“Developing Your Future Literacy”

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Hello everyone and welcome back to the Dr. Nilda Business Foresight Strategies show. With me today is Dr. Riel Miller and also my co-host Rachel Calderon.

Hello there! Glad to be with you.

I’m very excited that you’re here and I’m going to start by reading your bio. Dr. Miller is one of the world’s leading authorities on the theory and the practice of using future change, what people see and do. He is recognized as an innovative and global experience project initiator. He’s a designer and a manager. He is widely published and in academic journals and other media. The range of topics from the future of the Internet to transforming strategic processing. He is an accomplished speaker and facilitator and his new book Transforming the Future Anticipation in the 21st century will be available.  I suppose in Amazon, would it’d be an Amazon book?

Yes it will be. It should be available pretty much everywhere. It’s being published by Rutledge and UNESCO.

Wonderful.  Let’s jump right in. You do a lot of global work and your area of expertise is a lot of education and literacy in futures, right?

Yeah. I do work that’s related to understanding the way the future plays a role in thinking.  We think about a lot of things and when we think about them, the future plays a role. It’s a general framework for thinking about the future.

You talk about future literacy. Can you explain what that is?

Yes with pleasure! Future literacy is a capacity it’s a  capability. When you know how to read and write, you’ve learned the alphabet, you’ve understood that you can put the alphabet to use by creating words and sentences, and then describing things and you can do poetry and theater and a great literature and  physics,  using your ability to read and write.  When it comes to future  literacy, we’re also talking about a competency and capacity in this case it’s the question of how the imaginary future is put to use. In other words, why do you imagine the future to what end and how do you actually imagine that future? And it turns out that that’s something that’s a fairly sophisticated and requires some assessment and reflection about the different reasons for using the future and the different methods for imagining the future.  And that’s what future literacy about.  It’s to use technical terms. It’s about what is the future and how do I think about it?

We all think about the future, because the future is 10 minutes from now as well as 30 years from now. How far into the future do you find that most people think? Most people problem solved today for the future? How often do you see that in the general public? I’m saying?

Yeah, I think that’s a very interesting way of framing the question. It turns out that five minutes, 10 years or 10,000 years actually have a lot of things in common. Meaning if you take a complexity perspective on emergence, a Tipping Point and transformations and novelty can happen at any time.  The reflex, or let’s put it this way the typical everyday way of using the future is to pay no attention to that.  We sort of live what I would consider in a one eyed world or we hop along on one leg. Because we’re futures illiterate for the most part. We haven’t learned how to think about the future and we just take it for granted. We don’t have that ability to even answer the question that you’re talking about because we don’t even know enough to say five minutes, five hours, two years, 10 years, 100 years. We just sort of say, well, it’s later, isn’t it? And you’ll notice from many, many,  efforts to think about the future that the way that they think about the future is really connected to,  some sense of their confidence in being able to predict that something will happen, but they’re not even explicit about that. They just construct the future based on that idea that, well, if I can predict it, then it’s okay.  And because they want to predict it, they tend to go short term because it’s true that if it’s very short term, you feel confident in your prediction. But even the proposition that the sun will rise tomorrow is just a guess. It’s just our imaginations. We have no certainty of that and we may feel certain about it, but that doesn’t change the very nature of the future, which is always open.

How would you grasp that futures literacy?

