Originating in the field of theatre and performance, improvisation approaches problems on the basis of common sense, by finding most intuitive and obvious solutions. In a way improvisation could be seen as the polar opposite of strategic foresight, which focuses on in-depth research and analysis, forecasting, risk assessment and careful planning. If improvisation is a dive in the deep, strategic foresight is like carefully dipping a toe in the water and a slow, step-by-step acclimatisation to prevent unwanted shocks. Improvisation relies on spontaneity and synchronicity to resolve uncertainty on the spot. In fact, British dramatist Keith Johnstone warns that we 'mustn't try to control the future or to win'; instead, we need to empty our heads and improve our skills of observation.

Johnstone wrote that Bertold Brecht trained his actors to think on their feet by suggesting that 'we should agree to discuss nothing that could be acted out'. Similarly, in futuring (and especially the emerging field of experiential futures) the idea is to move as quickly as possible from data, words and abstract concepts to action in the present. Improv experiences can provide an insight into our reactions to different possible futures before they begin to unfold – on not just intellectual but also conversational, somatic and interpersonal levels. Abstract data and information become knowledge (and eventually wisdom) through direct experience. In the words of Jose Ramos, 'knowledge about the future shouldn’t be an overly abstract concept lacking relevance, but rather an inspirational call to action with traction' (from action foresight).

Principles

There are many principles and rules of improvisation, so we'll go ahead and improvise another set, this time one that is particularly relevant to the participatory futuring processes:

  • Trust: Trust in yourself and in your fellow participants, trust the situation. Allow yourself to be vulnerable in order to be affected, altered by the experience. Whatever happens, it is the only thing that could have happened.
  • Commit: Be fully present and committed, engage with the process. A noncommittal attitude can kill an improvisation before it starts.
  • Be honest: Act from your feelings and speak your mind.
  • Focus on the Here and Now: Listen, observe and interact. Let yourself be led by the situation. Be fully present, open, aware, receptive and responsive. Adapt your actions to whatever emerges around you. Don't worry about the past or the future.
  • Agree: Try building on each others' stories. Say 'Yes and…'. Add something, don't block or reject ideas (try to avoid sentences starting with 'No' or 'Yes, but').
  • Support: In a participatory exercise it's important to have a group mind, to think of others and how your actions could impact them.
  • Allow different lenses: All of us have assumptions, points of view, opinions, intentions and expectations. Be aware how you and others view reality through different lenses, allow them to co-exist out in the open. Be specific, avoid generalisations or absolute statements.
  • Set the scene: The Future is vast and abstract. Define the limits of your world and explore the universe within, move back and forth in time and space, but whatever you do, don't break the universe.
  • Make active choices: Move as quickly as possible from talking to action. Do something. Try things out. Experiment. Fail and start again. Avoid talking around in circles…
  • Smile: 'When thy faith is low, thy spirit weak, thy good fortune strained, and thy team losing, be comforted and smile, because it just doesn't matter.' Let go of your fear of failure and have fun!

References