Last Friday, one of my colleagues asked me the following question: ‘so does your futures stuff help with this situation in any way?’ As I was, like everyone, still struggling to get my head around our changing situation at the time, I didn’t answer particularly well or helpfully right then. But the question has worked on me over the last few days – so here’s what I have to offer. These are the things that are helping me and guiding what I’m doing right now. They draw on the last 20 years I’ve spent working with and talking with people about the tricky reality of how we live without knowing the future. It also has a few links to resources that I’m finding helpful for this sort of thinking.
- 1. Remember that the future (still) doesn’t exist. Everything that we are worrying about, hoping for, anticipating and imagining will come, does not (yet) exist. The question is: which ideas of the future is it useful for us to work with? Which ideas of the future invigorate us, challenge us, help us to see possibilities and ask hard questions in the present, or help us just to get through today? Which ones shut us down, freeze us, cause us to curl up or to fight each other? Which ones llow us to act as the humans we want to be? Which ones allow us to act as grown-ups or to start working together to create something different? The thing with the future is to pay attention to the way our ideas of the future, and what it may bring, act upon us, and to think about how different ideas of the future create new possibilities and resources to stimulate, challenge and inform what we are doing in the present. Each of us is different – some of us are invigorated by images of hope, others by looking at the worst that may come and working to prepare for it. It’s worth just starting to notice how you react to each image of the future that is coming in, and reflect on whether this is helpful or not to you in terms of building your capacity to think and feel and act.
- 2. People have different preferred or habitual orientations to the future (1). Some of us have a tendency to think about catastrophe, others about transformation, others about business as usual, and others about rationing and struggle. Jim Dator calls these the four ‘myths’ of the future. These are the big foundational stories we tend to tell ourselves. It is useful to know where you tend to position yourself – are you one of those delighting in sharing stories of collapse and disaster, or stories of transformation and hope? Are you just focusing on the end date and when we can get back to normal, or thinking about what needs to be planned for in difficult times ahead? It’s worth noting which of these stories you tend to focus on – and what that means you might miss or over-emphasise about what’s happening. It’s also useful to understand other people’s preferred positions and perspectives and to see how these can complement yours. This helps with empathy – recognising that people respond in very different ways – and it isn’t necessarily the case that you have to have the same story of the future in order to be able to listen to each other and work together.
- 3. People have different preferred or habitual orientations to the future (2) Our orientations to the future are also about our own sense of agency and possibility. Some of us want to step back and observe what is happening, others to explore and open up new possibilities, others to plan and come up with a clear direction, others to find a way to just respond as it emerges. There is often a lot of tension between people who work in these different ways – a tendency to say that there is one right way. But all of these people will have roles to play – our challenge is to keep talking, to keep seeing what possibilities, choices and responsibilities open up with each step. For example, while we may want a chief medical officer to have a very clear plan about how to ensure there are enough ventilators in hospitals and to be focusing on the near term, we might want someone else to open up and explore possibilities for thinking about how to develop a health service for the long term in the light of this crisis. Different roles, not competing.
- 4. Don’t search for absolute certainty and control. This is a tough one, we all want it. But it isn’t going to happen. We can’t predict and and we certainly can’t fix the future. What we can manage, however, is our own response to change and our relations with others. So, if you’re after control, look to your responses and actions, understand who you are, what you care about, what you value and how you respond to the situation – this is a domain in which you can act. And then build relationships and connections that will help to make the future out of solidarity and commitment to each other.
- 5. Acknowledge the emotions. Fear, anxiety, hope, excitement, desperation, dread, giddiness, grief – these are all pretty reasonable responses to a world being turned upside down. Thinking about the future is always an activity that generates emotional responses and in the present circumstances, even more so. Our challenge, however, is to allow ourselves to notice and feel these emotions, to value them for what they are telling us about ourselves and the world, to let them play their course, and allow them to subside again. Any emotion doesn’t last forever, it comes and goes. Naming those emotions and acknowledging them is not a sign of weakness, it is the beginning of a conversation and the opening up of a possibility for connection with someone else. It is also OK to laugh and tell bad jokes. Laughter may be one of the most powerful tools for opening up new possibilities.
- 6. Remember this is not the first time people have felt an existential threat. For those of us lucky enough within our living family memories not to have felt the risk of extinction, we are now having to learn fast what that means. The elders we might learn from, however, may not be in our communities. They may be in those communities who have faced huge existential threats before – from those who have lived through wars and conflict, to those who have built civil rights movements, from de-colonisation movements, to those who have faced terminal illness and severe disability. Now is a time to learn from and to respect the knowledge that these groups and movements have to offer.
- 7. Technology will not (completely) save us – it will be human relationships, commitments, care, love, sound institutions that we can trust, wisdom, expertise, people willing to risk themselves, working together. Yes, the vaccines and tests will in the end, help us to adapt, but this will not come quickly and will achieve nothing without the social, cultural and emotional infrastructures that we are a part of. Don’t just hope for the technology to come and fix things, it won’t (although the video conferencing is useful). The challenge is to work collectively with others to build relationships, institutions and communities that can create a liveable future.
