Kathy Peach at NESTA: “….The practice of thinking about the future is currently dominated by a small group of academics, consultants, government foresight teams, and large organisations. The ability to influence the future has been cornered by powerful special interests and new tech monopolies who shape our views of what is possible. While the entrepreneurs, scientists and tech developers building the future are not much more diverse. Overall, the future is dominated by privileged white men.
Democratising futures means creating new capacity among many more diverse people to explore and articulate their alternative and desirable visions of the future. It must create hope – enabling people to co-diagnose the issues and opportunities, build common ground and collectively imagine preferred futures. Investment, policy and collective civic action should then be aligned to help deliver these common visions. This is anticipatory democracy, not the extractive surveying of needs and wants against a narrow prescribed set of options that characterises many ‘public engagement’ exercises. Too often these are little more than PR activities conducted relatively late in the decision-making process.
The participation of citizens in futures exercises is not new. From Hawaii in the 1970s to Newcastle more recently, cities, regions and small nations have at times explored these methods as a way of deepening civic engagement. But this approach has so far failed to achieve mainstream adoption.
The zeitgeist, however, may be changing. Political paralysis has led to growing calls for citizens assemblies on climate change and resolving the Brexit deadlock – demonstrating increasing enthusiasm for involving citizens in complex deliberations. The appointment of the world’s first Commissioner for Future Generations in Wales and its People’s Platform, as well as the establishment of the UK’s all-party parliamentary group on future generations are also signals of democracies grappling to find ways of bringing long-term thinking and people back into political decision-making.
And while interest in mini-publics such as citizens’ assemblies has grown, there has been a much broader expansion of participatory methods for thinking about the future….
Anecdotal evidence from participatory futures exercises suggests they can lead to significantchange for communities. But rigorous or longitudinal evaluations of these approaches are relatively few, so the evidence base is sketchy. The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps it is the eclecticism of the field, the lack of clarity on how to evaluate these methods, or the belief of its supporters that the impact is self-evidentiary.
As part of our new research agenda into participatory futures, we want to address this challenge. We hope to identify how newer and more traditional futures methods can practically be combined to greatest effect. We want to understand the impact on the individuals and groups involved, as well as on the wider community. We want to know whether platforms for public imagination can help nurture more of the things we need: more inclusive economies and innovation, healthier community relationships, greater personal agency for individuals, and more effective civic society.
We know many local authorities, public and civil society institutions are recognising the need to reimagine their roles and their services, and recast their relationships with citizens for our changing world….(More)”.