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Crafting Magic Mirrors for Time Travellers

Martyn Richards:

Designing Visual Metaphor Miro Exercises for Deepening Futures Literacy

Futures Literacy is a relatively new and unexplored capability in the world of futures thinking. Learning what Futures Literacy is and how to use it can be challenging on multiple levels – cognitive, social and emotional. Designing tools that reflect on this process demands a creative and less travelled approach. This blog post describes the design principles, results, and potential uses of creative tools for reflecting on Futures Literacy learning journeys.  

Futures Literacy is defined as the capacity to diversify how and why we use futures.

These tools were developed as part of the FLxDeep initiative which investigates what happens when you enhance the Futures Literacy capabilities of systems innovators and their partners working to avert climate emergency. In 2020, FLxDeep organised two Futures Literacy training programmes and a multitude of Futures Literacy engagements across the EIT Climate KIC Deep Demonstrations project. FLxDeep is co-funded by its six partner organizations and EIT Climate KIC.  

Developing Futures Literacy capabilities is not a simple matter, for two reasons.

Firstly, Futures Literacy is inherently reflexive – practising the capability asks you to look at your own assumptions and habits of mind. In becoming conscious of these, you then seek to act on your own thinking to produce alternative imaginings about the future. This can be fraught with cognitive, social and emotional barriers. 

Secondly, interfacing with futures brings you into intimate contact with complexity. Complexity defies rational prediction, and challenges typical modes of engaging with the future through preparation for contingencies and planning for optimisation. As such, the acquisition of Futures Literacy capabilities has to make space for some wildness of the imagination, intuitive sensing, and emotional intelligence.    

After working with reflexivity and complexity in a Futures Literacy training session, forming coherent and well formulated insights can be a bit of a challenge! Likewise, we faced the challenge of developing tools that are open and flexible enough for the expression of a wide array of meanings and value. We found that the best way to work in this space was through collaboration.

I had the pleasure of teaming up with Dr Petra Cremers, an educational researcher at the UNESCO Chair Futures Literacy at Hanze University of Applied Sciences, one of the consortium partners of FLxDeep. Together, we devised a toolbox of reflection exercises that tap into other ways of knowing and communicating, that are intuitive to use, and that facilitate an uncovering of useful new meanings that deepen the Futures Literacy learning journey.

This blog post presents my personal insights from developing creative exercises for reflecting on Futures Literacy capability acquisition.    

Design Principles

The design process had to balance the needs of the project; to generate good data on the value of Futures Literacy, with the needs of the participants; to gain a deeper understanding of their own experience, with our own research ethics; to produce results that fit a coherent framework. We used a typical iterative design thinking process of brainstorming, prototyping, experimentation and testing to reach the final version of the reflective exercises. Along the way we identified the following design principles:

  1. Be useful and meaningful to the participants as well as to the researchers – deepen the learning process to help participants identify their own ways of making use of their new Futures Literacy capabilities.
  2. Tap into other ways of knowing beyond the typical rational-linguistic mode  making use of visual metaphors, non-verbal reflection, and combinatorial elements, would be key parts of a collective knowledge creation process.
  3. Have visual appeal that invites playful exploration – this is a stepping stone towards entering a mindset that is open and comfortable, willing to step into the vulnerable space of talking about our assumptions and the way our minds work.

Working from these principles and the metaphor of Futures Literacy capability acquisition as a learning journey, we found inspiration for a range of exercises, from mapping, to insight narratives, as well as the exercise presented here today – Metaphor Cards.

Metaphor Cards: How it works

Metaphor Cards is a reflection exercise that is used at the end of a training course to help identify the personal and collective value of developing Futures Literacy capabilities. We implemented the exercise in the Miro online collaborative whiteboard, but it could equally be deployed at physical workshops.

The key elements of the exercise are as follows:

  • Question prompts: three questions relating to the learning process and outcomes. In our case we asked about struggles encountered in the learning process, the immediate value in terms of impacts or learnings acquired, and the potential value of Futures Literacy that has yet to be leveraged (Wenger 2017).
    -	Question prompts: three questions relating to the learning process and outcomes.
  • Metaphor Cards: a diverse set of cards displaying visual metaphors. We used a set of 54 cards arrayed in the centre of the workspace. You could use representations of Jungian archetypes like intùiti, cards from a game such as dixit which draw on tropes from fairy tales and mythology, or a set of your own devising.
    Metaphor Cards

Credit: Dixit, author Jean-Louis Roubira, illustrator Marie Cardouat, publisher Libellud.

