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Whose future is it? Why every voice matters

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In certain circles, any mention of the future, or even thinking about the future, is considered as an academic exercise that requires translation.

This is especially heightened in a policymaking environment because there are so many pressures and incentives to deal with the here and now. Everyone involved often defaults to the way things have always been done. However, in order to address all the challenges currently facing us we have to think more systematically about the future and learn to deal with complexity and uncertainty. This is the aim of any foresight exercise or process.

Within the foresight community there is a heightened level of awareness about inclusion and the need to have representative voices as part of conversations about the future. When we talk about the future, who is the ‘we?’ Whose future is it? It goes even further because it is not just ‘who is in the room’ during those conversations but also who is allowed to inhabit the space and permitted to express their thoughts, ideas and who is not allowed to participate or unable to – ie the unborn generation.

Who has the power to decide about that future? Who facilitates foresight processes, who is involved and who isn’t? These are critically important when addressing major societal challenges and in this current moment where our society is facing converging crises of a global climate emergency, a pandemic, racial inequity and an economic crisis.

To be effective, or to have any degree of legitimacy, any process that seeks to re-imagine the future must be co-designed to be inclusive.

To be more inclusive, foresight processes must make room for citizens and /or non-experts to participate. But participatory foresight must go beyond inclusion and also challenge the inherent power dynamics at play. It must avoid reproducing the power relations of the present, engage in deep listening, and invite the participation of non-experts and also representatives from future generations to be 'in the room'.

By explicitly engaging non-experts and providing the opportunity to stress test dominant thinking about the future, it will result in fewer blind spots as non-experts are often more willing to challenge erroneous orthodoxies and/or previously held assumptions. In our research for A Stitch in Time, many foresight practitioners stressed that they sought to make their exercises as participatory as possible, acknowledging that it leads to better outcomes and increased engagement with target communities.

No doubt that there are barriers to achieving this in practice. Creating a truly participatory foresight exercise is both costly and time-consuming, while those commissioning the work are often reluctant to commit to this. Why? Because there is also a loss of control, since it destabilises existing power differentials. However, the benefits far outweigh the real and perceived costs. The inclusion of non-expert voices increases the efficacy of foresight exercises by diluting any biases, helping produce a consensus, and offering insight into how best to communicate the work to the public.

Several practitioners stated the greatest value of foresight was in its ability to generate consensus in this manner. For example, the creation of the Milton Keynes (MK) Futures 2050 involved contacts with 20,000 citizens in the area. This helped create a shared vision of the long-term future which is now used to guide short- and medium-term policymaking in the city.

Looking beyond the UK, Peter Padbury, chief futurist at Policy Horizons Canada, indicated that they often involve young people in their foresight exercises to gain diverse perspectives and help surface shifts in values and attitudes within the public domain.

In 2012, the government of Singapore undertook a yearlong national participatory foresight exercise where dialogues and materials were available in seven languages and technology was also used to enhance audience reach and access. Members of the public were able to participate via multiple channels, such as facilitated dialogues, online platforms and websites, and through a door-to-door survey.

As a result, more than 47,000 Singaporeans participated in the One Singapore Conversation. The outcomes of the exercise fed into the government’s policy review process and provided a welcome pause to ‘reaffirm, refresh and recalibrate’ policy directions.  Although the One Singapore Conversation was highly resource-intensive and time-consuming, it empowered participants to become focused on a collective visioning process of the future of their country and thus cultivated an intrinsic trust and support in the work of policymakers.

There is high potential for using foresight in this manner in policymaking. It can increase the awareness of the hopes, desires and fears of citizens, helping policymakers be more responsive to these, as well as increasing buy-in through higher rates of inclusion in the democratic process. In this way, thinking and discussing the future is not merely an academic exercise but rather a deliberative, civic undertaking.

It examines shared principles, outlines a common vision and helps reveal how current activities are aligned or not aligned to the collective vision. It also allows space for a shared endeavour to take shape.

Participatory foresight is not a technocratic policymaking tool, but rather an emancipatory practice. It codifies the involvement of every voice in the co-creation of our alternative futures.

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