Mutating the Future: the Anticipatory Experimentation Method

We human beings for most of our history have solved the problems of the present. Problem arises, people respond. See problem, act on problem. But now we find ourselves in a new context, beset by not just the problems of the present but as well of the future. These include automation and robotic’s impact on jobs, climate change, potential pandemics, energy transformations, youth bulges, the list goes on…. That golden or peaceful time, if it ever existed, when we could just pretend that the future would take care of itself is long gone. Today this attitude is tantamount to negligence.

So, today we need to solve the problems of the future — we need anticipatory action. This is new, and we are just beginning to get our heads around what this actually means. The fields of foresight and futures studies would seem a logical place for addressing this. But my own journey in futures studies, in this regard, started with some disappointment. Back in 2000, as a masters student in my early 30s, I noticed a disconnect — that futures studies and futurists were teaming with long-term speculations, forecasts, scenarios and the like. There was a lot of future-philia, but the present seemed to be disowned. Some futurists talked about how the future should be a principal of present action, but there were very few tangible methodologies that truly explicitly connected the future with present day problem solving.

https://jungk-bibliothek.org/future-workshops/

In these early days I was inspired by people like Robert Jungk who developed an early participatory futures workshop for citizen empowerment. I also got inspired by action research in general and began exploring how one might use or comingle an action research approach with a futures studies approach.

Anticipatory Action Learning was a wonderful development in this regard, and its mature expression through the Six Pillars method of Sohail Inayatullah. Fast forward almost 20 years and today there are a variety of ways developed which link foresight and action in powerful ways.

My own modest contribution to this about a decade ago was to develop the Futures Action Model as a nonlinear research and development framework for how global foresight may inform localized action.

Feeling powerful?

When I’m with students, clients or just colleagues and friends, the question consistently arises, how can we have some agency, power, in this context of seemingly overwhelming change? We are beset by what seems like overwhelming complexity, overwhelming speeds of change, and overwhelming scale in the challenges.

A major concern for me has been how we recover a sense of agency and power in order to navigate these challenges we face. A sense of confusion or ambivalence or distraction or apathy or despair that many of us experience with regard to big problems are mind-body phenomena that stop people, stop us, from fully participating in the transformations or transitions our world needs.

If we each knew that we have the power to engender transformations and breakthroughs that our communities and societies need, then we would not hesitate to jump right in and begin doing so. It is this very mind-body phenomena, expressed as a sense of powerlessness, that acts like a suppressant on our capacities to jump into projects for change that indeed can change the world.

Creating social change is a social technology. Humans are unique in our adeptness and attachment to technology. From the most basic tools that we created over millions of years, a rock blade for cutting animal skins, or a basket woven from the long grasses around us that can hold and store food, we excel at technologies for transforming our environment.

Today we have a variety of social technologies developed to engender positive social change, from the many varieties of Action Research to Collective Impact, and many other methodologies, all of these in one way or another addresses questions of our power and capacity to navigate and engender the changes that we want and need to create. But can these empowering social technologies be bent toward addressing anticipated challenges?

Acting out used futures

There is a big problem with action that does not reflect on our assumption about the future. We live in a social context in which we are being told repeatedly to innovate, innovate, innovate, to be social innovators, to be technical innovators, to be anything innovators. I remember at a conference in 2016 at Tamkang University, Taiwan, in a debate with Jim Dator where he stopped the room when he said (paraphrasing) ‘we’ve got too much innovation already — we need less innovation!’. When we got through the initial confusion and shock of the statement, we learned that he meant that all too often our practices of creativity are locked into yesterday’s thinking. We fetishize innovation without considering the underlying patterns of creativity being expressed.

Alvesgaspar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

If we create ideas, designs, enterprises and other innovations from the uncritical or unconscious ‘used future’, as Sohail Inayatullah puts it, we will simply perpetuate and even exacerbate the problems that we are dealing with today. It reminds me of a recent article I read. Engineers had a ‘great idea’ to create little drone bees to replace the ones that are dying off en mass due to colony collapse disorder. Cue forehead slap. It is this instrumental mindset that created the problem in the first place. That nature is replaceable. A lack of fundamental understanding of the complexity of biological systems. An inability to see humans as part of the web of life rather than engineers on it or masters of it. It’s the old story of the lady who swallowed a fly. She swallows a spider to get the fly, she perpetuates a used future, I guess she’ll die! We do actually know why she swallowed the fly, the spider, bird, etc etc… because she never stepped back from action to see the world in its systemic complexity, she just acted out her unexamined assumptions and misguided confidence that the easy and simple way to solve the problem was to do what she had always done — and each time she does this the problem gets worse.

