Surprises, discontinuities and contradictions increasingly define our time. In futures studies, this phenomenon is known as postnormal times, which has become very tangible for us all, for instance with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We face enormous social changes, but our thinking and actions have not been able to respond to these challenges.
It is understandable that as societies and individuals we are stuck in old ways of thinking and looking at the future. It is not all that easy to imagine futures that would be inspiring or different from what we have been used to. It is easy for the debate on the future to remain disconnected from everyday life and delinked from decision-making. But if we want an inspiring, ecologically sustainable and equitable future, we need not only new ways of doing things but also new ways of thinking about the future.
Foresight is about looking at societal change and imagining alternative futures. Especially in the past, foresight has been seen as a tool for preparing and planning. We can no longer get by with mere action plans, efficiency optimisation or efforts to ‘get back to normal’. The postnormal era also requires a renewal of foresight. We can start to reform anticipation by increasing the debate from at least three starting points:
- We need debate on the harmful scenarios and assumptions we currently hold about the future and how to identify and challenge them.
- We need more discussion on how to make current changes and tensions between them easier to internalise and thus link them with decisions and actions.
- We need to expand power over the future and ways of increasing pluralism in foresight.
The futures triangle helps to identify reform needs
The ‘futures triangle’ by Sohail Inayatullah is one way of outlining key needs for reform. It sees the potential future as being influenced by three things: the weight of the past, the push of the present and the pull of the future.
The weight of the past refers to all the commitments, path dependencies, obstacles to change and patterns of thinking that limit what is possible. The push of the present includes the changes happening currently. The pull of the future refers to the dreams, hopes, plans and inspiring visions of the future that we aim to achieve. The postnormal period forces us to approach these three things in a new way. Below, we explore them in more detail through questions and answers.
Weight of the past: How to identify and challenge old images of futures?
It is no coincidence that we are in the current situation. The present is a result of past choices, and they also impact what is possible in the future. We cannot think about futures with a clean slate; we need to be aware of path dependencies and take current challenges seriously. The problem is that we are not ready for what has already happened. We want to stick with the old and close our eyes to the change that has already taken place.
In addition to identifying changes that have already taken place, it is important to recognise the assumptions about the future that no longer take us forward. We have become addicted to the status quo, to the way things are today even though we have become acutely aware that this is not in our or the planet’s best interests. This is reflected in our attitudes, mindsets and actions toward climate change and biodiversity loss. We cling to old images of the future, which may have been useful in the past, but are now downright harmful. We must challenge these assumptions and images of the future.
Challenging them can bring to mind opposing them. But that is not what it is about, it is about broadening our thinking and taking more points of view into account. Challenging existing assumptions and visions of the future does of course involve taking a critical view of them, but it can also open up new aspects. Challenging does not therefore mean rejecting everything that exists, but creating space for rethinking. Nor is it about denying facts. The climate crisis or the pandemic will not go away, no matter how much we challenge them. Challenging is actually about taking facts seriously.
Push of the present: How do we internalise current changes and connect them to decisions and actions?
Challenging helps to break free from learned patterns of thinking that are no longer useful for building a fair, sustainable and inspiring future. This also enables us to look at current changes from a fresh perspective. Foresight often focuses solely on the push of the present in the form of trends and current developments. However, they are easily viewed in a narrow and disconnected way. There is a wealth of knowledge about them, but less internalised understanding of their significance or potential impact.
In postnormal times, the emphasis is on understanding the whole picture of change and focusing on tensions between trajectories, rather than on individual trends. What things will change, what are the contradictions involved, and what are the different opinions about the desirability of change? What does change look like in different areas and from different people’s perspectives? What do changes and the tensions between them actually mean for people’s daily lives?
If reflections on the future remain only at a general level, they are difficult to internalise. Nonetheless, it is precisely the internalisation of change and sensitivity to the feelings and ideas it evokes that is important in post-normal times, where it is necessary to act in the face of all uncertainty. The future cannot be described with certainty, which is why it can easily remain detached and distant from everyday decisions and choices. However, one can try to experience different possible futures in order to be able to act more wisely in the present. Experiencing and internalising futures are key to a richer debate on what we actually want to see happen in the future.
Pull of the future: How to expand power over the future?
As said, in postnormal times, it is important to identify and challenge old future scenarios and internalise the changes of the present. These create a basis for imagining and discussing different futures. Social envisioning is plagued by a lack of imagination, and the accumulation of crises further narrows perspectives and future prospects. We need new, inspiring and innovative methods for creating future scenarios that take the challenges of the present seriously.
At the same time, we need a critical examination of power over the future, meaning who gets to define the visions of the future, who they show, what interests they represent and what kind of action they direct us to take. We can approach power over the future from a variety of perspectives. The most obvious and accessible way is to look at future scenarios or statements: what exactly is being said about the future? Statements about the future also allow us to get to the level of the parties and processes involved: who is behind the statements, what processes have led to them, and what structures exist for discussing the future in general? Underlying all this is the question of people’s opportunities and conditions for participating in the debate on the future, which is influenced not only by the individual’s knowledge of the future, but also by general attitudes and patterns of thinking about the future.
At present, power over the future is concentrated among a fairly small number of people. How can it be expanded? In postnormal times, contradictions and conflicts are more pronounced, making it even more important to be able to create a shared and pluralistic debate on desirable futures. This is also a prerequisite for strengthening liberal democracy, participation and empowerment, but also for preventing polarisation. We must challenge the conquest of futures by one-sided views and at the same time consider how we can build better futures for more people together.