Being a Good Ancestor

Being a good ancestor is caring about our futures even though they don't exist, accepting that we have the power to shape those futures and using that power wisely today.

Being a Good Ancestor

When I was running workshops I sometimes offered an exercise where I asked people something like:

Imagine you are in the same room, in the same job, in 10 years time (say 2032). The world has changed and your organisation is closing down. You are meeting to reflect on what went wrong over the past ten years. What advice would you give yourself in 2022 to avoid the closure?

This is quite difficult to do because it's asking us to think backwards and reflect on the challenges we need to address today but which we may be ignoring. Some people loved it, some people hated it. The point of this exercise is for people to reflect on their responsibility for future generations - that is, that every decision, every action we take today puts something into the downstream leading to our futures. It's a responsibility increasingly recognised now because of the impact of climate change and the likely consequences for our descendants and the planet if we don't act now. Accepting this responsibility is the essence of being a good ancestor.

There is a book about this now by Roman Krznaric: The Good Ancestor: How to Think-Long Term in a Short-Term World. The blurb for the book reads:

The Good Ancestor reveals six profound ways in which we can all learn to think long, exploring uniquely human talents like ‘cathedral thinking’ that expand our time horizons and sharpen our foresight. Drawing on radical innovations from around the world, Krznaric celebrates the time rebels who are reinventing democracy, culture and economics so that we all have the chance to become good ancestors and create a better tomorrow.

Krznaric identifies that at the core of being a good ancestor is thinking long-term, and that involves our foresight which is the neurological capacity we all have to imagine possible futures. It's about a being a steward of these futures in the present, nurturing them so that our future generations will not have to live with the outcomes of our lack of foresight today. The MIT Technology Review produced a good issue in 2020 on our need to think long term today.

The work of Allen Tough on futures generations is well worth looking at too - he has developed a manifesto for futures generations and wrote about the need to consider future generations in our decision making, both personal and individual. Because we are the conscience of future generations:

You are alive at a pivotal moment in humanity's development.  You are making some of the most important choices in human history.  Your era is marked by positive and negative potentials of such newness and magnitude that you can hardly understand them.  Through your public policies and daily lives, the people of your era have tremendous power to influence the future course of humanity's story.  We strongly care about your choices, of course, since we benefit or suffer from them quite directly.  We live downstream from you in time; whatever you put into the stream flows on to our era (Allen Tough, Message from Future Generations).

Of course, being a steward of our futures in the present means we have to imagine those futures, engage with them, and accept them as valid ways to think and to integrate in our decision making processes today - whether those decisions be personal or organisational. It means we have to move ourselves out of the busy, impossibly rapid, inequitable and often uncaring, short-term world that we live in that result in biases and assumptions that stop us from including our futures in our everyday lives in open, inclusive, deep and meaningful ways.

Being a good ancestor is caring about our futures even though they don't exist, accepting that we have the power to shape those futures and using that power wisely today. It's about letting go of the constraints of the present to expand our thinking, our perspectives and our assumptions about the world around us. The pandemic taught us what happens when we haven't thought about possible futures, about the weak signals and wildcards that hover around us right now but which we choose not to see because urgency today is more critical than long-term sustainability.

In hindsight, if we'd accepted all the work and publications that indicated a pandemic was definitely coming at some stage very soon, would we have invested in the infrastructure we needed, funded our hospitals better, prepared our aged care homes, and had the vaccine machinery ready to go? Will we be ready for the next pandemic or will be try really hard to forget what it did to our mental health, to the people who are most disadvantaged and to the most vulnerable so we can return to the past?

If we want to be good ancestors we will put people first - yes the economy matters too - but I have always said that any strategy without people at its core is a strategy without a future. The starting point? Finding and applying our foresight in everything we do. This will ensure that our decision making begins with thinking about our possible futures which, in turn, will begin with people. You can find out more about how to do that in the About Foresight section here on Foresight in the Present.

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PS. My foresight journey really began at the end of the first of of the strategic foresight course at Swinburne when we were asked to identify what single thing we would take away from the year. I said "that we are responsible for futures generations". And that has driven my work ever since, giving me a sense of purpose that got lost sometimes, but that has thankfully returned in these past years.

This is an important issue for us all - how do you think you can become a good ancestor and accept responsibility for futures generations?