Futurist Nicklas Larsen explores how the future can be a source for hope, social innovation, and sustainable development together with pioneers in the field.
Q&A with Pupul Bisht, founder of the Decolonizing Futures Initiative and Creative Lead & Network Weaver at the Next Generation Foresight Practice at School of International Futures
Pupul is a multi-disciplinary futurist and the winner of the Joseph Jaworski Next Generation Foresight Practitioners Award 2018. She founded the Decolonizing Futures Initiative in 2018 — a global project that aims to engage marginalised communities in imagining their preferred futures to inform and inspire inclusive policy-making and innovation. Through this initiative, Pupul is pioneering the use of her novel foresight method inspired by the Kaavad folk-storytelling tradition of Rajasthan, India — one of the first and only foresight methods directly derived from a non-Western tradition.
Pupul, what put you on this path?
As a young and aspiring designer, I was absolutely confused about what Indian design was, where I could find it, and why it was so difficult for me to identify it. This made me question the dominance of Western philosophy and understanding of the world in design methodology and contemporary practice. Since then, I moved to Canada to study strategic foresight, and while we were always talking about futures in plural and made many different scenarios, we were somehow subconsciously almost committed to building quite singular images of this time that is yet to come.
How does that connect to where you are today?
As a millennial, I grew up in a very globalised world consuming North American content, so the part of my identity that speaks and thinks in English, that has been trained in Western ways of doing, was very comfortable participating in foresight processes. Conversely, the Indian side of my identity, shaped by my upbringing in New Delhi, could not authentically engage with most of the conversations or the methods. I was not able to meaningfully bring my worldview to the table, and I saw that as a very problematic gap in foresight.
In what ways did you then address that gap?
I realised that we, as foresight practitioners, can often reproduce the same dominant ideas and value systems through our work, sometimes even unintentionally. We might not even know that it is happening. That was really what led me to explore if there were different ways of practising foresight that opens the room for other ways of thinking through the Decolonizing Futures Initiative. As I was educating myself, I came to better understand how the methods are limited in the worldviews that they can support. If we want to build better futures, leaving no one behind, then it means that we are totally dedicated to accepting that futures for all cannot be imagined by a few! It is not just about inclusion; it is about recognising where power is held when we do foresight work, because at the end of the day, decolonising futures means making room for marginalised worldviews and historically marginalised cultural identities in futures work.
How was the future colonised in the first place?
I see a very strong connection between the past and the future, and to me, history and future really are two sides of the same coin. We all know that the past is where all the colonisation happens, so when those systems, realities, and stories continue to grow and scale without being challenged, that is when the future gets colonised. Simply put: the constant colonisation of futures is basically an unquestioned and unchallenged continuation of our pasts and our present.
So how do we decolonise our futures?
To decolonise the way we practice foresight and the way we engage with futures is a very intentional decentring of Anglo- and Eurocentric ways of knowing, which tend to be dominant in the discourse so that we can create space for non-Anglo- and Eurocentric ways of knowing, being, and doing. It is not a mere abstract concept. It is a very powerful call to action in response to a long history of domination that we all share from different vantage points. Therefore, I do not think there can be a singular definition of how to decolonise our futures. Visions of preferred futures can be a great tool for individuals and societies to imagine beyond the current systems of oppression and the dominant views of reality.
Can you please explain?
If you look at the very different experiences of colonisation in different parts of the world, it is characterised by the extraction of resources and culture and the forceful removal of structures that facilitated and supported local self-organisation. Decolonising futures is then about undoing those dependencies and creating alternatives that can support agency and local self-actualisation, and it begins with challenging and disrupting the dominance of one perspective, one voice that limits our imagination of possible worlds.
What are the dominant images of the future to be challenged?
Basically, anything that is full of assumptions about how the world is meant to be, such as the fatal images of the anthropocentric narratives, which tend to put humanity at the centre of the universe with the planet at our disposal and us being the central and superior species. The way time and space are conceptualised linearly, with anything that is in the past considered outdated, tends to foreclose the future too. Then there are the implicit concepts of growth and progress in futures thinking, every image of the future that singularly foregrounds technology as the centrepiece of a narrative or a story. Think Black Mirror, or fantasies about conquering outer space, where we reproduce colonial tropes. Think about who the default future is designed for. These are classic examples of very dominant images of colonised futures. We simply tend to repeat the same stories as it is actually very difficult for us to think of alternatives.
To what extent is futures work and futures thinking a privilege?
This is a good question which tends to be missing from a lot of discourse that claims to be critical. The question speaks to an assumption built into foresight as a practice that says we ought to be able to think about the future and we must engage with it. Yet, it does not necessarily align universally with all cultural worldviews around the world. The minute I came to India and I started piloting my initiative with local communities, I realised that if I am serious and honest about making room for alternate ways of looking at the world, then there has to be room for not seeing the exercise of ‘using’ futures as an inherently good act.
