How Are We Preparing For The Futures We See Coming?

“It was such a lost learning experience, because the pandemic itself has been a great opportunity for students to figure out who they are and to question their assumptions about continuity, their ideas about identity, what it means to be a citizen and how to take care of the elderly. There’s so many beautiful questions hidden in this crisis that could have been woven into curricula to provide meaning to what we are going through. The issue is that education is all about planning and preparing students for certain markets and jobs, and only to a lesser extent about exploration. And by closing our eyes to the present, we end up being not prepared for anything. To bring education into the 21st century, we need to let go of that path dependency, and create more space for failures, pilots, experiments, and explorations.” -Loes Damhof, UNESCO Chair in Futures Literacy via Teaching Futures

In many ways, if feels as if we have worked very diligently to try and put the pandemic in our rear-view mirror, even at the risk of not learning the many lessons it has provoked and provided for us. We talk about a “new” normal, but that often serves as code for getting back as close as possible to some semblance of what we did or were doing pre-pandemic. To getting back to the “certainty” of the known. We talk about creating the individual and organizational capacity to lean into the rising complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity of these current times, while spending our time chasing the illusion of and assurance of certainty. We continue to probe at solving the expanding, and often unsolvable, dilemmas and adaptive challenges of our times with veneer, ready-made solutions, when we need to begin to focus on building the fortitude and capacity towards learning how to “manage” these challenges more effectively.

It often feels as if we are intent on trying to forget and put the pandemic behind us, rather than engaging in reflection upon and learning from the myriad of lessons that the struggles of what we’ve gone through have uncovered, projected, catalyzed, and/or has shown and unveiled to us over the last few years.

Maybe what we have to realize, is that in many ways, the pandemic has changed our image of the future. How we now think about it? How we consider it? How we picture and visualize it? Even how we determine our dreams, hopes, and possibilities of and for the future? While it is not always readily apparent to us, what we have come to recognize is that our post-pandemic image of the future is quite often challenging our pre-pandemic view of the future. And unfortunately, in this age of extreme busyness and accelerated change, we rarely have or take the time to intentionally engage in considerations of how, why, and what that means for us moving forward, both individually and organizationally.

Which engages the thought from Kees Van Der Heijden for us, both individually and organizationally, which he shares in his book Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation, “The prime question to be addressed is whether the organization is well-equipped for the futures we can see coming?”

Which is a much deeper question than we probably consider upon first glance, of what is well-equipped and what do we see coming? How are we equipping ourselves individually and organizationally for these emerging futures? What competencies and capacities have we already built up, and what ones do we need to engage and expand? How are we rigorously scanning the horizon, both individually and organizationally to determine the weak and strong signals of what is coming? What kind of processes and systems do we have in place to sustain that work, decipher what those signals may mean for us individually and organizationally, and then have the internal and external network aptitude to spread that information to better prepare for the futures we see coming?

For which Epamindondas Christophilopoulos, the Head of Foresight and Tools at the Foundation for Research and Technology shares in What Is Futures Literacy and Why Is It Important? “We need to give people this skill to deal with a future full of uncertainties, and to emancipate them by helping them understand how we can anticipate and how we can use the future in the present to provide hope.” Which is effectively pushing us to move those concepts of – complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty – from where we’ve hidden them in the rear-view mirror, and to place them out in front of us, in full windshield view for us to see and confront head on. To putting them right out there, front and center of where we are heading towards, knowing that in today’s VUCA world, they will be traveling with us anyways. And to add, this “skill” that Christophilopoulos is referring to, is our capacity to become more comfortable with the future and our ability to then anticipate the future in a way that is more futures literate.

Which, especially in discussing literacies, is not often a term that we are familiar with or have heard of in reference to literacies. And yet, we live in a world where the term “literacy” is expanding beyond what we’ve previously considered in terms of literacy. There’s digital, cultural, financial, and social, just to name a few. As well as futures literacy…

As there is not just one way to think about the future, just as there is not just one future.

It is when we consider the future or futures from a literacy perspective, we can find ourselves more open to visualizing how we approach the future and “use” the future as something that can be cultivated and learned. It is something that we can build capacity with, both individually and collectively.