Basically futures literacy is a way of coming to terms with the many different ways that you can use the future. Prediction, astrology, strategic foresight,  are all different ways of using our imagination. Just the way movies, dystopia, Utopia, star wars are ways of using our imagination and the question becomes to what end to what purpose and if the purpose is a kind of lets, to put it in a pejorative sense, a stalan a 20th century, really a 19th century idea of being able to plan the future and dictator like impose my idea of the future on the future.  I think it’s a very narrow way of thinking about the future. I call it trying to colonize the future and it is very dominant in our thinking.  My preferred future, my predicted future, but it’s actually a pretty dangerous illusion and it actually not only induces us into a states which are uncomfortable where we suffered from the failure of our predictions and our inability to colonize tomorrow, but it also does something that I think is profoundly impoverishing, which is that it reduces our capacity to appreciate aspects of the present that are made invisible, are obscured by our fixation with particular futures. And because we’re fixated with those futures, we don’t look around us and we don’t notice many things that are happening that could potentially be very relevant to the present but don’t have meaning because we fixated on one particular or even a few different futures. I can give you examples that are, very powerful. For instance,  as I said, I’ve just returned from Nigeria and South Africa where we had long discussions about prospects for development and ways for people to improve their lives in Africa. And one of the things that I think everybody now agrees on is that it’s a not effective to think about convergence. And catch up that the idea that,  Africa or other parts of the world will become like the rich countries,  and that they can follow the same path,  by just doing the right thing is actually a fundamental error in understanding the world around us. The OACD countries, and I worked at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and development where I worked for many years,  is an organization of the world’s wealthiest countries. The way that they became was not by being prescient and being geniuses in planning. It was an emergent aspect of complex reality,  and it wasn’t predicted. It wasn’t understood at the time when it was happening. And it means that we really have to move away from this rather arrogant,  approach, which is I can know the future and I can plan to get there and that’s the best way to do things. Instead, anchoring development and the meaning of development for people in their own history and their own context is a much more powerful approach. But to do that,  they need to be able to think about their own context. Let me just give you another kind of example. When you’re growing up, you might admire a great deal of your big brother, your big sister, you might admire your sports hero or whatever, but as you grow up, you begin to realize that you’re not like them, that you have your own life and your own path and your own history, and as you mature, you become more sensitized to your own way of seeing things and your own world. Not something that’s idealized or that somehow,  to be replicated. Of course, copying and imitating is a very high form of flattery, but we all know that it’s a way of learning to become yourself not to become like the other. In this sense, the way we’ve used the future and futures illiteracy has created this kind of immaturity in the way humanity thinks about the present.

Again, we’re speaking to oftentimes to an audience who is not futures literate now because they don’t want to be, but they’re not futurist and they don’t understand those complexities, but it’s important for them to use futures to be aware of futures, to be able to develop the imagination, to be able to take their business, their organization, their career, to the next level using futures. What’s the best way for them to use it effectively?

The future is so central to what we do because we schedule meetings. We think about what we fear and what we hope for that the most effective way to become more futures literate is actually to think about the future. Learning by doing. The work that we’re doing around the world now from a whole team of people,  in anticipatory thinking in the places like UNESCO,  universities,  in Italy and Finland, in Malaysia,  that work is about helping people to realize that they can think about the future in many different ways by showing them when they do it. What we do is we invite people in what we call futures literacy laboratories to think about their hopes, their expectations, and their ability to reframe, to think about the future differently and through that process of learning by doing, they become more futures literate and then they’re in a position to use the future that’s most appropriate for their particular context, which includes Greenfield and imagining new things, but it also includes planning and as you say, taking it to the next level. There’s thinking within the box and there’s thinking outside the box and strategic thinking needs to include both and tactical thinking needs to be able to understand the relationship between inside the box and outside the box. This is very important and effective for businesses as well as government as well as for communities.

That term outside of the box is used so much, but it’s so ambiguous. It’s not a clear cut. What exactly is out of the box? What does that mean? What does it mean for a person who’s running a business, wants to grow that business, is very effectively what they’re doing. Everyone wants to come up with that great idea. Everyone wants to be genius in their expertise or in their industry. They often don’t do it because they don’t know how. How do we help them become more literate? What are the things that they should be looking at?

Yeah, very important question. Just one thing. Becoming genius doesn’t mean it’s going to happen and the way somebody becomes a genius is oftentimes despite themselves and by surprise. These are not things that we can actually force or plan for the most part. In that sense, colonizing the future is not what it’s about. But what you can do, and this is relatively easy, is it, if you take the time to think about the futures you’ve imagined, I’ve imagined a future in which,  global cooperation reduces climate change. When you imagine that future, you’re talking about certain assumptions, you’re talking about who’s cooperating, you’re thinking about nation states. You’re thinking about an international system. By thinking about the future and explicitly talking about how you describe it, you’re actually revealing the parameters, the borders of your box, the way to understand the box that you’re in and in that sense, understand what’s outside the box and what’s inside it is to talk about it and it turns out that the future that you imagine, a future of sustainability and climate change, moderation, reveals a great deal about your box. And the evidence that we have from the laboratories and the scientific research we’ve been doing is that you can get people to understand their assumptions, anticipatory assumptions relatively easily without huge investments in technical and big reports and consultants and all that small businesses, communities. They can all do it because in their heads they have that collective intelligence. If you sit down with a bunch of your neighbors and you talk about the future of your community, you’re going to say what you hope for. You’re going to say what you expect, what you think is probable. You’re going to talk about your fears and by doing that you will expose your box because this is one of the amazing things about the future. It can only be described by having a framework because it doesn’t exist.

