The Masters Tools will never dismantle the Masters House
“We are in an imagination battle. Imagination turns brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of ability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.” Adrienne Maree Brown, 2017
How do we serve all of humanity without bringing the inequities of our past into our futures? This isn’t merely an academic or technical pursuit, but a deeply personal one, driven by the notion that people who look like me, who come from the communities I come from — who are often denied voice. We are spoken on behalf of when it comes to the choices available to us for our futures. As complexity and uncertainty recasts our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world, it also provokes new answers to the question — What does it mean to be human in these 21st century futures?
The need to address these issues has seen a surge in the push for strategic foresight — to be anticipatory in the face of emerging changes and risks, to be long term in our thinking and policy direction. Global governance of foresight and risk in practice attempt to blend imaginations of what the future might be with action in the present that requires changes in policies, practices, risk anticipation, decision making culture, and investments that governments, and multilateral institutions, need to adopt.
But, these realms of imaginings and design of democracy, progress, social good, and what it means to thrive have traditionally followed a static, rigid view of these ideas, steeped in pillars of a Northern dominated world order. We limit the possibilities of what might evolve in our world to binary scenarios as if these are the only things available to all of us, without considering the interconnectedness of risk and complexity that drive how human beings live. The very practice of foresight can be steeped in bias and surface level rhetoric without interrogating what is needed for us to change and adapt to an uncertain world. As a result, these futures can easily be mistaken as self-evident truths. What is the result of futures that become a singular truth? They result in policy design that is created with very narrow ideas about humanity.
And when governance and risk design is designed in narrow streams, the poor, the uninsured, the disenfranchised, the information-poor, and the less mobile are bearing the brunt.
So permit me to weave a mosaic of the impacts of colonisation and its link to anticipation and foresight in governance of risk and crisis.
Global governance systems seemingly keep being taken by surprise — always a step behind shocks, conflict, new complex disasters, new vulnerabilities. The approaches seem to remain the same — albeit touted as improved. But has it improved? When people continue to be left behind, when we don’t see new types of vulnerabilities, when we are not prepared for new emerging crises and risks. We assume our approaches, tinkered with at the sides, are enough to respond to anything that comes our way. But what we are facing in the next decade — is not anything we have experienced before at the scale that we will be experiencing it. We are going to be experiencing compounding, intersecting systemic and existential risks. We are going to be experiencing the types of disasters and devastation at a scale that we haven’t experienced. We are going to experience the types of wars that bypass our rigidly held principles, values and rules, that not necessarily everyone cares about abiding by. We are going to be experiencing the types of injustice, inhumanity, agony and despair not seen in decades — perpetuating historical systemic oppression that already under-girds so much of humanity today.
Looming larger than an increase in risks is the resulting surge in uncertainty. As one example — In 2022, the conflict in Ukraine, compounded by global events related to climate risks and food production constraints, led to heightened vulnerability in Pakistan across numerous dimensions — from severe wheat shortages to a reduced energy supply. Examples like this also underscore the reality that “in the Anthropocene, the local is no longer local” and “the global is not just global” with patterns and processes that may rapidly disperse as a consequence of scale, connectivity and speed” (Robele, 2022). It means that a risk analysis framework for a policy or programme has to account for not only the known variables but also for the unknowns including the ways the outcomes of a local intervention may be influenced by and trigger effects in other areas and regions, AND across different timelines. Events occurring in one part of the world will have compounding butterfly effects in other parts of the world and manifest in unequal ways particularly in nations that already experience severe structural impediments to their own development trajectories.
Our recent UNDP Human Development Report cited this year “The layering and interactions of multidimensional risks and the overlapping of threats give rise to new dimensions of uncertainty, if for no other reason than human choices have impacts well beyond our weakened socio ecological systems’ capacities to absorb them”. These types of exponential, intersecting, multidimensional risks and uncertainties makes it almost impossible to assign accountability for mitigation measures and thus subsequently to govern. It means then that these manifestations are not priceable in our existing accounting methods, society, and economy — and thus get left ignored. How then do we price these types of risks to human life or planetary existence? Conversely, how do we price or value the risk of civilisation breakdown, as Indy Johar (2022)argues? And when we can’t price, nor govern nor assign accountability to these types of risks and uncertainties — then now as always — the historically oppressed and excluded, continue to carry the brunt of impact.
