Why „Futuring“ is a good thing to do

Invited by the Cluj-Napoca Urban Innovation Unit and its partners, Time’s Up had the opportunity and pleasure to develop and apply art-based methods of future studies circulating the subject of “work and its future(s)”. Over several years, we were involved in / with different roles, have been running a range of activities delivering a spectrum of outcomes. From the realisation of the “Expierential Future” Dr. Sleeplove or: How We Learned to Love Sleep, via the curation of an expansive exhibition preceded by an open call to the implementation of several issue-specific workshops with various interest groups. This vast number of activities gave us a wonderful chance to examine and explore, in practice and theory, the much debated topic of work, its definitions, values, its transformations, reorganizations and shapings in possible futures.

Only recently, the project management team, currently deeply submerged in writing up all sorts of reports of the project, approached us to write up a few paragraphs on why we consider the artistic examination of visions of possible futures being valuable. We felt like sharing these paragraphs here.

The Future doesn’t exist – but that does not mean, it isn’t real

The question of “How will we live?” can receive no definitive answer, for the future is always unwritten. Yet the question “How we may live?” has many answers. If one may think of Stewart Brand mentioning that “The present moment used to be the unimaginable future,” then perhaps even more polymorphic and pressing question “How do we want to live?” comes to mind – with its implied questions of choice and agency, of living together, in place, aware of social and ecological aspects, the more-than-human reflections on our position, where we live and how we live together.

These questions require that we imagine, and that we try to think into the realm of the unimaginable. These questions invite us to engage with “What if..?” speculations of possible futures, which already seems to be a vital human characteristic. According to Riel Miller, anticipating time with friends tomorrow or the prospects of a career after education are already simple forms of Futures Literacy (Miller 2018). To deepen and foster this basic ability Time’s Up takes, adapts, grafts & retrofits methods and tools from all avenues in Futures Thinking into processes allowing a playful training of ones “Sense of Possibilities”. A skill which can be trained and by that being turned into an essential capacity and mindset, empowering one to look at ways in which we can, in spite of yet in full awareness of the futility, enormity and gravity of current situations, dare to maintain positive visions. Visions allowing us to prepare for challenging futures by transforming our “business as usual” trajectory. A skill allowing us to go beyond what is likely to happen and beyond what could happen. A skill that leads to thinking out loud about what we would prefer to happen, without shame or false modesty, to develop imaginations that might look preposterous at first sight. Here comes Jim Dator (2019), a renown futurist, with his second Law of the Future: “Any useful idea about the futures should appear to be ridiculous.“ We are reminded that our world today would have looked ridiculous to someone three decades ago. The world of work is changing and so any reasonable ideas about the future of work will contradict our current understandings of work and thus appear ridiculous. Only through this process do we find new and useful ideas about how work is changing.

It is against the backdrop of this aspiration – daring to envision the desired in cooperation with others – that the range of activities of Futures of Work was set. On one hand, there were numerous workshops in the form of Futuring Exercises focussing on Re:Imagining Work. These were engaging a broad and interested civil society to examine and rethink current trends and given facts of work to co-create alternative and preferred images of work in a future. On the other hand, there was the exhibition of embodied futures Work Upside Down, inviting an audience to literally experience futures.

Futuring Exercises, structured and facilitated as low threshold, ludic design futures processes, function as catalysts for the participants to start individually, but more important as a group, to dream together in a safe and generative way. This social dreaming not only allows to develop a desire for, instead of a fear of futures, but also supports the recognition that there is indeed space for manoeuvre to bring visions into reality by starting transformation steps now.

Experiential Futures, in close proximity to Futuring Exercises, take visions, ideas and dreams a step further into physical space. Taking the more abstract description of a future scenario into a more concrete embodiment of it. With experiential futures, thoughts about the future can emerge more naturally.

Designed, embodied, immersive futures are more comprehensive, inviting visitors to connect their own “future self” to the possible future, hence are less purely analytical or reductive compared to many of the formal results of the IPCC or similar think-tanks. Hence, experiential futures allow us to develop more intuitive and personally meaningful understandings of a possible future – which is necessary in order to make decisions about how we want to live. Understanding is a form of learning. It is often said that experience is the best teacher. We adapt the well-worn adage to obtain “I hear futures and I forget. I see futures and I remember. I do futures and I understand.” Experiential Futures offer a safe way to explore the direct experience of a fragment of a possible future, employing somatic intelligence, cultural understanding and a myriad of parallel techniques that we, as humans, have in order to comprehend the world.

The tools of futures thinking, using futuring exercises, thinking out loud about possible futures, experiential futures and others are the type of tool that Rebecca Solnit (2016) is referring to when she says that

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

Through working with groups and individuals in Cluj, developing imaginations of possible futures and reflecting upon them, we have offered tools to enable them to imagine, develop, share and collaborate to create new visions of possible and preferable futures. These processes are tools for hope in times such as these. As Donella Meadows (2001) reminds us:

“There is too much bad news to justify complacency. There is too much good news to justify despair.”

So let us carry on with the work.

Sharing our insights and learning from that exchange is part of our research within Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA), an art-based research project of Design Investigations (ID2) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Time’s Up, supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) on the part of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.

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