• Stephan Raab

“Working with the Future” by Roberto Poli

Have you ever thought about what might happen tomorrow, maybe even a tomorrow after the pandemic? Dealing with predictions never seems to be easy, especially when they refer to the future. “Working with the future” provides a thoughtful and creative introduction into the world of future science. The author inspires to delve deeper into looking forward what might come.

Between failure and future- What is future studies?

I am a failed sociologist”, the author welcomes the reader on this journey to future[1]. Roberto Poli is a professor for philosophy and science at the University of Trento and UNESCO Chair for Anticipatory Systems. Dealing with his failure as a sociologist Poli gives a simple answer: “The sociology I have studied since being young was completely reverted to the back. There was no kind of forward-looking framework, no frame where to fit in the future”[2]. Often, he bemoans, it seems that social sciences still focus too much on looking backward. Obviously, societies are aware that things are changing, but he argues that for many the tomorrow is just a prolongation of the today. However, diverse conceptions of the future provide a valuable source for social science. This way the self-perception of a society becomes obvious. Put in other words, said conception of the future reveals what a certain society is about through what it aspires and strives for. Consequently, time and change over time are socially embedded constructs, which define the conception of what is happening now, what might happen in the future, as what might be needed to make this future possible. This is what the sociologist George Wallis termed as “Chronopolitics”[3]or to be more precise: “The history of culture is the history of its images of the future"[4]. At the beginning it is clarified what futurology is like as what it is definitely not.

There are two kinds of stereotypes associated with future science. On the one side there is the image, that futurology is like clairvoyance, looking forward through the lenses of a crystal ball. On the other side, there is the image, that futurology is like a prophet promising to predict what will change in the future. Neither of both seems to be suitable, as the world is more complex. Dealing with that subject is working with the power of being surprised of what might happen.

From linearity to complexity- Looking forwards into the future

Shortly after the Second World War, in 1948, mathematician Warren Weaver[5] presented a model of thought, depicting history as the challenge to cope with an ever-increasing complexity. During the first stage, starting at the age of Enlightenment, there were problems of simplicity. Those days science focussed mostly on description and observation, just figuring out, what variables as a tool might be. Later on, the age of disorganized complexity, started at around 1900. Soon as statistical methods became more sophisticated. Supported by increasing computing capacity, even more complex issues could be solved. Nowadays history has entered the age of organized complexity. These problems can no longer be handled by simple use of statistical methods; however, they include a wide range of factors, qualitative as quantitative.

At this point “Working with the future” settles in. After a theoretical introduction, the author presents a wide range of techniques, how to depict various images and assumptions about the future, how to tackle those challenges of the future. Those include tools such as mapping techniques, creating certain scenarios or also thinking about wildcards of events, nobody thought of. Nevertheless, quite exceptional, there is the idea of “backcasting”. Instead of thinking what might happen, this exercise of thought turns things around. Starting from a certain scenario, reasons and factors shall be elaborated, that might have led to a certain scenario to surface.

Learning from the future for the future- Futures Literacy

“Working with the future” can be distributed into two aspects the “future for” as the “future in”. The “future for” deals with the future of a certain sector, such as, for instance, education. The “future in” addresses the future competences needed to prosper in a certain future to come. Currently due to digitization and globalization the future for mankind seems to be uncertain. We are living in a VUCA-World, composed of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. In other words, preparing for the future is getting ever-more challenging[6]. Reminding the old slogan, “we are not learning for school, but for life”, these prospects put a special demand on the education system. The task is to prepare students with the capacities needed in future life. However, nobody can say for sure, what capacities will be needed. Therefore, Roberto Poli addresses a very wise point” “If education is about learning for the future, why not learn from the future for the future?”[7] In other words, why not making “futures literacy” part of the curriculum, taught as a core competence for dealing with the future?

According to Roberto Poli, putting future into practice is core skill of every futurologist. Therefore, together with students from the University of Trento he has founded an educational enterprise for future science called “skopia”. This start-up has been running various “future labs” at schools in northern Italy. Those labs consist of three steps. In the first phase participants will get aware, that change is not an exception but the norm. In the second phase, those students are encouraged to conceive their own future scenarios. Eventually, in the final phase, participants will be asked, how those goals might be accomplished in the future. Consequently, students are invited to perceive and conceive the meaning of an ever-changing world to live in.

Whatever might be! - A book from the future for the future

Concluding this book review leads us back to the beginning, where the author did complain about having failed as a sociologist, the reason being a sociology that looks backwards instead of incorporating the future. Conversely, in sociology’s infancy, at the dawn of the 20th century, H.G. Wells argued that “utopic” or futuristic thinking, should be developed as the core and particular methodology of modern social science[8].

“Working with the future” refers back to that old ideas of futuristic thinking in social sciences. “Working with the future” retrieves to that old thoughts. In this book, Roberto Poli, as UNESCO Chair for Anticipatory Systems, has gathered a wide overview an extensive plethora of concepts and ideas, encouraging the reader to start its own journey in discovering what might happen in the future. After all, this little book is a helpful guide providing many incentives for understanding the world we are currently living in as the world we might be living in one day in the future.

At the end of this inspiring introduction into futurology, “Working with the future” conveys one message: “Those who understand the future, will be empowered to make it possible!”

[1] Poli, Roberto (2020): Lavorare con il futuro- Idee e strumenti per governare l’incertezza; Egea, Rome; p. 1. [2] Ibd. [3] Wallis, George (1970): Chronopolitics: The Impact of Time Perspectives on the Dynamics of Change; in: Social Forces 49 (1); p. 102-108. [4] Polak, Fred (1961): The Image of the Future: Enlightening the Past, Orientating the Present, Forecasting the Future; New York; p.115f. [5] Weaver, Warren (1948): Science and Complexity; in: American Scientist 36; p. 536-544. [6] Bennet, Nathan; Lemoine, James (2014): What a difference a word makes: Understanding threats to performance in a VUCA world; in: Business Horizon 54 (3); S. 311-317. [7] Poli 2019:123 [8] Wells, Herbert (1906): ‘The so-called science of sociology’; in: Sociological Papers 1; S. 357–377.

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