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Working with the Future: Ideas and Tools to Govern Uncertainty

Working with the Future: Ideas and Tools to Govern Uncertainty

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Working with the Future: Ideas and Tools to Govern Uncertainty

251 pagine
3 ore
Oct 31, 2019


Poli's book is
  • Theoretically robust
  • Provides a description of some of the major methods in the field
  • Describes some major applications (army and government, schools)
  • Shows quite a few cases of re-framing
  • Suggests connections with present frontiers of scientific research
  • A systematic, engaging introduction to futures studies, that any well-educated person will be able to follow
  • Provides a framework for understanding the complexity and the uncertainty of the present situation
The book distinguishes correct from wrong ways to understand the future.
Oct 31, 2019

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Working with the Future - Roberto Poli



It’s 2011, in Paris, at the headquarters of UNESCO, on an underground floor full of meeting rooms. I have been invited to participate in an EFFLA seminar (European Forum on Forward Looking Activities), one of the many consulting groups in the European Community. As usual in these meetings, participants begin by introducing themselves to each other. The tour of the table started somewhere on my left and I am one of the last to present myself. After listening to a long series of self-celebrations, as if by reaction, I spontaneously start like this: I am a failed sociologist. My statement, in that situation, sounds so unexpected that everyone who has to speak after me is careful to point out their failures.

It was an obvious case of reframing. But why did I present myself as a failed sociologist? I did it because, despite my graduation with full marks and honors, I never succeeded in being a sociologist. Even if in the meantime I have done something else (specifically becoming a philosopher, and the worst subspecies, ontologist), I have always had a vague sense of unease about the apparently unbridgeable gap between what I had acquired as a student and what I put into practice as a researcher. It took me almost thirty years to reconstruct the cause of that impasse: the sociology that I had studied as a young man was completely aimed at the past. In it there was no forward-looking framework, no way to frame the future. But what’s the point of a sociology that refuses to look at incoming problems?

This question has at least two different but intertwined aspects. On the one hand, it refers to the idea of science that guides the discipline, and on the other it raises the question of how to use the future. Science is still dominated by the practice of looking back (at the data), thus observing the future only within the limits of extrapolations from the past. The transformation from science oriented towards the past to science oriented towards the future,¹ or the very idea of exploiting scientific research to generate future,² are themes under development, but still completely in the minority.³

The second aspect involves explaining in operational terms what an expression such as working with the future refers to; that is, what does a futurist do? Obviously, I do not intend to refer here to the exponents of the avant-garde movement founded at the beginning of the last century by Marinetti; I use this term to indicate a new figure: that of the professional of the future.

Apart from a few minor references in Chapter 4, the book does not deal with the first aspect of the question (that of the nature of science), except implicitly, but instead examines the second and describes the main components – theoretical, methodological and operational – that distinguish the work of a professional of the future.

Having already dedicated an entire book⁴ to the theory of anticipation and coordinated the Handbook of Anticipation,⁵ the first systematic review of the ways in which the different sciences, disciplines, and communities of practice look to and use the future, in this work I will focus on the real work of the futurist, aiming to offer a picture of the main interactions between theoretical implications, methodological approach, and operational realization. Without aiming to create a true manual for future professionals, in the following chapters I will work to bring out some aspects of the operational practice of the futurist.

A fundamental contribution in this sense came from the students of my courses, the participants in the Master’s Degree in Social Foresight, and from the collaborators and colleagues who accompanied me in the adventure of -skopìa, the startup at the University of Trento which has been offering professional anticipation services since the end of 2015. The very survival of the startup, as well as the slow but steady growth of its full-time employees, shows that there is an interest and a market for professional services on the future.

Particular emphasis should be placed on the professional qualification of the futurist. There are a thousand reasons to deal with the future: many people, especially in times of crisis, present themselves as future experts and occupy the media by dispensing recipes. However, I hope to make it clear throughout the book that the work of the professional of the future, like that of any other expert, requires training, has its own principles and rules, and cannot be improvised. The establishment of AFI (Association of Italian Futurists)⁶ in December 2018, as well as the very existence of APF (Association of Professional Futurists),⁷ confirms that the term professionals on the future does not represent an oxymoron at all.

