Future States

Whose version of progress are we pushing in the world of impact?

Why It Matters

Critical questions for impact-focused organizations: How do we talk about the future in vulnerable contexts? How about in contexts where young people do not necessarily feel that they have full agency over their own destiny? What about spaces where Indigenous culture and history were overtaken by colonial markers of progress? Here are some things to reflect upon, right now.

Which visions of the future ought to prevail?

Global humanitarian and development efforts have traditionally pushed a rigid view of what progress looks like, steeped in pillars of a Northern-dominated world order.

We can argue that the systems and frameworks that have served humanity to date may have improved development outcomes for many, but it hasn’t done so equally, and it has been at a significant cost. The world we inhabit today is increasingly sleepwalking into climate catastrophe, is more unequal, more disconnected, and more divided than before.

 

LOOKING AHEAD

The fast-growing practice of humanitarian futures and strategic foresight is one that challenges practitioners to understand this: Past hegemonies don’t necessitate a similar future state.

Humanitarian futures and strategic foresight seeks to better understand not just what future worlds might look like, but what the complex convergence of change means for how people lead their lives.


Ultimately, the practice pushes us to interrogate the changes in policies, practices, culture, and investments that organizations, such as the ones you and I work for, might need to adopt in order to be fit for these futures. However, this very practice of foresight can be steeped in bias.

When visions of tomorrow and futures frameworks only put forward markers that push a dominant narrative or mental model, it can reinforce historic power imbalances, practices of neo-colonialism, and can exclude those that don’t have the same types of access.

Any kind of social transformation will only truly be effective if it critically evaluates all drivers of change (and not merely the big, loud ones that get the most attention), tackles and pulls out bias, is inclusive and representative of all peoples, and all of their versions of the future.

 

BIGGER PICTURE

It is valuable to question whether measures of global humanitarian responses to date have considered colonial history, implications on inequality from brutal economic policies, or planetary implications from industrialization. Not doing so reinforces future progress visions as singular, linear, and assumes that those ideas of progress are the only ones everyone has to aspire to in the future.

How then do we not merely replicate the inequalities of the past? There are five fundamental dimensions that need to be addressed in this frame:

1. How can future trends and signals of change be contextualized to local knowledge and history so that we do not merely reinforce a neo-colonialistic narrative of what progress means?

2. How can these trends and signals of change be tested and iterated with as diverse a constituency as possible to ensure relevance?

3. What underlying bias and systemic power structures need to be addressed in order for any kind of real system-wide change to begin to occur?

4. How will we shift these power and progress structures?

5. Whose vision are we privileging?

 

THE FUTURE OF FUTURE VISIONING

Any future visions for humanitarian response has to allow all people to see themselves in it, particularly those not used to seeing themselves reflected in theories of change, development of interventions, and decision making: women, LGBTQ+ communities, those with varying mobility, the working classes, and ethnic minorities have as much right as the elite to understand what their own role has been, and will be, in a collective future that wants all to flourish.

In re-imagining the future, we have an obligation to first imagine whose vision we are bringing to the table, and whether these visions drive radical hope and inclusive progress.