Imagining Futures

The future only exists in the present as images. Find out more about imagining futures.

Imagining Futures

Images and ideas about futures are constructed in people’s minds and generate social, collective realities that are relevant in specific contexts – they are the construct by which our futures are made ‘real.’ The idea of images of the future emerged in the work of Berger and de Jouvenel in the French ‘prospective’ school in the 1950s and 1960s, while Polak’s Image of the Future (1973) and Boulding’s subsequent publication of The Image (Boulding 1961) reinforced the power of the image when considering futures. In his seminal work, Polak (1973, p. 19) notes: “The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures” with images shaped by the degree of optimism or pessimism about the future and the degree of human agency to influence that future:

It will be helpful to make distinctions between optimism and pessimism along the lines of the concepts of Seinmiissen, "what must be," and Seinsollen, "what ought to be." It would then be possible to speak of Seinoptimismus or Seinpessimismus, which we shall refer to as essence-optimism or essence-pessimism, and Willensoptimismus or Willenspessimismus, which we shall refer to as influence-optimism or influence-pessimism. The essence categories refer to an unchangeable course of events; the influence categories refer to the supposed or rejected possibility of human intervention. The first point of view sees history as a book that has already been written; the second sees history as a process that man can or cannot manipulate.

Polak's work has been translated into a game developed at Swinburne University of Technology. Find out more about the game here.

Bell and Mau's The Sociology of the Future (1971; italics added) draw on Polak’s work when they discuss the key role of images of the future in society noting that “it may be profitable to look upon society as less a problem of order and more as a problem of steering in which images of the future are of crucial importance [stressing] dynamism and change, the causal interaction of ideas – beliefs and values – and social structure, decisions, and the deliberate efforts of man to shape society.” Richard Slaughter (1997) suggests that images of the future “illuminate otherwise abstract ideas and summarize a wide range of propositional (or interpretative) knowledge about the near-term future in ways that can be clearly understood.” But, as Voros (2005) notes, the entire process of helping people to imagine futures that are different to the present and that challenge often deeply held assumptions requires a high level of skill in the practitioner:

Such methods used without a deep knowledge of their underpinnings, and the potential impact on the human beings involved in the processes of these methodologies, can easily produce results which are unsatisfactory, un-useful, and possibly even hurtful to the people involved. Done well and with due care, visioning, and imaging open people up to vast new vistas of insight and often lead to the dropping of guardedness and a setting-aside of emotional ‘shielding’, at least for a short while. If people are not treated carefully while in this more vulnerable state, they can be left disillusioned, disheartened, and disagreeable to any further foresight processes.

Like Polak, Vásquez (The research on future images and visions: Need for a strategic alliance between futures studies and social sciences, 2010) sees images as carriers of the future that are important when studying the role they play “in the understanding and management of social change, since they are the seeds that carry the future world.” Vásquez (2010)also points out that since the early work on the image, images have become less visible in the literature:

The study of images of the future has a wide, diverse and fragmented historical background; it appears, disappears and reappears according to schools, approaches and problems of fashion; it is driven by many interests, topics and perspectives, and it is a multifaceted field, with many difficulties for its research and epistemological function. It is thus an essential topic, but somewhat put aside in the structuring of the discipline.

This lack of visibility of images in futures work may in part be due to the dominance of scenario development as a preferred method which generates narratives more than images, and it could be because, as Vasquez notes: “images of the future are assumed as given or understood” and are so taken-for-granted that they are not considered during FSF processes – unless such processes are designed specifically to surface and challenge them for relevance.

Dator’s (2005) First Law of the Future highlights the centrality of images: “'the future' cannot be 'studied' because 'the future' does not exist. Futures studies does not – or should not –pretend to study the future. It studies ideas about the future (what I usually call 'images of the future').” Voros (2007, p. 83) asserts that such images inform and shape action and decision making in the present, and that identifying images, along with latent futures, beliefs and probabilities are the central aim of futures inquiry and can be explored empirically in ways that “demonstrate careful, rigorous and disciplined thinking”.

In recent work on futures consciousness, Ahvenharju, Minkkinen and Lalot (2018, p. 11) note that images of the future are thematic in nature, and that individuals with “a high level of future consciousness may have well-articulated images of the future, and likewise the development of future images is likely to increase their future consciousness.” They define futures consciousness as:

the capacity that an organization or an individual has for considering future consequences, having a sense of empowerment towards influencing their courses of action, openly assessing alternative courses, approaching problems from a holistic and systemic point of view, and striving for a better future not only for the self but for all of humanity.

A validated survey tool (Lalot et al. 2019, p. 8) measures five elements of futures consciousness: time perspective, agency beliefs, openness to alternatives, systems perceptions, and concern for others. They position futures consciousness as a “general conceptual model” that assumes such a consciousness can be considered separate to images, scenarios, and contexts.

More about futures consciousness here.

This post was first published in my PhD thesis: Contested Ideas of the University: Enabling and Constraining University Futures.