Futures Studies is essentially not a study of the future itself, since the future has not happened yet, but a study of ideas, beliefs, and images about the future
Indiana Jones fascinated me, ever since I got exposed to it in the early 90s – the adventuring, swashbuckling archaeologist, who piqued my curiosity about history and ancient civilizations. Paired with “Back to the Future”, I wondered whether inventing a time machine would enable us to travel back in history and witness it ourselves.
If you asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up when I was 13 in 1997, I would have answered – “I want to conquer time.”
Of course, the more you explore about the nature of time, the more you realize that building a time machine is not really the easiest thing in the world – it is rocket science or more.
This journey still led me to study theoretical physics as my undergraduate degree in 2004 and even before I embarked on that path, an uncle asked me, “Okay, good that you’re studying Physics but how are you going to help the people of Bangladesh?”
The question struck a chord and I found myself coming back to it now and then, but now reframed, having gone through various exposure of the deconstruction of nationalism and the nation-state, thanks to Tagore, Chua Beng Huat and other thinkers.
The question became “How do you help people or communities in need or that are marginalized, wherever they are or whoever they are?”
However, the notion of “helping others” has also been deconstructed throughout the years, thanks to Freire, Illich, the above-mentioned thinkers and others, and that helping others did not mean creating further cycles of dependency. It felt that for communities in need to be able to address whatever they want to address, they would need to be able to solve their own problems, instead of being dependent on others to solve their problems for them.
It felt that they would need to be able to research their own problems and act towards them. For this, it seemed that such communities or individuals would need research systems, as well as learning/education systems. After all, research is just another way of learning.
This led me to study educational leadership and school improvement for my Masters in 2012 – and again, the more you explore about the nature of education systems, the more you realize that developing equitable learning and research systems for all communities around the world may not really be the easiest thing in the world – addressing these systems were complex and required multiple sectors and disciplines to work together.
It was at such a time that I got formally exposed to the subject of Futures Studies through a futurist called Sohail Inayatullah, who conducted a workshop on the Futures of Brac University (where I was working) in 2030. That is where my own journey into futures thinking or as a futurist began.
Futures Studies is essentially not a study of the future itself, since the future has not happened yet, but a study of ideas, beliefs, and images about the future. Note that “Futures” is in plural, not singular – alluding to the notion that there are multiple futures, not just one future, quite in sync with the idea that there are parallel universes.
However, what was promising about the field of Futures Studies in relevance to my own existential questions was the idea of transformative futures thinking, a domain through which individuals and communities can regain hope and agency towards the futures they are working towards to.
Inayatullah’s workshop methodology on the Six Pillars of Futures Studies really gave me an alternative glimpse into not the savior idea of “helping others” but working with individuals and communities to work towards their preferred individual and collective futures. In a way, futures thinking enabled me and others to travel through time.
Given the times of the pandemic and a plethora of other issues, it is easy to feel a loss of hope or influence towards the future – and here is where the role of futures thinking comes in.
It is a time that we can no longer remain in our silos and just act out of self-interest. We must be able to work together to address the issues that collectively affect all of us – be it the pandemic, climate change, genocide, gender-based violence, inequality, divisive rhetoric, and the list can go on.
Methodologies in futures thinking can play a part in bridging these divides and silos and it is hoped that knowledge and applications of futures thinking can be democratized among all people, and each person can also play a role in contributing towards the field.
It is hoped that futures thinking not only helps us through challenges like the pandemic but helps us avoid them as well.
I currently identify myself as a futurist, educator, and storyteller.What is the relationship between futures studies and storytelling?
That is a story for another column, but I leave you with a final quote, the second law of Futures Studies by another futurist called Jim Dator – “Any useful statement about the future should at first, appear to be ridiculous.”
I hope that through this column, I can shed some light on various ideas, methods and reflections on these ridiculous futures that may help us be adaptive, resilient, or event anti-fragile in nudging or shaping a world that works for all of us, not some.
Shakil Ahmed is an educator, futurist and storyteller and currently works in the leadership team at Acumen Academy in Bangladesh.