  • Miro board: Any collaborative workspace or whiteboard would be suitable. We used a combination of Miro board and Zoom call. A space for interaction with the metaphor cards and to place collectively visible notes.
    Miro board
  • A group of people with a common experience: Our participants had the shared experience of being on the same training course. We conducted the reflection exercise both in the final session of a training course and as a follow up session two weeks after the conclusion of a training.
    A group of people with a common experience
  • Host and Technical facilitator: We found that having a combination of host – responsible for guiding the participants through the procedure – and a technical facilitator – responsible for the miro board, zoom breakout rooms etc. – was the best division of labour.
    -	Host and Technical facilitator

Procedure

We generally begin all our course sessions and project meetings with a Check In (a list of these check in prompts will be made available through later FLxDeep publications). This is used both as a warm up to the activity of the exercise and as a way for participants to bring their whole selves into the session, not just their work persona. We found this helps to create the appropriate atmosphere conducive for reflection.  

Individual Reflection

Once participants are situated we ask them to follow the following steps:

  1. Claim a personal workspace in the Miro canvas – add their name or an emoji.
  2. First read the question prompts, let them sink in. Then scan the available cards.
  3. Select metaphor cards that they feel best addresses each of the question prompts.
  4. Participants then take time to write out why they chose each card.

Plenty of time should be given to these first stages, as coalescing initial impressions and feelings into coherent sentences is not a simple task. We gave about 15 minutes for these stages.

Asking participants to answer the reflection prompts using visual metaphors helps participants to draw on initial impressions, feelings and intuitions – other ways of knowing, which are often undervalued. Furthermore, asking the brain to seek meaning in these visual prompts triggers creative processes. The ambiguity of the metaphor cards is leveraged here to activate the imagination.    
 The ambiguity of the metaphor cards

Collective Reflection

The following stages offer a platform for the participants to tell their story, as well as to build upon the stories of others with their own elaborations.

  1. In turn, the participants now share the cards that they have chosen to answer each of the question prompts and explain their reason to the others – while one participant is presenting, the others add notes to their workspace that elaborate on their own thinking as the speaker triggers additional connections. After each participant has presented, the others may ask questions and build upon what has been said with their own interpretation.
    share the cards that they have chosen

Stage 5 will vary in length according to your group size. We found best results when we conducted this with small groups of 3–4. Larger groups will take longer but will be able to harness more collective intelligence. 5–10 minutes per participant.

We halted the process at this point with one group due to time constraints. The second group completed all the stages and produced additional layers of insights that the participants reported as being surprisingly meaningful.

Between stage 5  and 6, we very briefly describe how we see the Futures Literacy learning journey; as a non-linear, complex and winding path that is unique to each learner, that particular events may be rich with meaning and can be revisited to yield further insights in time.

  1. As a group, we ask the participants to discuss whether they see connections between their individual insights and the insight of others. Which parts of other’s journeys do they recognise, or perhaps experienced in a very different way?
  2. The conclusion and check out of the session iis to write and share a single sentence that encapsulates their personal interpretation of the collective discussion

The final discussion and check out will vary in length depending on how far you roam, but we gave about ~20 minutes for these stages. The total exercise time was around 80 minutes.

What happened – Reflections from the sessions

Here is a curated sample of insights that were expressed by participants in the reflection sessions of the two training courses run by FLxDeep. One course was run for ~25 participants over 3 modules and 6 sessions aimed at training the trainer. The other course was run for ~12 participants, consisted of 4 sessions and focused on developing a cognitive understanding of Futures Literacy for use in the Net-Zero Emissions Maritime Hubs Deep Demonstration.  

Struggles: What was something you found difficult in learning about Futures Literacy?

A frequent struggle was breaking out of a way of thinking that is set in the grooves of operating with “realistic” predictions and hoped for visions. Futures Literacy helps people to diversify thinking about futures into alternative, unfamiliar territory. Furthermore, we can see some hint of the pressures that working in a demanding work environment places on the need to pause and consider, breathing in, before making a decision. 

“the future can have different colours and shades.”

“the future can have different colours and shades.”

“make time to explore my assumptions and how they shape my actions + visions in detail + changes needed? how to change assumptions?”

make time to explore my assumptions and how they shape my actions + visions in detail + changes needed? how to change assumptions

Learnings (immediate value): In what way(s) was participation in Futures Literacy training meaningful to you?