As Riel Miller, Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO shares, “Futures literacy helps us understand how the future is created, how we imagine the future to be, and what the impact is of imagining the future? Our ability to anticipate future outcomes tends to shape our choices, our strategies, and our long-term plans.” To add, UNESCO puts forth, “Futures literacy is a capability. It is the skill that allows people to better understand the role of the future in what they see and do. Being futures literate empowers the imagination, enhances our ability to prepare, recover and invent as changes occur.” To which Riel Miller adds, “Futures literacy helps us to be more sophisticated in how we use the future as a lens. It is a way of opening our perception and allows us to anticipate. Which provides us another way into resilience. To negotiating shared meaning. As we need to be more sophisticated in how the future is used by us. Uncertainty is a resource, not something we can eradicate.”

All of which is incredibly important to our current context and times, especially for our educational and societal systems, as we consider the future that is coming at us. The way that we’ve considered how the world works have become murky myths that are challenging our long-held assumptions. Especially as many of the rites of passage, rituals of change, even our mental models and maps that have guided us in our lives and within our organizations, systems, and society for so long, are either being reframed or are seen as crumbling pillars falling all around us. All of which are creating greater levels of uncertainty, broader breadths of unknowns, especially in how we view, envision, and anticipate the future. As Riel Miller shared previously, this will require us, both individually and organizationally, “to be more sophisticated in how we use the future.” That “sophistication” becomes more valuable, vital and important as these coming societal shifts accelerate change, expand complexity and ambiguity across our societal landscapes, and instigating a plethora of growing instabilities within our systems, as both the weak and strong signals on the horizon of our future increases the myriad of unknowns and scenarios that we must consider facing in both the short- and long-term.

So, if we are going to be able to support our students, families, stakeholders, educators, and educational leaders to anticipate the future, to be open to emergence and novelty in those futures, to lean into the complexity and uncertainty of our current context and times, then we have to be able to not only stretch ourselves cognitively away from our need and assurance for certainty, but to see this as a creative moment. An opportunity for imagination and innovation to take the front seat, especially if our images, visions, and narratives for the future are to be more preferable in realizing our collective hopes, than giving into our often dystopian fears.

Thereby, allowing us to use the future as a vehicle to drive us towards better decisions in the present, by being more “sophisticated” in how we consider and use the future, we can create new and more preferable images of the future we want and are willing to strive for, allowing us to backwards map those images towards improving the thinking, actions and decisions we are making in the present, both as individuals and as organizations. For it is that anticipation of, supported by a willingness to discover, explore, and experiment, driven by our individual and collective imaginations, that we see that there is no “one” future, but a myriad and diversity of futures constantly emerging, and the more “sophisticated” we are in using the future, the more apt we are to move towards those preferable futures we imagine and envision.

It is in this space that we are able to ask questions, challenge our assumptions, and embrace the learning that lies in that chasm between our pre- and post-pandemic world. 

As the world changes, often in accelerated and in unanticipated ways, so do our considerations and assumptions, much of which are grounded in the past. Shifting our mental models and maps from the rear-view mirror to the windshield allows us to release thinking we’ve entrenched in a world that no longer exists, so we can begin to creatively confront the uncertain and unknown futures that now await us. And the more sophisticated we can be in that journey, the more open we will be to the emergence of the diversity of futures that lie down the road.

“If you feel that you’re approaching the future with fear, you have to come to understand where that fear comes from. We tend to have this inherent fear of uncertainty because we simply don’t like it, and not knowing can make us scared. Mind you, that holding on to one scenario, one image of the future, may give you security, but it’s a false sense of security. I think it’s important to see that uncertainty is a friend. It’s not something to be scared of or something to eliminate, it’s something to embrace. Not knowing means that there’s still a lot of opportunities. Always try to accept more than one idea of what the future could be, and remind yourself that it does not exist. So, whenever you’re confronted by this, ask yourself: Whose future is it, anyway?” -Loes Damhof, UNESCO Chair in Futures Literacy via Teaching Futures