Located futures

This is a first go at summarising something I’ve become a lot more interested in recently: how to talk about place in accounts of the future. It’s a draft, not polished, but it’s here because I want to talk about practical ways of exploring these located futures, and I want the rationale up somewhere first. Later this year I’ll be talking about these ideas at the World Futures Studies Conference in Penang.

Considering the future is widely reckoned to be a useful and productive undertaking, giving groups and individuals confidence in the decisions they take in the present, informing their goals and aspirations and helping them to try to anticipate and respond to change, with some authors calling for a greater recognition of the value of learners engaging with accounts of the future within current curricula (Facer & Sandford, 2010; Slaughter, 2008; Damasio, 2003; Hicks, 2002). There are a number of different approaches towards engaging with the future employed by different sectors – policymakers, corporate strategists, social science researchers, product designers – but they share a common desire to consider the future as open, a need to offer compelling stories of future events or behaviours, and, usually, an obligation to provide an appropriate level of evidence in support of these stories. In many cases, this need for robust accounts of the future capable of engendering confidence in their utility leads to the use of quasi-scientific language and methodologies, borrowing ways of describing and valuing the world from domains that are trusted to talk about future events, such as engineering or economics.

Adam and Groves (2007) describe the social imperatives that lead to this “scientific” approach towards producing accounts of the future, and suggests that they arise from a dominant ideological perspective that encourages us to consider the future as open, unclaimed and susceptible to colonisation: by constructing futures as immaterial and “extraterrestrial”, elites are free to operate without considering the material consequences of their actions. Introducing Bauman’s (1998) description of “the great war of independence from space”, they note that accountability and responsibility are notions that are strongly coupled to territory, and by projecting their actions into a placeless and abstract domain, these elites are able to evade their legal and moral obligations to communities experiencing the consequences of those actions. Castells (2009) describes a similar state of affairs in discussing the “mythical future time” mobilised by corporate planners, and the way in which their work projects the present-day values of the powerful into the future. In both these descriptions, what leaves the future open to colonisation is the way in which it is represented as abstract, immaterial, placeless, remote, general and unconnected to the present we experience and inhabit. This representation of the future positions it as a resource to be exploited, rather than the dwelling of real people to whom we owe the same moral obligation as those existing now (Groves, 2007).

If it is the remoteness and abstraction of futures as commonly represented that works to obstruct positive social action, then, there is a need to discover a way of constructing possible futures that allows people to connect to real, actual places and people. By accepting the immaterial and de-spatialised futures of powerful elites, we abdicate the right to act in our interests and abandon our future lives to those who have different interests to our own. We need a way of representing futures as connected, placed, real, local and enmeshed within networks of being in order to resist these forces.

Drawing on authors in the ecological tradition (e.g., Berry, 1977; Leopold, 1966), who have drawn attention to the need for societies to recognise the value of place and the ways in which elements of ecological systems – including human beings – are interconnected and interdependent, and on writers in the field of education futures (particularly Slaughter, 2004 and Hicks, 2002), this paper develops the notion of ‘located futures’ as just such a way of representing futures.

Located futures are accounts of alternative futures articulated in relation to a particular place: more broadly, they are futures that have been constructed with a sensitivity to the rootedness and located nature of lived experience. Futures are inescapably located – they happen in some place. By paying attention to what might come to pass in a particular location, it becomes possible to recognise the difference between this and the futures that happen elsewhere, offering an opportunity to counter the general and homogenous quality of the dominant futures constructed on behalf of and in the interests of corporate entities, and connecting those who currently inhabit that place with those who are yet to do so.

Subsequent work will describe the notion and derivation of ‘located futures’ in relation to the domain of education, explore the ways in which they might extend our capacity for embedding futures thinking within learning, and consider some practical applications within a learning context.