A letter from my future self on citizen foresight, why and how?

Keep doing what you do with discussion cards, interactive videos and futures games, which are far more effective in communicating futures to people in the street.

Aaron Maniam
28 April 2017
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Olympic Opening Ceremony celebrates ‘One World, One Dream’, Beijing, 2008. Flickr/US army.Some rights reserved.Level #77The E-xtensionSingapore10 April 2037

Dear Aaron-in-2017,

We did it - humanity has cracked the time travel conundrum and I can finally send this letter! I was doubly happy to know that it was all done with technology developed by one of Singapore’s seventh university’s research centres, the Inter-temporal Transportation Institute for Molecular Efficiency (i-TIME)!

Remember Star Trek’s “Temporal Prime Directive”? It seemed like the coolest thing when we watched movies in the early 2000s, but yesterday’s fiction can’t match today’s reality. i-Time has already started drawing up a Code of Chronocentric Conduct (C3), which tells me I cannot reveal too much about the future to you. But I thought I’d take the chance, before C3 is fully fleshed out, to encourage you to persist with the citizen foresight work you started doing in 2012 - because there is so much potential in it!

If I remember correctly, you’re already convinced of the need to move the practice of futures beyond small elite groups, like business off-sites and government planning teams, and widen its use among citizens. From where you sit in 2017, Adam Kahane will have made some important steps toward involving citizens in his work in South Africa and Colombia, and Noah Raford will have done some wonderful work on crowdsourcing with FutureScaper.

But you’re right that we can do more - involving more citizens in our discussions and workshops, and incorporating their ideas and insights into our recommendations. You’ll remember the good start that Singapore made with ‘Our Singapore Conversation’ in 2012, which involved citizens in envisioning national futures. Groups like the Jefferson Centre in Minnesota and DemocracyCo in Adelaide also do interesting work with Citizen Juries that examine both current and future policy issues. If we believe in Pierre Wack’s idea of futures as “the gentle art of reperceiving” the present, then over the next few years I hope that these emergent efforts help you to start discerning three major reasons in favour of citizen foresight.

First, we should do more of it, because if gives us more ideas to work with. We both know that futures isn’t about prediction, but gaining a better understanding of our mental models and assumptions today. Never an easy thing to do, but it helps when we can draw on different ideas, from different lenses and worldviews – the wider the range, the better.

I’d go so far as to say that we must do more citizen foresight. I know the world in 2017 is pretty toxic, politically. C3 rules mean I can’t divulge too many details now, but let me say this: some of the venom will die down in time, but large institutions like businesses and governments need to start listening to more diverse views that address their deep biases (in favour of unfettered markets, for instance, and in favour of simplistic metrics like scale at the expense of genuine human connection). Citizen foresight is a powerful way to at least alleviate these biases. You and your collaborators need to persist even if your first few large-scale projects meet with some cynicism and derision. Things do get better ...

… which brings me to the third reason in favour of citizen foresight - growing technology means we can do more. You’ve already started seeing the benefits of online platforms and emerging facilitation techniques that allow for deep, personal and intimate discussions even when people are not co-located. Your current Internet of some Things will soon become an Internet of Everything (C3 rules allow me to say this since it’s fairly obvious from early 2018 or so!). You’ll soon be able to harness the connective potential of multiple platforms to enable citizen deliberations. If we don’t seize these opportunities, the problem is a lack of will, rather than a lack of appropriate tools.

So what does all this mean for you and other foresight practitioners? I can think of three key implications. 

First, keep creating modular futures products. I was so glad when we started moving away from dense Powerpoint slides and voluminous reports, because those aren’t particularly communicative even in governments and large companies. Keep doing what you do with discussion cards, interactive videos and futures games, which are far more effective in communicating futures to people in the street. I often think of the British Labour politician Douglas Alexander’s advice to our Master’s cohort at Oxford in 2014: for every bit of policy analysis we do, we need “paddling, wading, swimming and diving versions” - such product dexterity applies just as much to our work as futurists.

Second, keep working on immersiveness. Our friends Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan are masters at this, of course, with the finely crafted worlds of their experiential futures. Singapore’s own Institute of Policy Studies made such a great start with this in 2012, with the PRISM scenarios. We will need more of these in your future (and mine!) - so that we keep engaging citizens holistically, and they can experience the future with all their five senses, as well as their emotions. Only then, I suspect, can we start the reperceiving that Pierre Wack had in mind.

Third, I think we can tap more regularly and systematically on crowdsourcing technologies. Having citizens in actual futures workshops is wonderful, of course, but if that isn’t always feasible (because of time or space constraints) then we can still canvass diverse voices through technological platforms. I am probably breaking a C3 rule here, but I’ll take the risk: in 2021 you’ll see a new platform called SnEpigram, which synthesises the most attractive aspects of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (while also introducing some cool new functionalities … but mentioning that much detail will definitely break C3 rules so I should stop here!).

I’ll write again as soon as I can. But good luck in the meantime, and keep the faith! 



P.S. You probably guessed - I can’t divulge what job you/I/we will do in 2037, or let you know if I've received any letters from MY future … but I can say this: the future will be fun. And when you submit that PhD proposal in 2018, go with your gut!

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