Course: Introduction to future thinking

This introductory course invites us to (re)think the future beyond Western habits of thought and canons.

Duration: variable according to needs, from 1.30 to 3 hours

Versions specific to each context given 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) | Competence Centre in Sustainability, University of Lausanne (CH), 28.04.21

The course is organised in three parts:

The first part invites us to develop a critical sense about popular imaginaries of the future.

The second part aims to gain insight into the three basic concepts of the future in modern foresight, their strengths and weaknesses.

The last part invites us to consider another conception of the future, seen as a process 'in the making', as proposed by a new orientation of contemporary foresight.

1. Developing a critical sense about popular futures

The first part invites the audience to take a step back and analyse their own images of the future.

To begin with, I ask the participants to write down where they see themselves in 10 or 20 years from now (depending on the audience). The question is addressed again at the very end, so as for participants to measure the understanding won during the workshop and take a new perspective on their own envisioned future.

The course opens on a brief history of the idea of the future in Western thought.

I introduce 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“, which helps uncover the cultural narratives with which we make sense of the future.

Future-modern phenomenon John Gast 1872.001

Slide to Lucien Hölscher’s Discovery of the Future

Work by John Gast, “American Progress”, c. 1872

2. Modern futures studies

The second part provides a historical overview of futures studies as a scientific discipline.

We become familiar with the distinction between 'probable' and 'plausible' futures, or, in foresight terms, between forecasting using probabilities on the one hand and foresight using scenario building on the other hand.

This overview of modern foresight helps uncover the issues raised by the Western conception of the future (determinism, rationalism, linearity, progress, self-fulfilling prophecy, etc.).

The conventional representation of the future as a cone of possibilities.

Illustration from the UNDP Foresight Manual (2018)

3. Futures "in the making"

Based on this introduction to future studies as a scientific discpiline, the third part introduces a fundamental distinction between the future envisioned as a goal or target to reach on the one hand, and on the other hand the future, rather futures, as a process “in the making”.

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 one's vision. This represents the conventional Western conception of the future, exemplified by modern foresight, which essentially seeks to predict and anticipate the future.

In the second model, it is about using the open future (possible futures) to discover alternative ways of thinking and acting in the here and now. Here it is the speculative nature of the future, without any ambition of plausibility, that supports an in-depth analysis of the potential of the present.

This last option is the one that characterises a new direction taken by foresight under the name of the Discipline of Anticipation, of which one of the most widespread methods is UNESCO's Futures Literacy under the aegis of Riel Miller.

More details on this method below and here.

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,…).

Futures Literacy

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” so that 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 “futures literacy” as he coins 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”.

"Futures literacy" has developed into a method promoted by UNESCO to enhance our capability to think in plural futures and consider processes rather than end goals (more details on the method here).