Estimated reading time 11 min

How to apply narrative foresight to future economies?

Different stories and beliefs influence what we think about the future and what we consider possible. This is particularly true for todays’ economic discourse where many assumptions of the economy are taken for granted.


Eeva Hellström

Senior Lead, Tomorrow’s economy


This article shares Sitra’s experience on how to use narrative foresight to depict today’s economy from a future standpoint. It all starts from asking what if alternative stories were told.

In typical reports addressing trends affecting the economy, the focus is placed on changes in the functioning and structures of the economy. Changes in narrative are not typically recognized as trends. This results in aspects that are crucial for future to be overlooked.

Nevertheless, new narrative interpretations of the economy emerge. In recent years, there has been a growing chorus in economic discourse challenging established truths and envisioning a new, fair, and sustainable economy.

It is time to ask who has power over tomorrow’s economy. What kinds of futures are being talked about? Who talks about futures? Whose futures? Whose voices are heard? Whose voices are absent in the future?

Narrative foresight takes place in a critical foresight frame

Different approaches to foresight can be classified according to the level of perceived unpredictability and the level of pursued change. As the world becomes more complex, uncertain and volatile, foresight based on prediction and subsequent planning have relevance in increasingly limited societal settings, also in the economy. Even scenario-building and building road maps to desired futures have increasing limitations.

When focus is on open-ended systems and the level of perceived unpredictability increases, there is growing need to question dominant narratives, some of which may be built on historical trends that are no longer relevant.

Narrative foresight is conducted in a critical foresight frame where existing assumptions and interpretive frames regarding the future are questioned, and bold, novel, and alternative paths for the future are generated.

It focuses on the stories that individuals, organizations, states and civilizations tell themselves about the future. Narrative foresight does not question what’s next. Instead, it explores the worldviews and myths that underlie possible, probable and preferred futures.


How did we apply the CLA tool to create new narratives?

In autumn 2023, the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra convened 27 experts from the business world, public authorities, sciences, and NGOs through an open call to collaborate and envision potential futures for the economy.

The goal was to shake up the prevailing narrative of the economy by identifying underlying assumptions and creating alternatives for the future.

The group worked together for six days, utilizing Critical Layered Analysis (CLA) as the primary method for identifying existing narratives and questioning them.

In the CLA analysis, we first examined the litanies and assumptions of the future that are commonly heard in everyday coffee table discussions and seen in morning newspaper headlines. Then we selected the litanies to be examined further.

Following this, we identified the systemic background factors underpinning each litany. Subsequently, we explored the ideals and worldviews that have shaped the creation of the prevailing structures of the system.

We drew inspiration from artistic methods to identify a metaphor that would describe the current narrative, and made a “metaphorical turn” by exploring alternative metaphors upon which a desired future could be built.

We then took the same steps again, but from bottom to top. Based on the new, alternative metaphor, we pondered what kind of worldview would reflect the new metaphor. Then, we envisioned societal systems that could be established based on this worldview.

Finally, we imagined what could then be read as headlines in future newspapers.

Read more about the Causal layered analysis (CLA) tool

Five narratives from the future

What did our process produce? Rather than a heavy report, we chose to present the results in the form of stories.

The process yielded five stories, each looking at the economy from different perspectives (economic, environmental, social, political, and technological).

In each narrative, readers are prompted to envision themselves in the future while reflecting back on the present. The format of the story was “Once upon a time”. The story ended in “What if” questions intended to open new avenues of thinking. The manner in which these questions are answered is left to the reader’s imagination.

In each narrative, readers are prompted to envision themselves in the future while reflecting back on the present. The format of the story was “Once upon a time”. The story ended in “What if” questions intended to open new avenues of thinking. The manner in which these questions are answered is left to the reader’s imagination.

1. Once upon a time there was a speed-blind economy

Does continual economic growth guarantee well-being and facilitate a transition to sustainability?

The story starts by examining the current moment through the lens of the future. In short, the story reads:

Societies worldwide had long competed with each other in the pursuit of productivity and economic growth, often attempting to address environmental challenges through the ideal of green growth. However, the benefits of economic growth frequently failed to offset the adverse impacts of relentless consumption and production. This prompted reflection on what our economy would look like if growth were measured more by its quality than its sheer quantity.

Ultimately, a shift began to take shape as people began to question:

  • What if we assessed the economy’s performance not solely based on its size and growth, but rather on its ability to generate equitable and sustainable well-being?
  • What if we acknowledged debts in ecological and social capital as earnestly as we do debts in financial capital?
  • What if nations recognized that sufficiency, rather than abundance, is enough?

2. Once upon a time there was wealth that trickled down

Is increased wealth necessary to alleviate inequality?

Again, the story commences by reflecting on the present day from a future perspective:
Historically, economic growth had been credited with lifting millions of individuals out of poverty. While wealth generation concentrated to the richest, the so called “trickle-down effect” enabled some benefits to reach the impoverished as well. This reduced absolute poverty but failed to address inequality. Over time, people begun to question whether growing the economic pie and redistributing its benefits is a sufficient way to tackle inequality. What constitutes wealth in the first place, and how could it be distributed more equitably?

