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Insights and Reflections

Unveiling Lessons from Covid-19 in the Futures and Foresight Field

31 May 2023

The Covid-19 crisis has provided valuable insights, among which the notable growth of futures and foresight studies stand out. Despite its existence for several decades, this research activity and practice have experienced a significant surge in interest. Emerging from social movements, on one hand, and the military-industrial complex, on the other, following World War II, the futures and foresight field is a multidisciplinary field, encompassing a combination of both academic and practice-based approaches to comprehend forces shaping the future.

The term "forces” is intentionally used in plural form, as is “futures,” which connotates references to both alternative futures and futures studies. As Jim Dator’s first Law of the Future articulates: “the future” cannot be predicted because “the future” does not exist (Dator et al. 2015, 134). Given the notion that there are a multitude of potential futures that exist at any given moment, contingent upon the context, the field of futures and foresight research and practice ultimately aims to facilitate informed decision-making for people, communities, organizations, and governments in the here and now. Thus, futures and foresight are as relevant to the current time and place as they are to future scenarios.

While much, if not most, of futures and foresight centers focus on change, particularly examining potential shifts and transformations, it is equally important to acknowledge both continuity (representing enduring forces and elements worth preserving) and novelty (referring to unprecedented events and phenomena). Moreover, it is crucial to examine these forces not in isolation but to explore points of intersection, overlap, and resonance. By considering the interplay between these aspects, a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics shaping the future can be attained.

Covid-19 has imparted numerous lessons, but none were as important as the idea that we cannot let our assumptions about what is plausible or even possible shape our thinking about the future. As Dator’s 2nd Law of the Future states: any useful idea about the future should, at first, appear ridiculous (Dator et al. 2015, 134).

Emerging Trends in Futures and Foresight

Over the past few decades, strategic foresight has become a popular term for the practice of futures and foresight within an organizational context. From Fortune 500 companies to government institutions, strategic foresight is exactly what its name suggests: futures and foresight aimed at enhancing and strengthening strategy as well as policy and planning processes, including implementation and evaluation.

In the realm of strategic foresight, the predominant focus lies on expert insights driven by hard data with outcomes that center on organizational change and/or innovation. In short, strategic foresight is focused on the “actual” future from both inward and outward perspectives. Conversely, transformative foresight explores our personal understanding and perspective of the future and places emphasis on our individual agency, contemplating what one can and might do to shape the future. As Sohail Inayatullah explains: Transformative foresight asks us to be aware of the selves that are implicated in the process of doing futures. It is not that we are using the future, but the future is using us. Once we are aware of how certain discourses create selves—structures that contour agency—we paradoxically have more freedom (Inayatullah and Sweeney 2020, 5). This freedom is not about politics or what we can and cannot do, but rather is all about how we understand the limits of our perception and what conditions how we think and feel about the future.

The focus on personal agency within transformative foresight is deeply intertwined with the power and influence of “images of the future,” which is concept first developed by Fred Polak. His book, The Image of the Future, remains essential reading, particularly the abridged edition translated and edited by the luminary futurist, Elise Boulding.

Images of the future manifest in diverse formats, ranging from official government plans and projections to science fiction films, and have long been a central focus within the academic domain of futures and foresight studies.

In recent years, there has been a notable shift to understand how the public and citizens perceive and navigate the future. The growth of participatory futures signals an awareness and understanding that models of engagement beyond the traditional “workshops” and encompassing online, as well as hybrid, approaches that can foster new ways to drive engagement on the critical issues shaping today and tomorrow’s world. As a 2019 NESTA-commissioned report observes: A growing movement of artists and designers are creating new immersive experiences of the future in today’s physical world. At the same time, digital technologies are expanding the reach of futures exercises – enabling more, diverse citizens to play, create and participate virtually in future worlds, as well as generating ideas and sharing information about the future (Ramos et al. 2019, 16).

What’s happening this year in the futures and foresight field?

The second half of 2023 is filled with landmark events where futurists from around the world will gather and connect with one another. Below are just a few of the prominent upcoming gatherings in the futures and foresight field.

The Asia Pacific Futures Network Conference is back for its ninth year with a two-day conference planned for September 2023 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. APFN9 will focus on the theme of: Futures of Civilisations: Wellbeing, Sustainability, and Emerging Futures. This gathering features practitioners, academics, and organizational professionals from not only the Asia-Pacific region but also around the world.

Thematic areas for the conference are:

  • Education, Research, and Innovation for the Futures
  • Civilisations, Technologies, and the Future of Societies
  • Co-creation of Peaceful, Wellbeing, and Inclusive Societies
  • Primordial and Artificial Intelligence

The World Futures Studies Federation will host its World Conference in Paris, France in October 2023. This two-day event will also serve as the 50th Anniversary Celebration for the organization, which is one of the world’s oldest professional organizations for futures and foresight.

Thematic areas for the conference are:

  • The futures of futures studies – pushing the boundaries of futures thinking
  • The futures of humanity – exploring the liminal spaces between sustainability, equity and planetary justice
  • The futures of becoming(s) - exploring the liminal spaces between consciousness and spirituality
  • The futures of agency – exploring the liminal spaces between action and responsibility

The Dubai Future Foundation will host the second Dubai Future Forum in late November 2023. As one of, if not, the largest gathering of futurists in the world, this event will be held at the Museum of the Future in Dubai, which showcases a range of experiential exhibits and artifacts that bring the future to life. More information on the event is forthcoming, and the Dubai Future Foundation is working to develop the event with partners, such as the Association of Professional Futurists, the Millennium Project, and the World Futures Studies Federation.