Bold action is needed which includes the need for more anticipatory policy measures (meaning policy dynamism that anticipates and is proactive in assessing future threats and directing resources to mitigate associated risks). The lack of such anticipatory measures points to the faultline in our risk governance systems that are not equipped to deal with downstream accountability. If the most fragile amongst us continue to bear the brunt of unanticipated risk and increased uncertainty, our mutual ability to create norms of freedom, of thriving — fall behind. In clearer terms, if we still do not have the existing structural infrastructure and investments for existing risks and vulnerabilities, futures of compounding risk and uncertainties will most certainly impact our capacity to reduce economic and human vulnerability, and in fact, arguably could increase it.
Despite widespread acknowledgement of the need for urgent action, we lack proven practices and extensive experience in addressing interconnected and systemic risks. Conventional risk management practices have evolved based on learning from the past. When new risks emerge, experts generally analyse the new risk, find ways to limit its damage, then incorporate the lessons learned from the experience for next time. It is not just that we need new technical approaches and assessment frameworks for understanding and managing risk, but equally new paradigms through which to make decisions that balance current and future needs, particularly when dealing with complex and uncertain trade-offs (Robele, 2022).
As costs compound and the landscape of risks evolve, so too must the ways we conceive of the values that underpin mainstream development models. For example, freedom, as the development philosopher Dr. A.K. Shiva Kumar has said, “means protection from the risks that people experience every day.” Yet, freedom will also mean protection from the risks that people will experience in the future. How might we better orient our decision-making frames and prioritisation processes to navigate the needs and desires of both present and future generations?
In Asia Pacific, UNDP is experimenting with approaches to anticipatory crisis and risk assessments to get ahead of potential political and economic fallouts. To achieve this, we are experimenting with blending a range of different risk indicators to provide a more holistic and contemporary view of crisis, including blending economic, social, political, technological, crisis and environmental risks utilising integrated horizon scanning and collective intelligence. But this by itself is not enough. Why do governance of development, risk and foresight systems still continue to leave people behind? As if the act of being left behind is an accident — and not instead by intentional design of exclusion.
To understand why, we must look back at our shared history.
I have often argued that global governance systems for foresight perpetuate hierarchical, patriarchal, hegemonic views of what ‘development’ and ‘progress’ looks like, ignoring other world-views, and underlying systemic and structural pillars of inequality and bias. They were developed in imperial systems- meaning, based on our colonial legacies of the Global North and the Global South- in a way allows supremacy, and racial hierarchies to go unchallenged and also to thrive. The agonies that our world is facing today didn’t happen overnight — it is the result of this shared history of colonialism. Where solutions are always offered in the name and the good of those being colonised (its part of modernization!) but they themselves are not recognised to legitimately be a part of producing those solutions.
The act of colonialism, or colonisation, removes power from the colonised, dispossesses and transfers economic resources, and removes culture in the name of ‘civility.’ Colonialism isn’t just physical; it is also mental and metaphysical. Coloniality presents itself in a matrix of power that operates through control or hegemony over the economy, including: land, labor, and natural resources; authority; gender and sexuality; and subjectivity and knowledge (Martinot, 2004). Coloniality was presented to the world as ‘modernization’ but this was at grave expense to freedom, justice, equality, and a homogenous world view (Grosfoguel, 2011). The ideas of modernity that resulted come as a result of this domination. How we then conceive and transfer knowledge, as well as what knowledge we see as credible and valid are also based on these colonial beliefs. How we exist within these structures and how we interpret reality is deeply influenced by colonisation as well. All of these come together to create a narrative that defines how ‘normal’ is understood (Linh, 2020).
However, colonialism isn’t the only privileging force that our global systems sometimes uphold. It can also uphold forces like patriarchy, race and ethnicity bias, paternalism, hetero/cis normativity, classism and class privilege, caste privilege, ableism and ageism.
“Who and what gets fixed in place to enable progress? What social groups are classified, corralled, coerced, and capitalised upon so others are free to tinker, experiment and engineer the future?” Ruha Benjamin, 2018
To design anew, we must ask ourselves what systems corral how humanity exists? How do they play out in people’s experiences and why? Quite often, those that utilize anticipation and foresight approaches assume emancipation and liberation. They leave out a critical understanding of history, power, and who is deliberately unseen or exploited. Without this analysis, the use of hegemonic foresight might paradoxically expose or expand harm on marginalized minoritized constituents.