Eventually, shifts began to occur as individuals began to query:

  • What if we refrained from applauding the pursuit of excessive wealth by individuals and instead viewed it as selfishness?
  • What if we acknowledged our own role in the neocolonialism associated with the green transition?
  • What if the economic system underwent reform to ensure that its structures and mechanisms fostered a more equitable distribution of wealth?

3. Once upon a time there was a sense of superiority over the environment

As a people closely connected to nature, are we (Finns) progressive in the way we utilize our natural resources?

Once more, let us step into the future and gaze back upon the present day: Finland, renowned for its abundant forests and countless lakes, long relied on the utilization of natural resources for its economic prosperity. Because natural resources were used for the greater good, and because the Finns have a unique relationship with nature, there was an illusion that the use of natural resources was automatically sustainable. Gradually, however, people begun to realise that more humility is needed in how sustainably the nations natural resources are utilized.

Changes began to emerge as individuals pondered:

  • What if we reintroduced the frugality ingrained in Finnish history and managed our natural resources accordingly?
  • What if we considered the ecological footprint we leave in other countries as well?
  • What if the way we use our natural resources was based on collaboration with nature rather than exploitation or manipulation?

4. Once upon a time there was economic supremacy

Can the sustainability transformation succeed within the current power structures of the economy?

Once more, the story commences by envisioning the present from a perspective of the future: Previously, the idea of a sustainability transition gained widespread support, despite being perceived as costly and challenging to implement. Nonetheless, advocates of new economic models found themselves entangled in the web of centralized power that upheld traditional thinking and structures. This called for a new paradigm of power distribution and economic democracy, which prioritized collaboration and equitable sharing over centralized authority.

Gradually, changes began to unfold as individuals began to pose the following questions:

  • What if economic seminars facilitated the engagement of diverse voices, rather relying solely on the insights of economists?
  • What if economic decision-making was guided by citizens’ councils that are supported by scientific expertise?
  • What if companies organized employee representation in new ways to empower the workforce in economic decision-making?

5. Once upon a time there was unlimited faith in technology

Can technological advancements that serve the economy truly safeguard our future?

Once more, the narrative sets off by envisioning the present through a futuristic lens: There was a time when people believed that technological innovations and advancements, bolstering the economy, would ensure a good future for the humankind, as had been the case before. Digitalization was seen as facilitating immaterial economic growth. However, the impacts of technology on both nature and individuals were narrowly perceived. Change only gained momentum when perspectives broadened, and people began to ponder: How might technology be leveraged to foster equitable and sustainable well-being?

Gradually, changes began to take shape as individuals posed the following questions:

  • What if we could see the values underpinning the creation of new technologies and make their impacts visible throughout their life-span?
  • What if we recognized that digital solutions are not immaterial, but demand also energy and minerals?
  • What if we refrained from generating artificial needs when pursuing growth and competitiveness?

Relevance for today’s decision-making

Stories such as these are not right or wrong, they are just stories. And that’s fine. The main point in narrative foresight is not to tell what the future holds. The real clue in narrative foresight is to contemplate the future beyond perceivable trends and signals that are so often interpreted through the lenses of dominant world views and narratives.

The five narratives may at first sight seem improbable or unrealistic especially to those advising politicians working under economic policy pressures originating from the so called “real economy”.

You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.

Albert Einstein

It is often claimed that we are in the middle of many global crisis that need urgent attention and solutions, and we do not have time for this type of deep dives into “soft” things like narratives. But the urgency of many global problems is just the reason why it is important to also contemplate the narratives that we have of the future.

Our culture has a fixation on solutions and definitive answers. We tend to avoid dwelling on questions, preferring instead to focus on finding immediate solutions. Yet, questions, rather than answers, serve as the pathway to the collective wisdom that we need for navigating the future.

Without contemplation of the deeper narratives and worldviews that are reflected in dominant economic thinking, we may be addressing problems effectively, but they may not be the right problems to be addressed.

How to shift narratives

There is a true need for narrative change in how we perceive the economy and its future– whether it be the type of change illustrated in these stories, or some other kind of change.

A shift in the prevailing narrative is no easy to accomplish. However, it is possible.

Once the narratives were finalized, the workshop participants listened to various experts on narrative change and devised their own checklist to aid in shifting narratives.

Here are some recommendations:

  1. Identify prevailing narratives and understand the speaker’s perspective. Make underlying narratives apparent by using tools like Critical Layered Analysis (CLA).
  2. Mobilize networks of innovative thinking, foster collaboration, and utilize training and teamwork methods. Collaborating with like-minded individuals fosters impactful narratives, facilitates dissemination of joint messages, and offers support in challenging circumstances.
  3. Craft messages strategically and compellingly. Utilize influencers and launch campaigns to maximize impact.
  4. Be critical of your own narratives. Recognize that turning ideas into stories presents both opportunities and risks. Consider the audience’s skepticism towards narratives and guard against manipulation.
  5. Drive the conversation forward boldly yet patiently. Narrative shifts occur gradually. Occasionally, it’s beneficial to pause, allowing time for reflection and in-depth discussion.

What's this about?