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New platforms for public imagination

Pessimistic futures

Today we face a heady cocktail of challenges. Growing polarisation and increasing nationalism. Rising extremism and decreasing trust in institutions. Existential threats, technological risks, it is nothing if not daunting.

It is perhaps no wonder that Gallup’s World Poll found the world was more angry, fearful and sad than any other time. Global public opinion polling also shows a majority pessimistic view about the future: just 34 per cent of people in advanced economies think their children will be financially better off than them when they grow up. That view only slightly increases to 42 per cent for people who live in emerging economies. A rising nostalgia for ‘better times’ often has little basis in reality. But like the burgeoning appetite for dystopian fiction, it is symptomatic of our struggle to make sense of an uncertain future.

Dead End sign covered in snow

While people feel uncertain and negative about the future, perhaps even more troubling is the lack of power they feel to shape it. In a recent poll for the Hansard Society for example, 47 per cent of British people felt they had no ability to influence the national agenda. In the US, 48 per cent of people don’t have confidence in politicians to deal with future challenges, and equally concerning is the declining faith in democracy among young people.

The techno-utopians would have us believe that artificial intelligence (AI) holds the cure for all of society’s ills, but the public is wary and so are the tech workers themselves. Doteveryone’s survey of UK tech workers found that of those focusing on AI, 59 per cent thought they were working on products that could be harmful for society.

The big questions remain: whose future are we building? Whose priorities and values matter? And how do people gain greater agency to shape the future they want?

Democratising futures

The practice of thinking about the future is currently dominated by a small group of academics, consultants, government foresight teams, and large organisations. The ability to influence the future has been cornered by powerful special interests and new tech monopolies who shape our views of what is possible. While the entrepreneurs, scientists and tech developers building the future are not much more diverse. Overall, the future is dominated by privileged white men.

Democratising futures means creating new capacity among many more diverse people to explore and articulate their alternative and desirable visions of the future.

Democratising futures means creating new capacity among many more diverse people to explore and articulate their alternative and desirable visions of the future. It must create hope - enabling people to co-diagnose the issues and opportunities, build common ground and collectively imagine preferred futures. Investment, policy and collective civic action should then be aligned to help deliver these common visions. This is anticipatory democracy, not the extractive surveying of needs and wants against a narrow prescribed set of options that characterises many ‘public engagement’ exercises. Too often these are little more than PR activities conducted relatively late in the decision-making process.

Participatory futures

The participation of citizens in futures exercises is not new. From Hawaii in the 1970s to Newcastle more recently, cities, regions and small nations have at times explored these methods as a way of deepening civic engagement. But this approach has so far failed to achieve mainstream adoption.

The zeitgeist, however, may be changing. Political paralysis has led to growing calls for citizens assemblies on climate change and resolving the Brexit deadlock - demonstrating increasing enthusiasm for involving citizens in complex deliberations. The appointment of the world’s first Commissioner for Future Generations in Wales and its People’s Platform, as well as the establishment of the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on future generations are also signals of democracies grappling to find ways of bringing long-term thinking and people back into political decision-making.

And while interest in mini-publics such as citizens’ assemblies has grown, there has been a much broader expansion of participatory methods for thinking about the future.

Futures methods have historically relied on group workshops, interviews, and in-person discussions. A growing movement of artists and designers, however, are creating new immersive experiences of the future in today’s physical world. At the same time, digital technologies are expanding the reach of futures exercises - enabling more, diverse citizens to create and participate virtually in future worlds, as well as generating ideas and sharing information about the future.

crystal ball in front of sea

Creating physical futures

In Japan, a new technique called Future Design has emerged that aims to incorporate the interests and views of future generations. Municipalities in Japan have begun crafting development plans using this method, where residents don ceremonial outfits and pretend to be ‘future residents’ from 45 years in the future. According to the originator of this method, Prof Saijo Tatsuyoshi, a follow-up survey six months after one of these exercises showed that the effects on individuals were not fleeting, but had succeeded in changing the way individual citizens think. His aspiration is that these new thought processes will eventually permeate into large-scale change in how societies make decisions to take better account of future generations. The recent Climate Strikes by school children are a current reminder of society’s abject failure to do this so far.

The Burning Man Festival and Reclaim the Streets actions are high profile examples of Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs). The concept was originated by ‘Hakim Bey’ in the 1980s as a kind of temporary and ‘bloodless’ revolution. They are described as places where new ways of being human together can be imagined, explored and experimented with. The scale and distributed global nature of these two particular examples of TAZs make them perhaps some of the largest examples of participatory futures exercises. Over 70,000 people, for example, attend Burning Man Festival each year and it boasts 100 regional chapters globally.

Speculative design is another increasingly used method for helping people experience different futures. It invites participants to engage with fictional objects from alternative futures to challenge current models and open up thinking about new pathways. Examples of this include Superflux’s work with Nesta to create an international development organisation from the future, and The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' (IFRC) exhibition of artefacts from humanitarian futures. As we wrestle with the accelerating pace of technological change, the creation of hypothetical products through speculative design is compelling for its ability to help us tangibly experience how it might be to live with these technologies - and critique their values and application.