How is the future talked about in vulnerable contexts? When people juggle crippling poverty or feel unsafe? In contexts where young people do not feel that they have full agency over their own decisions? Where family, culture, and religious obligation play a greater role in how their lives play out? What about spaces where indigenous culture and history were overtaken by capitalist labour markers of progress — whose visions of the future ought to prevail? How do we talk about long term possibilities when desperation is a fundamental baseline in people’s lives? Do we consider these issues when we design ideas or solutions about the future?
The practice of anticipation, of foresight, is not neutral. It is conditioned by our positionality, cultural values, our economic systems, and our capacity for collective imagination. Are we chasing only one idea of what ‘progress’ looks like? Do we end up replicating versions of ourselves or the stories we want to tell? Anticipatory approaches and foresight can frame our choices and help us choose the pathways ahead of us; however, the more rigid our dependence, the finer the line becomes between foresight seduction and foresight coercion. We end up gently bending our choices, our perspectives and our sense of ourselves to fit these rigid frames — reducing the breadth of our humanity to those templates that are designed and understood by a privileged few.
‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. What does it mean when tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.” Audrey Lorde, 1984
To intentionally carve a different type of ideology would require governance systems that are informed by different knowledge sources that tangibly influence decision making and that prioritise a focus not just on the firefighting of today but rather the implications on a nuanced understanding of future generations. How might we embed plurality in governance and ethics that allow us to consider the connected tissue across political, infrastructure and social threads and that embed deeply affected values that frame an intentional equity impact? Instead of merely looking at governance in terms of control, could weaving in feminist and decolonial approaches help us liberate our futures so that it is a space of safety, of humanity — for those whom we are meant to support? Are these approaches ways in which we can design new forms of humanism?
To do so, requires us going beyond mere diversity and inclusion, or lip-service nods to power sharing and being participatory. Feminist and decolonial governance is not just about the process of undoing and giving up social and economic power, but rather an aspiration to restore, renew, elevate, rediscover, acknowledge and validate the multiplicity of lives, lived-experiences, culture and knowledge of indigenous people, people of colour, and colonised people as well as to decenter hetere/cis-normativity, gender hierarchies and racial privilege. I think of this as how we exist in plurality — in a multiverse so to speak. And to include this in governance, not as a tokenistic or virtue-signalling flag, but rather to help us consider different lenses, perspectives, sources of truth in even how we think about what is right, what is fair and what is just. This isn’t about just getting different under-represented groups around the table, but rather how we might shift the knowledge and experiences we draw from in the very design and decision making of policy and governance frames. It is to ensure that we are considering the multiplicity of ways in which issues of rights, ethics, and agency are understood and experienced the world over, and not imposing just one or a narrow valued judgement on these issues.
However and notably, if one dimension of foresight pertains to considering the future and the well-being and interests of future generations when determining actions in the present, the other lies in reconciling with the reality that no matter how sophisticated the analysis methods, or how intensive the investments, the future still remains unknown (Conceicao, 2022). Likewise, the experiences and desires of future generations, while possible to imagine, are impossible to know. And specifically within these, the experiences and desires of different communities of future generations are also equally impossible to know or imagine — let alone by those outside of those community groups. No amount of persona methods can put us in the actual boots of lived experiences in the current nor in the imaginations of the future.
This inherent tension does not negate the value of efforts to assess future dynamics, ultimately derived from a combination of existing evidence and patterns, informed imagination and abductive reasoning (Robele, 2022).
Being anticipatory calls for enhanced capabilities and infrastructure by which policymakers and societies can exercise moral imagination and dialectical thinking. This transparency around how shared values are deliberated is also critical for designing risk mitigation frameworks to navigate extremely volatile futures, which calls for shifting away from the largely financially-driven premise of many conventional risk frames (Robele, 2022). With less risks that can be “priced and crystallizable” when thinking about long-term development trajectories, one needs to also “talk about the price or value of a human and how to price risk to human life, or price the risk to human thriving and development.” Without this shift, these categories of risks and the “non-asset owners” in societies will remain largely ignored.
So some examples of what a systemic decolonial and feminist approach consist of
Moving from Tight circles of ‘recognized’ expertise:
Current foresight practice sees similarity in expertise and little recognition of non-academically qualified practitioners or people with lived experience. Cynthia Selin puts forward the argument that foresight methods have their own schemes on what counts as anticipatory knowledge and specify through which channels such knowledge should be generated and shared. These futures then get accepted as ‘official futures’ without nuance and become self-fulfilling.
