What the future learns from the past
One of the best workshops I’ve run in the past eighteen months was with a group of museum curators, held in the Whitechapel Gallery in the room holding Goshka Macuga’s Guernica installation. The documents assembled for the exhibition seemed to permeate the workshop; everyone seemed to take extra care because of it. The project that the workshop was part of has now published a collection of reflections from participants. I contributed the short essay below, on the role of the past in futures work.
“When I say the word Future,
the first syllable is already a part of the past.”
The purpose of futures work is to help us manage uncertainty, and by doing so, to improve the sharpness of our thinking and the clarity of our oganisational purpose. Good futures work is deeply embedded in an understanding of the past; the richer it is. and the more reflective, the better. As Michel Godet advises, in Creating Futures (opens pdf): “We need to find the memory of the past to shed light upon the future”. In curating the past, then, we are also opening windows into the future. In my work I often find myself building timelines, sometimes back to the 19th century, or earlier. But the quality of both the future and the past, and the way we choose to interpret each of these, is also important.
In her fine work on conceptualising the future, Barbara Adam has made an alliterative distinction between futures told, tamed, traded and transformed. The first pair refer to the oracular futures of the pre-industrial world, often embedded in notions of cyclic change. The second pair, in contrast, are versions of the futures produced by the era of modernity, informed by an assumption of progress, a world in which we can calculate our futures through the miracle of the actuarial sciences.
But old forms of knowledge are not destroyed by modernity; instead, they are pushed into the shadows. Part of the futures project, therefore, is to recover these different ways of making meaning. The notion of progress rips us from our contexts, and makes it necessary, literally, to re-place ourselves within them.
Applying this can seem hard, but it shouldn’t do. Sohail Inayatullah offers a useful model (opens pdf: the model is seen below) in which past, present and future combine (and compete) to shape the future. The present is about the trends we see around us, and the future is built from our competing images of the coming age. The past helps us to understand both the continuities and the disruptions in our shared histories.
But the quality of the past is also important. It may seem a ‘weight’, as in the diagram below, but weights have different qualities. They may be burdens, which we have to carry, or they may drag us down (one thinks of the climatic scene in the film The Piano). But weights can also be anchors which secure us and make sure that we don’t float away.
This interrogation of the past produces a second question, about the quality of the future – or futures – that exist in the past. Sohail Inayatullah writes of the ‘used future’, the secondhand future which is imported uncritically from another culture and another discourse. Asian cities, for example, have tended to follow the same pattern of urban development that western cities did generations ago, as if channelling the New York urban planner Robert Moses.
‘Legacy futures’, in contrast (the phrase is from Jamais Cascio) are ideas about the future which have been around so long that they have trapped us in their embrace, even though the ideas and metaphors which created them have all but vanished. The idea of the jet-pack may be satirised these days, but the world which made it, of unlimited energy and extensive personal freedom, still informs much public policy and a surprising amount of corporate planning.
And then there are the ‘ghost futures’, my addition to this trilogy, which have been dismissed from consideration because they haven’t yet emerged, but which, as the saying goes, may be “patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper”. Keynes‘ oft-derided prediction – actually about the year 2030 – that we may work for only 15 hours a week comes to mind.
As we say the word ‘future’, the syllables slide into the past. Yes: and as we speak, all of our pasts – social, cultural, linguistic, political – wrap themselves around the future.
The picture at the top of this post is of the Guernica installation. One of the conditions of the exhibition was the the room could be used for meetings – as long as the public weren’t excluded and a record of the meeting was added to the Whitechapel Gallery archive.