We think of democracy as voting for a candidate or their party. What if, instead, we stepped into a voting booth to choose a picture of the world we want to live in? What if we did not just pick from one of three or four pre-packaged futures, but were asked to paint a section of a mural that would become reality? How would this change the way we think about collective decision-making?
In a world shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, getting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development back on track requires a whole-of-society approach. From the cabinet to the community. From the government minister to the migrant worker. This means not only concerted action across all walks of society, but also collective reflection about the world we want (and the world we don’t). However, we can only create the future(s) we want—and conversely, avoid the ones we don’t—if we first imagine it. A key discipline concerned with helping people imagine and navigate uncertainty is foresight and futures thinking (see also UNDP’s A Way Forward). How inclusive or democratized, though, is foresight and futures thinking in Malaysia?
1. Exploring inclusion gaps in the foresight/futures landscape
Through periodic interactions with MIGHT’s Malaysian Foresight Institute, the Government’s foresight flag bearer, we learned that foresight in Malaysia is well established but tends to focus on high-level policy, strategy, and technology. We also learned that there are under-explored opportunities in foresight and futures thinking, such as in the themes of local governance and biodiversity.
For local councils and local communities, foresight and futures thinking can enhance and accelerate SDG localization and implementation. The current mainstream practice of “big foresight” can give us visions of 2050 to help generate targets like the SDGs (2030). Meanwhile, the “small foresight” helps us design the series of little steps (pilots and bottom-up interventions for “ordinary” tomorrows) that, at scale, enable us to take great strides towards achieving the grand goals.
However, we found that while futures thinking has gained a solid foothold at the corporate level, it is not “democratized” in local community spaces, younger audiences, or non-English speakers. So, we went along the less-travelled path, running a few small, self-contained futures-oriented activities throughout the year. These included a speculative design-inspired prototyping exercise with school students to imagine the futures of a park and its river, as well as a News of Tomorrow exercise with university students on youth and climate futures. In both these environment-themed activities, we learned that there is a tendency to frame environmental and climate futures according to “western” motifs and imagery—such as polar bears on melting icebergs. Step one in SDG localization may well be envisioning contextualized futures relevant to our country, climate and local environment.
2. Embodying futures in personas
Having a sense of where and to whom we can introduce futures thinking is one part of the equation; how, and with what tools, is another. At the outset, we tried to introduce futures thinking using the Accelerator Lab’s standard-issue futures wheel at events with UNDP’s stakeholders and beneficiaries. One of these was the Orang Asli/Asal Micro-Grant Facility for Conservation and Livelihood (OA MGF) Stakeholder Consultation & Proposal Writing Workshop, which used Results-Based Management (RBM) principles to help stakeholders assess their project ideas:
“The participants’ grappling with the futures wheel continued into the group exercises to take their project ideas through a full project management cycle. It was interesting to hear that some said they had never reviewed their project approach and assessed if they were really solving a community problem at its root cause.”
Sumitra Sundram, OA MGF Project Manager
While participants reported that the exercise helped them interrogate the logic of their theories of change, we found that most participants used the futures wheel to plot unstructured mindmap-style linkages instead of structured causal chains. From this and other events, we learned that many futures tools appear to be designed for professional futurists—or at least innovation and design practitioners. Those of us who primarily operate in the innovation space may not realize how unwieldy some of our tools may be to newcomers.
So, we took a couple of steps back and explored alternative tools for democratizing futures thinking. At a focus group discussion with local councils in October 2020, we experimented with using personas to help participants access the future. For instance, instead of asking “How is digitalization a disruptor?” we would ask, “How does a retiree, living apart from her grown children, experience digitalization?” We found that when participants had sufficiently fleshed out a persona, they were able to imagine and identify issues and scenarios through the (simulated) eyes of their constituents.
There is potential in shifting our approach to sustainable development challenges from an issue lens, to the viewpoint of the persons/communities experiencing the issues. This may hold part of the key to successful SDG localization.
3. Engaging the public through storytelling
Coming full circle, we ended the year with MIGHT—only this time, in more uncharted waters. In partnership with MIGHT, Universiti Malaya and Think City, we organized the Kisah Futures Competition, a speculative fiction competition around the theme of post-COVID Malaysian futures. The competition aimed to “listen” to communities’ experiences of COVID-19 and its fallout by crowdsourcing stories from the general public.
We discovered around the same time that the wider UN is also tapping into speculative and science fiction—see this Futuring Peace blog post by the Innovation Cell of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA) and the UNDP Arab States’ Youth Futures Fellowship. Indeed, one of the most powerful tools for navigating uncertainty is the imagination. To paraphrase Ziauddin Sardar, the futures “embodied” in stories may help us better navigate the complexity and contradictions of postnormal times.
Within one month, we collected over 600 diverse and contradictory visions of the future—utopian, dystopian, and everything in between. We will soon launch an anthology of stories from the competition, as well as present preliminary thematic analysis. Watch this space!
What have we learned?
Who are the “we” who develop the right story? Foresight and futures thinking often conjure images of trend reports, scenario matrices and horizon charts, to name a few. This is the “expert storyteller” model. Indeed, many of the people we interacted with found foresight and futures thinking too abstract and detached from their lived realities.
If we want to democratize futures in order to enable more inclusive, local, and participatory decision making in development, we need the right tools. These are tools that embody futures, engage the imagination, and empower communities to design and bring about the futures they desire. Here in UNDP Malaysia we are calling this our FaST (Futures and Systems Thinking) Toolbox, and we invite you to join us in unpacking this toolbox in the coming months of 2021.
We would like to thank colleagues from UNDP Malaysia’s Climate Change & Energy (Nasha Lee), OA MGF (Sumitra Sundram, Elinna Abdul Kadir) and Area-Based Programme (Lim Su-Jin) teams, for giving us the opportunity to incorporate and test futures thinking methodologies in their workshops.