Moving Into “Futures”

“Futures shape our perception. When we perceive through too few kinds of futures – such as goal-oriented project visions or probabilistic projections – we tend to pay closest attention to the phenomena and transformation occurring in our world that fit with those futures. However, when we stretch ourselves to look through several different kinds of futures generated for different purposes, we can see more aspects, pathways, and potentials of transformation, and opportunities for experimentation.” -Riel Miller via Demystifying Futures Literacy, A Key Skill For Climate Innovation by Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh

When you think of the future, what do you think of? When we think of the future, why do we consider it in singular, rather than plural terms? Rather, why does it often seem that we’ve come to some forgone conclusion that there is this one “official” future that exists and we are all moving towards it?

While we may consider that there are many offshoots, there also seems to be this forgone conclusion that there is this one “official” future we are all striving towards, and we all seem to be on the same train. We tend to think of what we are all moving towards as “THE” future.

However, when we really begin to consider how we think about the “future” in this singular manner, we begin to see how limited the scope of that vision truly is. We begin to realize that this lens towards the future is loaded with our own internal premises, assumptions, speculations, perceptions, and visions of what that “official” future is going to be, without much consideration or question of what others think about that future.

In many ways, what thinking we do about the future, tends to be and stay an internal process.

And while it seems as if our organizations and leaders are ceaselessly creating new visions and vision statements for that future, it still, and may always feel a bit nebulous and uncertain. However, at the same time, for some unknown reason, it also tends to feel a bit known. Maybe that is because we expect the future to be just like the past. And maybe that is because, as Schacter and Madore share, “Recent studies have shown that imagining or simulating future events relies on many of the same cognitive and neural processes as remember past events.” Or episodic memory. For which they add, “Future simulations are built on retrieved details of specific past experiences that are recombined into novel events.”

Which means that many of our thoughts and ideas for the future are often retrieved from the past.

In many ways, by how we approach the future, it feels as if we expect it to be an ongoing iterative loop of upgrading the past, towards some idea of a “better” future. We tend to approach the future much like an iPhone; the basic function and feel of the phone remains similar or the same, while at the same time the phone itself and its iOS are receiving ongoing upgrades and improvements.

But how often do we question this assumption of an “official” future? How often do we turn a critical eye towards how we accept that one “official” future we are apparently destined for? How often do we open ourselves up to a wider array of possibilities for the future? How often do move our thinking from one future to the consideration of a variety of futures? Of realizing that there is no one “official” future and that a plethora of futures are emerging all of the time.

When, as leaders and organizations, we engage a diversity of voices in considering “THE” future, we realize that “future” is not, and cannot be sufficient, for the considerations and narratives that emerge from those conversations. Too be sufficient, future must become futures, if we are to realize the full potential of the possibilities that exist. It necessitates that our individuals, leaders, and organizations begin to become much more acquainted with and aware of being “futures” literate.

Especially if we are going to create a future that is much more inclusive, equitable, and hopefully, much more preferable.

And just like building up other forms of literacy, building up our “futures” literacy abilities will require engaging in processes and scenarios that allow the organizational community to consider a much wider variety of futures, from the probable to the improbable, if new possibilities are to be pondered, contemplated, and examined.

Which, as was touched upon previously, in regards to episodic memory, will necessitate deep reflection upon and consideration of how the past constantly influences the future and how our mental models and maps may need updating and reconfiguring moving forward. Or as Nicolas Balcom Raleigh shares in Demystifying Futures Literacy, “In parallel, developing an interest in exploring less comfortable kinds of futures such as strange futures, improbable futures, and radically transformative futures is helpful to developing futures literacy. These more unusual forms of futures help us move beyond preparation and planning purposes for suturing to also engage change, creativity, and novelty.” For which he adds, “Futures literacy is a capability about expanding how we engage with our models of the future. It invites us to use different conceptions and ideas about the future as lenses for interpreting, understanding, and seeing anew our world and ourselves in it.”

Which is an incredibly important and salient point in how we approach futures literacy and becoming futures literate. Futures literacy is a capability and/or competency. It is something that we acquire and build up when we spend time with and in it. It is a literacy, and like any other literacy, requires time and effort to build up that futures literacy muscle. And it is also in understanding that is needed more now than ever in the midst of our complex and often volatile times to better prepare us for the non-obvious futures that are emerging and coming at us, in an often accelerated and unexpected manner.

Which is why it is essential for us and our organizations to lean more into using and building up those futures literacy muscles in our people, our leadership, and our organizations if we are to gain greater capacity in using this literacy to better prepare us for anticipating and using the future for better outcomes. As Balcom Raleigh shares in Demystifying Futures Literacy:

Futures literacy calls for:

  • Paying attention / being conscious when we use futures;
  • Being reflective about the futures we use (our ideas, images, conceptions, and sentiments about the future);
  • Being able to switch between different types of futures (e.g., probable, desirable, strange, transformative, etc.) for different purposes (e.g., preparation/planning or making sense of emergence);
  • Most importantly, it involves looking at our changing world through these many futures – for future and for emergence – and spotting opportunities to try something you didn’t realize you could try before.

When we raise our awareness towards the understanding that we are no longer marching towards one “official” future and, in fact, a variety of futures are constantly emerging around us in expected and very unexpected ways, we become much more open to searching out the diversity of thinking about those futures that exist in our organizations. Bringing that diversity of thinking to the table allows us all to become much more aware to that variety and new possibilities of futures that could and should be considered in preparing our organizations for the future. By building up our individual and organizational futures literacy capabilities, we can begin to lean into those voices and explore the possibilities it will bring forth.

“This plural form, futures, carries in it the idea that at any given point in time there is potential for many different futures and people today have a role to play in creating which one ultimately materializes.” -Nicolas Balcom Raleigh via Demystifying Futures Literacy, A Key Skill for Climate Innovation