. I realized that they were, what I would call today, futures illiterate.
I continued to grapple with the difficulties and implications of imagining the future when I went back to the OECD in 1995 to work in the International Futures Programme, a small unit attached the Secretary General’s office. There I learned a lot about how people can create ideas together, the intricacies of what I now call ‘collective intelligence knowledge creation’. When I left the OECD to start my own consultancy in 2005, I was able to bring together most of the different pieces – first, the nature and role of anticipatory systems as critical determinants of why and how humans relate to certainty and uncertainty; second, a set of design principles for harnessing collective intelligence knowledge creation that enable the exploration of the anticipatory assumptions people use to imagine the future; third an appreciation of complexity as a condition or context, not a variable; and fourth, a reformulation of human aspirations away from goal setting to capability cultivation.
The design of collective intelligence knowledge creation processes rests on a very simple and innate human characteristic, the basic learning cycle. This cycle starts when a person realises that they don’t know something. In other words, they want to understand a phenomenon. Which forces them to formulate hypotheses and then test them – like when we play a game and gradually figure out the rules, maybe how to win, but also how to cheat or why it might be a good idea to change the rules. After this kind of scientific process, which often requires considerable effort and investment, the moment comes to consolidate and apply what has been learned. That is the learning cycle. Collective intelligence knowledge creation processes must be designed in order to take advantage of this cycle, an experience all humans have constantly.
The other innate human trait available to a designer of processes for thinking about the future is Anticipation. Here I owe a great intellectual debt to Roberto Poli and Ilkka Tuomi who exposed me to the writing of Robert Rosen and contributed to making the links to Futures Studies. As you know the core proposition is that all living organisms incorporate and deploy anticipatory systems and processes. For instance, a baby, when she starts to test her anticipatory systems will get very direct cause-and-effect feedback. When she cries, she gets fed. Then, as we get older and experience more of life, we start to say, “well maybe I can’t predict what will happen”. This thought is often followed by another one along the lines of, “I should be able to predict, if I was smart enough or knew enough” or “even if I can’t predict I really really wish I could”. Then later on, with even more experience, we begin to realise that that way of thinking about the future is not really the way things happen. Slowly we begin to realise that it is impossible to know in advance what will happen, that the only certainty is uncertainty, and that at each moment a whole new world opens up on the basis of phenomenon that did not exist and could not even be imagined just a second before.
Seeing the capacity to use-the-future in these terms provides a strong rationale for taking an anticipatory systems and processes perspective as the general theoretical foundation for Futures Studies. Then, once Futures Studies is located on this open and inclusive theoretical base, the central task becomes the exploration of the overarching hypothesis that anticipation is widespread and diverse. This sets off a search for evidence to support this hypothesis. The bad news for this search is that most people aren’t aware of their anticipatory systems and processes. There is no way to hunt down evidence of the ubiquity and diversity of conscious anticipation by just asking. Fortunately, on the up-side, humans are using their anticipatory systems and processes all the time, even if they don’t give it much explicit thought. Here is where collective intelligence knowledge creation processes come into play. Offering a way to deploy what I like to call the ‘microscope of the 21st century’ in order to reveal the underlying anticipatory assumptions that shape why and how people imagine the future. Even better, since people use-the-future all the time it is fairly easy to tap into the experiences everyone has imagining probable and desirable futures. This is the first step on a learning voyage that gradually reveals the breadth and depth of human anticipatory capabilities.
So, just like with a microscope that enables an observer to distinguish certain attributes of the world that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye, the different anticipatory systems and processes start to come into view. Then, as these differences become clearer, it becomes easier and indeed necessary to formulate hypotheses regarding the origins, implications and functioning of distinct anticipatory systems and processes. And this is when hypotheses regarding the relationships connecting anticipation to complexity and uncertainty start to emerge. Putting all the different pieces together provides a radically different starting point for thinking about the nature and role of imagined futures. For one thing it offers easier access to emergent difference, those novel phenomena that are very often obscured by the power of futures that are confined to extrapolating the past. Gaining a better understanding of the diversity of reasons for using the future enhances our capacity to appreciate difference. Which in turn reinforces our confidence in our ability to improvise, take advantage of the moment. By enlarging our understanding of what imagining the future might be good for we find reasons and methods to reduce our dependence on deterministic, probabilistic images of the future. Going back to the point I made at the outset, this is a way to be less locked into a sense of security built on the illusion of certainty. Being futures literate means being better able to take advantage of the changes that actually happen and become enthusiastic about uncertainty as the well-spring of difference and the nutrient of creativity.
