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Democratising the future: How do we build inclusive visions of the future?

In 2011, Lord Martin Rees, the British Astronomer-Royal, launched a scathing critique on the UK Government’s long-term thinking capabilities. “It is depressing,” he argued, “that long-term global issues of energy, food, health and climate get trumped on the political agenda by the short term”. We are facing more and more complex, intergenerational issues like climate change, or the impact of AI, which require long-term, joined-up thinking to solve.

But even when governments do invest in foresight and strategic planning, there is a bigger question around whose vision of the future it is. These strategic plans tend to be written in opaque and complex ways by ‘experts’, with little room for scrutiny, let alone input, by members of the public.

Brexit, Trump and the rise of more extreme political voices around the world can all be viewed as a rejection of these arguably elitist visions of the world

That said, we are starting to see a greater push towards more inclusive, democratic approaches to tackle these issues. It was heartening to see, for example, France’s President Emmanuel Macron calling for “democratic conventions” throughout the EU in his Sorbonne speech that would allow citizens to participate in identifying “the priorities, concerns and ideas that will fuel [the] roadmap for tomorrow’s Europe”.

At the same time, there has been a resurgent interest in participative democracy through activities such as citizen juries or participative budgeting. Yet, while there are some great examples of futures projects that include broader involvement, futures as a field still remains largely restricted to expert thinkers, professional futurists and high-level stakeholders.

Through our new project on participatory futures, Nesta is starting to explore where democratic futures exercises have been done well, what the value of wider engagement in building collective future visions is, and how we can support more communities, cities and countries to do this better.

Democratic futures: More than a dream

There have been some great examples of more democratic futures exercises in the past. Key amongst them was the Hawai’i 2000 project in the 1970s, which bought together Hawaiians from different walks of life to debate the sort of place that Hawai’i should become over the next 30 years. It generated some incredibly inspiring and creative collective visions of the future of the tropical American state, and also helped embed long-term strategic thinking into policy-making instruments - at least for a time.

A more recent example took place over 2008 in the Dutch Caribbean nation of Aruba, which engaged some 50,000 people from all parts of Aruban society. The Nos Aruba 2025 project allowed the island nation to develop a more sustainable national strategic plan than ever before - one based on what Aruba and its people had to offer, responding to the potential and needs of a diverse community. Like Hawai’i 2000, what followed Nos Aruba 2025 was a fundamental change in the nature of participation in the country’s governance, with community engagement becoming a regular feature in the Aruban government’s work.

There are examples closer to home, too. Newcastle City Futures 2065 reflects an ongoing effort by the city of Newcastle to ensure plans for future city development is built on top of “the tacit knowledge held by those who will be affected by any decisions about the future”. In towns and cities from St Alban’s to Basingstoke and Glasgow, city futures exercises are becoming increasingly important fixtures in city planning, and with it new models for anticipatory democracy that is giving citizens a greater voice.

These examples demonstrate how futures work is at its best when it is participatory. Radical and provocative visions of what a society could, or even should become, can’t rely on a few privileged minds alone. By bringing together people of different backgrounds, disciplines and imaginations, we pave the road to richer futures that are more challenged, nuanced and reflective of the needs of vibrant communities.

Challenges of participation

However, aside from some of the projects above, examples of genuine engagement in futures remain few and far between. Even when activities examining a community’s future take place in the public domain the conversation can often seem one-sided. Expert-generated futures are presented to people with little room for them to challenge these ideas or contribute their own visions in a meaningful way. This has led some, like academics Denis Loveridge and Ozcan Saritas, to remark that futures and foresight can suffer from a serious case of 'democratic deficit'.

There are three main reasons for this:

  1. Meaningful participation can be difficult to do, as it is expensive and time-consuming, especially when it comes to large-scale exercises meant to facilitate deep and meaningful dialogue about a community’s future.
  2. Participation is not always valued in the way it should be, and can be met with false sincerity from government sponsors. This is despite the wide-reaching social and economic benefits to building collective future visions, which we are currently exploring further in our work.
  3. Practitioners may not necessarily have the know-how or tools to do citizen engagement effectively. While there are plenty of guides to public engagement and a number of different futures toolkits, there are few openly available resources for participatory futures activities.

Moreover, even where engagement has been tried, there are barriers that can limit success. There has, for instance, been little coordinated knowledge sharing between the participatory futures exercises that have been done. This means important lessons (such as the importance of avoiding lopsided representation) are learnt and lost, and challenges around problems like navigating complicated political landscapes or long-term investment and sustainability are frequently replicated.

Examples of this include the Hawai’i 2000 exercise, which, although it engaged large numbers of people, tended to exclude women and people from disadvantaged backgrounds - a gaping flaw for an exercise that tries to identify common futures for all. Additionally, in Brussels we are finding that participatory futures projects have struggled to find a place within a complicated political landscape that houses at least 7 different parliaments, and nearly two dozen boroughs and mayors. Furthermore, in Newcastle the project planners continue to struggle with securing long-term investment, while similar projects from other British towns face headwinds trying to be taken seriously by city leaders altogether.

Engaging citizens in futures

To this end, over the next few months, we will be working to surface the best examples of citizen engagement in futures, and explore the tools and methods they deploy to make engagement successful. We will look at the case for wider participation, exploring its downstream social and economic impacts. We will also examine examples of groundbreaking participatory futures exercises that have taken place over the years, traveling from the UK to the likes of the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and the Caribbean, to see what has worked, what hasn’t, and how we can support a broader community to make the most of these insights.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions as to why citizen engagement should be done in futures, how it should be done and what questions we should ask, we would love to hear from you.

As the avant-garde artist Yoko Ono once wrote, “a dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality."


Chun-Yin San

Chun-Yin San

Chun-Yin San


Chun-Yin is a Researcher for the Explorations team.

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