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Towards more participatory futures

At its core, participatory futures is a medium for people to think (and feel) differently, openly, and critically about the future together. At Nesta, we're exploring participatory futures techniques that engage people to imagine and create more sustainable, inclusive futures. As part of our project, we've commissioned Action Foresight who coordinate the Global Swarm to research participatory futures. In this blog they outline their approach and ask you to become involved by sharing your knowledge, insights and contributions.

Making the case for participatory futures

Anticipation builds. A door is opened. Muffled sounds from within portend a strange cacophony. Unfamiliar fragrances waft over you. Something odd is afoot. Take one last deep breath and walk into the future.

In seeking more dynamic ways of engaging with the future, immersive and live-action experiences are now frequently employed as a means of transforming how citizens can and might think, feel, and act, toward possibilities of what might lie ahead. Around the world, people are turning towards participatory approaches as a means of imagining and building more inclusive futures.

In one of the earliest large-scale examples of “experiential futures”, 500 citizens in Hawai'i (circa 2005) were fully immersed within four alternative scenarios for 2050. Each future was designed in detail and featured artefacts and actors designed to amplify one’s sensory experience. Participants did not just watch a future unfold; rather, they inhabited these future worlds, which made potential impacts viscerally real.

What makes this particular event interesting is not only the how but the why: the request for such an engagement came from the Hawai'i 2050 Sustainability Task Force, an offshoot of the State Office of Planning centred on building a long-term vision for developing a sustainable future. The state of Hawai'i has been a leading national voice toward a more sustainable future, and this initiative was part of a broader push to run fully on renewables by 2045. Unfortunately, the Sustainability Task Force was sunsetted in 2008 and no funding was provided for a Sustainability Council, which was supposed to oversee the implementation of the 2050 plan. Although the experiential futures engagement generated quite a bit of buzz, official outcomes eventually fizzled.

Fast forward to 2011. A change in leadership at the Hawai'i State Office of Planning brought participatory futures back into the fold leading to the commission of a second experiential engagement aimed at transforming the state’s planning guidelines, which was a much more modest outcome. Hawai'i 2060 featured four new immersive scenarios and linked directly to a process for shifting policy. As a result in July 2012, Act 286 was signed into law. It encourages collaboration and cooperation toward the mitigation of climate change and directly mentions protecting against the “loss of life, land, and property of future generations.”

Cases such as Hawai'i 2050/2060 illuminate the many and varied challenges at the heart of participatory futures. Carrying out such endeavours raises many other questions too, such as:

  • who is (and is not) involved in crafting such experiences?
  • what social and political dynamics impact the outcomes and overall “success” of such engagements?
  • how to best capture and document these often ephemeral projects?
  • what means exist to link “futures” provocations with pathways for action in the here and now?

Framing our approach

Nesta recently commissioned research into participatory futures and has committed to “democratise futures thinking.” Our research entails a global scan of innovative examples of participatory futures, the development of a typology alongside exemplary cases, and resources that speak to the concerns, questions, and needs of those who may commission participatory futures.

This research aims to make participatory futures relevant and compelling to new audiences (public institutions and civil society) by creating an inspiring story and making a pragmatic case for their use; by making their impact and benefits tangible; and, hopefully, stimulating interest toward a broader usage of participatory futures.

At its core, participatory futures is a medium for people to think (and feel) differently, openly, and critically about the future together. Our research centers on understanding why and how such approaches are put into practice as well as what they can and might produce, including both preferred and unexpected outcomes. The Hawai'i 2050/2060 case provides valuable insights toward the development of a typology of participatory futures. As this continues to develop in relation to our research, we are considering a host of related queries:

  • how and what can we learn from the rich and living history of participatory futures work?
  • how can we begin to assess the impacts of participatory futures as social processes?
  • what are the ethical implications and considerations inherent to such approaches?
  • how can more truly inclusive futures be envisioned and enacted using participatory approaches?

We invite you to join our swarm

Large-scale cases like Hawai'i 2050/2060 are easy to identify, but those on the margins are not always easy to spot. As part of our global horizon scan for participatory futures approaches, cases, and methods, we are looking for examples from a diverse range of creators, communities, and contexts, such as:

Working as an assemblage under the banner of Action Foresight, our team has come together to undertake the research as a global swarm, which includes members based in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Kazakhstan, Spain, and the UAE. Our approach blends online research, network scanning, and crowdsourcing, and this is where we need your help.

We invite you to join our swarm by adding your knowledge, insights, and contributions. To broaden our scan for eclectic, imaginative, and cutting-edge cases of participatory futures, we will be using the hashtag #PFglobal on Twitter. You may also use the comments box below or contact us directly at [email protected].

A world in which a diversity of participatory futures practices are commonplace is not an inevitability, but rather it must be forged through collective and conscious effort. We believe that the world deserves to know about participatory futures in its many varieties and manifestations in ways that inspire, especially if we want to harness collective intelligence toward creating a more preferred future.

Author

The Global Swarm

An international group coordinated by Action Foresight that have been commissioned by Nesta to investigate participatory futures.