Unframing The Future
The crisis of futures, imagining the end of capitalism, algorithmic trends, who does the future belong to, and towards a natural future
Let’s talk about the future!
Because not only are we lacking new, better, more optimistic, and more imaginative visions of the future. No, the whole field of foresight, futurism, trend research, futurology, or whatever you wanna call it is extremely fucked up as well!
And I know many of you reading my newsletter are working in this field, so listen up! 😉 And yes, this is a bit of a rant… 😜newsletters) as well as ’s recently published Meta Trends 2024 and a few articles by Frank Spencer (also found via Sentiers).
So here we go:
We are in a Crisis of Futures! A Crisis of Imagination!
“Bad news: The foremost experts in cultural analysis are reporting concepts and phrases which are statistically commonplace. […] We’ve lost sight of what it means to be brave. It feels like our facilities for riskiness and imagination have atrophied.”
Here is the problem: The future visions that are put out there into the world are either commonplace, boring, meaningless, (corporate) agenda-driven, uninspiring, or all of the above together.
The reason for that, in my opinion, is that our minds are stuck in old ideologies, old systems, and old narratives, which prevents us from thinking outside the box, from expanding the realm of imagination! So when we think about the future, what’s often the result of all sorts of sophisticated analysis and brainstorming sessions is nothing more than what’s already out there because we never leave the old narratives box.
This wouldn’t be so problematic if futures (or visions of the future, future thinking) weren’t such an essential part of building a better world. It’s problematic when it comes to foreseeing the implications of new technologies such as ChatGTP, when identifying new trends to ideate and innovate, and also when it’s about envisioning alternatives to the status quo (e.g. a regenerative future).
“The “Jetsons idea” of jetpacking and meals in a pill missed what actually has changed: The notion of a stable career, or the social ritual of lunch.” - Theo Priestley
We are in dire need of new visions and new stories of the future! We need a story revolution, but all we get these days is futures that fit in.
So let’s point some fingers and have a look at what cripples our imaginative powers.
Here is the first one:
It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism
This quote isn’t that funny anymore once you realize that it is our reality. Economism has pervaded not only politics (economic growth goal) or our private lives (e.g. self-optimization) but also future thinking: Everything has to have a business case now! Visions of a dystopian, apocalyptic, or at least volatile and challenging future are everywhere, but visions of post-capitalism are hard to find.
And I get it! It’s hard to think outside the box when there is this veil of economics on top of every little thing in the world. But within this Economism ideology are extremely limiting narratives of progress, of what it means to be human, of the role of nature, of treating other human beings, and much more. So, if a “what’s-the-business-case-here” logic is part of your future thinking, you’ll always box yourself into these accompanying creativity-eroding, dehumanizing, and more-of-the-same narratives.
“There is no room for diverse futures in the boardroom when all they’re concerned with is hitting the next quarter’s KPIs. […]
When was the last time a corporate-focused futurist driven by qualitative research to reflect bottom line results based on a predetermined set of strategies paid any attention to the wider and diverse social or cultural context of their work?” - Theo Priestley
We’re futuring, ideating, and innovating for optimization but not for transformation! Our futures are great at fitting in!
So, if you are wondering why we are in an Age of Average, why every car, coffee shop, website, app, gadget, brand, and city center looks the same, and why there aren’t more creative ideas out there, then that’s your answer!
“Stalling to complete this annual meta-analysis of the most reported cultural trends, I decided to go back in time and flip through some old 2018 reports. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time traveling. Those reports, now published over half a decade ago, read eerily similar to what’s being forecasted for 2024.” -
You’ll always get more of the same and more of capitalism as long as there needs to be a business case for your trend or vision of the future. You’re simply stuck!
Another thing that cripples our imaginative powers:
“In the case of the cafes, the growth of Instagram gave international cafe owners and baristas a way to follow one another in real time and gradually, via algorithmic recommendations, begin consuming the same kinds of content. One cafe owner’s personal taste would drift toward what the rest of them liked, too, eventually coalescing…” - Kyle Chayka
Replace cafe owners with brand managers and baristas with trend analysts, and there you have it: flattened trends, flattened futures, flattened culture. If we all look at the same content, if we are all drawn to the same content by the algorithm, how do we expect there to be novelty, creativity, and unconventional thinking?