Coming back to my personal story, in 2012 it felt like a tipping point was becoming feasible. Call it a weak signal, a glimmer of the potential of the present. I imagined a scenario in which there are changes in the conditions of change – in this case a transformation in the human capacity to ‘use-the-future’ for different reasons, with different methods, in different contexts. In other words, the advent of general and universal Futures Literacy. So, with this vision in mind, I was tempted by an invitation from Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, to become Head of Foresight at UNESCO. Many of you may be aware that UNESCO has a long history of working on the future. For instance, UNESCO was part of the launching of the World Futures Studies Federation, at a time when the UN was playing a role in bringing together thinkers from across the Cold War dividing lines. UNESCO also had a mission to explore and advance the creation and use of human knowledge that seemed particularly relevant to testing and cultivating an anticipatory systems and processes foundation for Futures Studies and Futures Literacy.
My sense of emergent opportunities was also informed by stints as a member of the boards of both the World Futures Studies Federation and the Association of Professional Futurists. Being part of these communities reinforced my hunch that a transition was underway – a scenario in which the ‘discipline of anticipation, as Roberto, Pierre Rossel and I called it in an article circulated in 2013 (building on decades of important work by many colleagues in the Futures Studies community), might serve as a more effective theoretical foundation for the field of Futures Studies. Since then the scenario has been unfolding, with many unexpected and mostly welcome surprises – including elements that are starting to dissolve key aspects of the initial vision. But before I get into that next, still speculative chapter, let me finish up my answer to your question about the path I’ve taken so far.
One way of wrapping up this part of the story is to note that the Covid-19 pandemic serves as an immensely powerful demonstration of the dangers of futures illiteracy, the weaknesses of Futures Studies as a field, and the need/feasibility of making a transition to an anticipatory systems and processes foundation for the field. To be brief, the trouble is confining our use-of-the-future to planning. There are many reasons, that I won’t go into now, for this pre-occupation but the bottom line is that there has been insufficient effort made to explore the question of “why are people thinking about the future?” and then on the basis of an answer to question of purpose to then assess both the origins and how-to of imagining ontologically distinct kinds of future. In practical terms the limited foundations of Futures Studies are manifested in an excessive focus on scenarios and the processes for generating scenarios – the futurists toolbox. Taking an anticipatory systems and processes point of departure invites a more open exploration of the origins, uses and implications of the human capacity to imagine the future. It also invites the consideration of the diversity of reasons and methods for imagining the future – crucial for embracing different histories, epistemic logics, and relationships to uncertainty/complexity. All of which gives meaning to the notion of Futures Literacy as a capability.
I believe that it is the resonance of the anticipatory systems and processes foundations for Futures Studies as a field and Futures Literacy as the associated capability in the current conjuncture – in all its richness – that accounts for the emergence of the Global Futures Literacy Network. A Network that is anchored by some 30+ UNESCO Chairs in Futures Studies/Futures Literacy – of which the Chair at Trento was the first. All of this signals a growing recognition that it’s important for society and humanity at this point in time to reconsider the way we use the future. If you think of climate change, the pandemic, continued inequality, racism and patriarchy, all of these phenomena suggest that we need to call into question the way we use the future. To boil down the point, think of it this way. When people construct their hopes and fears on the basis of an illusion – the idea that we can predict and control the future – we end up being estranged from the constant novelty that is the only certainty of this universe and terrified by the prospect that efforts to know tomorrow today so that we can colonize it will fail. We live in a complex universe which is continuously creative. Clearly that means that we ought not construct our ideas of comfort, security and human agency on the basis of trying to eliminate uncertainty and surprises. Rather the challenge is how to deploy this incredible capacity to imagine the future so that we can take advantage of novelty, become more agile, dance, sing, play music in the improvisation of the moment.
