Futures Thinking: Human Technology For A Volatile Present

Futures Thinking: Human Technology For A Volatile Present
Photo by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash

Futures thinking and foresight describe a multidisciplinary approach to planning that can be used to address social challenges that range from the economic to the environmental. Amongst its many other titles, it’s known as futurism, futurology and anticipation studies. But despite its apparent preoccupation with the world of tomorrow, futures thinking is really a way to think and overcome the challenges of the present. 

To quote the author and futurist Jamais Cascio, in an illuminating explanatory essay on the subject: “Futurism as it’s practiced today doesn’t try to predict the future, but rather to illuminate unexpected implications of present-day issues; the emphasis isn’t on what will happen, but on what could happen, given various observed drivers. It’s a way of getting new perspectives and context for present-day decisions, as well as for dealing with the dilemma at the heart of all strategic thinking: the future can’t be predicted, yet we have to make choices based on what is to come.”

One of the most interesting aspects of this new breed of futurists and futurism is the convergence of the worlds of hard data-focused scientists and researchers with fiction writers, or as they’re sometimes described, imagineers, a topic that Think City recently examined in partnership with UNDP Accelerator LabsMIGHTUniversiti Malaya’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Matahari Books.

That collaboration, a storytelling competition called KISAH Futures, asked Malaysian writers to submit short stories of up to 700 words, in either English or Bahasa Malaysia, that imagine the post-Covid-19 futures of their lives and the places they live in. A short story writing competition might seem like a strange thing for an urban regeneration agency and a global development agency to be involved in, but storytelling is a universal tool that helps us to bridge cultures and make sense of our environment. 

Stories are insights with the ability to inform us all. They have the potential to catalyse change, to help us build resilience and move towards that goal of sustainable social, economic and ecological futures in our cities and the wider world. To celebrate the launch of the KISAH Futures Anthology, a compilation of the 50 winning shorty story entries – 25 in English and 25 in Bahasa Malaysia – we brought together a panel of experts to talk about the insights that a competition like this offers to strategic and futures thinkers. 

Futures Thinking: Human Technology For A Volatile Present
KISAH Futures Panel & Winners

On our panel for the discussion, we were pleased to welcome Manon Bernier, Deputy Resident Representative, UNDP Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei Darussalam. Dr Liz Alexander, Futurist, Author, Consultant, Speaker and senior associate at MIGHT. Associate Professor Dr Susan Philip , from the Faculty of Arts & Science at University Malaya. Amir Muhammad, the writer, publisher and filmmaker behind Buku Fixi and its imprint Matahari Books. And, for Think City, Duncan Cave, Lead for Think City Institute. 

Matt Armitage: Amir, one of the things that I found fascinating was that you described a marked tonal difference, a different set of unifying themes between the entries in English and Bahasa Malaysia. Can you tell us about those different themes and trends? 

Amir Muhammad: I think in the main, they were both quite dystopian in the sense that they both looked at worst case scenarios, or extremes of…[the] life that we’re familiar with. Then they take something that is shocking: for example, you have to buy oxygen, something very, very extreme like that. But I find in the main that the English ones were more cynical in the sense that a lot of the concerns seem to be about surveillance, about how the government is going to control you and things like that, which I thought gave the government too much credit for efficiency. So, that’s a different kind of cynicism at work. That, I thought, was kind of jarring: you have the Malaysian government being bad, but they’re efficient at it. 

But the Malay ones, the focus always came back to community, to family ties. So, in the end, it’s about how these family ties are preserved. Even though you had this doom and gloom going on in the background, it’s about how people want to connect. It had more of a hopeful vibe. It’s interesting to see how people imagine the future, because as we discussed before, nobody writes about the future; you’re always writing about the present tense. You’re always writing about what you’re anxious about.

Matt Armitage: Susan, to that point that Amir raised, why do you think there were those large differences between the English and Malay language story submissions?

Susan Philip: I was interested to hear what Amir said because I only read the English stories, but I would have to put it down to basically how we live now. It may be a rural-urban divide. I’m not sure, but it may also be cultural; what people consider the most important thing to look at when everything is crumbling around you. Are you more interested in looking at how technology can save you or are you more interested in looking at how personal relations can save you? Right? I don’t have an exact answer for this, but to me it must be a cultural mindset that is quite different.

