How do we influence for the future? Quo Vadis Futures?

Recently my students here in Singapore’s NTU Centre for Excellence in National Security have been asking about the impact of futures work. Essentially futures work is measured by its effects – positive outcomes in terms of policy, business trajectory, increased security and resilience and most importantly the sense of agency and increased range of possibilities. At another level futures work is also a cultural project. Thus the work of Emmelie do Forest and Professor Sohail Inayatullah are both futures oreinted. One might ask how are they different? Both are sowing/promoting ‘new’ memes in the cultural sphere. Both are harnessing the media to further their projects and both are seeking to impress the need for change on listeners. Of course de Forests message is an old one – Remember Bob Dylan’s “How many times…?” Inayatullah’s is both old and new – the elements have been with us for a long time yet the layering is new: an expression of both the compelxity sciences and the multidisciplinarity inherent to futures work in a post-postructural world where structure and pos structure have come to some kind of hybrid working agreement.

Some of my students sugegst that the media is all about mass distraction… not mass enlightenment. For them the future lies somewhere else as yet undefined. For me of course they are the future (whether they like it or not). In working with them I am seeking to foster skills and knowledge that will enable them to influence their worlds for more inclusive, more sustainable futures. How successful am I at this remains to be seen as the human project is not so easily measured/quantified. Central to this is the frisson that comes with the workd of de Forest and Inayatullah and any other thinker/social actor who sows hope and possibilitiy when the death eaters (thanks Harry Potter) would have us give up and accept the trans of the permanent present. Influence is real – it is mimetic, visseral and also empathic – a wonderful chemical/metaphysical thing.

This brings me to the work of John Paul Lederach – his lovely book The Moral Imagination. He maps out (page 34ff) four dimensions of this imagination: Sense of Relationship, Paradoxical Curiosity, Creativity and Risk. One of the key elements of this thinking about imagination is that it is open ended and always grounded in context. This brings an intimacy to futures work where self and other, agency and structure cease to be definitional of our humanity but contextual markers in a cosmos rich in multiple zones of being. As Lederach notes: “…the moral imagination [is] the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (p29). I have seen this possibiity emerge again and again when people ‘suddenly’ see that they are not trapped on a one way street. Recently in the Philippines town planners suddenly saw that they were thinking about traffic all wrong. The issue was to help the public move from being careless (as drivers) to car-less (becoming commuters). Rather than better roads they needed better public transport. It was that easy.