Audio tours from residents of the future, scenarios generated from today’s experiments on the margins, and participatory games are further examples of the explosion of novel ways people and decision-makers are being invited to together create new futures for their communities.

Experiencing virtual futures

Massive multiplayer games are involving larger, more diverse audiences in imagining the future. Examples include Institute for the Future’s Innovate2038, and the World Without Oil which simulated the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis and invited people to play by chronicling the imagined reality of their life in the crisis. The International Federation of the Red Cross & Crescent more recently developed a WhatsApp game, WhatFutures, to generate youth volunteer input into the organisation’s global strategy process. Meanwhile, multiplayer strategy game Civilization’s most recent expansion requires players to navigate the challenges of a climate change-ravaged world. The promise of gaming methods includes the potential to build greater futures literacy and arguably resilience among citizens. The emphasis is on helping more people to anticipate the future, and generate ideas on how to prepare for or prevent it. As the strapline of a World Without Oil says: “play it before you live it,” but how well this translates into real world action is not clear.

VR goggles

Citizen-sensing initiatives are also appearing in the futures space. Cognitive Edge’s Sensemaker platform, for example, has been used to crowdsource mini-scenarios, stories and anecdotes about the future of public services. Forum for the Future’s Futures Centre allows citizens and experts from all over the world to submit their signals of change. Crowd prediction challenges, such as Nesta’s You Predict 2019 challenge, are tapping into crowd wisdom to make forecasts about near-term geopolitical and other future events. MIT’s Moral Machine project has crowdsourced perspectives from millions of people on the tradeoffs and moral dilemmas autonomous machines may have to make. The engagement of citizens in these scanning and sensing activities helps avoid the cognitive biases or groupthink that can occur when futures exercises are dominated by experts or decision-makers.

These projects speak to a larger trend of building distributed, networked foresight capabilities exemplified by other collective intelligence initiatives such as Futurescaper, which has been used by the UNDP for participatory futures activities in Armenia and Sudan. The concept of creating foresight commons has also been gaining ground, eschewing the proprietary nature of many institutional futures initiatives. Open Futures Library and Future Agenda, for example, aim to provide pooled knowledge and ideas on the future. Foresight commons may be an important building block in helping to expand the diversity and number of people able to think about, shape and create the future.

Platforms for public imagination

Einstein famously said that the world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.

If we allow our visions and ideas of the future to remain dominated by a small unrepresentative group of global society then we risk continuing to create futures that the majority do not want. Finding our way through the morass of challenges and division that afflict us also requires new ways of harnessing collective values and inspiring collective action. It will require us to think differently. It is surely the time to create new platforms for public imagination.

Using participatory futures methods can raise comprehension of the future's plasticity - an important precondition for people to act in new or different ways.

Most people underestimate how malleable the future is. But using participatory futures methods can raise comprehension of its plasticity, and this is an important precondition for people to then act in new or different ways.

Anecdotal evidence from participatory futures exercises suggests they can lead to significant change for communities. But rigorous or longitudinal evaluations of these approaches are relatively few, so the evidence base is sketchy. The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps it is the eclecticism of the field, the lack of clarity on how to evaluate these methods, or the belief of its supporters that the impact is self-evidentiary.

As part of our new research agenda into participatory futures, we want to address this challenge. We hope to identify how newer and more traditional futures methods can practically be combined to greatest effect. We want to understand the impact on the individuals and groups involved, as well as on the wider community. We want to know whether platforms for public imagination can help nurture more of the things we need: more inclusive economies and innovation, healthier community relationships, greater personal agency for individuals, and more effective civic society.

We know many local authorities, public and civil society institutions are recognising the need to reimagine their roles and their services, and recast their relationships with citizens for our changing world. Through our Participatory Futures programme we want to research and test a range of methods. We hope to build the evidence base to help policymakers and a growing cohort of practitioners understand which methods are best suited to different purposes, be realistic about what can be achieved and recognise the potential pitfalls. We know participatory futures exercises don’t always achieve their aims, and we want to unpick the factors that lead to failure. We hope to articulate how citizen-generated futures can connect most effectively into decision-making and create real change. And we’ll particularly be considering how we leverage a combination of digital technologies and offline activities to create inclusive city-scale imagination for better futures.

Other ways Nesta is helping to democratise the future

The future is too important to be left to a small group of the global elite.

That's why Nesta curates FutureFest, one of Europe’s largest festivals to engage the public in conversations about the future. We’ve promoted public engagement in innovation policy making, and digital democracy initiatives around the world. We research the future skills and education that people will need in a changing world, and promote inclusive innovation and a collaborative economy.

If you are interested in helping us with the participatory futures research, partnering on pilots, or if you have examples of participatory futures activities you’d like to share please use the comments box below or get in touch with [email protected] or [email protected].

With thanks to Laurie Smith and Geoff Mulgan for their comments on this piece.


Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach

Kathy Peach

Director of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

The Centre for Collective Intelligence Design explores how human and machine intelligence can be combined to develop innovative solutions to social challenges

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