- 8. Notice what is emerging from this moment. The future isn’t a mapped out landscape in front of us that we can control if only we can get good enough at predictions. Instead, reality is emerging from each and all of our actions. It makes a difference to the future, what we do in the present. Think of it in this way – we are walking backwards, the future is flowing out from each step we take, and at the same time, with each step we take comes a new horizon of possibility. Our job is to see what is emerging with each step – what are we making and what new horizons are opening – and to open up new horizons. What patterns are emerging from this world that we are weaving? Who is benefiting from this situation, who is most at risk? What futures are being made from the choices that are being taken? In particular, keep an eye out for how marginalised communities are being treated and how the most powerful are acting in this crisis. This is a ripe moment for disaster capitalism.
- 9. Bubbles give partial information. Any good futurist reads widely and gets out of their own friendship groups. What else is going on outside the groups you are familiar with? What ideas, practices, ways of responding to this situation are emerging? Explore new information sources you have not tried before – if you are a free market fundamentalist, play with Al Jazeera or the New Internationalist – if you are a paid up socialist, have a look at the Economist or the FT. If you are only interested in politics – what’s happening online in the twitterverse around music, art, celebrities? If your main interest is your clothes, your family, your friends – have a look at what is happening to the planet at the moment. In other words, while (some of us) are inside, it may be a good time to get out more and check out parts of the world that are not familiar to us.
- 10. Remember that any time of change is a good time to reflect on the status quo. This is a moment to ask – do we really want to go back to business as usual? Is ‘back to normal’ what we are aiming for? Can we instead ask ourselves – what we have lost that we want to stay lost, what do we want to keep and what new do we want to emerge?
- 11. Support young people to engage with the future with critical hope. Once we’ve developed our own responses to the situation, once we’ve worked through our own emotions and begun to understand our own orientations to the future, we need also to create conditions for young people to think about and respond to this situation. Our students and children know that the world has just gone very weird – and they want to talk about it. We can work with them, using all the tools of futures literacies, linking them to all the communities and people who have gone before in addressing difficult conditions, and connecting them up with others to create new possibilities. We can support them to reflect on the world that they have left behind, and to ask what world we might imagine next, together.
There is also one thing I’ve learnt from this experience that I didn’t really deeply understand beforehand:
Don’t make lifeboats, change the blooming boat. I’m writing this from my temporary home in Sweden where I find myself accidentally stranded a long way from the home and community relationships I was beginning to make in another country, a home that was to be my ‘lifeboat’ when I had just finished off some things I had to finish…in a few years… when the time was right…. It turns out the future happened more quickly than I was planning, and I am neither at home nor in my lifeboat. I’m trying to find some insight from this, and what is becoming clear to me – something I should have known before of course – is that life is short. In other words, that planning and putting off till tomorrow what you know you should be doing today, is perhaps not the way to go if you want to create liveable futures. What I think this means is that there may be no better time to start than now, wherever we are, to build the relationships and commitments that can create the futures that we need. We are not in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the right time to come along when we can magically do something. Now is what we have, now is when we get to act, now is what we can value and cherish, and in doing so, different futures, ones that we never envisaged, may open up.
Hoping you are all well, and able to take care of yourselves, and each other.
- A useful resource for supporting futures thinking is available here, free to download: https://issuu.com/wtforesight/docs/futuresthinkingplaybook-final – see also https://www.bright-spots.org/ – a new resource set up by Futurists to help focus on the better futures that are in the making.
- Summary of Dator’s Four Futures here : http://www.foresightguide.com/dator-four-futures/
- See the workshops we have developed for education leaders to help reflect on their default orientations – these can be repurposed for other groups or for self-reflection. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331873859_A_thinking_tool_for_educators_and_education_leaders
- Nice article on mapping different roles that people might take in situation of social change https://medium.com/@dviyer/mapping-our-social-change-roles-in-times-of-crisis-8bbe71a8ab01
- Check out this network of groups who are doing just this – https://covidmutualaid.org/
- Some interesting parallels between climate change anxiety and covid anxiety can be drawn – Maria Ojala’s work is useful for educators here, in particular in terms of developing what Ojala calls ‘critical hope’ http://oru.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A1039952&dswid=6003
- See this debate on coronavirus capitalism and responses to this – https://tinyurl.com/rctnzvz
- Great article from someone long experienced in relation to life in disaster zones – https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-You-Should-Ignore-All-That/248366/?fbclid=IwAR30maOdQ5hREzvXgI1Npkl8vF7Q8eeOnOiQI_M5gmEhyDMM6OuPu9zLQUo
- Great article for all those struggling with anxiety about existential threats and a reminder of what it takes to organise in response – https://zora.medium.com/sorry-yall-but-climate-change-ain-t-the-first-existential-threat-b3c999267aa0
- The work of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective is helpful in supporting us to reflect on the limits of mindsets shaped by modernity here: https://decolonialfutures.net/
- A Healing Justice Podcast featuring those who have faced chronic illness and disability https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/brown-sisters/how-to-survive-the-end-of-the-world/e/67978514?autoplay=true
- Nice exercise from Bruno Latour to help with this reflection http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/852.html
- Working with unknown futures or troubling futures in education – a couple of my papers: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/lit.12176 & https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307557421_Using_the_Future_in_Education_Creating_Space_for_Openness_Hope_and_Novelty