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How to Create Positive Futures

“The future we imagine is the future we create,” says futurist Stuart Candy. Here’s how to imagine – and shape – that world.

The uncertainties of the last year are not going away any time soon, according to Stuart Candy, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design and a professional “futurist.” Candy has worked with private and public organizations across the globe to help them imagine and plan for alternative futures.

It can be tough to imagine a world we haven’t experienced, but the field of “future studies” provides tools for the process. The goal is to work collectively to imagine diverse futures and then provoke action and change.

Candy quoted Indian intellectual Ashis Nandy, who wrote: “By avoiding thinking about the future you hand over the future, as a prisoner, to the …unthinking. Futures studies seek to subvert such status quo. They help to keep options open in an institutionally closed world.”

Watch the video to find out how to build the future studies perspective into your work.

Here are some highlights from Candy’s talk.

Ask about your organization’s future

Actively consider what future your organization is prepared for. Assumptions about the future are always being made, in everything from the products sold to the way an organisation is structured.  “When you are designing anything, you are creating a fragment of the future,” Candy said.

He urges people to consider:

  • What is your organisation’s ‘official’ future? How does your organization imagine the world in 5, 10, or 25 years?

  • For what conditions is your organisation optimised? In what future scenarios will your organization thrive?

  • For what possibilities or scenarios are you prepared? If the future looks different, how will your organization function?

The future is challenging — but exciting. Candy quoted philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past…But on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages.”

4 ways to imagine and create the future

It’s not easy to imagine futures. Candy recommends guiding our thinking with three key considerations:

  1. Difference: “The future is another place.” It’s easy to think that future will be an extension of the present. But in fact, the future is often not the same, or even similar, as the current disruptions related to the global pandemic and climate change have shown us.

    Nonetheless, “Changes are often foreseeable once one knows where to look,” said Candy. Environmental scanning is a tool to identify potential changes and keep track of them.” Scan through different lenses: e.g. social, economic, political and ask ‘what if’ questions (Example of scanning: UK Parliament Horizon Scans, ARUP Drivers of Change)

  2. Diversity: “Any single image of the future is incomplete.” Think about “futures” rather than “the future,” Candy recommended. A single image of the future often results when powerful groups in society dominate the conversation. But their visions don’t necessarily become reality (as with the slow development of self-driving cars).

    Prepare for multiple options rather than looking for the most likely trajectory. Different frameworks for thinking about multiple futures include images of change, two-by-two scenario matrices, and “branch analysis” (Example: Brexit Diagram Series)

  3. Depth. “Don’t just talk about the future — experience it.” Often, we describe the future in reports and charts, but we need to find ways to experience possible futures more concretely. Hands-on engagement is more powerful in provoking insight and change. Using only our brains limits our imagination to what we know. Engaging all capacities such as emotions, and physical touch makes the images of the futures more concrete.

    Candy and colleagues develop “experiential futures”: drawings, prototypes, and exhibits which show possible futures in multiple dimensions. They can be at any scale — e.g. a team, organization, neighborhood, or state — and are usually created with input from those affected.  (Examples: “Thing from the Future” card game, Parliament for All Beings, sample product: “NaturePod”)

Then: Design the future. Ultimately, we want to work toward creating desired futures. Using the tools of difference, diversity, and depth can help us make this shift. “The only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it,” said the Afro-futurist Octavia Butler. We don’t have to passively wait for the future; we can actively shape it. (Xanax)

Resources for the Future

Stuart Candy’s website

Stuart Candy’s publications

NBS article: Why business should imagine utopia

NBS report: Planning for a shared vision of a sustainable future: Report for executives

Candy spoke to members of the NBS Sustainability Centres Community, during their 2021 Workshop: “Building the Business Sustainability Centre of the Future.”

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  • Stuart Candy
    Distinguished Visiting Professor of Critical Futures
    Tecnol—gico de Monterrey
    PhD in Political Science/Futures Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa

    Stuart Candy is an Associate Professor in the Carnegie Mellon School of Design. An award-winning foresight practitioner, designer, artist and educator, his work aims to augment our capacity for navigating alternative futures by any means necessary. At CMU he is responsible for integrating foresight / futures practice throughout the design curriculum.

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