Consider the words ‘transformation’ and ‘futures’. Enormous words that seem to wear expensive waistcoats, talk in hushed tones, and gesture with monocles.
The contents of this post have emerged from a (happy?) collision involving three separate events in the past few months:
- Drawing another component of a futures game that is forever evolving and currently exists mainly for personal amusement (see Figure above) – this is a variation on a numerical sequence maze. There are no ‘right’ paths, but each pathway contains some necessary elements for arriving at a better tomorrow. Explore your own sequence!
- An incomplete post on communication and the visual language around food system transformation. This is essentially around the imagery conjured by words like ‘transformational pathway’ and ‘menu of solutions’, and why we might want to rethink them.
- Reading ‘The Player of Games’ by Iain Banks (part of the most excellent Culture series) and ‘On the Steel Breeze’ by Alastair Reynolds (part of the also most excellent Revelation Space universe).
This collision happened during a realisation that a lot of current discourse on transformational and paradigm shifting change cannot really work in Pakistan right now because of how power is currently organised and how a fair bit of transformational thinking assumes certain things about the context it needs to take place in (i.e., usually a certain type of developed country). This is a longer discussion for later, but it led to thinking about what desirable futures look like for us and how to make them happen.
It is said that there is agency in futures thinking. That future is a space where one can safely explore options that are not possible now but have the potential to be. There are many roadmaps and pathways to the future that are out there (aha, the visual imagery again!), differing in who is drafting them and whose vision of the future they are leading towards. The problem is that a fair number of these are organised around values that much of the world might find unusual or belonging to someone else. This can be as minor as the cultural differences between ‘prospering’ and ‘contentment’ and as major as realising that an envisioned ‘win’ only works if certain segments of the population mysteriously evaporate in the imagined future.
However uncertain the future is right now, and however many variables to consider when exploring one’s own personal quests, things that remain true are (not an exhaustive list by any means):
- The realisation that things as they are, cannot go on. At a personal, city-region, national, regional, and global level.
- There are a lot of disruptive solutions seeking to fix ‘the problem’. The worry is the second tier and unintended consequences of these, especially as they interact with each other and their effects have not been given due attention. And we have very little idea what to do about them even if we know what they are.
- There is scarce exploration of value drift across stakeholders and across time. Each generation is populated by a fresh set of humans with a fresh set of values (which can be a good thing). How would this be operationalised in solutions (and indeed, problem definitions)?
- Reflection on how things are for different people is not normally part of processes. See specifically the IFSTAL program for building this into food systems training. I am still not good at it and it makes me very uncomfortable.
- ‘What needs fixing’ is not something that everyone agrees on. It is vital to have these conversations and figure out where the problem starts, stops, what it even is, and who it is a problem for, for how long, where, and why.
- Shifting culture and mindsets is at the same time extremely difficult and not as difficult as we think. Consider what has changed between us and our parents (see again, ‘value drift’). What will my hypothetical children get up to which will stress me and my hypothetical partner out?
- Foresight needs empathy. Not just empathy for those in the now, but also for those who have not yet come. Future generations also have boundless potential. And it is entirely possible to have empathy for and safeguard the interests of future generations while taking care of those that exist now.
- Embrace the long-term trajectory of human civilisation (i.e., look beyond the near-term decades, go beyond extrapolations of existing trends, and really look for the necessary civilisational processes).
- Levers of change might be in unexpected places and need to be pulled by unexpected people we have not yet found (a lever also conjures a specific visual image). Also, the lever might be a complex maze with life-threatening barriers with a button that needs to be pressed by the concerted mental effort of a multi-disciplinary, cross-generational team of people organised around a common purpose.
- Aligning practices and goals is a simple thing to suggest that rarely works out when working across bureaucracy, complex sectors and institutions, and nefarious humans.
- There is great value in reflection, refining, and going back and redoing that fiddly bit that did not work or talking to those people we forgot about and bringing them into our fantastic vision and plan.
- A tomorrow I want to live in might not be exactly the same as one you do. But I am sure our visions will have broad similarities on things that matter. But I would love to meet you there and see what needs doing.