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Prehearsing the future

By Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney

The future is a process, not a theme park. – Bruce Sterling1)

If a picture says more than a thousand words, a minute of direct experience says more than words ever can. As children we learned immediately and unequivocally about the consequences of our actions by trying things out. Through play and games we'd put ourselves in new situations, get hurt (or not), try again, laugh a lot at ourselves and others, but ultimately adapt and assimilate new behaviours on a daily basis – never knowing what a new game might bring. Then gradually we began replacing direct experience with representations: beginning with picturebooks and textbooks, moving on later to news reports and theoretical treatises, statistical models and market projections. There is nothing wrong with representation – if we had to learn everything we know through direct experience it would take many lifetimes. However, there are some things that remain ungraspable unless we experience them with our own skin. One of these things is the present moment, beginning its life as an unknowable future.

We can try to predict or calculate how we may experience a certain moment, but when it arrives it often differs from our expectations. We can complain and get frightened that we can't know what to expect, or we can open up to a sense of wonder and excitement as we used to do in make-believe games. For most children, the question “what if…” opens up a whole fairground of possible games and stories: What if I could fly? What if we lived on water? What if I was an Indian? For many adults the same question tends to bring up deeply sedimented anxieties: what if the economy collapses? What if I have cancer? What if sea levels rise? Curiosity and fear, both very useful mental attitudes when it comes to survival.

In mindfulness2) and other meditative practices we learn that our experience of the present moment is largely coloured by our attitudes, grounded in the past and influenced by speculations about the future. We can practice to let go of the past (as we can't change it anyway), but the future is a different thing: we can influence what happens next. As Sarah Connor says in the movie Terminator II: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”3) This ability to open up the future doesn't just exist in movies. It is practiced in most children's games, but also in such grown-ups' machinations as strategic foresight, futurology and forecasting, but also improvisation, meditation and disaster drills. All of these quite disparate practices have at least one thing in common: they dare to ask “what if,” then experiment with different answers and observe what happens.

Stopping and looking

Say you have a burning question – e.g. what if prohibition4) in Europe was ended? what should I do in the next ten years? – that is dependent on so many factors that you get lost before even trying to find an answer. Spice that with a serious dose of uncertainty about the future and you get a complex stew – one that can cause mental indigestion, with symptoms ranging from apathy, indecisiveness and pessimism to reckless hubris and irrational exuberance sometimes. But we can approach it differently: pause for a moment, take a deep breath and try to get a clearer perspective on the situation.

The same “stopping and looking” can be found in the first permaculture design principle, which suggests that we should “observe, then interact”5) with the world – with people and other living beings, or whole ecosystems. When we talk about the future, we can only observe what was, what is, and if we look very carefully, what is emerging. These observations don't (usually) involve gazing into a crystal ball, but there are contemporary equivalents: studying patterns of change – also known as trends or drivers. Studying trends is about being aware of what changes in the world around us – not just today, but also how things changed up to now.

In addition to looking at what changes, i.e. what is variable, it is also important to look at what is constant and very unlikely to change in the near future. Being aware of constants and variables helps us see unpredictability as a spectrum of more and less predictable things, rather than a homogenous, insurmountable wall that paralyses our thoughts and actions. The future becomes more malleable: it is made of some things that probably won't change and others that most likely will, but we don't know how. We can begin building on the constants and imagine where the variables might take us.

Stories about the future

Futurists of various flavours have developed a wide range of methods to help us make decisions about where we are and where we want to be, breaking the vicious circle of uncertainty and paralysis while accepting the ultimate unknowability of the future. One of these methods is known as scenario planning or scenario building:

“scenarios are, essentially, specially constructed stories about the future, each one modeling a distinct, plausible world in which we might someday have to live and work. Yet, the purpose of scenario planning is not to pinpoint future events but to highlight large-scale forces that push the future in different directions. It's about making these forces visible, so that if they do happen, the planner will at least recognize them. It's about helping make better decisions today.” – Lawrence Wilkinson6)

At FoAM,7) we have used diverse scenario-building techniques devised by Peter Schwartz,8) ARUP9) and others to find the best ways to sketch possible futures grounded in a solid understanding of the past and the present. We'd like to stress again that scenario planning does not attempt to predict the future, but helps us “create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view.”10) In other words: scenarios enable us to look with our eyes wide open.

It goes without saying that futurism and strategic foresight don't have a monopoly on looking with eyes open. Meditation and theatre improvisation are two other examples of practices where we are invited to observe and interact. All of these practices engage different techniques to increase awareness of our past and present actions, as well as to be prepared for a range of possible futures by understanding the present.

By cultivating awareness of our present condition we can become more open and resilient to whatever the future brings, knowing what we can or should change, what is worth keeping and what we're better off discarding. At the same time, we want to step into the future with a healthy dose of “visionary adaptation”11) – knowing where we'd like to go while being ready to adapt to unexpected and unknowable circumstances. Ready to welcome the future in the present moment, without knowing which future will come knocking.

(P)rehearsing possible futures

This brings us back to the merit of directly experiencing the present moment. While scenarios are valuable thought experiments about possible futures, it's very hard to know what they will be like until we experience them in real life. Exploring these questions at FoAM we wondered how we could “rehearse” a possible future before it came to pass. How we could experience living in different scenarios and observe our reactions to them. Would such an immersive experience change our views about which scenarios might be most desirable? Could we cultivate more resilient mindsets and behaviours (i.e. being able to adapt and respond to challenging conditions, without loosing the essence of who we are and what we want to do) by “rehearsing” a future scenario?