To get back to your question, this means that the importance of Futures Studies and Futures Literacy is due to the way it can augment humanity’s conscious anticipatory systems and processes in order to turn complexity into an asset not a liability. Differences, the wide range of novel phenomena that we constantly encounter, then become something to enjoy, an inexhaustible source of creativity and inspiration. This is the logic underpinning my efforts at UNESCO to transition the foundations of Future Studies towards anticipation, to put Future Studies at the service of enhancing everyone’s Futures Literacy, and thereby change the conditions of change – altering humanity’s relationship to the world around us. I don’t know if the comparison is really apt, but arguably humanity has made one decisive choice at a collective planetary level: to assure that every person can augment their ability to speak with the tool of reading and writing. Setting this out as a universal capability obviously changes the conditions of change. Reading and writing are major enablers and constitute probably the most powerful example of a capability based approach to the world. There is no way to know in advance which goal will or will not be achieved by enabling everyone to read and write. They might read poetry. They might write about bombs. We don’t know. It’s a capability. Futures Literacy is the same: it’s anchored in a fundamental human capacity just like reading and writing is anchored in language. In similar fashion we can all learn how to better use our capacity to imagine the future.
I am convinced that by becoming futures literate we become capable of radically different ways of relating to each other and to the world around us. We live in a period where the way we use our anticipatory capabilities it’s clearly inadequate and so that inadequacy is pushing us to experiment, to change, to try to find better ways. Which is why I believe that the development of Futures Literacy and the anticipatory turn in Futures Studies reflect the specific conditions we are living in at the moment. This is a manifestation of the wonderful, mysterious and creative nature of a complex universe. We’re living something that is part of the changes taking place in the world around us and I’m very glad to be able to work with so many people like you to find inspiration from the situation.
Speaking about UNESCO’s work, which strategies and actions are you planning, eg. to 2030, in order to develop Futures Literacy as a 21st century skill? What impact do you expect from this dissemination strategy?
It’s a good question, although I’m generally very reticent about offering personal scenarios on any topic. Usually, I focus on the anticipatory assumptions and leave the choice of probabilistic and/or desirable scenarios to others. That said, we are planning many activities for Futures Literacy at UNESCO, so even if I can’t offer any precise scenarios, I am able to provide some broad brush anticipatory assumptions that help to frame scenarios of potential directions. As I’ve already mentioned there is now an active Global Futures Literacy Network which may have the potential to develop and diffuse the discipline of anticipation as the foundation for Future Studies and encourage the cultivation of Futures Literacy as a widespread capacity. Here again the work of the UNESCO Chairs in Futures Studies/Futures Literacy play a key role by conducting academic research, encouraging learning, and enabling community engagement with Futures Literacy.
One entry point into imagining scenarios of UNESCO’s work on Futures Literacy and the global network more widely is to take a more general point of reference based on past experiences with reading and writing. In the case of reading and writing we are all aware that for a long time only a small elite were able, even allowed, to read and write. It took a long time before this powerful capability was deemed relevant for every human. And once there was general agreement that this skill should be universal, part of the set of rationales and forces driving compulsory schooling, there were still many questions about how to make it happen. We may take it for granted today that there are researchers trying to understand how learning functions, what are the best ways to teach different subjects, which tools to use in which context, and how to evaluate success. But all of this takes investment, time, experiments and does not remain static – what, why and how we learn changes in changing contexts. So too for Futures Literacy.
Comparing imaginary trajectories for efforts to augment the human capacity to anticipate with the history of augmenting our ability to speak with reading and writing offers many elements for a range of scenarios for Futures Literacy. For instance, it suggests that we are only at the beginning of this effort and hence have to take the relatively modest understanding of anticipatory systems and processes into account when imagining what can be done right now. The kinds of experiments undertaken at the outset of a field’s development are usually not the same as those in more ‘mature’ stages. To me this is one explanation of the current emphasis on action-research and action-learning approaches to Futures Literacy. We do not yet have a lot of experience exploring, categorising, and explicitly diversifying our conscious anticipatory systems and processes. This means we do not have many hypotheses, tools, or experimental results to work with. So, we need to focus on the basics, take small steps and build a strong foundation for something as ambitious as changing the conditions of change by improving everyone’s capacity to use-the-future. Furthermore, as I’ve said the futures is powerful – it is the crucible of our hopes and fears, despair and joy, what we can and cannot see.
