Imagining a better future through foresight – why the metaphors we use matter - RSA

Imagining a better future through foresight – why the metaphors we use matter

Blog 3 Comments

  • Social brain
  • Transform
  • Philosophy

Language has the power to shape the way we think – and the way we plan for the future. As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.

Words matter

Recently my colleague Ruth Hannan wrote about why we shouldn’t use war metaphors to talk about healthcare during this present crisis. She rightfully stated that the normalisation of this language will have ripple effects on how we deal with the immediate response and frames our current expectations.

This is not unique to the UK. The collective war framing used by all – politicians, heads of government and especially the media – harks back to familiar metaphors and histories. Words that tap into old victories and a need for a common enemy. Although this may be effective for the present  what of the future?

Why do we use militaristic language and war framing to describe global crises? Is it because battles have been won before? Or does a collective mass mobilization of this magnitude only happen in times of war? Or because it bolsters public opinion of government officials when they are part of a ‘war cabinet’ or wartime government’?

Perhaps the system in place only responds to a crisis of this scale as part of a war effort. Those words signal to the public sector what is required and the entire public service architecture rises to meet that challenge.

What would happen if we use different words?  Would there be a different outcome or better yet a different response?

It is odd to think of alternative futures when at present the future is anything but certain.

"The future is not an empty space but like the past it is an active aspect of the present." - Professor Ivana Milojevic, Futurist

I am sure over the past months many of you have seen or explored various post-pandemic scenarios. We are all, either personally or in our professional lives, playing out different scenarios in our head or on paper. We have been individually creating alternative futures and secretly assessing what is needed in the present should any of those futures become a reality.

By doing so we have unwittingly been using a widely popular tool used within the foresight community known as scenario planning.

What is foresight? Why is it important?

Foresight is defined as the capacity to think systematically about the future by using a toolbox of methods and approaches. It is a ‘participatory future intelligence gathering and medium- to long-term vision building process aimed at present decisions and mobilising joint actions.’ 

As a practice, foresight is as old as time; mystics, griots and shamans would hold the histories of their tribe or people and pass it on from generation to generation, and in so doing also conserved the cycles of change and futures within their societies. As the practice of foresight evolved over time it has also been influenced by macro historians, science fiction, systems thinking, human consciousness and philosophy.

Scenario planning is a widely deployed foresight methodology, first made popular by the Shell strategy team in the 1970s. It is used (both then and now) to develop and examine alternative futures based on drivers of change in order to better prepare ourselves in the present.

Even though scenario planning is currently widely practiced and deployed in varied organizational contexts, I believe the transformative moment of the present demands a sharper tool. One that challenges our use of language in addition to scenario planning.

Within the foresight community, there is a methodology known as Causal Layered Analysis. Created by Sohail Inayatullah, a world-renowned Futurist, it analyses and challenges narratives and discourses used to explain the past, present and futures. It is deeply occupied with examining the social and cultural substructures that inform the futures through four distinct layers: 1) the litany (headlines); 2) the causes (social, political, economic); 3) discourse which supports the structure (worldview or culture) and 4) stories, metaphors, myths.

In this methodology, the myths and metaphors are the bedrock which inform the entire structure –and only by interrogating and shifting metaphors can we imagine another future. New narratives and systems which support these stories will ultimately create new futures. It is also critical for new measurements to be implemented to make sure that stories are rooted in reality.

Imagine if we used an alternative metaphor – seeing the virus as part of an ecosystem, where the advent of new viruses is itself a signal that much is out of balance and urgent corrective action is needed. By bringing much needed attention to deforestation and climate change as contributing factors, and by addressing both, we could therefore begin to curb the incidence of pandemics.

By replacing the militaristic language with metaphors rooted in ecology, underlying assumptions are challenged, and a new way of thinking emerges.

So yes, words matter – and so storytelling holds an implicit power to create alternative futures in the present.

Imagine the alternative futures we could create if we changed our language in other areas – ‘low-skilled’ worker to ‘essential’ worker, or Gross Domestic Product to Gross National Happiness.

Just imagine.

I am interested in hearing from Fellows who are futurists, involved in foresight, those who are emerging foresight practitioners. I am keen to get your insight and perspective. Please do not hesitate to drop me a line at [email protected]

Find out more about our project exploring what benefits foresight methods offer to support policy-makers and practitioners, and to stimulate public dialogue on key issues.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Fueled by (anti) social media, heightened inequality, and governments that have often been caught off guard and unprepared, the covid-19 became an internet virus as well as a biospheric virus.  This means that minds have been altered, opinions changed, and attitudes adjusted. 