Matt Armitage: Turning to Duncan, and that subject of why a storytelling competition. People know Think City as an urban regeneration agency. Why would Think City make a call for stories?

Duncan Cave: We’ve been involved in urban regeneration for more than 10 years now. We shouldn’t be building our cities for the convenience of cars, or what’s easiest for local government or what’s best for business. Rather, we should be building cities for people first and foremost. We need to make our cities as livable as possible, as well as sustainable and resilient. 

You have to remember that almost 80% of Malaysians live in urban areas. So, what happens in the cities affects nearly all of us. What the future holds is of real and great importance for how we plan and manage our cities. And by being involved in this competition, we have the chance to listen in on and capture some of the hopes and fears of what the future might look like for ordinary Malaysians. 

We can use this to influence our decision-making in terms of, say, identifying what type of projects we should be advancing. I strongly believe that we have to take the lead in dealing with issues such as climate change, resiliency and sustainability, and by having some strategic foresight in [terms of] where ordinary Malaysians see us heading, we can better tackle those issues. 

Matt Armitage: On that subject of foresight, I’d like to turn to Liz and address that technology aspect. We can see and feel the influence of Big Technology. The last 12 months, for example, has turned millions of people into digital workers, pretty much overnight. So, do you think these stories by Malaysians represent a trust in technology, or do you think people fear where it might take us?

Liz Alexander: It seemed to me that both trust and fear were incorporated in those stories, but in interesting ways. If we start with fear, as far as that’s concerned, I would say that a feature of stories about the future is that they are dystopian. As you said, stories are there to give us insights, to catalyze change, and if everything’s all hunky-dory and wonderful…then there’s nothing much that where we’re going to gain from that. And I found that the winning English entry, MARI by Matthew Yap Tuck Mun, is a great example of a fearful story. MARI stands for Malaysian Artificial Reconnaissance Intelligence. Amir may not believe that the government is competent in terms of making sure that they’re tracking our every movement, [but that’s the future] that Matthew feels that may well come to pass.

The trust bit was interesting to me. And it brings in what the others have said about community, because it seemed very significant that we were seeing salvation in these stories, through human interaction and through human relationships. And that was the key highlight for me: that we may not have trust in technology; that we may have this very healthy concern – which we should have – that at least we have trust in one another. And the belief that as human beings, if we stick together, we can overcome anything. 

Matt Armitage: Manon, building on what Liz just said, I’m going to ask you to speculate a little. When we put those fears, those ideas about trust, into that macro and global context, would you expect to get kind of similar results around the world? Or would you expect that a similar competition in another country that you would generate very different entries? 

Manon Bernier: I would need to do a whole foresight exercise to be able to do that! Traditionally, the foresight exercise is done with hard data, doing modeling and trying to look into the future. I was also questioning myself: why is UNDP going into this competition? But I think [we began] to understand the power of narrative in informing the future. At UNDP, we are looking for insights to inform change. This is what you are looking into: what can we learn from those stories that can help us to Intervene, either to reduce the probability of the negative scenario or strengthen the positive scenarios that could happen? 

So, would those stories be the same in different countries? There are very few [examples to compare to]. I think Malaysia is quite innovative with this experience of using narrative for foresight. I understand that they are only two similar initiatives in the world at the moment, so I cannot do a general trend. But I can see some general hopes and fears in all the elements that you have mentioned. Concern for family, concern for friends, pain of separation and isolation in a moment of crisis. {Those], I think, are universal. That Covid-19 is not only a health issue, it’s a social issue that needs to be addressed on a longer run. 

Beyond the universality, for UNDP, the value is in how we can localize, being able to analyze that narrative [and what it tells us about] the local context. For example, in Malaysia, we did a [small] analysis of the stories. One of the findings was that the younger people were, the more [pessimistic] the narrative. Young men tend to be more pessimistic [for] the future than the others, which is quite insightful for us, as we are looking at inclusion and how we can bring everyone on board to achieve the sustainable development goals.

Of course, we would need [to do] more analysis, but it reconfirms some of the data [we have] on the socioeconomic impact of Covid-19, and that can provide us opportunities to drill down into solutions. Looking at the universality is interesting, but it’s about how we can use the localized insights that we can get from the stories to inform our future initiatives and impact the future. To build back better.

