Over recent weeks, it has become commonplace to live in two very different timeframes. One is the present, characterised by immediate anxieties about the health and wellbeing of friends and loved ones, and about strangers we’ve never met who are risking their lives to save others. The other is to contemplate the future we face once the pandemic has subsided.
Much has been said and written recently about the future after COVID-19. Academic and think tank Twitter is awash with scenarios and predictions. Many claim COVID-19 will change everything, some that it will just speed up what was already happening, while others argue that we can’t go back to business as usual.
The RSA has called for a citizen’s convention to solve the conundrum of how to transition out of lockdown. But there are of course, even bigger questions to answer after the upheaval caused by COVID-19 and following the end of the Brexit transition period in December: what type of country do we actually want to become?
Last year we argued that we needed new platforms for public imagination to address complex problems like climate change and an ageing society. In November, we published a report which outlined how we could democratise the process of thinking about the future - an activity that continues to be a mostly elite occupation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown we can take collective action motivated by the shared values of keeping our most vulnerable safe and protecting our NHS - even when it comes at personal cost.
As we start to think about a future after the pandemic, collective values, preferences and priorities must inform future visions for the country and for our communities.
At the end of last year, polling from Britain Thinks, commissioned by Nesta, found that 66 per cent of the public felt there was little to no agreement in the UK around a long-term vision for the country. A majority of the public (62%) and young people especially (69%) told us they felt uncertain about the future. Those figures will almost certainly have increased since Coronavirus hit our shores.
The implications of this are deep-rooted. Neuroscientists have shown that we are hardwired to prefer certainty over uncertainty even if it causes us pain. In an experiment by UCL, people found it more stressful to know that they might receive an electric shock, than knowing they definitely would.
Exacerbating uncertainty is people’s sense of powerlessness. From our polling, six in ten people (62%) said they felt they have little to no opportunity to shape the long-term vision for the country, and a quarter (25%) said they had no opportunity at all.
But future visions, or lack of them, don’t just affect how people feel. Evidence shows a forward-looking national narrative about the future correlates to a strong economy. Business school research found that the greater a society’s future orientation, the higher its average GDP per capita and its levels of innovativeness, confidence and competitiveness.
This is not surprising. Images of the future play a particularly significant role in our lives, since our ability to make plans, decisions or set goals rests on them. Brain research shows that collective images offer orientation in times of uncertainty or when the necessity of reshaping our living environments becomes apparent.
More than at any time in recent memory, Britain needs a new collective vision for the future and collective ideas on how to achieve it.
The good news is that we have the tools to do this. But it’s not traditional forms of public consultation and dialogue, which the public perceives to be ‘broken’ and a ‘tick-box’. It’s not citizens juries either, given the expense and limitations of conducting these at scale.
Participatory Futures techniques borrow from art, theatre and design, and make use of new digital technologies. They are more engaging than focus groups and town-hall style meetings, so people are more likely to want to take part. And they are capable of involving people at scale.
These approaches can include elements of play and gaming. After a major earthquake destroyed Christchurch in New Zealand, for example, the city council created a MMORPG (massive multiplayer online roleplaying game) called Magnetic South. It was played by almost a thousand people over a 2 day period. Players generated cards, ideas and strategies for rebuilding the city, with 8,889 microforecasts.
Participatory futures approaches often use immersive physical or virtual environments, allowing people to place themselves in a future world and experiment with new values or behaviours.
These might be interactive exhibitions, immersive theatre or digital simulations. Early Days of a Better Nation, for example, transported people to a fictional post-collapse state and charged them with rebuilding it anew. This challenged people to explore questions of purpose, values and vision.
The techniques also encompass sensing initiatives - using digital technologies to engage people in scanning, exploring and forecasting the future, such as FutureCoast. Another technique, used recently by Finsbury Park’s Citizen Sci-Fi programme is creating or engaging with physical objects that represent the future. This can help open up thinking about new pathways.
Deliberative approaches combined with creative storytelling can also be effective. In 2008, the government of the Dutch Caribbean nation of Aruba initiated a deliberative exercise to chart a 2025 vision for the island that would also deal with the existential challenges it faced - such as fragile ecosystems and vulnerability to volatile global energy markets. It used a structured process to generate positive visions for the future, and scenario building - creating stories about different futures. More than half the island’s 100,000 residents were involved, which enabled the exercise and the national strategy that came from it outlast the vagaries of the political cycle and a change of government.
But perhaps one of the most important arguments for the use of these new techniques are advances in brain science. These are beginning to show the limitations of only engaging people to think about the future in a rational and analytical way. Art, embodied and experiential processes have a much greater influence on citizens, their sense of meaning, motivation and subsequent actions.
We captured many inspiring examples in our report. But public engagement in shaping the future is an area still ripe for more innovation and experimentation, particularly when it comes to using digital technologies better.
COVID-19 is already triggering radical policy interventions around the world. We want to help inspire and provoke new, creative and unusual ways to unlock public imagination about alternative futures. As part of this ambition, Laurie Smith and I worked with John Sweeney and Jose Ramos to create a game for futures professionals, artists, designers and technologists, as well as anyone with responsibility for engaging or consulting the public.
In the Our Futures game, players compete or collaborate to devise scenarios for new types of participatory futures activities. Choosing from randomly selected cards, they must invent ways of engaging the public using emerging technologies to tackle 21st century challenges, such as biodiversity loss or extreme weather events. Game play gets progressively harder, with players needing to factor in other design elements (such as the time horizon, or level of participation) and even competing world views.
Our polling shows that the public believe they should have most responsibility for coming up with new innovative ideas (39%), and adapting to change (40%). And as the community led responses to COVID-19 - from mutual aid groups to open source design and production of medical equipment - have demonstrated there is huge energy and creativity to be tapped here.
The challenge now is to create the platforms and experiences that help scaffold public imagination about what we want to come next, and to ensure that it gets taken seriously.
Many thanks to Laurie Smith, Jose Ramos, John Sweeney and Soapbox for their help developing the Our Futures game.