The most important competence of the future may turn out to be the conscious and efficient shaping of the future. If we do not want to wake up in a world in which we feel alien, which we do not want, do not accept, and do not understand, it is worth learning methods of systematic and interdisciplinary creation, analysis, and interpretation of possible future scenarios. And reclaim the future: for ourselves and for our organizations.
Uncertainty as opportunity
Reality seems radically uncertain, chaotic, unpredictable and complex. This situation takes away our sense of control and agency. Since it is not only difficult to discern, but also the ocean of possibilities is filled with black swans, it is easy to retreat into a passive, uninvolved position, only to bounce back from events that we feel we have no control over. Reflecting on the future will not immediately change the world or stop all negative processes. It can, however, allow us to tame uncertainty, reveal the potentiality and opportunity in it, and at the same time take away its terror. Readiness for multiple alternative futures is an important aspect of taming uncertainty.
Exploring and discovering possible future scenarios equips us with a powerful tool to reduce our anxiety about what is to come. This fear often weakens us and, as a result, blocks our actions, takes away our clarity of vision, and paralyzes our decision-making processes. It is not completely unfounded and groundless. We live in a world of various disasters and crises that overlap and interrelate with one another. From climate catastrophes to financial crises to pandemics, we are faced with a situation in which a state of emergency has become the norm. Moreover, as Marina Garces points out, crises are deliberately not resolved. Their persistence allows for the unlimited use of exceptional measures. This situation makes us feel that the horizon of possibilities is closed, that our movement and room for maneuver are limited. The future is closing in on us. However, conscious reflection on the future allows us to expand the area of freedom in the present; it allows us to look critically at the present day, from an oblique angle, to discover that the current state of affairs is not necessary and natural, that it can change. And we can inspire and support that change.
Vision and dreams
From the “no future” slogan, to the thesis of the supposed end of history, to the TINA (there is no alternative) ideology, to the various forms of authoritarianism spreading across every continent, there has been a deepening sense among communities and organizations around the world that their influence on the shape of the world has been taken away from them. Instead of dreams and visions, we began to limit ourselves to hope. It’s hard to say what dreams are today, write Anthony Dunne and Fiona Ruby in their book Speculative Everything,
they seem to have been relegated to hope – hope that we won’t allow ourselves to become extinct, hope that we can feed the hungry, hope that there will be room for all of us on this tiny planet. There is no vision anymore. We don’t know how to fix this planet and ensure our survival. All we have is hope.
Part of this competence of the future will be to reclaim dreams and visions so that we are not reliant only on survival and simple hopes.
A future desired and negotiated
Reality imposes limits on our imagination. Designing the future also serves to transcend these limitations and expand the field of imagination (as another important competence of the future). This does not happen individually, however, but triggers a collective action to define and negotiate what kind of future we want as a collective and what kind of future we do not want. This collective and democratic nature of working with the future allows us to engage communities, employees and organizational members in a conversation about the consequences of innovations, decisions or policies. This conversation allows for a focus on the realm of values, but also brings individuals together around specific visions of the future. Their engagement and activism are critical to the success of achieving a particular vision. It is worth remembering that this will not happen in a consensual idyll, but in the reality of clashing interests and power games. It is worth learning how to imagine alternatives and how to implement them successfully under such conditions as well.
Storytelling and prototyping
Designing the future is also about creating stories about the future. Future scenarios are not dry, technocratic sketches of future events rendered with cold precision. On the contrary, they are full of sensual detail, rich, dense descriptions of future situations. They allow us to immerse ourselves in hypothetical realities, to feel them, their tensions, states, to experience them with all our senses. This is also the purpose of creating prototypes: objects, services, relations, products, situations transferred from the future into the present and implemented there. Thanks to them we can experience the concreteness of the future, its materiality, and ultimately understand more fully the effects of its specific variant.
Understanding and deep innovation vs. prediction
Understanding the distant consequences of trends such as autonomous vehicles (AVs), artificial intelligence (AI), decentralized finance (DeFi), mirrorworld, digital ecology, climate change, and biodiversity loss will prove crucial not only for the industries involved, but also for the shape of the world we will come to inhabit. Reality is a web of intertwined phenomena and processes: social, technological, economic, ecological and political. Designing the future requires holistic and interdisciplinary thinking, seeing organizations and the world as systems, noticing connections between seemingly distant phenomena, the ability to travel between scales, and seeing the impacts and consequences of today’s choices not only in the short term, which organizations often assume, but also in a five-, ten-, or twenty-year perspective.
Meanwhile, our future is increasingly being determined by predictive algorithms that attempt to identify future trends and events based on past patterns. However, as Vladan Joler and Matteo Pasquinelli show in a diagram on bias and discriminatory nature of artificial intelligence – nooscope.ai – the future produced by artificial intelligence is based only on noticing correlations between past events, not on discovering the future and recognizing novelty. Prediction will also fail to explain the cause-and-effect relationships in the world and will not allow for a deeper understanding of it. Artificial intelligence reproduces the past world, the world of the statistical model, and can neither perceive nor design the new. In such circumstances, reflection on the future reveals its deeply humanistic character, allows for a truly creative and understanding relationship with reality, allows us to go beyond the automatism of prediction into the realm of human needs, desires, dreams and values.
Seemingly innovative technologies may turn out to be surprisingly conservative. They can perpetuate old divisions, limitations, inequalities, taxonomies, stereotypes, superstitions, or prejudices. The dictatorship of the past is often realized in a seemingly modern form, aesthetic, and setting. This is why it is so important that creative work with the future leads to deep innovations that systemically approach change rather than simulate it.
Future-based organizational cultures
An organizational culture in which the future is an important matter of reflection and design is based on the repeated attempt to answer the question “what if?” – what if decentralized finance leads to the disintegration of nation states, what if artificial intelligence installed in drones makes attack decisions on its own based on metadata, what if, as a result of a pandemic crisis, the state introduces new regulations in my industry… Such questions can be multiplied endlessly. The more provocative, the closer to the topic that is relevant and close to your industry, the better.
What can a proactive and conscious shaping of the future bring to your organization?
- Dialogue around the future allows you to create and maintain coherence within your organization.
- Challenge commonly held and accepted visions of the future and ask how others might see it differently.
- Make future decisions tangible and material in the present.
- Create a common language about the future: definitions, benchmarks, frameworks. It will help to align priorities and ways of valuing future opportunities and risks.
- Disclosing areas of agreement and disagreement avoids major conflicts and dangerous assumptions about the future.
- Influence and focus: engage communities and stakeholders on important future trends, strategic themes, and opportunities.
- Set a new agenda: put new topics and ideas on the strategic map.
- Anticipate the future: be ready for opportunities previously discovered, analyzed and considered.
- Allows you to push the boundaries of what is perceived as possible in your organization.
- New things – sometimes surprising and radical – prove desirable and achievable.
- Engage your senses, emotions, imagination and empathy in the process of soft foresight.
If you care about building an organizational culture based on conscious and efficient shaping of the future, we invite you to cooperate and get to know how we could help you. We also offer a multi-day workshop on creating your company’s culture based on future literacy.