Is the development of futures literacy happening around the world?

It’s really exciting at the moment.  We’ve established three UNESCO chairs,  in future studies, futures literacy in Trento University in Italy, in  Torku university in Finland, in St Islam University in Malaysia, and there’s about four or five more in the pipeline from Uruguay and Netherlands, Tunisia, and people are really becoming, I think quite excited about the potential to develop a framework for mapping and exposing the way people use the future in different ways.  And that’s, that’s in a sense the beginning of a process that’s not based on, in this, in this, in a genius or some sort of a sudden, Hallelujah. It’s really because around the world people are grappling with the inadequacy of our futures thinking up to now, our futures thinking up to now has put us in conflict with the world around us because we have an idea of human agency. How I can make a difference that is leading to a lot of disappointment and a lot of sense of frustration. And as a result, people are questioning and seeking sometimes in ways that they feel are positive sometimes in ways that are very frustrating, new ways of thinking about the future. So the development of futures literacy worldwide,  is something that I think reflects the nature of our times, but also the nature of scientific thinking about complexity and mergence, a anticipatory systems and processes, social science and also the way we interact.

Is futures work best as a collaborative effort?

The thing about starting to read and write is as we know, every child has their own way of learning to read and write and we can have, some similarities and there’s some structure, but really the path to learning something, the motivation, the comprehension, the cognitive patterns are pretty diverse and it’s of course best when you can adapt to the particular person’s context and their own proclivities. When it comes to learning about how to think about the future, it really helps to start where people are at since in different cultures, in different parts of the world. People think about time,  and they have different understandings of the way in which the future plays a role in their world.  We end up with methods that get the learning to start sort of how to get people into the process through different mechanisms.  But the collective side of it, where people say things to each other means that they can negotiate shared meaning. We can use something called collective intelligence. We can move from tacit or implicit knowledge to explicit and shared sense making. And that’s a very powerful approach to a action learning laboratory where people test their ideas about the future and learn together so that’s a very powerful approach, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t do it on their own or they can do it in different ways,  sharing it in iterations it’s pretty wide open because it is a topic of thinking and research and there’s lots of different ways to do that.

Just a hypothetical. I am talking to someone who is it excellent cobbler and his little store is going out of business. I happen to love this cobbler. I love the way he fixes my shoes. He makes them brand new again. He wants to know how to position it because a lot of these professions, they’re phasing out and he wants to know how he could make his business grow. What would be suggestions for him from a futurist perspective?

That’s a perfect example. It seems to me of where you need to explore your own context and your own history and what you actually have in the way of skills and talents because if you say, right, I’m producing horseshoes, and horseshoes are disappearing, or I’m producing shoes that last a long time, but people are buying shoes that people throw away. People don’t want to repair things anymore. And you think in terms of the past and you project that into the future, what you’ll do is you’ll miss a lot of things that have value but they don’t fit that future. And by reflecting on the context in which they live, by thinking about their future, by thinking about the box that they constructed, which is it’s going to be throwaway shoes in a throwaway society and that’s the future.  They’ll just have to shut shop,  give up or sellout or find some way to produce throwaway shoes and imitate what the others are doing.  But,  if you have another approach, which is to say that’s a box for my imagination and it obscures the fact that I’m doing something that’s craft and we’re moving towards societies where people appreciate craft because it means you can customize and make things personal. And that the question becomes how do I cultivate people’s sense of identity around what they wear and how, what they were has distinctive characteristics, is different and talks to who I am and displays what I care about. Let’s say a technological or let’s say it’s a based on a historical ethnicity. Whatever that happens to be, that prospect that outside the box of throwaway futures is invisible if you don’t realize that you’re using the future in a particular way.  There’s a lot of potential to see your strengths and your opportunities, but also the threats and the weaknesses in a different way. If you use the future more explicitly and more modestly. If you don’t think that the future is an imperative that you have to discover like it was some pot of gold under a rainbow and therefore build your highway to that future, that kind of thinking boxes, people in it obscures the world around them and it’s not the way things happen. Whether you’re Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, that was not the way it happened. It was not prescient. They had no idea what they were doing before it happened and they’ve said so. One of the things that I think futurists can help people do is to become more modest, become less stressed and anxious, but also become more explicit about how they use the future.