With these questions in mind, FoAM designed a case study called “Future Preparedness,” where we extended future scenario building through speculative design experiments, improvised role-playing games and meditative practices combined in what we called “prehearsals” or “pre-enactments” – real life laboratories where future scenarios can be experienced as immersive situations. Prehearsals allow us to explore our individual and group behaviours in challenging and unpredictable conditions.

We began by devising a range of scenarios using both proven and experimental foresight techniques. The scenarios were translated into scripts and instructions for prehearsals. We proceeded to create the setting for a given scenario, ranging from simple improvisations with no props to full-blown rough and ready scenographies, including mock-ups of technologies, clothing, interiors and transport-systems.

To prepare for a prehearsal, an honest introspective session is needed. We ask participants to speculate about who they would be and what they would do in the given situation by extrapolating from their present circumstances. We ask them to play the role of their future selves, without creating a fictional character. This is easier said then done. Taking on a fictional role (as in role playing games) is much simpler than playing yourself outside of your usual day-to-day routine. You have to balance between being authentically yourself, imagining how you'd behave in a scenario and suspending disbelief that you're in a real situation, rather than a makeshift future. Prehearsing could seem like lightweight game play, but it is actually quite demanding as you are acting and reflecting simultaneously.

In prehearsals we use improvisation and contemplation to examine the constants and variables of thoughts, behaviours, reactions and opinions – both individual and collective. When it goes well, we are able to viscerally feel what our habitual reflexes are, which helps to become aware of them, to recognise them when they arise and to choose how to react. In challenging, unpredictable situations we can expand our range of reactions much further than the customary “fight or flight or freeze”12) response. Prehearsals allow different aspects of our characters to become more or less prominent, and point to possible changes in our behaviour as individuals and groups.

It was interesting to observe that our choice of scenario didn't necessarily tally with enjoying the prehearsal experience: the scenario might sound like an ideal future, but when put it to the test in a physical situation with a group of real people it can begin to crack, pointing to existing problems and weaknesses. This can be quite a painful experience, but a very educational one.

Analysis and reflection

The difference between a good piece of speculative fiction and a future scenario is their intention. In fiction creating a good story is the goal, in scenario-building the story is the means to an end. Stories in scenarios and prehearsals exist to help us reflect on our present and future. After that it is up to us to integrate what we learn into our daily life. What we do with our findings after the prehearsal is the point where stories can become reality.

As prehearsals are experimental situations, it is much easier to talk about existing pain points without stepping on anyone's toes. Reflection about personal and collective experiences is quite deep and honest a few hours and days after a prehearsal. Answers to the original “burning question” can be revisited, then refined or discarded. People acquire new, practice-based insights about themselves as individuals, their interactions with others and about the group as a whole. This embodied experience helps bring out what is most interesting and valuable in a scenario, and what doesn't work. It also becomes much clearer what the group needs to do to get from where they are to where they'd like to be. Furthermore, it points to existing problems and potential pitfalls.

All of these realisations can function as an “early warning system” in real situations. We can recognise patterns of events or behaviours as they arise and refer to our shared prehearsal experience. At FoAM we began using names of scenarios to describe actual experiences: this week was such an “Incubator” that I just wanted to retreat to a “Bohemian Salon”; she wants a “Flotilla” commitment, but is only available as a “Weekend superhero”… These names became short-cuts for a whole entangled system of concepts and behaviours. When mentioned, memories and emotional responses experienced during a prehearsal would resurface and we could associate causes and effects of events as they begin unfold.

Recognising patterns of scenarios is still a rather passive approach: we let the future emerge first, then react to it influenced by our experiences within scenarios and prehearsals. A more active approach is to begin implementing changes immediately and steer a situation towards a desired future. We see both approaches as necessary to enhance the resilience of our plans. Too much of one and we're still just responding, too much of the other and we become rigid, holding onto a future we'd like to happen while ignoring the signs that we might be headed to a completely different one. As with every practice described in this article, there is no black and white, no heaven and hell, no clear-cut paths to a successful future self. As Bruce Sterling says, the future is a process.

The end, but not really

When we began experimenting with scenarios and prehearsals at FoAM, we weren't sure what to expect. We had a sense that there was something interesting in there, but couldn't quite point to what it was. Instead of researching futurism's state of the art, we found a few things that worked in our context and began our practical experiments. From the first day onward there were constant surprises. Defining the “critical uncertainties” for our scenarios made our biggest challenges surface from a magma of drivers and mega-trends – without us realising beforehand what they were. The first prehearsal showed how we could become totally different people, while still being ourselves. The second enhanced a sense of trust and belonging for some but alienated others. The third shone a spotlight on some of our present practices that were potentially unsustainable and might better be discarded.

We're not yet done with being surprised by the repercussions of scenarios and prehearsals in our daily lives. We feel confident that they can be effective in a confined setting: they work well for individuals and small groups, communities or organisations if everyone involved is fully committed to the process. We'd be curious to see how they work with larger networks, whole cities or even countries. There are precedents, including the nation-wide NNNI disaster drills in ex-Yugoslavia,13) or the more recent Zombie Apocalypse of the US military.14) Aside from enlarging their geographic and demographic spread, we'd also like to try prehearsals over different durations: from an hour to a month for example. Finally, we'd like to share the tools and stories, so that different groups of people could prehearse and share their findings.

There is no end to prehearsing possible futures. When it eventually arrives in the present you might realise you're in the middle of the premiere, but there is no ovation – just life unfolding.

Further reading

  • Peter Schwartz, 1998, The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, Wiley
  • Bruce Sterling, 2002, Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years, New York: Random House

Guidelines for DIY scenario building and prehearsing:

Scrapbook-style notes about related topics:

resilients/prehearsing_the_future.txt · Last modified: 2013/11/13 14:50 by nik