The immediate value of the training sessions frequently made reference to the unlocking of the unrealised potential; putting the wealth of the imagination to productive work generating strange new assumptions, possibilities, and options. This was frequently accompanied by a feeling of confidence, that these new tools are ready to be tested through experimentation.    

“Establish familiarity with the unfamiliar and feel there are no limits to imagining different futures”

“Establish familiarity with the unfamiliar and feel there are no limits to imagining different futures”

“The training was meaningful in helping me piece together a lot of different fragments (different kinds of futures thinking, complexity, participatory methods) into something more cohesive (my coat of leaves) – but how well will it survive the wind and new journeys I will undertake?”

“The training was meaningful in helping me piece together a lot of different fragments (different kinds of futures thinking, complexity, participatory methods) into something more cohesive (my coat of leaves) - but how well will it survive the wind and new journeys I will undertake?”

Impacts (potential-applied value): Do you see possibilities to use or apply Futures Literacy somehow?

Enhanced perception of alternatives and conscious consideration of assumptions were reported as being key capacities that would be of use moving forward. Coupled with a new found sense of empowerment; that resolutions to dilemmas that transcend the conventional formulation can be found.  

”How thinking about the possible futureS can elevate and inspire, and at the same time highlight the need to be more proactive and strategic in actions to avoid the negative.”

”How thinking about the possible futureS can elevate and inspire, and at the same time highlight the need to be more proactive and strategic in actions to avoid the negative.”

“[It’s a] multipurpose tool to explore deep into the paradigms and mental models of individuals, groups, society… Especially useful to explore the intent and design principles of challenge owners”

“[It’s a] multipurpose tool to explore deep into the paradigms and mental models of individuals, groups, society… Especially useful to explore the intent and design principles of challenge owners”

Passing it forward

We see a lot of potential in this reflection tool. Learners gave very positive feedback about how this process helped them to uncover additional value from their training course. The process was reported as leveraging the advantages of creative exploration and collective sensemaking to produce meaningful immediate value and insights into how to apply Futures Literacy in their own contexts. Taking the time to pause, think and explore the thoughts and feelings brought up by the trainings added layers of complexity to thinking about futures that go on to help participants themselves embrace complexity.

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We would be gratified to see this process taken up by others involved with EIT Climate KIC and beyond. We at FLxDeep are actively seeking collaboration on further Futures Literacy processes. I am confident that this method, tried and tested in the context of Futures Literacy training, has the potential to be further adapted. Collaborative, creative and collective processes create knowledge that is of value in a wide range of applications and contexts. The prospect of exploring those frontiers is a source of great excitement and energy. To overcome a poverty of the imagination, a first step is to put that (potentially) strongest muscle of all, to work. 

Martyn Richards

Martyn Richards is a futures researcher/educator and social science master’s degree student at Finland Futures Research Centre, at the University of Turku. He has worked with FLxDeep co-designing virtual learning and reflection spaces since January 2020. If you are interested in finding out more about these exercises and how to implement them in your own context, please contact Martyn, malric(a)utu.fi. To find out more about FLxDeep, contact consortium lead Nick Balcom Raleigh, nabara(a)utu.fi.

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Acknowledgements and further reading

Dixit art credit: Dixit, author Jean-Louis Roubira, illustrator Marie Cardouat, publisher Libellud.

I would like to express my deep gratitude to Dr Petra Cremers for her invaluable contributions to these exercises, without her expert knowledge and our long conversations this work would not have been possible. I would also like to thank Anna Kirveennummi for her acute perceptions and contributions to the development of our value framework. A further thanks to all the FLxDeep consortium members with whom I collaborated and co-designed on this project; Irianna Linnaki-Dedouli, Loes Damhof, Elles Krazemier, Nick Balcom-Raleigh, and Morgan Shaw.

To find out more about Futures Literacy, Riel Miller’s book Transforming the Future: Anticipation for the 21st century is available as a free download.

This work has drawn heavily from the Transformative Learning theory of Mezirow, more information about this approach can be found in The Handbook of Transformative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice (2012) by Edward W. Taylor and Patricia Cranton, ISBN: 978-1-118-21893-8, Jossey-Bass.

We made use of the modified value framework of Wenger (2017), to develop our question prompts.