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Against text: words, actions and exploring possibility

In the last decades of the 20th century futures studies became highly academic. Its outputs were texts: thick scenario documents; academic peer reviewed journals; texts littered with references to other texts. This was the price the field paid for being taken seriously. And sometimes the format of prose really is a good way to explore complex trends, especially when peppered with graphs and forecasts.

Futures revealed through practice rather than representation

But this is not the only way to think about the future, and not necessarily the best. An opposite view sees futures revealed through practice rather than representation, what people do rather than what they write. In this view the best way to understand the future is to seek out the places or people who seem to be shaping it, and make sense of what they do and how they think. If the future is reluctant to give up knowledge of itself too easily, then perhaps you have to become part of the phenomenon to grasp it, and work to shape it rather than being a detached observer – a version of the insights of anthropology which argued that you had to be inside a phenomenon to grasp its logic. By contrast too much detachment may condemn you to believing too strongly in the conventional wisdoms of your own society.

The study of the future should be a close ally of activism

Philosophically, this is the spirit of 19th century pragmatism rather than 20th century analytics – of William James, John Dewey and Charles Peirce, and more recently the spirit of the philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger (just reappointed as minister of Strategic Affairs in Brazil). The world is made through the trial and error of practical people, shaping tools that are useful to them. Abstracting too much misses the crucial issues. We become more fully human by realising our potential in tension with the world as it is, bending it to better alternatives.

In this view the study of the future should be a close ally of activism, and of all attempts to shape, or guide, the direction of social technological and economic change. It should be explicitly linked to emotion, to what we want and what we care about, and shouldn’t be embarrassed about taking a stand, having hope that one future may defeat others. An apparently remorseless trend becomes something to challenge or shift rather than something to rationalise.

The activists at FutureFest who are reshaping political parties, or inventing new digital monies, or reimagining food, are part of this tradition. They live out the old saying that the best way to understand the future is to invent it. No text based analysis can tell us whether they are right or wrong; only history will.

Of course this pragmatic view of the future may be fatal to any attempt to turn futures into a discipline, a self-referential field of journals, conferences and professorships. But it might in the end be more useful.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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