    One significant consequence is that both health and well-being have moved up the agenda. As healthy lifestyle choices become increasingly important, so social sharing of new ideas and practices will have the potential to drive major behavioral shifts and improve our Life Satisfaction. Most people now realise that economic growth, however desirable, cannot solve all our problems.(GDP  measures everything except what makes life worthwhile!) Instead, we need philosophy and science that encompass a broader range of human needs and experiences. I would argue that to improve Life Satisfaction should be a central goal for any society. Happiness is smart policy, not only the right thing to do philosophically but, empirical evidence indicates it is, also economically and politically the smart thing to do!

    Our world is online. Narratives and social media are now integral parts of today’s connected world. They provide echo chambers / media bubbles that show a lens to understanding (changing) values and behavior. Stories fuel our imagination today. Narratives are now constantly fed by content creation and engagement that shape our lives and the world we live in. It is now possible to identify and characterise narratives, their key opinion drivers, and the most significant content, and engagement wherever it is: whether websites, traditional media, blogs or social media. 

    While many economists are still busy creating mathematical formulas to decode and contextualise our supposedly ‘rational’, behaviour, people’s actions are more often based on human interest stories than hard data. In Narrative Economics, Nobel Laureate Shiller goes much broader and deeper, looking at how the stories we tell ourselves about the world drive our behaviour — and thus the world itself if enough people buy into them. 

    Fortunately, we can now analyse the structure of engagement on any topic, across the whole of the internet. It shows people’s true emotions and how they are feeling in a way traditional social or marketing research does not. Critically, one can find the strongest story around any topic. Such communication science measures long-term engagement for narratives. Naturally, distinctive narratives behave in discrete ways and vary in their value and utility. We can identify Timeless and Transformational narratives that can affect change and therefore create sustainable value. Since people find trusted voices in their networks, this type of analysis enables one to ‘engage with engagement’ and thus be part of the on-going story rather than to try to dominate it from outside, which has been the traditional mass communication norm of intrusion. 

    At times of change, especially when uncertainty can bring negative outcomes it is critical to monitor what people think is important to them. The pandemic has accelerated many trends and emphasized the importance of digital ecosystems, for communications and e-commerce. I am currently exploring some key LifeStyle narratives, in the UK and Japan,  and drawing novel yet consistent, scalable implications for policymakers and public and private institutions, alike. At times of change, especially when uncertainty can bring negative outcomes, it is critical to be able to know what to say and how to say it so that leaders can establish trust and the right tone for the moment.

  • Sanctuary / Design / TechnologyAfter spending 30+ years in design/ planning (space), management/ development/ construction (connection) and now finance (capital) in community development - I am really looking at new paradigms of new power, particularly participatory power and engagement not in old paradigm of “capital” and “institutional” mindset but power that is about connectivity and collaborationI am now looking to explore and find where the “paltriness is” and potential exist in how we build sustainable healthy nurturing physical environments, that enable us to move from non-being to beingness In design approaches A current lens / reference shift now is a potential to process open “spatial” innovation possibly in “Sanctuary Design” - how do we build A “collective mutual consciousness” thru group online design and building /spaces that move us to “being in the moment” “calming the mind” “beingness” in deep relation to each other? How do we envision Our Well-Being but in 3 dimensional forms?I am Really interested in learning more about "spatial behavioral engagement" in the age of technology. does it Bring us together, not apart? How do we craft a “Poetic Dwelling“ - a place of both individual & collective Consciousness and create “Sanctuary” spaces and places in the advent of “iPhone” and data in "the Cloud" Do Communities Need and want this spatial relational typology? Do communities of color in America have stronger notions of “finding sanctuary”? We see Many places of worship under treat by vandalism, shootings, burning, etcIn America, I also want to explore this same concept in system of prison and jail release - a system that reduces the being to a non-being - how do they and families engage in and bring about “sanctuary thinking” and “sanctuary space” - Is this a method of re-introduction of these people and their families into a sacredness we all have an a need to be free of Being in “the othering”?Otherwise are we, in America, reinforcing recidivism in existing systems of oppression and not redemption and re-entry into all communities? Are we shifting from old capital/organizational hierarchy structures and systems/built environment to a different kind of being now the proverbial cloud (iPhone, Amazon, Microsoft, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook) of data/connectivity? Is this reshaping our narrative, disrupting it and recasting our nations of “spatial relationship“, our beingness?I am seeking a conversation - to talk, listen and discuss - with more folks in this area - theology, architecture, design, & technology - especially communities of color, as I explore.