How do we talk about the future in vulnerable contexts? When people are juggling crippling poverty or feel unsafe? How about in contexts where young people do not necessarily feel that they have full agency over their own destiny. Where family, culture, religion might play a greater role in how their lives might develop? What about spaces where indigenous culture and history was overtaken by capitalist labour markers of progress — which visions of the future ought to prevail? Why then do we keep using dominant normative frameworks? Why don’t we question our own biases and assumptions every time we do so?
Global efforts for social good, whether in the humanitarian or development sectors, have traditionally pushed a rigid view of what progress looks like, steeped in pillars of a Northern dominated world order. We can argue that the systems and frameworks that have served us to date may have improved development outcomes for many, but it hasn’t done so equally, and it has been at a significant cost. The world we inhabit today is increasingly sleepwalking into climate catastrophe, is more unequal, more disconnected and more divided than before.
The practice of humanitarian futures and strategic foresight challenges us to see that past hegemonies don’t necessitate a similar future state, and seeks to ensure that in our journey to jointly flourish, we don’t leave anyone behind. Ultimately, it pushes us to interrogate the changes in policies, practices, culture and investments that institutions need to adopt in order to be fit for these futures. However, this very practice can be steeped in bias and surface level rhetoric — not deeply interrogating what is needed for us all to change and adapt to a complex world.
Any kind of transformation for social good in the 21st century will only truly be effective if it is a systemic interrogation of all drivers of change (and not merely the big, loud ones), tackles and pulls out bias, is representative of all peoples and all futures, and clearly linked to strategic reform. When futures frameworks only put forward visions or markers that push one dominant and singular narrative, it limits our questioning of whether measures of global poverty to date have considered colonial history, implications on inequality from brutal economic policies, or planetary implications from industrialisation. It reinforces future progress as singular, linear spectrums that build on the trajectories of our history, and assumes that those ideas of progress are the only ones everyone has to aspire to in the future. It reinforces power imbalances, and excludes those that don’t have the same kind of access to participate. It can result in crippling inaction if re-imagination is not systematically linked to levers for societal, political and institutional transformations.
How do we push for a complete reimagining of our collective futures so it does not merely replicate the inequalities of the past?
There are seven fundamental dimensions (drawn from practices of intersectionality, decolonisation, systems, strategy and complexity thinking, and participatory humanitarian futures) that ought to be addressed in this frame:
1. How can future trends and signals of change be contextualised to local knowledge, history, and inclusive progress so that we do not merely reinforce a neo-colonialistic narrative of what progress means?
2. How can these trends and signals of change be tested and iterated with as diverse constituency as possible to ensure relevance?
3. What underlying bias and systemic power structures need to be addressed in order for any kind of real system wide change to occur?
4. How will we shift these power and progress structures?
5. How can we derive future visions and narratives that are radically inclusive, and draw on communities indigenous history, art and culture?
6. Whose vision are we privileging?
7. How do we embolden those participating in these processes, to actively then drive and design the change they seek. How do these considerations enable those that would traditionally be passive beneficiaries of aid, shift to active designers of the types of lives and structures they desire?
Any futures for social good has to allow all people to see themselves in it. All people, and particularly those not used to seeing themselves reflected in decision making — whether women, LGBTIQ, those with disabilities, the working classes or ethnic minorities, have as much right as the elite to understand what their own role has been and will be in a collective future that wants all to flourish.
We have an opportunity to re-imagine human and planetary flourishing in the 21st century, and to achieve this, we need radical hope and inclusive progress. Inclusive progress that does not exceed planetary boundaries, has adequate governance of the commons, unpacks power structures, and promotes diversity in cultural and indigenous dimensions to influence how we think about democracy and progress.