The good news here, as I mentioned before, is that even if we cannot visit the future everyone can use their imagination. And thus, everyone has access to the tacit assumptions they are obliged to make in order to describe their images, stories, and dynamics of moments later-than-now. As a result, we can deploy techniques that render tacit knowledge explicit and thereby build up an awareness of the anticipatory assumptions that shape what we imagine. This is the point of departure for many learning voyages, from personal insights into why imagine the future to the researcher’s quests to understand the historical, anthropological or neurological aspects. Most of all what I find exciting is that because we are at a stage in the development of the field when action-learning and action-research are necessary we are also engaged in actually cultivating Futures Literacy on-the-ground.
This means we can not only experiment with different ways of empowering people to become futures literate but also see the impact of changing their conditions of change. Such experiments are about more than just becoming aware of the origins and power of the images of the future we carry around in our heads but crucially recognizing that we are able to formulate our own anticipatory assumptions. That we are able to improve our ability to source images of the future from our own history and context, not someone else’s, as well as to invent new anticipatory assumptions, ones that depart from the past in non-extrapolatory, non-probabilistic and non-normative ways. Including, perhaps most radically, a different assumption about why we imagine the future. This connects back to the point I touched on earlier about enlarging the ontological foundations of futures thinking beyond planning and preparation to embrace anticipation for emergence.
Of course, we are still at the very beginning of a transition marked by a change in the capacity of people to constantly set their own anticipatory assumptions in light of why and how they want to use-the-future. Still there is enough evidence arising from the experiments with action-learning/action-research to provide material for the development of an analytical framework for distinguishing different categories of anticipatory assumptions. This is the point of the Futures Literacy Framework I present in “Transforming the Future”, the book published by Routledge and UNESCO in 2018. Building on the important and extensive work of the Futures Studies community, as well as other sources, the Futures Literacy Framework contributes to efforts to answer questions like: Do people actually use-the-future for different reasons? If they imagine the future for different reasons, do they use different methods to do so? Can we identify the different contexts that make different reasons and methods for imagining the future relevant or functional? Are the categories for identifying anticipatory assumptions helpful in detecting/distinguishing anticipatory systems and processes? Does being able to identify different categories of anticipatory assumptions contribute to developing Futures Literacy and designing more effective and efficient processes for using-the-future?
So, circling back to your question about scenarios for the future of Futures Literacy, I speculate that most of us working in the Global FL Network, including the UNESCO Chairs and others, will focus on using action-research and action-learning to explore the diversity of humanity’s anticipatory systems and processes. This the kind of hands-on, early stage work necessary when a field is becoming commonplace and its relevance is starting to become clear, legitimate and more powerful. I do hope that UNESCO will be willing and able to play a role in this process. In particular I think UNESCO has an opportunity to lead the development and diffusion of Futures Literacy if it continues to pursue the ‘laboratory of ideas’ approach that has worked so far. Maybe, if UNESCO can sustain its cutting-edge design and implementation capabilities, it will make a difference in creating the conditions necessary for every university to set up a Futures Studies department.
Establishing Futures Studies departments at every university is crucial. Not only because we are still in the early stages of the exploration of human anticipatory systems and processes, a stage that requires a great deal of new trans-disciplinary research. But also, because – like with reading and writing – the universal diffusion of a capability demands an investment adequate to supporting its practical application across all other research domains and in everyday life. As Futures Studies becomes an integral component to all efforts to understand the world around us I imagine we’ll start inventing a lot of new reasons and methods for using-the-future, not to mention different ways of learning to become futures literate.
That doesn’t mean I know if this will be a good thing or a bad one – taking a capability-based approach towards what we do now does not need to be justified on the basis of any specific imagined futures. All I can assert in the present is that cultivating Futures Literacy enables us to gain a better understanding of a universe that is bursting with novelty. And harkening back to the dominant paradigm, it seems to me that improving the capacity of humanity to use the future can’t be any worse than not doing so – which is what we’ve been doing for the last few millennia.
Last December “High Level Futures Literacy Summit” was entirely online. Do you think this modality reached a greater number of people increasing the knowledge of the Futures Literacy even outside the academic field?
I’m a great believer in the virtual. I would say that the period of globalisation up to the pandemic was globalisation for the Elite, it was a globalisation for people who could jet around the world and pay for hotels and meals and meetings, etc. This was a very very small part of humanity. It was a globalisation just for the few, for the privileged. Now we have the potential of globalisation for everyone because almost everyone these days can access the world through their phone or through some other devices that connect them to the virtual world. We can even get beyond the limitations of text to use sound and video. So one of my personal hopes is that we will take advantage of this disruption to make a radical move beyond physical presence.
That said, I have been disappointed for a long while now at the very very slow pace of change. I know it is common-place to invoke the ‘hubris of the now’ to brag or lament that we live in a time of great speed, even accelerating acceleration. I do not share this view since the primary regulator of the speed of human social systems is not the rate at which vehicles, bullets, bits, or messages fly but the capacity of people to make use of these tools. As our ability to read and write increases or our willingness to commute to work decreases or the desire to interact meets the ease of texting, then our tools enable, sometimes entice. But you can’t run faster than your legs can take you. Try it, you fall down. Feedback and motivation are layered on capacity. And capacity has not changed much since the advent of the virtual age back in the 1990s. Indeed, given the narrow privatized basis for much of cyberspace we have not enabled the commons that promises much greater take up and change.
In 1997 while I was working at the OECD I wrote an article speculating about the future of the internet in 20 years – so, 2017. It was quite clear at that point in time that the Internet was an amazing tool, that might open up opportunities for humanity to do many things differently. But, as always, such change was mostly dependent on the transformation of the social, economic, and political systems, not the technology. The pandemic simply underscores this massive failure to take advantage of the potential of cyberspace to enable transformations in the organisation of society at physical, social and political levels. Instead, we are mired in the inertia of the past, tinkering with reforms meant to improve yesterday’s systems but not change or break familiar patterns. Difference remains scary and wastefully difficult.
Which is why the Summit was such fun. All of a sudden, with the fetishism of elitist face-to-face out the window it became feasible to explore a refounding of what a gathering was about and how it might function. It was a mad dash, that required huge investments and commitment by our small team at UNESCO but also a massive outpouring from the futures community. Personally, I didn’t underestimate how hard it is to introduce new expectations, rituals, symbols, signals and reference points. Even with the wonderful surprise of zero face-to-face and marvellous sponsors ready to invest in the Summit, we could only begin to scratch the surface of what I imagine, thanks to constantly changing speculative scenarios, is doable now. It isn’t just ‘virtual reality’ that ‘substitutes’ for physical reality – creating the impression of ‘being there’ but more importantly a different way of constructing interactions, based on different expectations, rituals, artefacts, etc. In physical space we use a hand shake and appearance to judge someone’s attitude, sincerity, background. The trick now is to invent the new signals of trustworthiness, authenticity, commitment that take advantage of cyberspace. To experiment and diffuse new rituals, ways of putting ‘skin-in-the-game’ that doesn’t depend on literally being within punching range or showing that you are willing to travel across town or across an ocean to have a chance to talk.
That said, there is no question that the Summit was a wonderful confirmation of all this potential – even if we only took baby steps. It was a terrific achievement to go from an event that might have attracted a few hundred on-site participants with a few physical booths to one that presented the diversity of anticipatory activities going on around the world through close to 100 exhibition booths, hundreds of live and recorded events, and some 8000 participants. We worked with a great design team and platform supplier to create a user-experience that many globally recognized designers considered the best event of 2020. But as far as I’m concerned we’re still very far from the full learning voyage that is possible and not just for 8K participants but 100K or even a few million.
