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Understand the future by trying to change it

In my last blog I looked at how stories help us understand the future. Now I want to look at how taking action can boost our understanding.

There are many glib one liners which say that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. That's easier said than done but they do contain a grain of truth. So the third approach to understanding the future I want to cover is the combination of thought and action - what's sometimes called praxis.

Here the idea is that you best understand how change happens not just by reading books but also by direct engagement in transforming the world. Change is not purely cognitive - it's more like a craft, a mix of hand and brain, requiring us to push, prod and tinker with the world to get a grasp on its dynamics.

Perhaps one of the reasons that so much futurology is uninspiring and predictable is that it's done too much as a cognitive exercise - the futurists read each other's books and write their own rather than getting their hands dirty in the grit of real change.

The alternative is the mindset of the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs rarely jump in one go to a neat new solution that is proven to work. Instead, they constantly adapt in response to the resistance of things on the road to success.

It's also the mindset of the inventor and, in a very different way, of the activist - arguing, cajoling and mobilising to find the weak chinks in power structures.

A brilliant book that I'd strongly recommend which links the theory and practice of, well, linking theory and practice, is 'Disclosing new worlds: entrepreneurship, democratic action and the creation of solidarity' by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores (the computing specialist and one time minister) and the philosopher Herbert Dreyfus.

With compelling stories and some serious theory they show how active engagement in shaping the world is one of the ways we become fully human.

Future-oriented citizenship

How could we make this easier?

I've been interested in developing new methods of learning that put this shaping capacity centre stage. The new generation accelerators - like Bethnal Green Ventures, now based at Nesta - are doing this for business and social enterprise.

A more political variant is the Uprising programme which trains 18-25 year olds to become public leaders - the aim is to help them understand how to use power, how to communicate and how to mobilise. A crucial part of the year long curriculum is a real life community campaign that the participants run, so that they learn about how the world could change by trying to change it (and they also learn about themselves).

For a younger age group there's the Studio School network - which will be over 40 schools strong by next year - in which most of the curriculum is organised around real life practical projects.

Again the idea is to cultivate capacities to shape the world.

The Digital Makers programme that Nesta has supported has exactly the same spirit - young people should be empowered to code, programme and make their own animations, websites and games rather than just being passive consumers.

These programmes are all cultivating a future-oriented citizenship: an ethos in which everyone has a responsibility, and the chance to shape their world for the better. I'd like to see them become much more mainstream.

The deep craft of making change

In our work on innovation systems and policy a similar idea is becoming more prominent. In the past the main focus of attention was on flows of finance, or the passage of technologies out of universities into spin outs and big firms.

These matter but they can lead to a misleading perspective. More important than any of them may be the 'deep craft' of the people in the field - for example aerospace or software or machine tools.

Their accumulated understanding of what works and why, partly informed by formal science but just as much shaped by experience and feel, turns out to be the crucial economic asset for a nation, a region or a firm.

These are the people who shape the future in their fields not so much with forecasts but judgements about plausible evolutions of existing elements or systems.

Prefiguring the future

The prototypes that designers and engineers build help them to see and think. Fast real life trials with rough models may tell you more than detailed work on paper.

The related idea in politics was that activists would create 'prefigurative' projects or organisations that would, at a small scale, anticipate a future society. They would try to demonstrate different values or organising principles, and grow confidence that apparently utopian ideas might work after all.

As I show in my book 'the Locust and the Bee', a surprising proportion of 19th century utopians were also involved in practical projects. William Morris's written accounts of the future might have been far-fetched, but he was successful as a producer of textiles and wallpapers (even working on commission to Queen Victoria).

The Garden City movement is another fascinating example of prefiguring a possible future in the present. Inspired by a utopian novel (Looking Backward) and founded by Ebenezer Howard, the garden cities were imagined as self-contained communities of around 30,000, mixing homes, workshops, and agriculture in the surrounding fields.

Two were built during Howard's lifetime, Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, both in Hertfordshire, England.

His ideas proved very influential across the United States, from Woodbourne in Boston to Jackson Heights in Queens, as well as further afield, from Argentina's Ciudad Jardín Lomas del Palomar to Colonel Light Gardens in Adelaide, South Australia.

William Gibson's comment that the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed, is often quoted. It's true that the embryos of the future are bound to exist in the present but they won't be the same when they grow up and become mainstream.

Computers now are not just a widely distributed version of computers 30 years ago, nor are urban farming projects and organics, hackathons, or cheap airlines. That's why more biological metaphors are better than the distribution metaphor that Gibson used.

There are plenty of things around us that could prefigure the future - from political parties like the Pirate Party to electric car clubs. But in their mature forms they'll be radically different from their forms today. So it's right that we should want to engage with these seeds of the future and this is another healthy kind of praxis.

However we shouldn't be surprised that when they grow big, they're no longer quite what we had in mind.

Fast and slow

It's a cliché of the modern world that change at is happening at an unprecedented pace and it's easy to see why. We are surrounded by an exponential rise of knowledge and floods of technologies. That leads many to assume that if change can't be achieved quickly you might as well give up.

I suspect this is dangerously wrong.

A clearer view of the present shows just how much doesn't change. Most of us in countries like the UK live in quite old houses, do quite old jobs, and work for organisations that existed in some recognisable form a generation or two ago. Half the people in your train carriage or workplace will still be around in 40 years' time, as will many of the institutions you deal with and most of the buildings you visit.

Historians argue that previous periods, particularly in the 19th century, were much more disruptive. The generations who witnessed the arrival of the railway and the telegraph, or later the arrival of electricity and cars, arguably experienced a much faster pace of change that we do today - not to mention periods of revolution, civil war and world war.

By most standards we live in relatively stable times - so incredibly stable that it makes sense for someone in their 20s to save for a pension they may draw in 50 years' time (my hunch is that the current fashion for using the word 'disruptive' could only take hold among people living in very secure environments).

One implication is that if you want to understand the future by changing it, you should calibrate your feel for the pace of change.

Some things do change very fast, especially where digital technologies are involved. But many fundamental changes still take decades to work their way through - from low carbon industries and lifestyles to global justice and bodily implants.

Anything that requires fundamental changes in behaviours and cultures will almost certainly take a long time. So if you're serious, don't rush it, and don't be disheartened if the world doesn't immediately respond to your prods and pushes.

Embedding the future into government

The final examples of praxis put a future-thinking capacity into the heart of governments and parliaments. I wrote about some of these in my book 'The Art of Public Strategy', and a forthcoming report from Nesta examines how many of these government-based ones are working around the world.

In some countries these are put into parliaments - Finland has a Committee of the Future set up in 1992; Hungary has a Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations; Israel's Knesset a Commission for Future Generations. The closest Britain had was the Sustainable Development Commission, abolished in 2011.

In the past I've advocated a party of the future. At the very least we need some institutions to speak up for future generations. Without them, the interests of the future are bound to be silenced by the din of the present.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

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

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