Over the past few years, the way we work at Andthen has naturally evolved. Recently, much of our work has involved a specific approach to anticipating the future, an approach that others are starting to describe as ‘participatory futures.’
Participatory Futures — an evolving approach
I’m not sure where the term came from, but I first heard it used at a Nesta event a few years ago. At the event, Celia Hannon called out the discipline of futures studies for its elitism. Traditionally anticipating the future has been a privileged activity (Zoë Prosser wrote about this previously in the Andthen Journal) conducted by a group of lone experts behind closed doors. The inherent assumption being that experts are the best people qualified to identify and shape preferred futures for everyone else.
Participatory futures is a different way of anticipating change that involves (large) communities in shaping visions of the futures that they will inhabit. It challenges the power dynamic that is often in futures work by valuing the ‘collective intelligence’ of communities, over that of the ‘ lone expert,’ especially when making decisions about the lives of many.
“Participatory futures refers to a range of approaches for involving citizens in exploring or shaping potential futures. It aims to democratise and encourage long-term thinking, and inform collective actions in the present.”
Participatory futures has been around for a while, although approaches and methods are still evolving and it hasn’t always had that name. For instance:
- In 2007, Jane McGonigal’s World Without Oil game challenged players to tell stories of their future selves in a post-oil world.
- In 2008, the government of Aruba initiated a nation-wide initiative to build a 2025 vision for the island, engaging around 50,000 citizens (half the population), and creating the foundations for a national plan.
- Charrettes, often used in design, architecture or even policy development focus on bringing together people from different disciplines and backgrounds with members of the community, generally to explore design options for the future of a particular area.
Essentially, we see the goal of public and third sector organisations as helping to create better futures for the communities they serve. So within this goal, we see an important role for participatory futures — to help organisations work out what a ‘better future’ for their community actually looks like.
Discovering participatory futures at Andthen
A couple of years ago, we worked on a project called Near Future Teaching with the University of Edinburgh. In this project, we were asked to help them build a vision and strategy for digital education at the university, and to do it in collaboration with staff and students. Through a range of research and engagement methods (you can read about this in detail in our project case study), we did just that — exploring possible futures, identifying a preferable future, and stress testing our vision in a way that was highly collaborative with staff and students.
This was our first large-scale participatory futures project — and with it, we noted that our role had shifted from an expert to a facilitator. Our role had not really been to conduct research about what the future could look like (something we’re quite used to), but instead to empower others to articulate what they want the future to look like.
Since then, we’ve built participatory futures into a good deal of our work — for instance, we used it to help Edinburgh City Council explore new forms of consultation, and we continue to use participatory futures approaches with the University of Edinburgh, mainly helping them shape a new initiative, the Edinburgh Futures Institute with meaningful input from key stakeholders. However, broadly speaking, the way we’ve been delivering participatory futures work has been within our comfort zone — through in-person workshops and other similar formats.
Participatory Futures + Covid-19
As the pandemic hit we quickly worked out we needed to find new ways of doing participatory futures work that moved out of our comfort zone, and beyond the traditional workshop format. Several projects were already underway, in which we needed to quickly adapt our approach to the new constraints of working from home, and (in some cases) working asynchronously. Below, we spotlight three examples of how we’ve approached this work over the past few months, and we draw out a few key learnings.
Building a climate vision for Scotland over WhatsApp
2050 Climate Group is a charity focussed on empowering young people to take action on climate change. One of their main activities is running the Young Leaders Development Programme, a course for young people in Scotland to learn about climate leadership. We were challenged to engage graduates of this programme in an activity about envisioning a climate positive Scotland in the year 2050, to build a vision that the charity could use as a key piece of comms to help articulate their mission. In order to engage a geographically spread out group of over 50 people during the early stages of lockdown, we developed a system for building a vision over WhatsApp. Participants were split into groups of ~8 people, and the groups were challenged to respond to key prompts around hopes, fears and visions for the future. We ran this engagement over 4 weeks, giving participants plenty of time in their now disrupted schedules to input, and then we summarised their input into a collective vision.
