Collective Futures: Insights from the journey so far - The RSA - RSA

Collective Futures: insights from the journey so far


  • Economy
  • Environment

Collective Futures might be one way by which we can transition towards a more rebalanced and regenerative future. In 2022, we’ve been exploring how the practice might do this. RSA's Head of Research Hannah Webster and former Innovation and Change Manager Ella Firebrace share their findings to this point.

In this note from the field, we’ll explore our motivation for centring Collective Futures in our research and innovation work, our approach to learning and some of the insights we’ve heard along the way.

Our ambition is to acknowledge, support and champion an emergent field of practice. If this resonates with your work, you can find out more about how to take part in our enquiry at the end of this piece.

Below is an illustration of the journey so far and where we’re heading with this work.

Collective Futures journey so far - The RSA

Collective Futures: learning to define the practice

There are many different definitions and conceptions of what the field of Collective Futures means and looks like. When we first embarked on this journey, we purposefully defined our language loosely, giving ourselves the opportunity to learn. This meant holding concepts like participation, collaboration and creativity together while acknowledging that this framing would need to flex to wider practice.

We’re now at a stage in our enquiry where we’re able to draw insights together from what we’ve heard from others and can suggest a new understanding of how we might interpret Collective Futures. This is:

A budding field of thinking and practice that puts people and planet at the heart. It encourages us to work side by side with people from a diversity of backgrounds to be creative and imaginative about our possible futures and take steps together towards something better.

This has allowed us to place focus on voices that are not typically heard in contexts where there is an unequal balance of power. By this, we mean where dominant voices tend to prevail, and thereby shape the societies we live in, the decisions that are made and how they might affect our collective futures going forward.

From conversations with others, we’ve heard how important it is to represent a diversity of voices in spaces where people can arrive as equals. To do this, we need creative ways of fostering different kinds of relationships that recognise and embrace the many ways of thinking, knowing, doing, and imagining.

... we are only just now, us Europeans and Westerners, with our rather misguided views on what civilisations are... the Greeks or the Romans, we’re actually just a flash in the pan compared to [indigenous] Australian civilisations, or Central African [hunter gatherer societies], or indeed of the Bushmen, the San people [of Southern Africa].

Jerome Lewis, Flourishing Diversity

We have been working with people across both professional and personal capacities. This has meant learning from real-life examples of kinds of spaces where people come together to address the challenges they face and importantly, participate in shaping better futures for the places they live. 

Our process so far

In spring 2022, we launched an open call, inviting anyone who felt our emergent framing of Collective Futures was represented in their work to share their motivation, mission and methods. The call sought to understand how closely practitioners were working with concepts of creativity, collaboration and a shared future for people and planet.

In subsequent interviews, we explored this practice further. We spoke with 14 people, representing a wonderful mix of creatives, anthropologists, futurists, community activists and advocates, who in one form or another, are using creative ways to tackle exclusion.

Each person and organisation we spoke to was thinking to different degrees about working collectively, the long-term futures of our communities, and for many, our responsibility to the planet. Check out their work via the links below:

In July and August, we hosted deeper collaborative workshops with a brilliant mix of practitioners and changemakers across the open call and beyond. Deep insights and findings from the workshops will be published in the coming months, but below we outline the enabling principles and initial reflections on what is needed to drive forwards a new, collective approach to imagining and acting towards a better future for people and planet.

Enabling principles for building Collective Futures

The below represent 12 interwoven themes, offering principles for how Collective Futures work can be delivered in an inclusive, participatory and purposeful way.

  1. Connect people and planet: we need to consider the health of all living things, our wider ecosystem, both the human and the non-human, and the relationships between and among us.
  2. Acknowledge context and history: we are social beings and the relationships that we build together are influenced by our past experiences and the environments we are a part of.
  3. Find commonality and embrace difference: it’s as important to recognise that there are many ways of being, knowing and doing. These inspire new connections and new future possibilities.
  4. Facilitate spaces of safety and equity: unhelpful power dynamics can get in the way of having conversations where people feel listened to and feel heard.
  5. Enable creativity and imagination: art, creativity and mindful practices help us into different ways of thinking, helping us explore complex social problems and share ideas through different mediums.
  6. Engage widely and foster relationships: fostering authentic and organic relationships beyond the usual suspects takes time, should be established early and nurtured for the long term.
  7. Broaden horizons of possibility: nurture a sense of hope for tomorrow, while acknowledging the challenges of today, learning from diverse perspectives to reenchant us with the possible.
  8. Enable access and unlock barriers: prepare early and help identify the needs that enable access. This may include food, transport, translators, childcare, or payment, to name a few.
  9. Establish group norms together: this is about navigating interpersonal relationships within groups and encouraging others to think about what might make the space feel equitable.
  10. Consider roles and representation: the roles people play and who leads are important. Relatability lends legitimacy, enables trust, and opens different kinds of conversations.
  11. Reflect and embed learning loops: establishing time for learning and reflection from the start is a key part of the collective experience and important for informing the next action.
  12. Take a long-term lens: casting ahead into the future helps us to change our course towards different outcomes and better understand the actions that we can take today.

We know that even with the best of intentions, it can be tough to fulfil all these conditions. That’s why our Collective Futures work, in collaboration with those working in this field, investigates the barriers as well as the opportunities and looks at how we might work to build a greater social movement that really enables us to work collaboratively and creatively for the benefit of people and planet.

We are not experts and would like to hold a space for discussion and reflection on the collection of principles that started to emerge – there may be more! And these might not be the right ones – we’d like to invite you to see what you think – share your thoughts and reflections below in the comment box.

We will be sharing more field notes like this over the coming weeks and months.

Interested in this work?

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