That is why it is so critical to unpack and challenge the used futures and to create alternative futures that expand options, and to create a new vision before even entering into the space of ideating action, be they ‘designs’, ‘models’, whatever. We need qualitatively new responses to the problems of the future. That old expression that one cannot solve today’s problems with yesterday’s thinking applies but needs updating too: ‘We cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with today’s thinking!’ Which does sounds a little absurd, given that all we have is the present, really. But we might say more accurately that we cannot solve tomorrow’s problems until we challenge today’s thinking, our assumptions and images about the future and our vision of our options.

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

Some metaphors and a framework

I’ve been at this for almost two decades. Sometimes I have felt like Captain Ahab chasing the white whale, obsessed with the prize. At other times I have felt like Prometheus, searching for the secret of fire. And at others Don Quixote, chasing windmills. None of these stories ended well!

These myths, however, symbolize some big lessons. First, we learn from Melville, practice non-attachment — or we’ll get sucked into the vortex of our obsession. Secondly, from the Greek myth, that any invention has a cost — something that is hidden or disowned, with unintended consequences. Creativity is a two way street. Thirdly, from Cervantes, we are all limited in our imagination by the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, the used future — our actions are often just expressions of old patterns of thinking from days gone by — but the context has changed. What all of these myths are collectively saying are to take a step back from action itself and reflect upon the nature of being and thinking in the world — if we are to be action oriented — then we must marry agency and action with philosophy and reflection.

And so, two years ago, from the depths of reflection sprang the next iteration in this journey for me. It emerged from owning a new metaphor of the self. This new metaphor had the logic of life, of living systems.

In one manifestation it was the seed from the tree, or inversely the tree that is born from the seed. It is the logic of birth, growth, propagation, and mutation. It showed nature’s way of doing experiments, through variation. And how the future is enfolded into the present as possibility through the logic of the ‘seed form’.

In another manifestation it was a solar system in its infancy, where one small intervention could have profound long term implications. This represented that our work today is on behalf of future generations. And intuitively, from the metaphors came the framework.

AEM / Bridge Method

The method brings together three key dimensions and influences. The first two parts of the Bridge brings in futures studies as a major dimension, especially the work of Sohail Inayatullah with his emphasis on critical, deconstructive and integrative foresight. The keystone of the Bridge brings in my emphasis over many years on ideation of initiatives and enterprises, expressed through the Futures Action Model. And finally the last two steps in the Bridge express action research as a fundamental influence.

Practically the method entails five stages:

  1. Challenging the used future

2. Developing a preferred future and open ended narrative

3. Ideating a number of prototype ideas from the vision or narrative

4. Choosing which prototype ideas to experiment with and running real-world experiments

5. Scaling and investing in the experiments with the best promise

Steps

First, the ‘used future’ must be challenged, as invariably we hold presumptions about the future that are uncritically held or untested. If we act from the used future we perpetuate the problems associated with such perspectives. This follows the age old adage that one cannot add anything to a cup that is already full. We can think of the metaphor of the teacup which is completely full. Nothing can be added to it. It is only when we empty the cup when we can add something new. Likewise we must empty our assumptions to renew our understanding and vision for the future, so as to not be hostage to old patterns of thinking, unconscious assumptions, and so that new ideas can emerge. As well, as we learn about the emerging issues, trends and weak signals that are transforming our social horizons, new and alternative images of the future emerge. This ensures that visions and pathways for the future are informed by an empirical understanding of change, not just unexamined assumptions, and that multiple possible futures inform action.

Secondly, we develop an integrated vision and a transformational futures narrative. Integrated visioning, first developed by Inayatullah, is a way to do visioning with a particular sensitivity to our psychological blind spots. It is often the case that our visions, whether idealistic or pragmatic, disown key aspects of what we need. Integrated visioning is a way to develop visions and pathways that are more holistic and, because they take a fuller account of an organization’s dimensions, are more likely to align across it and therefore succeed. Then we create an open ended narrative, the movement from our past to present to preferred future. This needs to articulate the way in which the world participates in its fulfilment, a call to action for others to work with us to create this future. This open ended narrative addresses the false presumption that an individual or single organisation can create the future on their own, and acknowledges that it is actually an ecosystem of coordinated actors (organisations, communities, networks, etc.) that are able to create the future together.

Thirdly, I use the Futures Action Model to bridge the preferred futures and narrative with ideation. The Futures Action Model (FAM) is a “keystone” method that integrates all phases of the Bridge, by providing a way for problem-oriented thinking to relate with solution-oriented thinking in a futures-oriented way. It relates foresight research and knowledge with identification of pioneer projects and responses from around the world, to the “design ecosystem” (stakeholders critical in the development of the initiative), and finally provides a space for articulating the bare bones DNA of an initiative. FAM can include the use of an interactive role-playing game, an R&D process, and workshopping. The output of FAM are initiative ideas that are deeply grounded across multiple critical spaces: empirical evidence on social change, real world pioneer examples from around the world, and present day stakeholder considerations.

Fourthly, ideas that emerge need to be vetted and selected for experiments. The experiment is that small piece of the preferred future we are bringing into the present. Experiments make sure that as individuals or organizations, we limits the scale and the risk to us, a tolerance zone for experiments that allow them to fail safely. They provide ways of testing the assumptions embedded within them, to make sure learning happens that builds in systemic capacity for renewed experiments.

Finally, experiments can be evaluated to see which ones showed the most promise and are best aligned to enact the vision or pathway. If an experiment holds little promise, it can be discarded. Or it can be adapted if it showed some promise. If it is demonstrated to work it can then be upscaled and invested in, in a way appropriate to the resources and risk tolerance of the organisation. This ensures that experiments can scale for impact when they and the organization driving them are ready. (Many thanks to my colleague Gareth Priday for helping me to see the importance of this last step).

In summary, first we must challenge the used future and deconstruct the unconscious patterns that dictates our awareness and images of the future. Otherwise we act out used futures. This then creates the space for new visions and preferred futures, and the new narratives that express this. And on the back of these new narratives and visions we ideate — we create ideas for change. Let’s have fun and let’s be bold. As we have deconstructed the used futures and created new visions, our ideas for change are bound to be interesting, different, potent. Then, filled as we are with these ideas for change we can choose one or some to bring into the world, through real-world experiments that will drive learning. These experiments will be the appropriate size, they will be safe to fail, they will be the seeds of the new. And finally, based on this learning and the evaluation of these experiments we can adapt, we can discard and we can scale them for impact.

Giving the baby a name

We can call this the Anticipatory Experimentation Method (AEM) or ‘Bridge Method’. It is a method for bringing the preferred future into the present through experiments that can scale for impact. It is a bridge between a preferred future and real-world experiments that bring that future into being. It combines a visioning approach with an ideation method that can bridge future vision with specific and implementable ideas, which culminate in experiments.

The method focuses on bringing a preferred future into the present, by running experiments that have maximum alignment with the enactment of the preferred future. Why do an experiment that is not aligned to our preferred futures? Let’s experiment with that which is going to get us there. Experiments are a vehicle for enacting new futures because they are “small pieces” of the preferred future brought into the present. Experiments are also time and resource savers because, rather than commit a whole organization or community to a new path (which is both risky and potentially costly), experiments are small scale and cost effective ways of testing a new direction. If some experiments show promise they can be scaled and invested in, accelerating organizational momentum toward enacting the vision. If experiments don’t work, the investment was limited and the risk was measured, people can still learn a great deal and nonetheless develop confidence in the experimentation process.

How do we respond, indeed create breakthroughs or transformations within a variety of domains of social life, where change is needed? There are many methods for social change, and as a student, practitioner and teacher of futures studies and foresight I have a deep appreciation for the variety of complex ways our societies change. There is no one size fits all. It is my hope that the Anticipatory Experimentation Method (AEM) or ‘Bridge Method’ adds meaningfully to the capacity for us to respond to our shared and emerging challenges, as anticipatory experimentalists, playfully yet purposefully to be in the service of long-term global foresight and the well-being of future generations and life on earth.

José Ramos is director of the boutique consulting / research / facilitation business Action Foresight.