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Use Our Pasts To Transition to Our Futures

Updated: May 16

Sometimes, to think of possible futures, you need to first acknowledge the past and release people from them.

Futures practitioners, or people interested in Futures, like you, have built the muscles of anticipation and imagination to bring to mind multiple futures easily. However, if you are someone who is keeping multiple possible futures in mind for the first time, it can be challenging. In your own experience, you may also encounter people who struggle with imagining a different future because they seem to focus on the past.

Such people could be experiencing the loss of “good old times” and be in a nostalgic mood. They could also be uncomfortable with uncertainty and the feeling of being unsure. Some might also be living with trauma, as one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a “sense of a foreshortened future”.

“You can’t welcome the many futures with open arms if you are still holding on tightly to the pasts.”

So how could you support someone feeling like this to become more futures focused and cultivate ways of being that bring possibility and hope?

In my own transdisciplinary work, I’ve found the field of Organisation Development to be a rich source of inspiration and knowledge.

“Most people focus on what is changing in the external environment, and not enough focus on the internal environment that people experience.”

- William Bridges

This internal focus is the realm of Transition. Transition is the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about.

In particular, the Bridges Transition Model, by William Bridges comes to mind. (How cool is it that he works on transitions and has Bridges as his last name!). The model identifies the three stages an individual experiences during change: Ending What Currently Is, The Neutral Zone and The New Beginning.

“Transition begins with talking about what’s ending.”

- William Bridges

Many practitioners don’t pay enough attention to the first step, so let’s dive into this stage specifically. Many futures approaches start with identifying the focal topic and horizon scanning. But if people are not ready to let go of the past, they won’t be able to engage in discussions about their futures.

Here are four things you can try to address this situation:

  1. Spend time reflecting about what worked or hasn’t worked in the past.

  2. Facilitate conversations around acknowledging ideas in the past that have served our time and need to be set aside to make way for more relevant ideas that serve our futures.

  3. Provide symbolic and experiential ways to “let go” - burning paper with a piece of reflection written on it, sending an object that represents the past off down a river, or placing a memory into a time capsule for remembrance.

  4. Consider using futures methods that incorporate elements of working with the past. Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis and Futures Triangle, Institute of the Future’s Look Back To Look Forward or Jose Ramos’ Deep Time Mutant Futures are good options to start with.

Hopefully, by paying attention to the past, people you’re engaging with can stay present in the moment and begin to open themselves up to imagine possibilities of new worlds and new energy in a possible future.

So, the next time you have difficulty engaging people in Futures work and feel the need to move forward, pause and consider the counter-intuitive principle that you may need to pay attention to what’s behind, first.

Further Reading

Bridges, W. (2017). Managing Transitions. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Inayatullah, S. (1998). Causal layered analysis: Poststructuralism as method. Futures. 30 (8): 815–829.

Inayatullah, S. (2023). The Futures Triangle: Origins and Iterations. World Futures Review, 15(2-4), 112-121.

© Khai Seng Hong, 2024

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