Running an asynchronous workshop over Google Docs
We’d been working with the Edinburgh Futures Institute for several months, helping them to engage senior people from external organisations to support the development of their new set of postgraduate programmes. One of the key ambitions of these programmes is to involve meaningful opportunities for students to collaborate with or get input from external organisations. Therefore, involving such organisations in programme development was essential. We held an initial series of workshops in February and conducted a second phase of engagement to follow up and build on insights. However, as the pandemic hit, we found that these senior stakeholders were extremely pressed for time, and completely ‘Zoomed-out,’ meaning that a virtual workshop was out of the question. Our challenge was to build an asynchronous, online engagement, that retained some of the social elements of a workshop (important for relationship development), yet could be put in front of someone who had anything from 2 minutes to 2 hours to spare. After all, a long workshop isn’t the only way to achieve these outcomes (despite being the default), and actually giving people the space for some slow thinking makes much more sense in an activity with a long term view such as this one.
After brainstorming through a few ideas using more specialist software, we built a simple engagement using Google Docs and Google Sheets. Participants would be challenged to respond to key prompts in the Docs, and could see and comment on other participants’ responses. To maintain the same considered feel of the previous workshops, we built a simple, yet visually appealing minisite with key info and instructions. We managed to run this engagement over a 2 week period, and convert participant contributions into an insight report.
A bespoke minisite, to gather stories about the Isle of Bute
In a recent project with Argyll and Bute Council and Rothesay Townscape Heritage, our role was to develop a strategy to better promote the Isle of Bute, that refined its tourist proposition and considered ways that digital could improve the tourist experience. We wanted to explore crowdsourced approaches to tourist information and destination marketing, while also building a better sense of what those living on Bute felt was unique to inform a refined value proposition. To do so, we built a simple minisite, called Postcards from Bute. Citizens were encouraged to post an image of something on Bute, and share unique, local perspectives about Bute.
Now, a few months on from these, we’ve had time to look back and identify a few key learnings.
- Meet people where they are
Using platforms people are used to, or (even better) are regularly using, is the key to great remote engagement. The moment someone has to sign up for something new, you’ll have a huge dropoff.
- Asynchronous is great…
Right now, it’s not easy for a large number of people to get together at the same time — people have disrupted work routines and tend to be working on adjusted schedules. We’ve found that giving people options to input in ways that are asynchronous (but still social) is a great way to ensure participation, and include a broader range of people in participatory exercises. While synchronous engagement is important for decision points or reaching consensus, asynchronous engagement works well when collecting a wide range of inputs or conducting research.
- …but keep it simple
We always want to build the perfect engagement, that is beautiful, takes participants through a lovely journey, and will create rich insights. However, in pursuit of this, it’s easy to end up building on a platform that has a high barrier to entry and end up with a low number of responses. Ask yourself, does it need to be on Miro, or can you do it in a Google Doc?
- Have a clear value exchange
With in-person events, usually there is some inherent value in participants joining — anything from networking to a free lunch! With online engagements, extra consideration needs to be given to how people might receive value in exchange for participating.
Facilitating people online is harder than in person. While at an in-person event, you can easily get a read on a room, and dip into breakout tasks, it’s harder to do this online. Co-facilitators or group leaders are key to successful online engagements — make sure that you either have more facilitators around to support you, or that you empower participants, or client stakeholders to become group leaders, who can help steer and keep conversations on track.
Ultimately, we’ve found that the past months have really pushed our practice — specifically, we’ve had to learn new hard and soft skills that allow us to create meaningful online engagements. However, expanding our ability to do human-centred research, and facilitate participatory visioning online has opened our minds to different ways of doing. Importantly, it has pushed us to create ways to engage people that scale well. Within Andthen, we’re now always thinking well beyond traditional workshop formats and are excited to keep exploring and pushing ourselves to develop new methods of engagement.
If you are doing similar work, and want to compare notes, or would like to chat about how we might support you with participatory futures work, please reach out!