Moving to Recognizing Positionality:
When the same groups of “experts” facilitate foresight processes and workshops, we continue the same epistemology of knowledge and learning. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we recreate our own image. Recognizing the positionality of facilitation and decision making within our wider metropolis allows an assessment on impacts of bias or privilege.
Moving from Narrow Epistemology:
The frameworks behind foresight tools and approaches have hardly evolved over the last few decades. Though recent years have seen expansion of epistemology in terms of storytelling and concepts of time, this has not translated in a legitimate way to mainstream curricula.
Moving to Legitimacy in Pluriversality:
Utilizing a wider range of knowledge sources and experiences legitimizes a multiplicity of conceptual models and prevents the replication of an echo-chamber worldview via limited perspectives that do not account for normative, philosophical and cultural realities. The addition of different epistomologies allows us to recognize that multiple truths and multiple realities exist at the same time and are seen, experienced, imagined and lived by different groups of people even within similar contexts. Pluriversality gives socio-political and ecological momentum to affect relationality in literacy and challenges Eurocentric pedagogy that do not reflect realities the world over (Perry, 2020)
As Arturo Escobar argues in Design for the Pluriverse: we must liberate the imagination to enable other definitions of possible futures (Escobar, 2018)
Moving from The 4 Ps of Futures:
The baseline of all foresight models draws on the 4 Ps of futures: possible, preferable, plausible, and probable.
Moving to Expansion to 5 Ps of Futures:
The 4 Ps are no longer adequate for two reasons: (1) its terminology is not easily understood by all peoples, and (2) it misses the additional layer of perspective: ‘whose perspective do these 4 Ps privilege and who might be dispossed?
Moving from Binary Impact Assessments:
Current tools for impact/implication analysis do not build in any rigorous, explicit, intersectional analysis of structural or systemic inequity. This results in future designs replicating inequalities of the past.
Moving to Privileging Forces:
An analysis of privileging forces (patriarchy, race/ethnicity, colonialism/paternalism, hetero/cis-normativity, classism/class privilege, ableism, and ageism) to interrogate impacts of futures design.
Moving from Hegemonic Language:
Futures and foresight tools use the same language regardless of whether it resonates with people the world over or influences their cultural mental models. The same terms are used to describe approaches and methods regardless of whether it is understood or embraced, or even whether the term exists in other languages. When language and terms are not understood, it becomes a form of exclusionary privilege.
Moving to Democratizing Language:
When the language of knowledge is so out of touch and reach for much of the world and we dismiss people’s ability to understand it, we fail to recognize the fundamental factors needed in democratization: resonance, understanding and embracing.
Moving from Simplistic Solutionism and Constructed Representation:
Problem identification in futures and foresight approaches tends to be minimal, based on the perspectives of who is in the room. This often results in solutionism that narrowly focuses on what appears to be an obvious issue with some degree of certainty.
Moving to Objective Truth and Relational Ethics:
Assessing patterns across a wider range of contextual social, technical, economic, and historical systems, norms, and structures to understand why rather than blindly and simplistically designing technical solutions and systems based on singular or similar representations.
Hope is a radical act. It is what makes us cross seas, skies, take risks, and jump without safety nets when the journey and arrival might endanger safety and might diminish us. We are propelled forward by the hope for a better future for our children and our grandchildren but hope by itself is not enough. We must translate this hope into action that befits the types of resets we need in the redesign of new commons, values, and wisdoms.
Unsettling the coloniality of our governance systems is an act of resistance. An act of resistance to the shackles that have held humanity back from evolving our potential of how we live with each other and with our planet. An act of resistance to the continued practice of designing for privilege rather than for equity and justice.
As bell hooks (2004) so eloquently argued:
“Am I educating the colonizer/oppressor class so that they can exert better control?…If we do not interrogate our motives, the direction of our work, continually, we risk furthering a discourse on difference and otherness that not only marginalizes people of color but actively eliminates the need for our presence”
We are living in a time where choices are being taken away from so many of us. So as a brown woman, I stand here in front of you and say — the feminine is not dead. Nor is it sleeping. Angry? Yes. Seething? Yes. To have choice, and to have safety in making those choices, is the cornerstone of democracy.