How To Explore The Future (and Why)

04 May 2021 in Resource Center.

Futures are our ideas about the future. Futures provide another way for us to assemble and eventually integrate broadly informed multi-perspectival views of our worlds; futures can help us foster our comprehensivity. Moreover, futures can help us better create the future we would desire. This resource will interpret, expand upon, and contextualize the exquisite presentation “Exploring Alternative Futures” by the brilliant young futurist Angela Oguntala.

What is The Future?

Angela Oguntala’s presentation includes illustrated descriptions of many of the ideas we have of the future. She gives examples of the kinds of dystopian and utopian futures that are incessantly repeated in our society including Domesday Jerry who prepares for a “certain” but unknowable catastrophe, Tom Cruise’s Minority Report where agents hunt you down for a crime you haven’t committed, the 2009 invention of a talking watch which had been the subject of science fiction for decades, a future where scarcity becomes the norm and we need to forage for food to survive, and a utopian society where new technologies provide all imaginable pleasures with no pain, struggle, or work.

The special thing about the future is that it is loaded. It’s a place where we store all of our baggage, our anxieties, our frustrations, our hopes, our excitements and fears. … So it makes perfect sense that throughout time we have always been mesmerized by the future. [So] we try to predict and we try to speculate what will tomorrow be like when it arrives. … What we get from these predictions are vision and images and stories that creep into our minds and that stay in our minds for a very long time.

— Angela Oguntala

Oguntala’s point is that the future can have a profound hold over our thinking and our actions. She claims that visions of the future are powerful because they inspire us to work toward them. But she worries that when these visions and images and narratives of the future are repeated too often, they begin to limit us, they narrow our scope of possibilities, they bias our measures of other alternatives.

Should we be more skeptical of the futures presented to us? Should we be more skeptical of the enticing possibilities of our entrepreneurial prospectuses and utopian science fiction? Should we be more skeptical of the often menacing possibilities that fill our news feeds, our dramas, and dystopian science fiction?

How likely is the future that you are so worried about?

All futures are uncertain…. The fundamental concept of future studies … says that there is no ‘the future’. There is no ‘the future’ as this thing that sits out here on a timeline and then it just shows up one day. Instead, there are many possible futures and each one has some likelihood of coming to life.

— Angela Oguntala

Oguntala is correct. In my only college history course, “The History of The Future” with W. Warren Wagar, our textbook The Study of The Future edited by Edward Cornish emphasized this way back in 1977: “So far we have discussed ‘the future’ as if it really existed. But in actual fact, it does not, and we must recognize the non-existence of the future if we are to clarify our thinking about it.”

What is the future, really?

What images, visions, and stories of the future have mesmerized you?

How can we break the dangerous spell of mesmerization that some futures hold over us?

How Should We Explore The Future?

Angela Oguntala recommends exploring alternative futures to improve our understanding of the possibilities the future may hold for us and to gain insights into how our actions may affect the dynamics of the futures we are creating together.

Our collective job is to imagine … alternative futures for us to pick apart and inspect. So that we can get a good understanding of the kinds of outcomes that we want and the kinds of outcomes that we don’t want. But more importantly what are the series of actions and events that will lead us to one alternative versus another.

— Angela Oguntala

Oguntala thinks we can escape the blinding restraints of a few mesmerizing futures by actively thinking in alternatives.

Our ability to think in alternatives, I believe, is centered on looking for new stories or different ways to tell stories.

— Angela Oguntala

She mentions literature and film. She explains how countless stories in the European tradition follow the hero’s journey of trials and tribulations resulting in personal transformation. However, in Nollywood, the Nigerian (and the broader African) film industry, stories preserve tradition. A good example of this formula is the Nollywood film “The Mirror Boy”.

When you take in new kinds of stories and when you really try to understand them in a deep way, however absurd they might seem to you at the start, … it gives you an opportunity to reflect on your own stories that you tell and the formulas that you use to approach the world.

— Angela Oguntala

She then emphasizes the importance of understanding these alternative stories:

There is a lot of conflict in our world based on the fact that we don’t really understand in any kind of a deep way other people’s stories. And when we don’t understand their stories, we don’t understand what their dreams are based on, and then we can’t understand what they are working towards.

— Angela Oguntala

She provokes us to imagine how Polynesian society with their deep respect for Nature as a driving force and their principle of cyclical or ancestral time might think about the future? Another way to explore the stories of others is to read science fiction from, for example, the Caribbean to get a new perspective on the possibilities offered by other kinds of stories. She asks,

What future might a Caribbean culture build? … What are the stories that Caribbeans tell themselves about what the future could be like based on their own history, traditions, mythology, language?

