Toward Real Human Futures and Foresight

At the time of this writing, Russia has just invaded Ukraine, protesters have just left a 3-week occupation of the Canadian capital, and we’re leaving the most devastating wave of COVID. Foresight and futures work was unhelpful in all cases and that says a lot about the field and the humans using it.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought with it sadly predictable commentary about the signs that Vladimir Putin gave for more than 15 years about his intention and how they were ignored. Just a listen of The Globalist points this out. This sad outcome follows the ‘surprise’ three-week occupation of downtown Ottawa by right-wing political actors (a few of whom had legitimate grievances even if poorly articulated). Ahead of that, the world’s economies and social worlds opened up from the recent pandemic only to be largely paused in December by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Each of these showcases real failures of foresight. In each case we didn’t see — or at least appreciate — what was coming to its fullest extent. Human behaviour — which drove all of these — wasn’t fitting the models. Was this for lack of data? No. I argue it was largely a lack of human design considerations.

Psychology and Humans’ Futures

Good futures and foresight work is not about predicting the future, but anticipating what might happen and under what circumstances. That doesn’t mean that many futurists don’t cross this line. Just witness the litany of reports on the Future of Work that emerged since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with many of them already feeling stale with more coming out every week.

What seems to be missing from so many of these reports is an understanding or full appreciation of human psychology. People make decisions for rational, social and emotional reasons. As we’ve seen with so many things from the Ottawa occupation to attitudes about the COVID-19 vaccines to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol is the role of misinformation and outright fantastical ideas that go far beyond misinforming people. These aren’t stories of right and wrong, stupid and smart; they are about how people are behaving, thinking, sharing, and observing in 2022.

These are about affinity, identity, and ideas about how things could be, not how things are. What Vladimir Putin is doing is capitalizing on all of these through his vehicles of propaganda and his control of the military. This is serving as part of his outlandish pretext for an invasion of a neighbouring sovereign state. Putin, in many ways, has a good read on human psychology — at least for some of his supporters.

Many predictions – even up to the last few days — suggested that Putin would be unlikely to attack the entire country of Ukraine. It was suggested the costs would be too high for him to do that. Those predictions were wrong.

The same thinking goes with Putin’s threats to reclaim the areas once held by the USSR. He wouldn’t do that, would he?

I’m not sure what he’ll do, but I do know that the political calculus and possible futures must contain some bleak scenarios to reflect a very real possibility. Some men, hard as it may be to accept, just want to watch the world burn.

Futures Thinking For Humans

I’ve written before that we would be better served by designing for humans than designing for ideas, institutions, and imagination. This isn’t human-centred design, but design for how people think, act, gather, and identify themselves. Designing for humans considers things like how we affiliate and who we see ourselves as. Some Russians — even those too young to remember the former Soviet Union — long for a day when they were a superpower. Designing for the future means also designing with the past in mind.

It was understanding the past that could have told us more about how we might deceive ourselves into believing that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was done when it wasn’t. With each successive waves of COVID infections and variants governments around the world, businesses, and individuals failed to appreciate what might happen because too much of our futures thinking was focused on the end or a return to normal, rather than the next.

We are opening up again (at the time of this writing) and we’ll see where we go. It might be better. It might not. But it will most certainly involve people making decisions that are optimistic, lacking in appreciation of the complex, forgetful of recent history, and biased toward action over caution. These actions will be guided by futures thinking that tells them what to expect. Why? Because there will be humans involved.

Some of those humans want to work together and design for something remarkable, better, and more humane. Some don’t. And some — hopefully few — are comfortable to see the world burn. Our futures thinking must consider all of them because those scenarios represent all of us.

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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