Pulling from the past. These are the things that did well. This is my present, this is my situation.  Again, right now, my future looks very bleak because of all the threats, in this throwaway society. I’m a  Cobbler, and this is a throwaway society. How can they take my skill? And be able to develop it into something that people can use going forward. Like so now that’s how you look at the future.

You have to test that. In other words, once you have the idea, you experiment and not every experiment will succeed.

Well, one of the things that Renee Magorme says, she’s the Blue Ocean strategist. She says, you don’t always have to disrupt. It’s not all disruptive. If you could come up with a great idea, and this doesn’t necessarily have to change the world, but if it changes that industry a little bit of if it’s takes you out of that red ocean, it puts you into the blue ocean. You’ve already made some huge strides, so it’s not all disruption. So using your imagination doesn’t always mean that you’re gonna end up like being an Amazon or a Walt Disney. It doesn’t mean you throw it all away and say,  the future is bleak, here are all the threats I give up, I’m done that’s it, I’m throwing in the towel. But to be able to take what you have to be able to develop that .

Absolutely. It’s about being able to diversify your thinking and through diversification be more resilient, not through putting all your eggs in one basket.

From that perspective, is the future’s literacy something that they should be applying? Reading more books, understanding more about trends because I find there’s a lot of business people, even a lot of people that are ,not just talking about kids that we were talking about adults that are going back to school, they pretty much have their head in the sand, have no idea the career that they’re going into. They know the career they want to go into, but I have no idea of the future of that career. Never the less, they’re still making those decisions to go into these careers that oftentimes our kind of capping out or going a different direction. So, your suggestion is that they read more, they do more, get more involved in like in what? Like hack-a-thons or what should they be doing to be able to position themselves for the future?

Stop trying to guess. Stop trying to think that they can use the trends, but rather do what is very now trite in some senses in a Hollywood perspective is that if you follow your passion,  rather than a particular career or particular gimmick or a particular tool which changes all the time, what you’re going to be doing is accumulating more and more awareness, ability to expand your understanding of the world around you. And it’s that wisdom,  which allows you to be supple and which allows you to diversify and doesn’t lock you in or create the kinds of fear that we see all around us today. And thinking that by knowing a trend or picking the right course or picking the right workshop, you’re somehow going to guess the future. You might as well go to the racetrack.

Absolutely makes sense. So be able to be more valuable to be able to be kind of go with the flow and not just guesswork, but actually position yourself,  in a way where your always looking for that next thing and not just pigeon holding yourself to that particular industry. What else could you add to it? How can you make it better of like Dr. Jay Gary says, always having that, what if, what if and what if we always looking for that next thing. I love it. Thank you so much. Dr. Riel so much for being here. I would love to have you back to be able to delve a little deeper into futures literacy, which I was quite fascinated by as a futurist. We love this stuff. We love our work, we love what we do and innovation and creativity is just, we’re just surrounded by it.

Great. Thank you. And look forward to the next time.

Okay,  awesome. Okay. Bye. Bye. Okay guys. So this ends this segment of Dr. Nilda foresight strategies show and I look forward to seeing you guys next week. Okay, bye.

Our Guest

Description: Dr. Riel Miller is one of the world’s leading authorities on the theory and practice of using the future to change what people see and do. He is recognized as an innovative and globally experienced project initiator, designer and manager.

He is widely published in academic journals and other media on a range of topics, from the future of the Internet to transform strategic processes. And an accomplished keynote speaker and facilitator. His new book: Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century will be available as a Routledge-UNESCO co-publication in April 2018.

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Interview With Riel Miller-“Developing Your Future Literacy”

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