Futures Literacy and Anticipation

Futures Literacy and Anticipation

Anticipation is a growing trend. In January, Jonathan Blanchard Smith reviewed the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) Conference in November 2020, which launched the EU-wide strategic foresight network. Hard on the heels of the ESPAS Conference came the UNESCO Futures Literacy Summit 8th-12 December 2020. The conference followed the creation of a UNESCO Chair in Anticipatory Systems, and the First International Symposium of UNESCO Chairs in Anticipatory Systems, Futures Studies and Futures Literacy in 2019 – and this itself followed the publication of the book, “Transforming the Future – Anticipation in the 21st Century” edited by Riel Miller, the Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO in 2018.

Transforming the Future – Anticipation in the 21st Century

The central thesis of Miller’s book runs as follows. Futures Literacy matters because people often make assumptions that the future will run on from the past in the same old way. In other words, there is “an assumption of no change in the conditions of change,” and this is the approach used to prepare and plan. An analysis of the assumptions would give a better understanding of the present from which to start. The environment is too complex to understand comprehensively. A more fluid approach is appropriate for the imagination of different possibilities and novelty to be taken into account in what might emerge or happen in the future.

In a nutshell, that’s it. What is more, it takes over a hundred pages of academic jargon and the repeated use of intricate acronyms to say it. I did feel at times that it was a rather big sledgehammer to crack a rather small walnut. I couldn’t help coming back to the question – is it saying anything very new?

Miller lays great stress on the need to understand “anticipatory assumptions” and make assumptions explicit. But in the twenty-first century, it is well understood that much of what we do happens at the unconscious level. We all have to make assumptions in real life, or nothing would get done. Even if an assumption is made explicit and accepted, it doesn’t mean that it is correct. To say that over time no-one questions any assumptions based on experience is facile.

The limits of forecasting based on quantitative methods and statistics – where assumptions have to be specific – have been recognised and are well discussed. The contributors do acknowledge that anticipation is studied within many other disciplines (including anthropology, biology, ethnography, history, and cognitive and social sciences). They even go so far as “noting that much of our understanding of anticipation remains cursory and fragmentary”. Surely it would be better to incorporate the “state of the art” from these other disciplines into foresight work and accept that the current frontier is a long way from the end of the journey. Foresight is a practical activity that has to be applied in situations of incomplete knowledge.

The approach which uses imagination to generate novel futures faces a similar problem.

Suppose we take the example (this author’s example) of searching for a vaccine for covid-19 at the outset of the pandemic. Given that some people could clear the virus without treatment, and some exhibited no symptoms at all, it was likely that a vaccine could be found. But what would turn out to work could not be established in advance. Therefore, a massive amount of different research was undertaken worldwide. Any procedures that would typically happen sequentially were run in parallel, and everything was sped up as much as possible. At the time of writing, this has led to the “emergence” of at least six vaccines of varying efficacy. But no-one could have predicted that at the outset. This hasn’t come about because of foresight but because of a common-sense approach recognising the urgency of the situation following – arguably – earlier failures of foresight.

It’s as if the authors thought that no-one had ever used their imagination before. Miller extols “the power of FL [Futures Literacy] to overcome poverty of the imagination,” as if it was the only way. If the problem is that serious, it is undoubtedly better addressed by improvements in education systems as a whole.

However, it is clear that some of the reasoning behind this takes into account less developed countries and traditional societies that feature in the case studies. One “Futures Literacy Laboratory” run for the Organisation de la Francophonie (OIF), used the topic “Africa Horizon 2035” – a particularly relevant issue because most of the programmes of the OIF’s four-year plan focussed on Africa. Astonishingly, before the workshop, 30% of the participants indicated that information about the future would be unlikely to help address the challenges of our time, and 29% denied that it would even assist with the invention of new possibilities. At the end, the majority of the participants acknowledged that the exercise had helped them rethink how they approached the future and given them a new strategic tool that they could develop and employ.

Reviewing what had happened at another “All Africa Futures Forum” themed “Transforming Africa’s Futures” attended by professionals from a wide range of organisations including ministries, Karuri-Sebina and Miller wrote:

“In theory and practice, the African narrative is being transformed from a conventional story of growth through industrialisation and catch-up to a story of local economic and cultural empowerment.”

While all this is to the good, these isolated exercises need to be part of a much bigger developmental and educational effort at the national level presided over by well-informed leaders and politicians.

Stuart Candy, another contributor, writes in a later chapter:

“It has been observed that humans’ native, everyday foresight capacity serves as the basis, duly ramified and amplified, for the professional and pedagogical activity of futurists. The development of a social capacity for foresight is perhaps the ultimate promise of a futures practice that does not hoard or guard its insights and tools as the preserve of a class of experts …”

This perhaps gets to the heart of the matter in a way Mr Candy didn’t intend. To the present writer the problem is not futurists hoarding their tools and insights but despite their best efforts, too few people wanting to share in their riches.

This applies particularly to people at senior government level who should be most interested in addressing the future. Of course, there needs to be an informed general public as well. Still, I suggest that what the ordinary man in the street wants is to see with his “native everyday foresight capacity” and that the government is competent in its forward thinking and its ability to look ahead.

Be that as it may, one consequential activity was the UNESCO Futures Literacy Summit 2020 which was held virtually.The “virtual” aspect meant that a much greater number could participate than would normally have been the case with a “face-to-face” conference. Some 8,000 people attended more than 225 events, 40 plenary videos and 97 content-rich on-line booths made possible by a major effort from the global futures community. The organisers claimed that it was “the biggest gathering of people thinking about the future in the history of future studies”.

For anyone concerned about the development of futures and futures literacy, this was a  visible stepping-stone in the right direction.

Written by Tony Diggle, SAMI Associate.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more www.samiconsulting.co.uk.

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