The book is divided into ten chapters. The first four describe futures studies from an initial approximation to then touch in succession the difference between megatrends and explorations, risk and uncertainty, and complicated and complex. Chapters 5 and 6 respectively describe the phases of a future exercise, some of the tools used by the futurist, the issue of the classification of methods, and the evaluation of a future exercise. Chapters 7 through 10 describe different areas of application, from military tactics to future laboratories in the classroom, and indicate additional skills and abilities that the futurist must possess. All of the chapters except the last one end with a box that aims to show each of the topics covered from a different angle – small reframing exercises that help to develop more inclusive perspectives.

The book ends with the Learn More section, containing bibliographical indications, journals, websites, and other sources that the reader may decide to use to develop her future skills.


This book was written among the hills of Zollara (a tiny hamlet behind Cattolica), the mountains of Trento, and the vineyards of Stellenbosch, in South Africa. I would like to thank Jan Hofmeyr, Director of the Center for Complex Systems in Transition, and Hendrik B. Geyer, director of STIAS (Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study), for making my third stay in their excellent facilities possible; STIAS offers an excellent environment for concentrating on one’s work, far from the usual requests from friends and colleagues.

Many friends and students contributed to improving the quality of the volume. A special thanks goes to Valentina Boschetto Doorly and Antonella Nazzi for the careful reading of the chapters of the book. As usual, all the remaining mistakes are mine.

¹ Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, Sripada (2013).

² Gergen (2015).

³ Poli (2017b, 2019b).

⁴ Poli (2017a).

⁵ Poli (2019a).



1Forecasting, Foresight, Anticipation

Let us start with a necessary premise: working with the future does not mean predicting what will happen; fortunately, the world is always more surprising than our models can capture. On the other hand, only those who do not know the nature of the future and have not understood the lesson of complexity – perhaps the most important scientific insight of recent decades – can think that working with the future means knowing what will happen. Forecasting is actually a minimal component of futures studies. Working with the future rather means being open, ready for surprises, and prepared to manage them.

The future is something else

To better illustrate the problem of studying the future, I begin by describing something with which we are all familiar, at least in broad terms. I’m talking about the history of the 20th century. I will try to review it in short images, one every twenty years. I provide six frames that, although they obviously do not aim to fully portray the much richer and more intricate aspects of history, help trace a general path.¹

•1900: all capital – financial, economic, military, technological, scientific – is in the hands of the great European capitals. The whole continent is at peace and enjoys unprecedented prosperity. In 1901, for the first time, the Nobel prizes are awarded. There is a widespread positive climate, well represented by the magnificent and progressive fate recounted by Giacomo Leopardi.

•1920: Europe is devastated by the Great War, which cost 16 million deaths. The great Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German, and Ottoman empires have collapsed like paper castles. A strange experiment is taking shape at the eastern borders: instead of the Czarist empire, a communist country is taking shape. It’s hard to see what this means, let alone whether it’s going to last. New powers, such as Japan and the United States, are emerging on the international scene. As early as 1919, Sir Eddington had confirmed Einstein’s General Relativity; insulin is discovered and medicated plasters are also invented. Despite the changes under way, everyone is convinced that the harsh peace treaty imposed on Germany will prevent it from rearing its head again.

•1940: Germany is conquering Europe. The Soviet experiment has survived and the USSR has signed a non-belligerence pact with Nazi Germany. The Reich will not last for a thousand years as Hitler’s propaganda threatens, but we will have to deal with its tragic impact for a long time. The first color TV transmission is made and the first radar system is built. In 1941, Disney produces Fantasia, the first film with a stereo soundtrack.

•1960: Germany is literally split down the middle by the Second World War; the whole world is forced to choose between two opposing factions in the Cold War. Both contenders develop an enormous nuclear arsenal. The colonial empires dissolve and a hundred of new states are born and join the United Nations. China is led by Mao Zedong, whom many consider to be a fanatic. In 1959, Kilby invents the integrated circuit, while in 1960 the first laser and the first implantable pacemaker are produced.

