Our Relationship to The Future: Narratives, Imagination Skills and Futures Literacy

How do we think and talk about the future? This is one of the tension points Horizons has identified within the social change ecosystem: our different feelings about, and relationships to the future that can impact the way we approach our work and our partnerships.

Many want to “focus on the future” as a way of finding common ground and coming together around shared values. This can be deeply troubling and hurtful for those who feel that we need to first recognize past injustices and harms and finally confront the painful history of white supremacy that continues to bleed into our present. Yet, the future-oriented framing can also be off-putting to those who don’t want change (or fear change) – so any call to “build back better” or for “democratic renewal” are met with resistance because of nostalgia for the way things were in a romanticized past.

Narrative competency, imagination skills and futures literacy offer powerful insights to help explore our relationship to the future while not dismissing the importance of truth-telling and historical memory as a way of moving forward together. The Horizons team has compiled the following resources (by no means complete):

Who is the target audience to shepherd this narrative work for the future? Thinking beyond campaigners and communications specialists, many actors within movements (including a broad array of partners and allies) can help digest, embody and infuse futures narratives throughout many streams of work. This awesome resource at Reframe, outlines concepts of narrative infrastructure and power-building. Somewhat of an adjacent concept is this thoughtful critique of traditional audience segmentation in strategic communications that highlights the fact that people are complex and often don’t fit into any one category.

An important aspect of futures work, is to explore our relationship with fear and how to recognize that in bridging to our future, we must address why some are also fearful about the future – fear of change, status threat, etc.  For example, in some recent analysis of narratives of the future , we might expect to be confronting a growing need for escapism. This provides an opportunity and challenge if we are asking people to get more active in creating this new shared future. There is also great power in emergent narratives, i.e. asking with curiosity and openness ”so what now?”

If this is a moment of large societal transformation – a moment to build a bigger we – then resources from the UK project, Larger Us, can be helpful. The real nugget will be getting from here to there; i.e. how to organize and shepherd a collective “change management” process for societal transformation. As we engage with narratives, it’s particularly interesting to be conscious of how messaging and campaigns rooted in the urgency of the now feed into the narratives of the future that we want to create (and are not working at cross-purposes).  These resources offer insights and examples of the deep work of transformation: storytelling for systems change.

Opportunities to create new shared identities based on the values we want to live in the future are very exciting when co-created in community with others.  This article has a lot of resources from global examples, with a particularly resonant point about co-creation:

Solidarity in Narratives, Narratives for Solidarity “Humans tend to assemble mutually reinforcing stories in order to establish common sense and construct shared beliefs or truths about people, places, communities, cultures and their understandings of rights and social justice.  Narrative work is about changing what is ‘known’ about a group of people, or about a situation. It is, however, not about ‘convincing’ people; rather about building new and different relationships and understanding. Co-constructing narratives can be a key way to connect with different constituencies and build solidarity across groups, including those that didn’t start out with the same perspective or agreement. It is as much about story-listening as storytelling. And the stories continue to be written…”

As you may work in community to define specific values together for the futurethis worksheet by the Narrative Initiative was put together for exactly that purpose.

The role that each of us has to play in our collective transformation is one of the most important messages about imagining the future where we create a sense of possibility and a sense of abundance. We want to try not to feel so constricted, but open and expansive to possibilities. This resource on deep narrative change from Ruth Taylor in the UK is a really wonderful compendium on the transformational potential of “deep narrative” change (beyond any one issue or one campaign).

The following list includes just a few of the many other resources on imagination and futures:

Happy imagining!