This is a summary of Nicklas from the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies’ opening talk at ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ Conference on November 16th 2020.
Where is the entry points for public imagination about the future?
Nicklas, Senior Advisor and Head of Initiatives at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, opened the Museums Facing Extinction conference with his presentation “Where is the entry point for public imagination about the future?” pointing to the fact that there are not many places where the public can go to reflect upon their future, beyond the world of fiction.
Futures principles and developments
In his talk he initially highlighted the increased interest and demand in futures studies and foresight practices, due to the pandemic and the heightened perception of uncertainty in the world today and he provided the audience with key principles in futures work:
- Futures studies is an established discipline (for approx. 70 years).
- There are multiple futures (probable, possible, preferrable)
- The future is not pre-determined — we have alternatives. Hence, we often explore scenarios.
- The future is not predictable — we have choices. It can inform our actions in the present.
- The future can be influenced — there are consequences of our choices and action today for future generations.
To further clarify how the field is emerging, he brought forward how humans have always imagined alternative futures and attempted to anticipate what is yet to come. By dividing the history of futures thinking into five waves of development, starting with oral storytelling and extending to present day futures theory, he clarified how futures now are being integrated in institutions across the world, melding with other disciplines, and moving beyond its historically Westernised framings.
‘Age of mass protests’
Nicklas then addressed the current context in which futures work plays into and argued that it is time that we empower and engage more folks in our collective futures and that its already happening. All over the world, people are taking to the streets and marching with ‘Fridays for Future’ while the more radical ‘Extinction Rebellion’ is beginning to grow in reach. Each day, more and more people claim a stake in the future of their dreams. Not even the social distancing measures imposed during the pandemic have been able to halt the outburst of activism, as evidenced by the recent and massive Black Lives Matter protests that took place in the US and in many other countries.
For our society members to adapt to the rapid evolution currently happening around us, Nicklas believes that we need to create a wide range of ideas, opinions, and visions. Inclusivity is such a critical factor in achieving a shared future, and with inclusivity should come participatory practices. He continued by saying while futures studies and foresight have traditionally been confined to practicing futurists and the commissioning bodies that hire them, the strides and tides of democratization are catching up with the fields.
The broader inclusion of diverse agents and their perspectives is now being considered as means to expand the visibility of the future and to promote stronger engagement with it. Participatory futures projects, which combine public engagement and futures work, can enable new ways to galvanise public imagination and foster agency and collective action towards aspired public futures — and it may hold the key to reinvent public institutions like museums.
Fostering futures literacy
We need to do more than make plans, hold conferences, or have conversations about what we intend to do. Individuals must have a chance to identify their place, priorities, concerns, and ideas. This is what participatory futures aims at — identifications that are necessary for engagement that extends beyond just fiction, dreaming and speculation. One such way to make futures thinking more democratized and participatory, is to foster the capability of futures literacy. It is about actively and collectively training our imagination like a muscle in a way that helps us challenge the underlying assumptions and biases that define our worldview and guide our actions. Futures literacy is defined by UNESCO as the capability to use and imagine multiple futures for different purposes in different contexts, which can help us become more aware of how to imagine futures, and most importantly, it can change our perspectives from fear, and help us to innovate towards hope.
Reimagining the public sqaure
For desirable futures to be democratised, we need to introduce new platforms for public debate, imagination, and participation. The pioneering Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janiero, Futurium in Berlin, and the soon-to-open Museum of The Future in Dubai all hold immense potential to establish public familiarity with the long term. Yet, future-dedicated museums and exhibitions also run the risk of colonising our idea of the future based on top-down selective curations and what is being put on display.
If we are indeed living in the age of mass protest, participatory futures processes need to welcome the individual to challenge boundaries and identify seeds of change and other tomorrows by harnessing the alternative collective images of futures brought forward by the current and future protest movements.
As such, public institutions have an opportunity to provide new meeting places, to become community platforms that amplify public opinion and transform their audiences into co-creating participants challenging the inadequate imaginary of what it means to be human in the 21st century and beyond.
Nicklas stressed his key take away: it is time for us to realize that uncertainty is a permanent feature in society and engaging with the future allows us to harness it as a resource rather than seeing it as an enemy. We have to empower; we have to give people space to understand, unfold, be heard and create images of futures for themselves and their communities.