We know that emerging issues are emerging because they have a social form. Art gives us clues about the changing meanings of the future.

It’s a convention of futures work that new ideas emerge from the “edge” and, potentially, move towards the mainstream; as they make themselves visible, we describe them as emerging issues or weak signals. The journey is long (35-85 years, said Graham Molitor in his pioneering work) and bumpy. Many ideas emerge, but few succeed. But the futures literature is still unclear, as I read it, as to how we know when an issue has started to emerge.

I tried – with colleagues – to address this question recently in a piece of work The Futures Company did for Foresight (the UK government department) scanning for emerging issues which might affect notions about land use (downloads pdf), looking out over at least 20 years.

Challenging prevailing ideas about land

There were several clusters of ideas which seemed to the project team to represent a significant challenge to the prevailing model in the UK, which amount – I simplify – to different degrees of regulated market management, depending on how the land has been designated. The market has slightly less sway, for example, in Sites of Special Scientific Interest, greenbelt, Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, or National Parks. Planning law also constrains the market. At the same time, there are persistent calls, mostly from economists turned policy-makers, that we need to slacken the existing controls to manage  predicted surge in housing demand. These are heard clearly within government – still too highly tuned to market noise – even though the most trivial systems analysis suggests that satisfying unconstrained demand is not the best way to manage housing issues, even if we had the capacity to build the millions of houses which are said to be required.

When we looked at the emerging issues, we found that a number of them seemed to represent fundamental challenges to the ‘more-or-less regulated markets’ hypothesis.The detail is in the report, but for example, to take just a couple of examples there are clear emerging ideas about the meaning of land (some of which remove it from the market fundamentally) and about ownership models. Ecosystem thinking is becoming more important to land management, there are new governance models, and, of course, the market model itself is also being challenged. I blogged about some of these recently.

From ‘patient zero’ to social signs

In terms of understanding emerging issues at a more theoretical level, Wendy Schultz has written that the goal of the futurist is to find ‘patient zero’ [opens document] – in the metaphor of the epidemic. Wendy is a sometime colleague, and (further disclosure) she was closely involved in the Land Use project I’ve just described. She has done a lot of valuable work on emerging issues, not least in insisting on their fundamental importance to good futures work. But the metaphor isn’t quite right, for the emerging issue is a social construction, and we can never know from an single sighting (or citing) of a new idea whether it is the very start of a long trend, weakly signalled, a throwback to a disappearing past, or merely a moment of madness or eccentricity which has no social stickiness.

For if emerging issues are to emerge, they have to acquire a social form. Elina Hiltunen’s work, which uses the language of social signification (borrowed from semiotics and the work of Charles Pierce) is useful here. As she explains it,

Applying Peirce’s model of a sign to the future sign it has three dimensions: signal, issue and interpretation. In the future sign signals stand for the concrete form of a sign, the observation of the issue. The issue is the thing in itself and the interpretation is the sense made out of the issue’s possibilities for the future. (Italics in original)

Hunting for the ‘first followers’

So, we should be looking for evidence of the ‘first follower’, to borrow a phrase from a memorable Youtube video, the signs that the issues has acquired a social meaning, along with other social signifiers. As I say in the Land Use Horizon Scan report,

Often one does not see emerging issues until they have developed a constituency. To take an example from the present scan, Agnes Denes’ ‘Wheatfield-A Confrontation’, an ‘installation’ in which she grew wheat in a landfill in Battery Park, New York, [and remade as] part of the ‘Radical Nature’ exhibition in London, dates from 1982. While it would have been provocative and challenging in the 1980s, it is unlikely that most would have read it then as an early sign of a return in interest in urban agriculture. It is only with hindsight, and the emergence of multiple communities around this area, but still at the edge of the mainstream, that it can be read as a sign of an emerging issue.

Found art from the history of the future

There’s a picture of ‘Wheatfield’ at the top of this post. One of the reasons I was thinking about this was as a result of seeing another piece of art, Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Gluts’ exhibition earlier this month in Bilbao. In the ’70s and ’80s, Rauschenberg became interested in working with materials which he had found in junkyards. One of the Guggenheim galleries had about a dozen pieces which were built from the deitritus of the US auto industry, whether old road signs, garage (gas station) signage, or, perhaps most poignantly, the production schedule board for an engine plant.

Rauschenberg started collecting them after the oil price spike of the 1970s, although the finished pieces date from the following decade. Obviously they represent a ‘sign’ from being the work of an internationally acclaimed artist who had easy access to galleries and exhibition space. But the meaning of the sign changes over time.

Rauschenberg himself said the work was about greed:

“It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant.  I’m just exposing it, trying to wake people up. I simply want to present people with their ruins. I think of the Gluts as souvenirs without nostalgia.”

At the time of the voracious consumption of the globalisation boom, this must have had quite a lot of resonance. He started making the pieces after the financial ‘Big Bang’ and as Reagan/Thatcherite economic policies unleashed increasing inequality. Even so, meanings change. Both past and future are open to new interpretations. Now, after the financial crisis, and as the moment of peak oil appears imminent, the ‘Gluts’ look like the chronicle of a collapse foretold.