•1980: the United States has lost the war, not against the Soviet Union, but against an Asian country that the vast majority of Europeans and Americans had never heard of before and would still not be able to place on the map. Moreover, the United States has lost control of the Iranian oil fields, which seem dangerously on the verge of falling into the Soviet sphere of influence. To isolate the USSR and contain its overwhelming power, Jimmy Carter turns the situation around by reactivating contacts with China. The first mobile phones and personal computers are put on the market.

•2000: the Soviet Union has collapsed, not as a result of armed confrontation, but due to internal deterioration. On paper, China is still communist; in reality, it has shed its skin. NATO is advancing in Eastern Europe and even in the territories of the former USSR. The first social networks emerge, 3D printers and smartphones arrive.

The situation seems to recall that of the beginning of the century, when 9/11 arrives and the wheel begins to turn again.

What I just described was not the story of the 20th century. At least not the way a historian would report it. Any informed person would tell me that I brutally simplified the events and that history cannot be painted in a few simple brushstrokes. That is true, without a doubt. However, my point is different, and the oversimplified description of the six previous images serves another purpose.

Place yourself at any of the times above and imagine someone saying: this and that will happen in twenty years’ time. At the very least, you wouldn’t believe them; more likely you would laugh at them and consider them a visionary, a weirdo, or even a madman. That is precisely the problem with the future. Even though we come from a history of enormous change and have gone through countless traumas, we still see the future as essentially similar to the present. It is a clear cognitive illusion: we know that things have changed enormously, but we believe that tomorrow cannot be so different from today (Chapter 10).

The main reason for this cognitive obstacle lies in the inability of common sense to grasp the future. Common sense is that set of recipes which we acquire from an early age to help us in our daily activities. If we need to buy a shirt, we all know what to do: we go to a certain shop (not a random shop, a bakery would not work), we choose the shirt we like, possibly asking a salesman to assist us, then we go to the checkout, we pay and we take our purchase home. If we meet a friend on the street, we stop, we exchange a few words and resume our path. At breakfast we expect coffee and croissants, not seaweed and boiled rice. By this I mean that our common sense is often different from that of other communities. Within each community, however, common sense simplifies people’s daily lives, helps them cope with ordinary struggles and prevents those struggles from becoming problems. If we were to throw up our hands saying Oh, God and What do I do now? every time we came across an acquaintance, life would be difficult, if not impossible, and we would actually be in a pathological state. Common sense is essential for the management of situations that occur repeatedly.

To face the future, however, it is necessary to put aside common sense and escape the repetition of the ordinary. Tomorrow there will still be daily life and there will be situations that we will face with the tools of common sense (although it will probably be different from today’s common sense). In order to see today what might happen tomorrow, we need to leave the calm and safe waters of current common sense and agree to consider other possibilities. The future is something else. Whatever it is, it will certainly deviate from what we take for granted.

Structural crises, contingent logics

To meet the challenges of the future, however, one cannot limit oneself to the mere observation that things have already changed many times and that they will continue to change; one must combine this awareness with an understanding of the progressive acceleration of change. If it is true that the entire 20th century has seen a succession of ever faster transformations, there is no reason to believe that the 21st century will bring less change. If so, even more radical and sudden² changes can be expected. It is not just a question of the – widely announced – technological innovations that are coming, but also of the social changes (relations and practices) and cultural changes (values, styles, attitudes) taking shape and their reciprocal interactions. To mention just one aspect that many people do not understand and often perceive with discomfort, for several decades now Western societies have undergone a phase of experimentation with the idea of the family that has dislodged some assumptions that previous generations had considered natural. Today, for example, families increasingly tend to be made up of one person; even when there are stable relationships as a couple, these do not necessarily translate into cohabitation under the same roof. Having children, as well as marriage itself, are no longer considered obligatory choices. This phase is bound to last a long time, before giving rise to a new socially accepted and stable form of family.

Acceleration is a constituent element of modern society. Two obvious catalysts have been the construction of the nation-states and the industrial production process. The first, especially in the case of larger countries, has led to

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