I remember reading a research paper on the use of participatory futures workshops in the Arab world and a majority of participants carried a strong concept of fate and did not necessarily see the value of assuming total and complete control and agency when talking about the future, because for them, fate was a really big factor in how things unfold. In India, we have the concept of kal-chakra which denotes cyclical time. It ties back to the Indian worldview of rebirth with how everything begins to end, and everything ends to begin. There is this continuity that is built in to the way people think about the little and grand scheme of things. Sometimes the often-linear premise of foresight and the way it says we need to engage with the future absolutely find no currency in those spaces. At this point in my work, I am beginning to explore these tensions, and while I have not arrived at a resolution, I am very much in the thick of it and keep asking: at what point does foresight in and of itself become an act of neo-colonialism?
Tell us how you use storytelling to answer those questions…
When I am facilitating, I use storytelling as a tool. Instead of being the story-creator, storyteller, or the writer, I completely remove myself and assume the role of a humble listener. Another important aspect of decolonising for me is the revival of cultures and languages. English cannot always be the default language of facilitation, and written words cannot be the default mode of expression. Therefore, I work a lot with visual and oral storytelling because many of the cultural spaces that I am working in, storytelling is an organic method of communication, sense-making, and knowledge transmission. We need to give prominence to stories as a legitimate way of knowledge production and communication, which then in itself can become an act of decolonisation.
As a foresight practitioner, how do you integrate decolonisation in your work?
As a foresight practitioner, important questions for you to ask yourself is: how am I doing my research and how is knowledge being constructed? Often, you will find that different communities and cultures have different ways of doing both. When holding space for decolonising futures, one of the most important steps is to make room for other worldviews, cultures, and histories to participate and find ways of expression, as a lot of history has been misappropriated. What we are aiming for is not just representation. You must go beyond asking who is in the room. Once people are in the room, are they able to bring their worldview? If they are bringing their worldview, is that perspective even being acknowledged and included in the work being done? For me, that means removing myself from the seat of an expert to listen with humility. One must understand that it is probably going to be uncomfortable — especially if you have had privilege historically. Decolonising is about learning to sit with that discomfort because it is about shifting the way we organise reality in our heads, as well as in our surroundings.
If we look towards exhibitions of images and artefacts of the future, to what extent are they colonisers of our collective futures?
We need to continually ask in any exhibit, in any show, in any collection, ‘who is in the room’ and ‘who is getting to talk’ and ‘who is being rendered invisible in the future’, when we are telling the stories of the future through objects or other things. When someone is not represented, it is not as simple as them being missing from the imagination. There is an implied assumption that they are being rendered invisible. Are they going to be alive in that future? Is that culture going to survive/thrive in that future? Often, it is people who already have representation that tend to appropriate marginalised stories. So, who gets to populate the imaginations about the future is important to address, and if there isn’t a commitment to repatriation, then every single history continues to be colonised, and every single future will be colonised.
How can we learn from indigenous, native, and tribal practices when engaging with the future?
There is so much that we can learn and so much wisdom there. With regards to climate change, some communities know how to live in harmony with the forest, for example, and they are the ones we often do not include in our narratives. They are the ones who are the most disenfranchised, and they are the ones who probably know how to achieve better harmony with nature. However, our desire to challenge the dominance of Anglo- and Eurocentric cultures can be a double-edged sword in that we can end up taking a very exotic view on everything that is non-Western. That rabbit hole is a very dangerous place as it can be another manifestation of colonisation that indigenous cultures or tribal cultures are not unfamiliar with. There have been many extractive practices intellectually and resource-wise that come from that exotic perspective. It is crucial to recognise that these cultures and these communities are not stuck at some point in the past existing in some pristine form. They have evolved too. So, whatever culture you are engaging with, it is the contemporary state of that culture. If we do not understand this, I am afraid that any interaction we have with historically marginalised or currently marginalised cultures is going to tread on dangerous territory.
What happens when the future is decolonised?
At a very fundamental day-to-day tangible level, what happens is that we make better decisions in the present by making the world better for a larger number of people. And I say this because I believe that the images of the future that drive, inform, and inspire us directly get manifested and expressed through the way our institutions are designed, in the way our systems are arranged. When it is the dreams, desires, and nightmares of local communities that guide and inform these systems — that is when we will begin seeing the effect of decolonised futures. Imagine a world where many worlds can co-exist — that is really what we are working towards.
What would be your advice to your future self?
I would say: Pupul, live in the moment. Be inspired and informed by the past, care for the future but live in the present. And when it comes to living with yourself, living on this planet — live gently and live humbly.