Who owns the future(s)?
Understanding the ingredients for a foresight commons
When Careful Industries started to develop the Civil Society Foresight Observatory for the National Lottery Community Fund, a part of the brief was to work out what a Foresight Commons could look like — some kind of shared space and resource that might inspire people from across civil society and beyond, and become a point of collaboration for funders and policy makers. As Cassie Robinson wrote in this post on Grantmaking for Horizon Three, the purpose of this was to contribute towards:
a future where everyone can thrive; where we reward redistribution and contributing to the commons rather than growth; where we regenerate and care for each other and for the earth, not extract; and where we look after each other with justice and solidarity, not charity.
This post is part of a series exploring why we think that is still important.
What is a civil society foresight commons?
A civil society foresight commons sounds a bit like a salad of different conceptual terms, so I’m going to start by explaining what it is.
Overall, it’s a space for creating possibilities: a place to show and share what might be probable and possible over different time horizons. And there is an urgency to this: as economist Adam Tooze says , “the polycrisis comes from all sides and doesn’t stop” — there has never been a better time to collect inspiration and intelligence for how to build what will come next.
And it is vital to turn some of the inchoate and informal expertise that exists in civil society into more tangible outputs that can, in turn, influence funders, policymakers and communities, to invest in the creation of alternative possibilities.
But let’s break that down a bit more:
Firstly, what is civil society?
To borrow the definition used by the Civil Society Futures inquiry:
Civil society involves all of us. When we act not for profit nor because the law requires us to, but out of love or anger or creativity, or principle, we are civil society… Whether we organise through informal friendship networks, Facebook groups, community events and protests; or formal committees, charities, faiths and trade unions, whether we block runways or co-ordinate coffee mornings, sweat round charity runs or make music for fun; when we organise ourselves outside the market and the State, we are all civil society.
And what is foresight?
The futurist Cynthia Selen describes foresight as a way of “coping with the future”. It doesn’t aim to predict what might come next; rather it is a practice that demonstrates what could come next — of articulating a few of the thousands of possible and probable eventualities.
Why does civil society need a different kind of foresight?
As we discuss in A Constellation of Possible Futures , a lot of “official” foresight activity is commissioned by either governments or businesses, generally to create some kind of strategic advantage. That kind of official foresight is also likely to be conditioned by what Prof. Andrew Stirling calls “incumbent interests” .
The purpose of this kind of official foresight might be to anticipate which technological threats and opportunities are coming around the corner, or to generate some other kind of strategic or competitive advantage. This kind of foresight has a number of forms, but two of the most influential are: internal documents with “confidential” stamped at the top, and shiny reports that make confident predictions about things that matter to shareholders, such as “the future of retail”.
But, of course, the world is made up of more than national defence strategies and 10-year plans for shareholders. There is an infinite richness beyond anticipating new payment methods and possible causes of unrest; as the polycrisis continues to unfold, civil society is often asked to bridge the gap and improve the status quo — but rather than propping up the present, civil society can and should help to forge alternatives.
Why does it need to be a commons? And what is a commons anyway?
Two reasons: the first is to resist capture, and the second is to enable collaboration.
One way to understand the kinds of “official” futures I’ve described above is that they enclose the future — they represent the capture of the future, a shared public good that was, in the words of Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom, “previously uncapturable”.
Public agency to imagine and create the future is taken away if huge swathes of possibilities are privatised and driven by technological change and capital returns.
Our contention is that trying to contain the future in formal reports and “eyes only” PowerPoint presentations puts boundaries up around stories and concepts that could and should be shared with and co-created by broad inclusive communities. Creating a knowledge commons is a liberatory act that means modelling possible and plausible futures can both happen in public, and benefit from the kind of governance and scrutiny that will ensure the process is, “managed, monitored, and protected, to ensure sustainability and preservation.”
Civil society foresight should also be public and plural; collaborative and transparent; sustainable and accountable. And, as David Bollier says in The Growth of the Commons Paradigm ,
many information commons exemplify what some have called “the cornucopia of the commons”… The operative principle is “the more the merrier.” The value of a telephone network, a scientific literature or an open source software programme actually increases as more people come to participate.
If you’re a funder thinking about the future and commissioning long-range foresight, how might that foresight become more powerful when shown in relation to the other possible futures that will unfold around it? How might the ways we all imagine and shape what comes next, be transformed by looking ahead together, and working together, to understand what needs to be in place to help them come to pass?
Through developing the relational foresight methodology , the Careful Industries team have explored how to hold a space in which many futures are possible — that doesn’t try to come to resolution, that holds disagreements and many possibilities. Our next job is to find ways to expand that space so that it is welcoming and shareable — a space for many futures to come together in a relational dialogue.
Originally published at https://www.careful.industries on June 24, 2022.