When I established Thinking Futures in 2007, I saw the name as an abbreviation for 'thinking about possible futures'. Over time I've adapted that in my mind to 'thinking in new ways about the future'. I've talked about the need to change how we think about the future in writing, in webinars and workshops, but I don't think I've ever really been able to articulate what it meant. I do recognise some pivotal moments in my decision to focus on thinking about the future though. Moment 1: a few years after I started using foresight in 1999, someone asked me why I was doing the job I was doing (it wasn't a question phrased in positive tones as foresight at Swinburne was fraught with much political game playing). I replied along the lines of 'because it's allowed me to see the world differently. I think differently now. I see things I never saw before and that's exciting. I can't tell you or write on paper why and how I think differently now but I do'. And I knew then there was no going back to how I saw the world before foresight.
Moment 2: at the end of the first year of the Masters of Strategic Foresight at Swinburne, we were asked what stood out for us in the year. I immediately said, without any thinking which is very unusual for me, that it was recognition and acceptance of our collective responsibility for future generations. The proverbial light bulb came on when I said that, and I realised I need to always have foresight and my new way of seeing the world in my work. It was just part of who I am and what I do.
Moment 3: I have also said often that I've never seen a person who engaged with a foresight process (usually scenario planning/thinking/learning) that didn't shift from their previous position that thinking about the future was a waste of time. The shift might be to acknowledge grudgingly the value of this way of thinking but that's enough for me. They might still think spending time thinking about the future is not what they'll do but the seed has been sown. Seeing that happen time and time again has always given me hope that using foresight - that using the future to take action today - will make a difference if we can get enough people to use it.
Sub-consciously all these moments probably played a role in I why called my business Thinking Futures and why the focus of what I do is helping people change the way they think about the future. Nagging me all those years however, has been a need to articulate more clearly what I mean.
I recently read John Renesch's paper in the Journal of Futures Studies: Future Shaping: A Call for Conscious Leadership. He put into words what has been swirling around in my head. A few quotes:
You cannot be a living human being without having some influence on the future. Some people may have a huge influence on what our collective future will look like while others may make a less noticeable contribution. But we all have some influence – good and bad – on how the future turns out. This means, in the larger sense, that we are all “future shapers” – people who play a role in how the world will be tomorrow, next year and in coming generations.Why don’t we accept responsibility for moving the world closer to the way we would like it rather than living our lives of “quiet desperation” - resigned to the inevitable, wallowing in our powerlessness to do anything about it?Why settle for whatever happens to unfold and leave our future to chance? Why be content to be simply good guessers? We humans are blessed with consciousness – a power to create what we dare to dream about, to collaborate and intentionally set in motion the forces that will result in a different kind of future than the one for which we appear to be headed. We can choose our future. We can consciously evolve.
Here, in a nutshell, is what thinking in new ways about the future is all about. First, recognise that our actions today will influence future outcomes. Second, accept responsibility for taking action to create the future we want, not end up as bit players in someone else's future. Third, work actively to evolve our consciousnesses:
This doesn’t mean we should start thinking about different things but to think from a new place in our consciousness. Part of this new consciousness involves the recognition that we are dealing with an incredibly complex global system where everything is connected to everything else, and where everyone is connected to everyone else. Thinking systemically about how we want to see change happen is absolutely essential.
This is only part of the evolution of consciousness though. Thinking from a different place and thinking about change come with the need to start from understanding that you will need to focus the possible futures to which you are contributing which may mean changing who you are:
Should you find, distressing as it may seem, that the first place to work is indeed within - on your own intolerance, resignation, unconsciousness or lack of compassion - then start there like so many of us have done. This “inner work” is the foundation for all that you have to contribute. It impacts all the rest of us. Become clear on this and you will be able to work on the things outside yourself.
This is a fundamental principle of good foresight work, that depth in outcomes depends on depth in the practitioner. And that interior depth never comes unless you are willing to surface and challenge your assumptions about the world and your cognitive biases. I know from experience that this inner work is both very uncomfortable and very rewarding - and very necessary.
People, especially those in power or who use certainty as the basis of that power, will generally assume they know enough to design a future for their organisations. Their view is what matters. They will reject, often aggressively, any attempt to ask them to challenge their mental model of the world and where they fit in that world. They have a blindfold on and don't know it. Yet the leaders who have changed the world are not full of ego or arrogrance - they are full of humility and the commitment to work with others to design a collaborative and shared future.
John Renesch is asking us to take the latter stance - to take off our blindfolds and be a conscious leader in what we do to shape our future and help 'achieve the next level of human evolution'. I'm in, are you?