Relational Futures work: Reflections on personal and social action

In the lead up to Paris Climate talks poeple around the world are demanding action for richer futures.

Lads from the Army leading the Rally: Nov 28 2015 Bacolod Philippines


For me the heart of futures work is relationship. This makes futures an intimate experience of intuitive and aspirational foresight that is built in layers up from the ground. The pragmatic nature of relationship provides context and meaning to relationality and is the key to communicating futures.

To paraphrase the Sufi poet Rumi ‘When you close the door on words, you open the window on love’. This of course sounds terribly romantic and out of touch with the pressing temporal and strategic needs of futures but for me it is where I start.

Let me illustrate this with a short narrative. Today I am writing in the Filipino city of Bacolod. I am visiting the well-known futurist Cesar Villanueva.  This morning, at the invitation of Cesar, we went to a 5am open air Mass in support of Pope Francis’ call to action on climate change.

The mass and the walk that followed was a direct action response to Francis’ forceful call to action of climate change expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’. The priest leading the mass gave a powerful talk on the need for action. It was given as a call in which he linked the actions of individuals with community and collective movement.

Priest talk nov 28 2015

The priest spoke mostly in the local dialect but the talk was peppered with English. So I heard words like ‘relationship’ ‘responsibility’ ‘vision’ ‘stewardship’ and phrases like the Gandhi quote ‘Every journey begins with a single step’. The congregation listened closely to all this and seemed quite inspired.

The mass was followed by a day long walk to be done in relays from Bacolod to a local mountain, a distance of some 40 odd kilometers. The walk was a metaphor for the single steps we need to take as individuals to achieve a collective, socially oriented response to climate change that thought not just about now, but as the priest said as he concluded his talk: for future generations.

This event for me symbolises how futures work begins in the powerful and simple weaving of the individual stories of people with larger social projects. It is my contention that we tell many of our most powerful stories with our bodies. This is how culture works.

The intimacy of both the future and the past is on our cultural skin. It is what we see in each other. It affirms who we are, and amplifies who we are through the collective actions we take as individuals.

A girl on the walk today had a T Shirt with the words ‘I am who I am because we are who we are’ on the back. So this meme is out there in popular culture. This relational consciousness is alive and growing. The best futurists I know all intuitively and strategically access this potentiality when working with their clients.

That magic T Shirt

Eco-philosopher Melissa Lane has a written eloquently about ‘norm entrepreneurs’. This is a beautiful term and certainly captures much of what futurists do best. Now a norm needs a cultural home: its own oikos. It needs to grow out of traditions so that people can recognise and respond to it. As all traditions are living, new norms arise out of shifts in past normative orientations.

So Pope Francis draws on the deep tradition of sacral nature and human stewardship that is one thread in the Catholic and Christian tradition. In the Filipino context this is a powerful lever.

Wall mural we passed on our walk!

In materialist cultures however other traditions also need to be marshalled. This new relational norm has a deep encounter with the Humanist tradition so dear to the West. Think Renaissance – think humanists! For instance there is Thomas More of Utopia fame; Miguel Cervantes who gave us Don Quixote; and of course there is the Italian Dante Alighieri who penned the Divine Comedy.

Yet Humanism was much more than a literary movement it had implications for the arts, sciences, politics and theology: just one example is the work of Machiavelli who startled the world with The Prince.

To a norm entrepreneur we can see that there is the possibility for Humanism to be rethought as a Neohumanism of relationality. My futures work continues to explore the possibilities of this encounter. Humanism was a product of Western cultural struggle. Neohumanism is the product of global cultural struggles.

The term was coined by Indian Tantric philosopher and Guru, Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar to capture the essence of a universal ethic based on loving relationship with the Cosmos and all elements of it.

That’s pretty big!

And yet it starts with us and those first steps mentioned by the priest in this morning’s Mass. As I see it, there are Futurists and futurists. Both share a common interest in the future as a calling to action now.

The Futurist however has an orientation that is more self-consciously strategic and pragmatic. She understands the need for cultural and systemic work to build robust and open futures. She is also more professionally and factually focused, moving smoothly from the litany of data to the deeper work of knowledge and metaphor creation.

The futurist on the other hand is led by her heart, by an instinct that it is the future that counts and that each step is a calling in and of itself.

There were not many professional Futurists in the march today but there were many futurists. I think it is time we have a conversation between these two groups. A co-creative moment in which we move towards (e)co-creative possibilities.

Such a conversation starts with Actions that make a difference.

Such a conversation builds communities that are open and conscious of the power of their traditions to offer inspiration and direction into unknown futures

Such a conversation acknowledges that we must talk less and Love more in order to establish a meaningful ‘next step’ towards the Neohumanist possibilities that await us all.

March Nov 28
Marchers for the Environment in the early morning light

This article is dedicated to Cesar Villanueva: futurist and peace builder.

Author: rhizomicfutures

Educationalist and futurist who teaches world history and futures thinking at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.

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