“Most of the signals considered “trends” today are really nothing more than frivolous entertainment. In short, we’ve come to confuse what is “trending” with what is a trend.” - Matt Klein
Nowadays, future thinkers and the companies they work for are chasing the cool, the trending story, the next hashtag, whilst forgetting that all of that is being orchestrated by an algorithmic filterworld and all within a dematerialized machine world of 1s and 0s.
“When we emphasize the artificially quantized, we lose access to the glorious in-between where we all actually live. […] We lose access to the squishy, indeterminate, and speculative. […] We are flying with instruments alone.” - Douglas Rushkoff
That’s why most future thinking is quite empty and soul-less. It’s all data but no meaning.
Okay, now on to the last thing that cripples our imaginative future powers:
Who Does The Future Belong To?
Foresight has its roots in military, colonial, and (old) top-down management ideologies, which means that one of our foremost priorities should be to decolonize, demilitarize, and de-managerialize (is this a word? 😅) future thinking. If not, what comes out of foresight will only be more visions tainted by these old ideologies.
“Of course, foresight and futures thinking has certainly been recognized by many writers, academics and professionals as a philosophy and mechanism for the discovery of preferred, aspirational and provocative imageries that challenge the dominant narratives of outdated decision matrices.
However, the field’s WW2 roots emphasized trend scouting, risk management and prediction as its predominant features. At that time, foresight was seen as a means to “future-proof” our outcomes, avoid surprises to the system, and “win the future” before our competitors — all hallmarks of our modern emphasis on simplification, linearization, and mechanization that frame the ethos of Frederick Taylor’s human-efficiency model of Scientific Management.” – Frank Spencer
Our inability to shake that history and these ideologies once and for all off limits the future visions we put out into the world.
“Futurism and future studies largely ignore the many cultural influences that make up our world in favour of determining one type of future, driven by technological advances and Western society.” - Theo Priestley
Who gets to determine the future is important!
If corporations, billionaires, and oil tycoons are the ones at the forefront of envisioning and building a new future – which are exactly the same actors that led to today’s polycrisis – then something is terribly wrong!
“What if foresight is much more than a set of methodologies to arrive at answers that align with our present-day biases around mechanistic and linear structures; what if instead foresight’s evolutionary capability pulls us into the organic, natural, and transformative unfolding of living systems?” - Frank Spencer
For future thinking to birth more imaginative, optimistic, and simply better futures, it’s time to let go of the ideologies and narratives that keep us stuck in the past and in a mode of living that’s rather meaningless.
Theo Priestley talks about cultural futurism or Polyfuturism and the need for diversity within futures, mentioning often ignored concepts such as Afrofuturism, Polynesian Futurism, Queer Futurism, Indigenous Futurism, Solarpunk, Protopia,…
And Frank Spencer writes about the innate ability of foresight (i.e. mental time travel) that all humans have and suggests exploring a more natural and also much more democratic and accessible way of future thinking.
Again, it’s actually quite simple: In order to imagine and create futures, we must step outside of the ideological boxes of our current time.
“Moving away from an Anthropocene into a Symbiocene requires a biological, psychological, and sacred perspective in our foresight & futures thinking work.
Why? When we leave out the interconnected, vibrant, and emergent qualities of life in favor of only serving dominant systems of productivity, efficiency, and hyper-monetization, we fail to recognize the large-scale inter-generational processes that produce life-giving nurture and transformation.
Without this, we continue to regurgitate the same problems (or worse) that we are trying to solve today. […]
By its very nature, foresight and futures thinking — and life itself — challenges “what is” with “what if?”” - Frank Spencer
That’s it for this week’s Friday edition!
Curious to hear your thoughts on this, so feel free to leave some comments! 😉
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