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Why exploring multiple futures is vital in our response to the climate crisis

While we can’t predict the future, we can get imaginative and creative with what it could look like.

As the decade of delivery begins, we’re seeing a surge in the number of businesses using "applied futures for sustainability" as part of their efforts in the climate fightback — but what does that mean? How does imagining the multiple possible futures still open to us help focus efforts? Where do we start, why and what’s the benefit? Forum for the Future’s Sally Uren explores the value of applying futures practice to sustainability efforts.

The start of a new year is usually a herald or promise of better times ahead, but for many of us 2020 might seem an exception to the rule. Over-spilling tensions in the Middle East, the dismal failure of governments to agree to accelerated action on climate at COP25, the continuing lurch in some countries towards hard-right governments and nationalism, the fires in Australia, the flooding in Indonesia — these are just some reasons why the future looks rather bleak to many. 

But for those of us committed to change, apathy or inaction are luxuries we can’t afford. As global leaders gather themselves for the World Economic Forum at Davos to explore what a "cohesive and sustainable world" means, they — along with civil society and business leaders around the world — will need to convert disillusionment into shared vision and motivation if they are to continue working towards a future fit for younger generations. 

At Forum for the Future, we’ve seen all too often one prevalent barrier to change: People find it immensely difficult to imagine different versions of the future. Most feel threatened by the unknown and can become paralyzed, not knowing what to plan for. This is why the application of "imagined futures" is such a powerful tool.

We’ve seen all too often one prevalent barrier to change: People find it immensely difficult to imagine different versions of the future.

At Forum, we use futures — the systematic exploration of possible, probable and preferable future scenarios informed by trends emerging today — to help people and organizations create a shared vision of the future they want to see. We help them understand what their role would be in that world and make better decisions on how to achieve it. 

Here are four ways futures can unlock a clear path for radical change.

1. By helping make the case for it

Sounds simple? It’s really not. The overwhelming power and inertia of capital markets can make businesses and organizations oblivious to clear and present risks in the status quo. Creating shared visions of the future together not only can unite stakeholders in understanding threats to their supply chain; it also helps assess the barriers to change and informs concerted action to overcome these barriers.

Take for example the global tea industry, in which the supply of tea is threatened by climate change, supply chain abuses and a dearth of tea workers (among many other factors). Only by working with major industry players to develop future scenarios — one of which was a world where tea was no longer available — was the tea sector able to come together to address the systemic failures of the current system, and in turn decide what needs to be put in place today to avert catastrophe. Above all, it helped the industry make a case for change, providing a mandate for significant action to tackle some major challenges facing growers.

2. By sparking radical innovation

Imagining plausible versions of the future is a great way to spark ideas for new products and services that respond to real challenges and trends facing us today, such as water scarcity and new manufacturing methods. 

For example, Forum worked with consumer champions Which? to imagine product and service concepts for 2030. This included a "bathroom GP" — a product-service bundle that discreetly takes biological readings and screens for illnesses as you use the bathroom. Future concepts such as these, inspired by new technologies and trends on the horizon, push people to imagine more radical solutions that respond to real, emerging needs. Necessary, but also genuinely exciting. While we can’t predict the future, we can get imaginative and creative with what it could look like.

While we can’t predict the future, we can get imaginative and creative with what it could look like.

3. By building understanding of the conditions needed to support change

It’s not enough to know what needs to change. Equally important is an understanding of what conditions will enable a particular future to be possible. We are only starting to see the emergence of new business models for clothing and textile recycling, despite companies knowing and trying to make this work for many years.

The conditions making these things possible include the advent of affordable and effective recycling technology, a slow shift in consumer preference from ownership to access, and increasing pressure from governments and NGOs to reduce the ecological damage caused by the fashion industry.

4. By building empathy

The process of imagining different futures is as powerful as, if not more so than, the end result. Rather than talking about water scarcity and climate change as faraway possibilities, futures enable us to interact with problems as if they are happening now (and indeed they are, in many parts of the world). 

Futures processes that use aspects of storytelling help to build empathy and readiness to engage with possibilities that may challenge the values and assumptions that people hold dearly today. Often this opens up a space for difficult conversations from a place of understanding, rather than defensiveness. 

The "decade of action and delivery" is upon us and we have a limited window in which we can act at the scale and pace needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Taking this opportunity will mean we need to use all tools at our disposal and futures is integral to this. In its ability to bring people together, create a shared vision of a desired future and build support for the radical change that is needed, futures is second to none — even if, and particularly when, circumstances seem bleak. 

Multiple possible futures are always open to us; we can’t forget that, but the clock is ticking. With the numbers of organizations talking about futures on the rise, it’s time to get creative. Remember, the future isn’t something that just happens to us, it is something we can create. And we can all play a role. 

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