The nice thing about imagining futures is that anything is possible. I started out as a historian because I did not know what had happened in the past and was excited to see how things unfolded. I became an anthropologist because I wanted to know how other cultures worked. Each has the excitement of a present to be opened. What’s going to happen next?
I have always loved science fiction for this reason – here is an opportunity to imagine anything you like. My favourite authors are Ian M Banks (RIP) and William Gibson. Their imaginations bring such richness of possibilities, woven into fast-paced and exciting narratives. However my desire for novel concepts moves too quickly for the speed with which science fiction narratives emerge in the popular realm. I inhaled the recent Orphan Black and Black Mirrors and struggled through The Expanse, despite the bad acting, because I was intrigued by how the worlds are imagined: the plot, while nice, is less important than the situational possibilities.
I always want to know how is this world constructed, what are the values and how do people interact with each other.
Visioning Lab’s precept is that EVERYONE has the capacity to imagine different kinds of futures. The sessions we run bring out all sorts of possibilities and we are just starting to think about how to build on and develop them.
Finally my thirst for novel scenarios is being satisfied.
Being good only works when those around both recognise that you are trying to be good and are themselves also trying to be good. Then their version of good also needs to match your version of good. These kinds of subtleties underpin every human engagement but most of the time people do not even recognise that they are there.
Here we have an interaction between two people. Even this simple image is immediately loaded with assumptions and presumptions about who these people are, what they are doing and what they want. So this meeting is the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface are a set of relationships that underpin the dynamics that led to this particular moment.
In anthropology, there are three main principles which help people understand the subtleties in social dynamics. The discipline has developed over 100 years, refining and building on these principles. They are:
- Participant observation (Malinowski)
- Thick or detailed description (Geertz)
- ‘Matter out of place’ (Douglas) ie. recognising that food and other ‘matter’ has different meanings based on who and where you are and what it is
These principles can help us understand how the desire to be good can be different in different contexts.
So we can go into a situation and use ‘participant observation’ to learn about how things are done and what the hierarchies are. When we observe a situation closely and describe it in detail, we have more information about it. If we consider what different objects mean to different people, we learn more about the objects and the people.
When people imagine different kinds of scenarios, the same level of attention to detail can be applied. The future visioning sessions are highly sensitive to such nuances. As people imagine a future setting, I try to make as few assumptions as possible. For example, I suggest that people ‘move’ through a space. I don’t use the word ‘walk’ as they might be on a vehicle of some sort.
Returning to my opening musing, I wonder what ‘being good’ looks like in different people’s imagined futures.
In Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, authors Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner introduce 20,000 people who are good at predicting what will happen next. They found these people through the ‘Good Judgement Project‘ which ‘crowd‑sourced forecasting’ using self-selecting volunteers. They proved so good at helping American intelligence with forecasting that they beat the government’s in house team, private contractors and university teams in their predictions.
What’s their secret? Tetlock and Gardner argue that what matters most with forecasting is ‘how the forecaster thinks’ and how determinedly and self-critically they approach their task. A ‘superforecaster’ needs to be ‘open-minded, careful, curious and – above all – self-critical’. This means they need to pay attention to their assumptions and learn from their mistakes.
The Visioning Lab project aims to help people learn how to be open-minded and curious. Its emphasis is on playful interventions that gain access to one’s instinctive and imaginative ideas, that sit below the surface in every day life. People’s backgrounds and educational experiences have often stifled imaginative, open minded and curious thinking. The Visioning Lab provides a setting to bring them back online.
And it’s a Lab because it is a place of experimentation – where things may go wrong, they may fall apart and that’s ok. We tidy up, learn from the experience and move on.