Why Futures?

Thinking and engaging with possible futures is often a missing dimension of sustainability discussions.  As systems expert Donella Meadows writes, “if we don’t know where we want to go, it makes little difference that we make great progress… yet vision is not only missing almost entirely from policy discussions; it is missing from our whole culture.”[1]  Futures are the visions or scenarios of possible alternative pathways for humanity. The futuring process brings into focus not just what but who and how we engage our societal capacity for anticipation and novel ways of thinking about alternatives.

There are a number of reasons why futures and the process of ‘futuring’ is critical at this time:

Futures visioning influences our actions and reframes our perception of the present. Our images of futures influence our present actions and shape our expectations in more profound ways than we acknowledge.  We can look back to the ‘history of the future’[2] and note the ways in which past futures visions of, for example, car-oriented urban planning fundamentally influenced the design of cities. The visions of the Futurama exhibit designed by General Motors and Norman Bell Geddes and the plans by architect Le Corbusier shape city planning from the early 20th Century to today, with all the resultant social, economic and ecological problems. What are the next visions of future cities that can guide planning, city design and daily living in sustainable ways? The potential of futuring is that it can bring us together to change our stories and, in this way, to change our expectations and to catalyze the co-creation of those futures.

Engaging with futures enable novel thought and get us out of stuck patterns. The challenge of transforming into sustainable societies and everyday lives requires us to think outside the box. This is not a question of tinkering with the existing economic systems but shifting our assumptions that progress is rooted in exponential resource and energy growth. When we “look to the future with eyes tarnished by the present…everything seems huge and insurmountable”3; however, when we think together about futures, it is possible to reframe stuck debates and building shared understanding of emerging realities and common interests. “The future is an open space still undetermined and thus less burdened by past differences, grievances and assumptions.”[3] Futures enable us to think freely by exploring possibilities.

Futures enable us to act even in times of unprecedented change and uncertainty. The natur of the current challenge requires high-quality futures thinking.[4] As sociologist Jens Beckert presents the concept of “fictional expectations” and notes their key role in enabling action even in times of great uncertainty by creating collectively held images of futures and how they might evolve.[5]  In his analysis of capitalist economies, he explores how these predictions become self-fulfilling prophecies by generating the expectation of how markets may evolve even in times of great riks and opportunity.

The futuring process allows us to rehearse possible options and trajectories. Futures thinking is typically linked with forecasting and prediction; however, there are significant limitations in simply projecting current trends into the future. Futures techniques such as scenario-planning enables a richer approach that explores diverse story-lines of what ‘could happen’ under different conditions. Backcasting techniques explores desirable end-states and remain flexible about pathways to get there. In this way, futuring allows us to rehearse these different trajectories and dialogue about their possible implications.

Futuring processes can have democratic value. Futuring is not only the domain of experts but can also be deeply participative in their design. John Robinson notes that sustainability is actually ‘procedural sustainability’ in which “sustainability can ue usefully thought of…as the emergent property of a conversation about desired futures that is informed by some understanding of the ecological, social and economic consequenecs of different courses of action.”[6] The opportunity lies in generating participative visioning processes result in concrete forms of anticipation accessible to all publics and likely to enable both formal deliberative processes and informal social conversations on the future at societal level as well as empowerment of citizens in education for responsible living and democracy.

The Problem: A Dystopic Tech Future

The challenge is that our mainstream depictions of the future are frequently dark and dystopic – futures where the deprivation, oppression and terror are the primary focus.

There is growing evidence that fear-based messaging – emphasizing a problem or threat – is not always effective in stimulating behaviour change and can actually lead to defensive avoidance[7] and psychological distancing.[8] On the other hand, there are indications that positive approaches lead to greater engagement and excitement and more successful and longer lasting change.[9] Aspirational stories change the lens through which we view reality, spark imagination, and appeal to the non-rational and emotional aspects of human decision-making.[10] This does not mean that the problem and challenges are ignored. Aspirational approaches only resonate when solutions and vision are presented as a response to the magnitude of the challenge they aim to address and overcome.

The Opportunity: Sustainable Living Futures

There is power in clearly articulating what gets better with sustainable, low-carbon futures[11] and in describing futures in a way that presents a compelling vision of less material ways of meeting needs and aspirations.[12]

Where in the past, we focused on wealth, growth and efficiency; the future will need to be about well-being, quality, and sufficiency. This includes living within limits; shaping a sustainable society (not just a sustainable consumer); addressing the public as citizens, not consumers; addressing production and consumption; and creating the systems that lead to sustainable behaviour . . . yet not everything is about reduction – there are some things that are not near peak or have no limited supply: community, personal autonomy, satisfaction from hones work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, leisure time, happiness, ingenuity, artistry and beauty.[13]

This is a critical time to engage in collectively imagining compelling futures in order to manage critical transitions ahead.


While we imagine these futures, we also need to be focused on how these visions reflect the core sustainability foundations including our ecological impact and economic and social imperatives.  The following Boxes provide an overview of core sustainability criteria we will need to use to evaluate and create sustainable living futures.

[1] Meadows, Donella (1994) Envisioning a Sustainable World.Published in Getting Down to Earth, Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, edited by Robert Costanza, Olman Segura and Juan Martinez-Alier. Island Press, Washington DC, 1996 http://donellameadows.org/archives/envisioning-a-sustainable-world/

[2] Hajer, M. (2017) The Power of Imagination. Inaugural Lecture. Utrecht University, The Netherlands.

[3] Boyer, N. and V. Timmer (2012) Envisioning Sustainable Futures. In The State of the World 2012: Moving Towards Sustainable Prosperity. Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC, USA.

[4] Candy, S. (2016) Gaming futures literacy: The Thing from the Future. in Riel Miller, Ed. (2017, Forthcoming). Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century. Routledge.

[5] Beckert, J. (2016) Imagined Futures – Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. Cambridge, Mass.

[6] Robinson, J. and R. J. Cole (2015) Theoretical underpinnings of regenerative sustainability. Building Research & Information. 43 (2): 133-143.

[7] Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27, 591-615; Van‘t Riet, Jonathan and Robert A.C. Ruiter (2011) Defensive reactions to health-promoting information: an overview and implications for future research. Health Psychology Review. Vol 7, Aug.

[8] Pike, Cara, Sutton Eaves, Meredith Herr, Amy Huva, David Minkow (2015) The Preparation Frame: A Guide to Building Understanding of Climate Impacts and Engagement in Solutions. Climate Access. March. http://www.climateaccess.org/resource/preparation-frame

[9] Coghlan, Anne T., Hallie Preskill, Tessie Tzavaras Catsambas (2003) An Overview of Appreciative Inquiry in Evaluation. New Direction for Evaluation. No. 100, Winter; Whitney, Diana and Amanda Trosten-Bloom (2010) The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers San Francisco, CA.

[10] Korten, David (2015) Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

[11] Cara Pike, Sutton Eaves, Meredith Herr, Amy Huva, David Minkow (2015) The Preparation Frame: A Guide to Building Understanding of Climate Impacts and Engagement in Solutions. Climate Access. March. http://www.climateaccess.org/resource/preparation-frame

[12] Jackson, Tim. 2009. Prosperity without Growth—Economics for a Finite Planet. London: Earthscan.

[13] Fedrigo, Doreen and Arnold Tukker (2009) “Blueprint for European Sustainable Consumption and Production: Finding the path of transition to a sustainable society”, European Environmental Bureau, May. P. 9.