Matt Armitage: I’m going to shift gears slightly and return to Susan. There used to be a very clear distinction between science fiction and other forms of literature. Today, technology is a part of our daily lives and authors are not just using technology as a subject, as a backdrop or a cultural prop. They’re using it to explore new ways to publish as well. They’re self-publishing eBooks, they’re serializing works behind paywalls on platforms like Medium, Substack or Patreon. They’re publishing short stories and poems directly to Twitter. They’re even bypassing the print and book stage and going straight to creating podcasts. 

So, are we seeing most contemporary fiction being influenced by that digital mindset, even when or if those digital technologies don’t figure as themes in the works or the fiction itself?

Susan Philip: Even if it isn’t in the fiction, I think authors are increasingly aware that they can use these technologies to serve themselves better. And this, I think, links to what Liz was saying earlier about how much we want to be controlled by the technology and how much we want to control it. And it’s also a matter of how much we want to be controlled by publishers, apologies Amir! But you know, these technologies do allow you to publish without being controlled by someone else’s vision or someone else’s marketing plan. To publish at your discretion. It’s very much the democratization of publishing. 

It’s not necessarily a good thing because what it means is that some very bad stuff gets published. But you can’t say no to that, because if you say no to that, then you’re also limiting good stuff, interesting stuff, right? So, I think writers don’t necessarily want to dwell entirely on the technology in their work, but that certainly doesn’t stop them from harnessing its power to get their words out there. So, I think it’s a valuable step forward for them. 

Matt Armitage: Amir, to that same point, do you find that technology and thinking about the future, have they started to creep into or emerge from your own writing in any way?

Amir Muhammad: Well, I don’t write much, but I publish. I can see my target readers, people in the college age, and I always read what they say in response, on social media and so on. This is just an anecdote, but once I wanted to re-publish a murder mystery series from the eighties, from Indonesia. I thought I would hit the jackpot because there are 36 of them. So, if one is a hit, I don’t have to do anything. I just have to publish 36 books and they’ll all be bestsellers. But they were flops. I published two. They were flops and I didn’t know why. I thought the stories were interesting. I went to Goodreads and I found out why. One of the comments was by a college student who said, ‘I couldn’t understand this novel because the characters did not have mobile phones’.

So, don’t publish books in which people don’t use technology. It seems too far away. Maybe writing something 500 years ago, it would be better because then the rules don’t apply. But I think something from 40 years ago, people find it shocking and they didn’t know how to relate to it. So, that’s how it is affecting readers. I think what’s happening on Wattpad is a great sign of democratization of media. There’s a lot of fanfiction on Wattpad, and it is mainly driven by teenage girls. But I think teenage girls drive many aspects of popular culture. So, you’ll be able to see instantly what is really popular among the Malaysian reading public. Don’t go to bookshops, go to places like Wattpad. 

Matt Armitage: Coming back to Liz and that policy aspect. How do we give people the tools to think more strategically about the future, whether it be for themselves, their business or the future direction of the country? And when we talk about it in policy terms, how involved should those people, ordinary people, be in terms of making and shaping those national strategic decisions? 

Liz Alexander: Everyone is born with the best tool. The brain. The problem is, the brain does not come with an instruction manual. And that has limited the potential…to imagine the futures that we want. For me, it always comes back to education. Futures thinking should be incorporated throughout the curriculum, from the very outset. 

If you really want to be able to use your best tool, your brain, then you need to learn very early on how to challenge assumptions and misconceptions, to develop the ability to anticipate, to imagine ‘what if’…[especially] if there are unexpected outcomes. Decision A may lead to outcome B, but what about outcomes C, D and E? Very often, those are not considered. So, for me, it always comes down to overhauling education, so that we are helping people use that tool in the best way possible. 

As far as the second part of your question is involved: unfortunately, if we remain complacent, and I think Duncan alluded to this, then we’re going to get the future that the tech companies and the consulting firms who work for them [choose]. We will believe that these are inevitable outcomes.