— Angela Oguntala

She then invites us to consider the world of the Caribbean science fiction novel Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson where

There was this surveillance robot overlord that watched over the entire planet. It was called ‘Granny Nanny’. And Granny Nanny didn’t really behave like your typical science fictional sinister tropes about surveillance. … Granny Nanny was some old woman who was a freedom fighter in Jamaica in the 1800s [Oguntala misspoke, she meant 18th century].

— Angela Oguntala

She explains how the cultural heritage of Jamaica gives an entirely new perspective on surveillance overlords. She abstracts these examples to form a basic principle of thinking in alternatives to better inform our exploration of the future:

Stories matter. And new or different kinds of stories than what you are used to will give you an opportunity to reevaluate your own mental models and your own assumptions. And that sits at the core of thinking in alternatives.

— Angela Oguntala
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains the value of having many stories

One of the ways in which I have been broadening my awareness of alternative stories is by exploring the treasure trove of books collected by Ann Morgan starting in 2012 when she read a book from each of the 196 countries of the world. Her country-by-country list and reviews of international literature translated into English are at She continues to review books from around the world and adds them to her growing site. Her list provides a guide for sampling the wide diversity of stories from around the world! There are other great sources, but Morgan’s site offers the largest and most diverse collection of stories I have found.

Another tool Oguntala recommends for exploring the future are scenarios:

Scenarios are stories about the future. They are rich and detailed stories of the future that are so vivid and distinct and thought through that you can start to see the good and the bad in them, the problems, the challenges, the opportunities that a certain future would present.

— Angela Oguntala

Oguntala’s overarching message is the value of exploring the future though thinking in alternatives. This is also the practice of our comprehensivity, our inclination to understand Humanity’s traditions of inquiry and action. Through exploring the future, through thinking in alternatives, through our comprehensivity, we may learn to act better in the world.

Exploring possible futures [is] … so we can act in the present. To find a way to make the present go in a new or a different direction. … To think about what things could be different in the near and distant future and how could they be different.

— Angela Oguntala
Angela Oguntala’s TED Talk “Re-imagine the Future”

In Ogantala’s TED talk, she ends with these words:

Reconsider your vision of the future. Take a chance and be surprised.

— Angela Oguntala

How should we explore the future?

Should we think in alternatives as Angela Oguntala recommends?

How can exploring possible futures help us see how we might better create a future that we would desire?

A Survey of Perspectives on Change

This resource is the third and final one in a brief series to survey a few of the traditions from Humanity’s vast cultural heritage that touch on change in our lives. In the resource Rethinking Change and Evolution, we briefly examined Aborigine Dreamtime and the Pirahã culture, the provocative idea that “Genesis is ongoing” from the book The Design Way, Richard Lewontin’s evolutionary thinking, and the hierarchy of change model from The Design Way. The resource How to Create That-Which-Is-Not-Yet considered the possibility that through design and organizing our desiderata we can act to create the change that we desire. This resource explored anticipating and creating change through Angela Oguntala’s thinking in alternatives approach to exploring futures.

There are many other traditions for thinking about change. Readers of Canto 7 in Dante’s Inferno learn about his vision of the ministress of heaven Fortuna as a Catholic reimagining of the Roman goddess of fortune. The Mark Musa translation of the poem says, “Your knowledge has no influence on her; / for she foresees, she judges, and she rules / her kingdom as the other gods do theirs.” This suggests that our only ability to design, create, or change our fortunes is through theology. Indeed this is one of the many possible ways to think about why our fortunes rise and fall.

Another approach to change can be found in the calculus as first developed by Leibniz and Newton in the 17th century. In particular, the branch of calculus called differential equations provides one of the most well-developed means of modelling change mathematically. Many of the epidemiological models for scenarioizing disease spread and vaccination impact are built on ideas from the calculus and differential equations, the mathematical sciences of change. Each of us have learned at least a little about these results of the calculus since COVID-19 started spreading exponentially around the world.

Another important approach to change is given by Buckminster Fuller who is quoted in Daniel Quinn’s 1999 book Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure as saying, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This is another expression of the idea that our primary role in Universe is to be creators and designers.

We learned from Angela Oguntala that the approach of thinking in alternatives by deeply understanding the stories and traditions of others may help us better understand and even create preferred futures. Thinking in alternatives is also the approach we have adopted for this short series of events exploring change. In fact, the approach can be applied in general to our comprehensivism, our practice of comprehending our worlds broadly and deeply. In general, thinking in alternatives provides a powerful method for exploring the often contradictory ways people have developed for thinking about many aspects of our complex world including futures and change.

What alternative traditions of inquiry and action should we consider to better understand and create change in our lives?

What are the traditions of inquiry and action that you use when trying to understand or create change?

What follow-on explorations of alternative traditions would you recommend for continuing our exploration of change?

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 12 May 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 52m video from the 12 May 2021 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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