We need to keep in mind that Facebook and Twitter are very primitive implementations of the rich potential of the virtual world. Not because of the technology, but because of the underlying capabilities of human systems and processes for establishing identity, trust, and value. Think of someone telling you that you can travel anywhere in the world but in order to cross all the borders you will need a passport, which requires citizenship. Only you don’t have the right to citizenship or a passport. That’s today’s outlaw cyberspace frontier, only comfortable for cattle rancher robber barons. Kept at a fraction of its potential by entrenched power structures and widespread poverty of the imagination – symptom of futures illiteracy – that not only makes discontinuous change very difficult to imagine but reinforces a panoply of fears connected to an inability to appreciate difference. So as happy as I was with the Summit and deeply grateful to everyone that contributed, I am convinced we can go much much further.
We presented our Future Laboratories at the Summit as our main activity for schools because in our opinion the union between the youngest generations and Futures Literacy is of great importance. Do you think Futures Literacy might ever be an ordinary subject at every degree and school order?
Yes and no. Children are constantly testing their anticipatory systems and processes. When they learn how to cross the street they are using their anticipatory systems to estimate the arrival of vehicles and the timing of their own passage across. So, when thinking about how children might learn about anticipatory systems we need to take advantage of their immersion in experiential and experimental learning. We need to keep in mind that anticipation is a fundamental capability, one that underpins almost all other human activities as well as the ability to see and interpret the world around us. You know that in biology there’s anticipation, in mathematics there’s anticipation, in science or economics or psychology there is anticipation. And in the same way that you need to read and write in order to study your textbooks for biology or physics or whatever, you need Futures Literacy to understand the significance and content of all of the other subjects.
Now, that doesn’t answer the question of when and how to learn about anticipation and I have to admit, and there is a debate about this, I think it’s quite difficult actually for young people to access the diversity of anticipatory systems and processes due to the primary constraint – at least so far – on such learning – which is experience. I think some of the challenge arises from the narrow industrial nature of the approaches we currently use to engage in learning. Most ‘educational’ contexts snuff out the experimental attitude that is automatic for children, making it harder to experience the diversity of anticipatory systems and processes through experimentation. But even more challenging from the perspective of learning about anticipation is the problem with ambiguity and uncertainty. I’m no expert in this field but from observing my own children and other young people as they test their anticipatory systems and processes the early experiences are powerfully bounded by a search for certainty. Which seems only logical in light of the fact that if you don’t get the deterministic cause-effect mechanisms in place it is likely you won’t survive very long. A child who doesn’t cry might not get sufficient food and one that doesn’t look before crossing the road won’t last long. And in the context of the coercive nature of compulsory schooling and the reductionist precautionary rationales fed to children to justify the boredom and alienation of schooling it is no wonder they absorb overarching planning and precautionary frames for imagining the future.
Of course, adolescents begin to experience the actual ambiguity of a complex world when they start to negotiate the many relationships that give meaning to daily life. Reductionist objectivist determinism starts to fail and then, bereft of any assistance to develop their Futures Literacy, they get scared, angry, frustrated and often desperate. What is needed is to find a way to introduce uncertainty into the education system. Only, as it is currently organized that seems like a contradiction in terms. For the most part we do just the opposite of cultivating the capacity to appreciate uncertainty. Instead, there is an appeal for even more authority and reassuring certainty, layered on top of dire warnings about the consequences of not falling into line with existing expectations, the security of repetition – avoiding difference with the past. All of which means that it seems unlikely that we can introduce greater diversity of anticipatory systems and processes – the source for becoming more futures literate – into existing education systems or into the way life is current organized for young people. Here even the category ‘youth’ is suspect. Which means that I’m pretty convinced that the existing school systems are not only structurally incompatible with the internalisation of uncertainty but are usually actively opposed. That said, I do believe that the experiential/experimental path offers a direction for efforts to invent and test ways to integrate Futures Literacy learning into the lives of people at all ages.
Just playing now – perhaps a way to integrate uncertainty using an experiential/experimental approach is to eliminate schooling and transform teachers from purveyors of answers into companions in exploration. The notion, discussed widely in educational circles for a very long time now, is to foster learning environments based on exploration, voyages of creation and discovery. Although there is no telling yet, since we have no experiences so far, it could be feasible in a task oriented, cross-generational, community inspired learning context, to introduce diverse anticipatory systems and processes. Indeed, this could be one of the benefits of a Futures Literacy Framework, since it enables the design of experiences that expose participants to different sets of anticipatory assumptions.