I wrote about this in Fast Company magazine online and an article called What Faux Futurists Cost the Rest of Us. And what always worries me about the futures community is that you’ve got these commercial interests on the sidelines, that assume that the future they want us to have is the one we are inevitably going to have. And that’s why it is so important for everybody to get involved and to develop this tool. Not to be complacent and to start to question and not make assumptions. Just because somebody tells you automation is going to take over all your jobs, we’re all going to be out of work or what have you. Great, but is that the future that we want? And if not, what can we do today? 

As Manon said…the future has not been written yet. It has not occurred yet. So, everything that we do today is going to make sure that we either get the future that we want, or we remain complacent, and we’ll get the future we deserve.

Matt Armitage: Manon, I think you mentioned that themes like governance and the environment were a lot less prevalent in the stories than themes like technology. Is this something that we see across wider society? And if so, what can we do to increase awareness of these topics? Especially in areas like governance, which aren’t perhaps as easy to shine a light on as climate change and the environment?

Manon Bernier: I think what was coming out very strongly, in terms of theme [in the stories] was the technology aspect. Which Liz talked about. [The competition was announced] in the middle of the first month of Covid-19; everybody was isolated at home. The first reaction is to use technology: to connect to each other and to go back to our lives. [At that stage people were] still [looking] at Covid as a health issue, primarily. 

However, governance and environment are more [like] invisible issues, although they have huge impacts [on us]. If you take pollution: [in] so many cities [this] is already having an impact on our health. [I say] Invisible because [it’s not] something that we can die from right now, but it is impacting on everyone. 

What we see from UNDP is that environment issues have been managed, so far, in an isolated way. From the social impact and the economic impact. And we really need to look at the dimensions together. Even on UNDP side, we were looking at human development from a human and much more of a social development perspective. And this year, for the first time, we have included the environmental impact as well.

But this connection of the environment, the social and the economic is not there yet. And I think some of the things we need to look at work at different levels. At the government level I think there’s more and more awareness that the environment is not only an issue of the ministry of environment. We need a ‘whole-of-society’ approach involving multi-sectorial initiatives to be able to address it. [That’s] at the policy and at the government level. 

We also need more awareness with citizens. A lot of the recommendations from our human development report [concern] how we can change behavior. Consumption behaviour, for example. How can we change the impact on the environment if we keep consuming and requesting all those products all the time and keep increasing [demand]?

In my country, we say, ‘when I buy, I vote’. Because what we buy is an expression of what we care for. So, what kind of products are we buying? If we can play along those three levels, I think the issue of environment will be much more visible, and visible to data analysis as well. [And] to have a whole of society approach to address it.

Matt Armitage:  I’m going to turn to Duncan for my final question, which is more about knowledge and education. What role do you think that that organizations like Think City and the Think City Institute must play in developing and sharing those skills that we’ve talked about tonight? Those skills that are required to develop that sense of foresight and to think and to plan for the future?

Duncan Cave: The number of people that entered this competition really surprised me. And you know, the traction that we’ve got from that has provided us with a lot of food for thought. You and Liz explained quite clearly what futures thinking is, and it’s not about speculating what the future might hold. We talk about futures in the plural, because, as Liz said, the future is not written. There are multiple futures that can be created. Futures thinking is about planning what future you want and identifying those steps that are needed to reach that.

For example, we’re very concerned with cities. If we want KL to have similar levels of public transport use as, say, Singapore or Hong Kong or London or New York. And we want this by 2030 or 2040; what is the map to achieve that? What does it look like? And it’s almost that you have to work backwards. You have to start at your goal date: [by] 2040, we want 75% of people taking public transport. So, what do we have to have done by 2038? What do we have to done by 2035? The Think City Institute was established by Think City to encourage best practice and learnings within the urban sphere.

Our aim is to raise the capabilities of everyone who’s involved in citymaking. And futures thinking is definitely a skill that needs to be encouraged and nurtured here in Malaysia. We’ve had some success in the past running futures programmes for local government. We did one in Penang, one in KL and one in Johor. But I think that that there could well be an opportunity here for us to team up with the other organizations that are represented [here], to see if we could curate some more content, some more courses in this area. 

You can explore the Think City Institute at https://thinkcityinstitute.org

Download your free copy of the KISAH Futures anthology at https://thinkcity.com.my/UNDPKisah/