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The Future of Futures Work?

While this title is ridiculous, the practice of futures work is not and is more important than ever to support the kind of innovation we need for the planet. Unfortunately, too many futurists seem to be content to make broad proclamations instead of demonstrating their value.

Anytime you see a title that says “The Future of…” – turn the page, swipe right, or walk away.

Many consultants make a living making proclamations of what the future will hold. They presumably have done the background research and from this can divine a vision for the future that we should pay attention to.

How often have you read a leading futurists’ work and come back to it later? It’s interesting to see how many futurists make bold predictions, create elaborate designs, and speak about what is coming with little regard for what the implications are.

Every time I see a “The Future of…” post I wince.

Why should we care about this?

Ethical Futures

Futures work is a part of a field of design that considers what might be by looking at what was and is. Good futures work recognizes that the future is always in motion. What connects futures to design is the recognition that we can shape our future. That’s why we use the term futures with an ‘s’, not as something singular. Some of our designs are poorly thought out and many are incomplete, but they are designs.

But using future without an ‘s’ suggests we know what this future will be. Or, it suggests we can produce this design of the future with confidence. Thus, we see well-intentioned futurists and systemic designers hosting events like “The Future of (topic)” with the idea that we will create the future by some co-design process.

It’s a nice idea and certainly something worthy of some effort, but it’s still very arrogant to think we can create the future. As we have seen in 2021 there are many things that are either beyond our proximal control (e.g. wildfires, floods, drought, heat) or are part of collective actions (e.g., Capitol riots). Our collective actions are far more emergent. We would not have predicted things like the Black Lives Matters movement, the fusion of anti-lockdown/mask/vaccination protests, or the nightly music and pot-banging support gestures for front-line workers at the start of the pandemic (and beyond). (Nevermind, not seeing the COVID-19 pandemic transpiring as it did)

Ethical futures work is humble. It is about knowing we have a stake and say in our future, but that isn’t exclusively up to us.

I’d argue that it’s unethical to claim otherwise. False hope can come back to bite us.

Where’s My Flying Car?

Every New Years Eve I exchange text messages with my friend in Australia asking him if there’s flying cars or jetpacks in his world? It’s a running joke that we have and began 20 years ago when he was living three hours behind me and did the same thing. While the idea of flying cars gets held up as the cartoonish stereotype of futures work — we still do this with other things. We simply replace flying cars with remote work or the end of [X] or the death of [X]. Rarely does this come to pass or rather come to pass in the manner and timeline that is predicted.

More recently, companies like Meta and Mark Zuckerberg point to how the future is a metaverse. Many futurists bank on this.

Yet, it’s those with power who often want these futures and push visions of them into our consciousness.

Ask yourself: Who is looking to bring a particular future into being? What are the motivations behind this? Why this future and not another?

Responsible, ethical, and professional futures work looks to develop many different visions of what’s to come. It’s why responsible professional futurists use terms like possible futures or speculative futures when appropriate. Some, like those at Google, are inclined to create pre-emptive designs, which is what we can do when we have a lot of power over the market we are in.

Our modern age is seeing exponential, transformational changes at speeds never before seen. The reason is both technological (we can share things globally, at scales previously impossible, with little energy or time, immediately) and physical (climate change). It is an age of amplification.

Futures work can be a guide to help us take stock of what’s happening and where we might go when so much is a blur. That’s an important role. Great futures can help organize research in a manner to guide our design and focus our intentions. Our planet needs us to do this well. Futures can help with that so long as we don’t settle on one.

Photo by drmakete lab on Unsplash

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