How we take a journey into the future to improve the world we’re in

As someone who works in strategy, thinking long term should be my bread and butter. And yet, I spend most of my time working with people to test out ways to experiment with change in the here and now and several steps at a time.

The same goes for our society. We still think of our infrastructure needs as if we were in the 20th century — private car ownership, a daily commute to work or school, and weekly trips to the shops, even if we want more liveable neighbourhoods where we can walk or cycle to work, school, the shops or the park.

Change doesn’t happen because an actor, however powerful, wants it to happen. Let’s take the example of the social model of disability. It took a generation between campaigners building a successful coalition around it, to then creating new rights and society accepting this model as natural. Indeed, system change often takes place through both orchestration and opportunity.

Having said, I have been looking into the future in a more intentional way, exploring what we can learn from scenarios, what world we might live in post-Covid or post Brexit, what councils might look like, what the city of the 2020s will look like or what infrastructure we might need in 2050.

It’s not just about looking into the future, it’s about using different ways to think, not just learning what we’ve done to improve but opening up our imagination, using pregnancy as a metaphor for designing services, considering what activities are best in the immediate and which help build longer term relationships, or being “timeful” as well as mindful. It’s also about thinking about what we were doing 10 years ago or learning from social innovation 100 years ago with the Jarrow March, or even half a millenium ago with the Diggers, or even for some searching for their slave roots.

Roman Krznaric

visualises this through his drivers of short and long termism:

1. Developing the tools to take a leap into the future

That’s why I was excited to be invited to take part in the Long Time Project, which was started because:

Our capacity to care about the future is crucial to our ability to preserve it. We need to feel an emotional connection to future generations.

Developing longer perspectives on our existence will change the way we behave in the short term.

Art and culture will be crucial to cultivating long-term attitudes and behaviours. They are foundational in shaping our collective direction of travel, from the kinds of laws we make, to the technology we develop, to the way we think about our role in shaping the future.

Do we need to re-think our ideas of time? — BBC Ideas

We live in a short term world. We’re so focused on what’s right in front of us — whether that’s our social media feeds…

Working with other policy makers and artists, I took part in a session to use the levers for long term thinking to imagine tools & methods that could help our organisations and our places test this out. We looked at how we could:

  • Create values and radical visions for the long term to free up people to work out how they experiment in there here and now
  • Get people to imagine our descendants sharing their stories of need & motivations
  • Identify what stories would we have wanted to tell our ancestors to help them better prepare the future we now live in
  • Develop activities that help develop cohorts/communities of practice rather than events

Perhaps most importantly, we started with an exercise called human layers which got us to put us in the shoes of people several generations in the past and in the future, a technique borrowed from “seven generation decision making”. Initially challenging, it slowly became a very powerful tool to come out of the here and now to travel through time and put into perspective the current challenges we’ve got.

2. What does this mean for public services?

Thinking about our future generations from a policy making lens means we need to rethink:

  • what we know about the world where we challenge our unconscious biases and instead experience how different people live their lives to better empower them
  • what our role is beyond a service provider to one which is just as much a sense maker, storyteller, facilitator, campaigner, movement builder or protector
  • how we work in a way where we don’t come with ready-made solutions, but instead test and learn in a way which is open and encourages challenge
  • how we shape the place around us in a way which isn’t just funding, commissioning or regulating, but influencing different types of organisations to work innovatively around common causes
  • how do we design policies which are fair to future generations not just our own now

The best stories offer a mix of dystopia to bring to life in a very sharp way the issues that should keep us up at night, the utopias that help us dream better tomorrows and want to find ways through issues that feel too complex and deep-rooted, and practical ways forward that provide us with the tools we can start using now to “practice” making the future happen.

How can we use creative methods to imagine new ways of tackling the post Covid 19 world? If working with community organisers, entrepreneurs or data scientists is changing the way we work, how might government change if we worked more closely with cartoonists, games designers, dancers…or pirates? None of these forms of art have waited to bring the political into their work, whether it’s Molly Crabapple visualising the future with a Green New Deal, World without Oil, or Capoeira.

The Long Time Project introduces a set of levers we can use in its toolkit with a set of tools, which I’d recommend checking through, from future personas, to future shadowing via a new take on bringing your child to work. Do check them out!

Head of Policy & Research @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese