By Robert Hickson 27/04/2020

A friend came up with a useful analogy the other day. Much of the commentary about getting ready for opening up the lockdown seems like a set of racehorses at the starting gate. Different ideas and special interests in fine fettle, champing at the bit waiting for the gates to open.

Meanwhile those thinking longer term are struggling to get the race officials attention and delay the start. Let the horses (and their determined riders) have a breather and a graze first.

Some of those nags probably need to be scratched, we need to test some of the others for illicit performance enhancers. A jockey or two may be too enthusiastic with their whip hand. One may also be liable to canter off to tilt at windmills.

Some promising younger horses need to be entered perhaps. Rod Oram, for example, has noted three examples of redesigning the economy and society so that it is more “regenerative.”


Planning for the future

I’d take the horse race analogy further. Helping determine where to place our bets and determining what is more or less possible is, as UNESCO’s Riel Miller among others has pointed out, the standard futures approach. As is exploring how to adjust the course, or to point out that the concept of a race is bad or mad.

That approach appeals to the more deterministic audiences – corporate strategists and policy makers. Miller suggests that

“… it is fair to say that for many people the reason why the future matters (better decisions) has been associated with the assumption that planned (anticipatory) decisions, based on the best possible predictions, is the best way to arrive at the best decision. Spontaneous decisions, made without any reference to probability or anticipating a specific action in advance, were seen as dangerous and sub- optimal. “


Preparing for the future

The futures path less travelled is, as Miller notes, more about the journey than the destination (cliched yes, but reasonably accurate). Improving how we think about the future is more important than trying to identify what the future will be.

I’m not disputing the need for more sustainable societies, but identifying preferred or plausible future states can create a false illusion of control. Planning and prediction risk imposing the present on the future.

In times like now with the potential for fundamental changes, identifying what trends and signals are significant are very difficult to determine. Though, as I have written previously, using futures techniques well helps challenge assumptions and reduce some elements of uncertainty.


Futures literacy & imagination

Like science, futures thinking should be about holding strong views lightly. Formulating hypotheses based on observations & intuition, and regularly testing to see if the hypotheses still hold.

In a complex, and occasionally chaotic, world Miller suggests that we need to become more comfortable with ambiguity and what he calls “acting spontaneously.” Success in these cases isn’t due to well thought through scenarios, inspired visions and prescience, but a willingness to experiment and learn. Prepare to be surprised, but not paralysed.

Miller advocates development of what he calls “Futures literacy”, the capacity to think about the future. This involves developing a learning society, one that regularly thinks about futures, makes better use of information, and embraces creativity rather than just probability. Like science literacy, society benefits if most have an understanding of and some basic skills for thinking about the future.

Miller, and others such as Ziauddin Sardar, promote the greater use of imagination in futures thinking. Not just in terms of “solutionism” – the bread and butter of many corporate futures consultants in helping organisations “solve” present day problems. But, more importantly, in conceiving of what ought to be done. This includes thinking about what we value. The pandemic has helped highlight more emphatically some of these values.

It isn’t, though, simply about coming up with the most imaginative “futures story.” Imagination is also essential in building futures literacy. But it isn’t about outlandish hypotheses unsupported by facts that are needed.

Futures thinking, like science, isn’t just learning a set of techniques. The best futures work, like the best science, comes out of creativity and imagination that help better describe the world, or illuminate what it may become.  Imagination is about seeing connections, and meaning, and possible experiments as you go forward. And these days, both science and futures fields rely on collaboration and diversity to nourish the imagining.


Horses for courses

So, post-pandemic futures shouldn’t be about remounting and racing off as quickly as possible. Instead of thinking about horse races to be won, we should (if pursuing equine metaphors) be thinking of horse treks, or migrations. Longer journeys with unclear way- and endpoints.

What are the basics we need to take with us, how can we better understand (and enjoy) the environments that we move through, how can we be well prepared to react to surprises along the way, what are the stories we tell around the campfires at night to keep our spirits up, and how do we take care of each other as well as our four-footed companions?


Featured image by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash.