Futures studies – discipline of hope?

Minna Santaoja:

Having worked in the Finland Futures Research Centre (FFRC) over a year now, I have come to think of futures studies as a discipline of hope. My background is in environmental social sciences, which in general is a problem-oriented field. Much valuable critical work is done there, and much of that work is not only pointing out the problems but also proposing and actively searching solutions to them. Still, I think there is something unique in the futures studies approach that manages to bring about hope in ways that more traditional social science approaches don’t.

The hopefulness of futures studies comes from its unique relationship towards time and the active look forward that is present in all research carried out within the discipline. The strength comes about also from some of the founding principles of futures studies: 1) future cannot be known, 2) future is not predetermined, and 3) future can be affected. The methods specific for futures studies aim at sketching out different images and scenarios for future, which at best help us make more informed choices and decisions in the present and choose between the paths toward desirable and undesirable futures.

The hopefulness of futures studies comes through in various ways in all the different projects carried out at the FFRC, and I think the hopefulness is positively reflected in the working spirit within the centre as well. The umbrella of futures research brings together people from diverse backgrounds, which allows for transformative collaboration and thinking. Methods development to be able to know about future is constantly ongoing at FFRC and some of the developed methods are intriguing in how they allow the use of imagination and creativity in ways that many traditional scientific disciplines do not seem to permit. The wellbeing of the personnel is emphasized and I have found it quite unique that FFRC invests two whole days twice a year in form of the development days to bring all the personnel from the three offices together to share knowledge about ongoing projects and common topics.

Most of the projects carried out within the centre have somehow the idea of sustainability at their core, be it about energy systems, future food or about the futures images of young people. What brings a positive and dynamic atmosphere and a different feel from a strictly academic university department are the many practice-oriented projects carried out at FFRC. Aside from basic research, in many of the projects the FFRC researchers engage with different groups of actors in the society, trying to find solutions to problems together, developing future thinking and foresight skills.

But is the hope false, misplaced? Sometimes I cannot help thinking what is the worth of scanning the horizon for the unlikely and quirky, looking for weak signals, wild cards or black swans, when the megatrends such as ecological crises are screaming at our face. But then I remind myself that everything world-changing starts from small beginnings. While foresight is grounded in past developments and current needs, the problems we are facing today, climate change and the sixth mass extinction of species to name some, are wicked in nature. It means they are deeply rooted in many levels and sectors of the society, in the daily activities of individuals and organizations, and as such, there is no philosopher’s stone, no simple solution to the interconnected problems; they need to be worked on simultaneously. One of the values of futures research is to identify the improbable and study it, and by bringing it forward make it part of the solution.

When writing about hope, I am reminded of the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thurnberg, who has emerged as the moral beacon of our time for the climate movement. In her powerful speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, urging the world leaders to act upon climate change, she said: “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” There is wisdom in the young activist’s words. Is hope, after all, misplaced, is it keeping us from action?

For research to maintain its credibility and objectivity it is necessary to keep a certain distance from the daily societal turmoil. However, the pressure is rising for the research community to get involved as well. Given the severity of the ecological crisis and the urgency for action, in light of the IPCC 1.5 degrees report for instance, many researchers feel they cannot just sit back and let the research speak for itself. In Finland, over 1200 researchers signed a letter of support for the children in school strike for climate. At the same time, the Academy of Finland has included sustainability in its funding criteria and a lively discussion has emerged on the sustainability of research practices. In the forthcoming Sustainability Science Days in Helsinki, sustainability in university strategies and compensating for air travel emissions e.g. when going to scientific conferences will be discussed. These are all signals that the research community is stepping up for sustainability.

In light of the above I wonder whether it is enough if futures studies presents itself as the discipline of hope – should it rather be the discipline of action? I think it is of critical importance that ethical discussion is inherent and ongoing in futures studies as well as in all disciplines. We need to ask ourselves whether the work we do, the methods we use and the way we communicate support societal transformation for a more sustainable future. Action can mean many things, and as outlined above, we need to work on all fronts for sustainability transition. But I think research and societal engagement IS action – action should be placed on scientific knowledge. So perhaps I reiterate: futures studies is the discipline of hope, developing tools for action towards sustainability.

Ph.D., Researcher Minna Santaoja
Turku Institute of Advanced Studies (TIAS), Finland Futures Research Centre (Tampere office)

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