Of course, I admire the work is being done to introduce futures thinking, particularly efforts to enhance the capacity to imagine and treat the future as indeterminate, into the existing educational systems. These are important steps from within the existing dominant world of planning, command and control, to provide a bit more suppleness and inventiveness. My hope is we can build on such efforts in order to move beyond the school systems and indeed most existing hierarchical bureaucracies. Changes that are endogenous and fundamentally compatible with legacy systems and processes are in many circumstances important parts of transition. Even if it is just to exemplify that improving existing systems can’t actually get us to where we aspire to be, such as de-alienating our relationship to the world, without the death or marginalisation of such legacies. But from a strategic perspective the challenge is to find ways to be compatible with transitions such as death and birth.
From this perspective introducing Futures Literacy into today’s school systems is a good test – it is a hostile environment – so whatever survives will be robust but also fairly benign in terms of breaking with the past. Still, I’m not one to predict the future or ignore imagining unintended consequences, so maybe it will be like the window opening up, letting in fresh air. Perhaps by flipping back and forth between the search for certainty and glimpses of uncertainty people will get confused and seek to understand anticipation better? Futures Literacy says uncertainty is fundamental to the world around us. Science too says uncertainty is fundamental to the world around us. Yet we are supposed to act and think and feel in ways which are based on certainty. This kind of confusion can be fertile. And I really look forward to working with colleagues around the world to test different ways of introducing Futures Literacy to existing and emergent contexts.
There were various realities at the Summit (public institutions, private sector enterprises, government agencies…) and that shows an increasing interest in the Futures Literacy field. What kind of actions could be taken, in team and/or individually, to disseminate a new “Anticipatory Governance” approach?
Actually, the OECD is currently running a project on Anticipatory Governance. It is a very big topic and I have some thoughts on about it, but to start with the first part of your question about the ups and downs of interest in futures thinking. The way I see the current market, if I can put it that way, is that there is a lot of demand and the challenge is to respond to that demand in a way which doesn’t just comfort existing ways of doing things. There have always been cycles in the broad public expressions of interest in the future. For instance, when there is an economic crash e.g., in 2008/2009, when there are odd events, like in the artificial millennium transition of the year 2000, all of a sudden there is a lot of interest in the future. When there’s a pandemic, and it disrupts, there’s a lot of interest in the future. But I’m hoping that we’ll become aware of the role of the future all the time.
That means that the Futures Studies community needs to respond to the recent uptick in interest about the future in a strategic way. In a way that makes it easier to constantly pay attention to why and how we think about the future. Not just the views of experts at moments of doubt and confusion, moments of crisis. Right now we’re in a good position and enterprises like yours, private or public, are being asked by many people “tell us how to think about the future”, but in my opinion the challenge will be, and the responsibility is, to respond to that demand in a way which build a solid foundation, a sustainable, prevalent and ambient interest in Future Literacy, not just the future when there’s a crisis or when a prophecy is given. There’s a lot of potential.
On the question of disseminating anticipatory governance, let me just say that much of what I’ve been talking about is related to what you could call “changes in the conditions (the context) of change”. The obvious example: when you learn to read, or when you get a cell-phone, it changes what you can do, that changes the conditions of change. When everybody has a cell-phone, the conditions of change are not the same. People will imagine things they could not imagine before just because they see things that did not exist before so that’s novelty, that’s emergence, that’s complexity as an expression of a creative universe. Trouble is that ‘governance’ is mostly conceived as a way of circumventing or somehow being able to impose our will on a recalcitrant universe. So, to condense a big topic into a short answer, the precondition for anticipatory governance is widespread Futures Literacy. Meaning we could – speaking speculatively – introduce a change that might fundamentally alter our relationship to governance, human agency and our own sense of identity. But at the moment we’re really not capable of using Futures Literacy for governance since Futures Literacy is not yet ubiquitous. We are capable of applying Futures Literacy to the old system, we can improve the old systems through Futures Literacy, but it’s not the same.
