What’s ‘The Future’ got to do with community?


 Some reflections on Connected Communities and UNESCO’s Uknowlabs programme.

‘The future’ and concepts related to ‘time’ are emerging as important themes in the work of the Connected Communities Programme. Whether it is through the mobilisation of historical narrative as a way of making sense of the present, or the engagement of citizens in imagining and making new futures, temporality is becoming an increasingly important element in thinking about ‘community’ in the programme.

These ideas and others are developed in a cluster of related projects. These include: ‘The time of the clock and the time of the encounter’  (Siebers, Douglas, Bastian and Speed); the Temporal Belongings network which specifically theorises the role of time in producing social norms and processes of inclusion and exclusion; and the ‘Sustaining Time’ project , motivated by the question ‘what is the time of a sustainable economy’? A number of other projects more recently awarded, such as the large ESRC CC Grant ‘Imagine’ (Crow, Edinburgh) also implicitly or explicitly mobilise the idea of ‘the future’ as a resource for community engagement; while many more invoke ‘the future’ rhetorically as a resource for facilitating community conversations.

Importantly, Siebers, Bastian and others’ projects are critically reflecting upon the ideas about ‘the future’ that underpin these projects. They are contesting the assumptions of linear, uni-directional relationships between ‘communities’ and ‘the future’, in which the future is seen simply as a place that needs to be imagined and built, and space ‘out there’ that we can do battle over. Siebers and Fell’s scoping study, for example, argues that ‘The future of community is not merely a postponed present, as it is depicted in many social theories. The future is a realm of would-be potentialities and is richer in content than the present reality that it will become.’

I was thinking of these and other related studies such as Barbara Adams’ and Chris Groves’ Sociology of the Future last week at a UNESCO workshop supported by the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio. The workshop was convened to explore what UNESCO and others are calling ‘the Discipline of Anticipation’; and to examine how this apparently emerging discipline might be further developed to better support communities who are already ‘using the future’ around the world to inform responses to global challenges in the present.

The workshop brought together policy makers, researchers, independent scholars, NGOs and artists to scope a new international programme of events and research designed to promote ‘futures literacy’. This agenda is premised upon the idea that humans are always, consciously or not, using their capacity to anticipate in order to make choices in the present (Miller & Poli, 2010) and that a critical challenge is to enable people to reflect upon the assumptions that underpin such anticipations. Not, it should be said, in order to produce a more accurate picture of the future, but rather to better take on the challenge of ‘inventing a novel future’, and to ‘open up the boundaries of our imagination’.  And here, the project has real resonances with those Connected Communities projects that are aiming to use the future to open up possibilities in the present.

It is important to note, however, the ontological and epistemological assumptions that underpin this project and which distinguish it from many others. In essence, this project is premised upon the epistemological claim that the future is fundamentally unknowable, a site of potentially radical novelty that cannot meaningfully be predicted; and on the ontological claim that the future does not exist, except through anticipation in the present (Miller, 2011). Here it distinguishes itself from more dominant optimisation and contingency models of the future that present the future either as a land to be accurately surveyed and colonised, or as a site of radical unknowability from which we can only hope to protect ourselves. The critical implication of this perspective is that significant effort should be expended on making visible assumptions about the future in order to allow them to be unsettled, reframed and discarded to open up, make visible and explore the creative possibilities of the present.

This provides, in many ways, some significant challenges to many of the ‘progressive’ assumptions about the relationship between community engagement and the future that underpin collaborative research. Nonetheless, the project will soon test its utility in the field by running a series of workshops around the world. These workshops will address child trafficking in the Philippines, the future of science in Brazil, rites of passage to adulthood in Sierra Leone, post-revolution education in Tunisia, amongst others. All of these workshops will aim to explore whether it is possible to open up new possibilities for action in the present by unsettling and reframing the taken for granted assumptions about the future that often colonise thinking about contemporary challenges.

It’s good to know this work is going on, and I hope we’ll be able to create a way of connecting it more closely with the Connected Communities Programme. For now, though, what I took away from this workshop and from the discussions about the emergent Discipline of Anticipation, were powerful non-western ways of reflecting upon my own assumptions about how change might happen over time. In particular, Sohail Inayatullah introduced us to macrohistory perspectives of change, from Khaldun’s theories of decline to Sarkar’s ‘Social Cycle’. He encouraged us to reflect on the question ‘what shape is time’? A useful question for making visible and unsettling assumptions.

At the same time, the workshop also made visible a set of tools for surfacing, negotiating and reframing assumptions about the future that would be useful in any community engagement activity and that might provide a powerful resource for university-community collaborations. These included Inayatullah’s own ‘Causal Layered Analysis’, which he describes as ‘poststructuralism as method’  and yet which can be played out as a very engaging, rapid and challenging game leading to useful systemic analysis of levers for change for radically different futures.

Here are a few more references that colleagues interested in these issues might want to pursue:

Miller, Riel and Poli, Roberto, (eds) (2010) Anticipatory Systems and the Philosophical Foundations of Future Studies, Foresight, Vol 12, No.3 

Miller, R (2011) ‘Being without existing: the futures community at a turning point? A comment on Jay Ogilvy’s Facing the Fold, Foresight, Vol 13, No 3

Inayatullah, S (1998) Causal Layered Analysis: Poststructuralism as Method, Futures, Volume 30, Issue 8, October 1998, Pages 815–829

There’s a lot more to talk about around the relationship between communities and futures, but that’ll do for one post.

chalkboard Futures