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PARTICIPATORY FUTURES: INVITATION OVER ACCESS

By Lindsey Krummell



Futures is increasingly concerned with opening up the practice beyond specialists in government, academia, and large organisations; the rise of ‘participatory futuring’ continues to nudge conversations towards involving larger communities and ecosystems. This shift is happening rapidly as the relatively young field encourages futurists to question current norms and expectations while acknowledging the weight of the past. However, practically, those that have the time, energy, knowledge, and license to engage in foresight remain relatively contained within niche spheres. 


Futures and foresight encourage people, projects, and organizations to remain vigilant against falling into the trap of following a prescribed way forward and being blindsided by a future they never saw coming. However, if we as futurists only call upon a confined group of people, we will lose out on so many possible futures. If initiatives only invite in knowledge from within an existing organization or ecosystem, artificial limits are created about what we might consider as possible or probable. 


The rise of Afrofuturism is one encouraging signal, but as we continue to use futures to break the artificial harmonies of the present, the easiest and most successful way to do that is to invite in unexpected voices. We must continue to seek to question existing norms, and by doing so, create more diverse alternative worlds to explore. Futurists must act as conscious representatives of those future alternative worlds and explicitly challenge who holds the power to engage in foresight work in the present. 


Futurists must act as conscious representatives of those future alternative worlds and explicitly challenge who holds the power to engage in foresight work in the present.

WHAT DO PEOPLE GENERALLY GET WRONG?

While there are strong positive signals of more participatory futuring efforts from a myriad of sources, we can still do better to bring people in. Ideally, we should start bringing people in before we’ve even started the foresight process. While that might sound initially counterintuitive, bringing your intended audience or participants into the design of a project sets the tenor that participants are invited in at the very start. 


Too often, organisations look at inclusion as a hurdle, rather than a tool when organizers open access to a workshop or program, that is often perceived as the start and end of the conversation with participants. 


“Anyone can come,” I often hear. 


Or better yet, “we invited people, and no one came.”


However, this idea that ‘anyone can come’ puts the obligation on the participant to navigate their own way to and through the future. Leaving the conversation at the ‘availability’ of a project, program, or organization ignores the unseen, unannounced, and unacknowledged norms, and rules of how that project, program, or organization operates. 


As futurists, we are asking people to deconstruct their present visions of reality. We must do them the kindness of acting as a shepherd along that journey, rather than asking them to figure everything out themselves. 


CREATING A SENSE OF WELCOME (AND UNWELCOME) – HOW TO INVITE PEOPLE

Access creates availability, but invitation is proactive inclusion and outreach. It is making people feel welcome by the idea that they have been designed for specifically. Implicit gestures of invitation have long been acknowledged in urban planning – and hostile architecture is a great example of how people can be made to feel unwelcome without a single word being said. 


Have you ever walked into a room and questioned if you were supposed to be there? Maybe the rest of the people in the room were 10 years younger than you, or shared a professional background that you didn’t have. 


Designers and participants will naturally bring their present norms and existing relationships. As futurists, we will ask them to set the push of the present aside. We must act as representatives of future ecosystems and communities by welcoming with specificity. We must explicitly explain what experiences we need in the room and examine who is going to be most impacted by the futures that we are imagining. We must fight against prioritizing present comforts and obligations by allowing everyone to be invited. We should seek to create diverse enough groups to challenge each other’s experiences, with a narrow enough focus that relationships can be formed within collective imaginings. Setting boundaries enhances diversity through specificity and bringing in new or unexpected participants boosts the creation of fresh perspectives. It is often easier to be vulnerable in front of someone you don’t know because you aren’t fighting the weight of the past. 


Every futuring exercise is an opportunity to create a community of evangelists for previously unexplored potentials. We can bring people together in new ways by seeking to include people’s experiences over their knowledge or advice when exploring diverse future scenarios. Futurists should look to include the end users of the future starting from the design of that future through delivery. Because there are no future facts, we have the ability to challenge the dynamics of who can be considered an ‘expert’ in or about any future scenario.  


SPEAKING TO PEOPLE IN THEIR LANGUAGE

One challenge I often see futurists and organizations stumble at, is centering their own processes over centering the comfort of their participants. To create a sense of invitation, and design initiatives that widen participation, we have to insist on using the language, tools, technology, and timings of our target audience.


As we are asking people to unpick their own norms and rules to speculate about the future, we must also do them the courtesy by giving up some of our own comforts to reach a more diverse group of people. Inclusivity means creating discomfort in your organization to provide comfort for participants. 


For example, if you are working with young people, try sending WhatsApp or text messages instead of emails. If you are working with new parents, integrate childcare offerings during your design process. If you are working with shift workers, schedule meetings outside of their traditional shift hours. 


An organization was launching a new program for young leaders, and they were frustrated by the lack of take-up of their offerings. However, they were requiring participants to register for the program via fax. Most of the people that the program was designed for were in their early 20s. They were unfamiliar with a fax machine and often didn’t have access to one. What was easy for the organization by continuing their existing process, required a multi-step journey for their target audience. When they changed registration to be available via WhatsApp, they spoke to their target audience in a technology that was comfortable for them. It also provided an unexpected benefit, as it allowed the young leaders to easily forward the application to their peers – it wasn’t just the technology that the organization was able to adjust, but how they communicated with their target audience as well. 


LAY OUT EXPLICIT RULES AND NORMS

Futures by its nature invites people to unravel their existing norms and principles, to imagine and dream for new futures. That often requires increased levels of explicitness around ideas as we discuss worlds that have never been conceived of before. However, we shouldn’t only apply that explicitness just to the dreaming around future worlds. Do your participants the courtesy of examining your own unspoken norms in how you’ve crafted your program, event, or workshop. Explicit rules for a temporary time in the present opens the conversation to assume differences of understanding between participants. Deepened levels of explicitness about rules of behaviors and expectations level the field for outsiders and helps people feel cared for and considered. People want to know in an uncertain future that they’re in good hands. 


A breakfast speaker series decided this month they were going to welcome everyone not with nametags, but with a request. Instead of your name badge telling your name or what organization you were representing, it asked participants to share a ‘need’ and a ‘lead’ – what is one thing that they were looking for in their life (from cat sitting to a new UX designer), and what was one thing they could help the community with (from graphic design to a kick-ass BBQ recipe). By asking people to leave their usual relationships at the door and asking everyone to give and take an equal amount, everyone came in on similar footings. Participants knew that they might be asked for help and could set the boundary of what help they were willing to provide, and participants knew who they could ask for help from. The organizers set that explicit rule which laid out a new norm for that temporary reality. 


INVITATION CREATES INCLUSION

Ultimately, in the present we can act as guardians and representatives of a collective’s future selves. As futurists, we can use our power as designers and facilitators of the future to explicitly invite a variety of people to journey with us into many possible futures. By expanding our tribe of participants through explicit signs of welcome and invitation, valuing experiences over knowledge, increasing our discomfort to create comfort for participants, and creating explicit norms for temporary realities we can invite new tribes with us into the future and give new senses of meaning. We can be better at what we do by working harder to invite people into the journey with us.


 

Lindsey Krummell is a futurist, learning experience designer, and community builder. She is currently leading service innovation for a global organisation, and is interested in participatory futuring, lifelong learning, and the future of third spaces. She has partnered with organisations including the University of Edinburgh, Studio Andthen, Cancer Research UK, Young Presidents Organisation and the Akazi Kanoze Youth Livelihoods Project to guide business leaders to design programmes for positive futures. A native Angeleno now based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Lindsey has lived and worked in New York, London, and Kigali. 


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