This is a very strong way of putting it: the old system which is killing us (climate change, many forms of oppression…) doesn’t function. You can’t really make it better, you can’t really improve it, because the basic problem is in the structure, it starts from a point of fundamental alienation. Which still begs the question of what to do with our agency, even if conceived from a much humbler and ‘at-one’ with the world perspective. Here my best guess is to think in terms of transitions. Of course, I can’t know in advance if actions that appear to create, encourage or accept transitional change – departures or ends to the past/present or initiatives that may or may not be seeds of something paradigmatically different – will actually be part of some eventual transformation. Seemingly transitional activities could lead to transformation and the transformation could be characterized by a discontinuous form of governance – like the past ‘invention’ and eventual prevalence of non-absolutist governance. The potential, in very abstract terms, of forms of governance which are basically incomprehensible, non-imaginable from where we are now.
The notion of transition that I’m using here rests on an anticipatory assumptions frame that sketches transition along the lines of what happened in the move from absolute monarchy in illiterate societies to representative democracy in literate societies. Obviously, there is a relationship between the two, but mostly not a planned or designed one. For instance, the diffusion of the capacity to read and write plays a role in the development of party politics – it is hard to diffuse the party platform if no one can read. In this sense the ability to imagine changes in governance is dependent on changes in the conditions of change. Only we cannot know in advance which ones will end up being relevant for an outcome we cannot even imagine.
Given your in-depth knowledge of the topic and your collaboration with professor Poli, what do you think about the “School of Trento” activities and the projects that Italy presented at the Summit?
I think you’re doing fantastic work! It seems to me that you are pioneers. You are experimenting and testing, pushing the envelope. That’s wonderful. I admire also the way you’re trying to use infographics and you’re trying to create structures and processes for young people but also for the clients that you work with. I think this is important work. It is exemplary, showing that we need to combine advances in the academic world that enhance our understanding of the world with the everyday challenges of people and organizations as they attempt to engage with the world. At Trento you are showing how to bring the fruits of research together with change throughout your community. You are working with people in classrooms and companies. You are experimenting and innovating, testing different ways of doing things.
The work being done at the University of Trento and by skopìa shows what leadership in the Futures Studies field is all about. You are a shining example for the whole Global Futures Literacy Network. All the UNESCO chairs are, in one way or another, looking to follow the model of the UNESCO Chair at Trento. After all it was the first one and now you’ve been renewed for a second round. You are engaged in a wide range of activities. Playing a catalytic role in the Global Futures Literacy network and pioneering research and applications of Futures Literacy. I’m very happy that you were present at the Summit. It was very important for the Network and a crucial mechanism for making connections. My hope is that you’ll continue to do what you’re doing. Continue to be experimental and research oriented. Continue to take on the challenges I have talked about already.
This is important for an emerging field, one that has the potential to changes in a some fundamental and even frightening ways, something as powerful as the way humans use-the-future. We need to remember that people wouldn’t be able to go to the grocery store to buy food if they did not anticipate that they need to eat and that they can buy food at store. Anticipation is so basic. Which is why it is so powerful! And it is also why we need to keep in mind that if we are suggesting that people need to be futures literate, we’re also saying that many of them are futures illiterate. This can be quite negative, particularly if there is no positive or constructive path towards developing Futures Literacy. The Global Futures Literacy Network can contribute to empowerment. We can invite people to experience what it means to be more futures literate. Creating situations where they engage with their anticipatory systems and processes. When people are able to experience that they are using the future all of the time but not giving much thought to why or how, then learning voyages start. Stepping-stones towards increasing the diversity of reasons and methods humanity deploys when imagining the future. An amazing opportunity to use more effectively what is perhaps humanity’s greatest strength our imagination!
To me, this is a crucial part of what you are doing, basic to the idea of Futures Literacy. It is about helping to cultivate a capability-based approach to the world around us. This could turn out to be a transitional aspiration. It is an incentive to not be satisfied with existing ways of doing things. When working with young people or designing a futures process for company, we have an opportunity to go beyond existing ways of using the future. To be part of moving beyond today’s way of thinking about the future. Being part of a world wide effort to experiment with the potential of Futures Literacy.