Future-forming interdisciplinary research

The Time of Social Futures: ISF at Anticipation 2017


By Emre Tarim

On 8 November 2017, members of the Institute for Social Futures and colleagues from Lancaster University held a researcher and practitioner panel at the 2nd international Anticipation Conference in Senate House, London. In line with the ISF’s founding aims to work across academe, business and the community we brought together a panel of four researchers from Lancaster University and four eminent practitioners in their respective research fields.

Our panel’s title was ‘The Time of Social Futures’. The topics that our researcher-practitioner panel dwelled on in order of appearance were: The aesthetics of anticipating the future led by Emily Spiers, Lecturer in Creative Futures at the ISF with Peter Kalu, storyteller and Artistic Director of Commonword; Alternative homes and ageing futures led by Melissa Fernández Arrigoitia, Lecturer in Urban Futures at the ISF with Stephen Hill, a Chartered Planning and Development Surveyor and  board member of the National Community Land Trust, and the director of  the UK Cohousing Network; The cultures and organizations of anticipation in financial markets led by Emre Tarim, Lecturer in Behavioural Sciences at the Department of Marketing , Lancaster University with Greg B. Davis, founder of Centapse and formerly founding director of  the banking world’s first behavioural finance team at Barclays; and The past futures of urbanization led by  Carlos Galvin Lopez Lecturer in the Theories and Methods of Social Futures at the ISF with Michael Hebbert, Emeritus Professor of Town Planning at the Bartlett School, University College London, and Chairman of London Crossrail Design Review Panel.

Our common focus was on how time features in anticipatory futures methods across these varied fields of research and practice.  More specifically, we explored how time is understood and deployed differently in specific fields, contexts and technologies of futures methods and with different consequences for our societies. We also underlined how anticipations and futures methods are actually social phenomena. That is, they are relational practices, taking place in planned and unplanned manners in specific contexts with specific histories. They entail both individual and institutional actors, and material and theoretical constructs and devices.

The first part of our panel consisted of four paired conversations, each of which was limited to 15 minutes by our panel chair, Professor Rebecca Braun, Co-director of the ISF. The time challenge encouraged us to focus our attention on a couple of key points that we as researchers find especially pertinent to the way practitioners in their respective fields act in the present, in response to their visions of different futures. These conversations revealed some common threads that ran right across the session, despite the fact that we came from ostensibly distant and unrelated research and practice fields. One of these surprising threads was the primacy of mainstream infrastructures and technologies, such as the markets, transportation networks, engineering and construction, and probabilistic methods in the formation of presents and futures. The panelists underlined how alternatives to mainstream infrastructural mechanisms and technologies are possible and even in the making. Mainstream infrastructures and technologies for judgements and decision-making for the future are often dominated by profit-seeking in the shortest term possible. They are constituent of, but indifferent to, pressing issues such as housing suitability and affordability, urban sprawl, and environmental damage from market-based production and consumption. Our evolving discussion around mainstream infrastructures and technologies also raised questions about what should constitute rationality, control, responsibility and good decision-making with reference to individual and social welfare outcomes. These questions became more pertinent especially when the panelists underlined the uncertainty-generating and emotion-inducing nature of varying time-lags between making a decision about the future and bringing it about within and across domains of practice.

Another common thread was storytelling, which many take to be a device only for a fictionalized past, present and future world. Yet, our panelists stressed how storytelling is prevalent in weaving the experienced pasts and presents, and desired or feared futures in different domains of theory and practice, ranging from literature to housing. As intimated by the panelists, storytelling problematizes an understanding of anticipations and future methods that is linear, probabilistic, and paradigm-driven. Such an understanding generally comes at the expense of aesthetics, emotions, morality, utopian and dystopian visions, and marginalized people in society. The panelists stressed that such aesthetics, emotions and visions can be prescient or even constitutive of the changing and taken-for-granted worlds we live in, ranging from housing, through town planning to fiction.

The partnerships we profiled at the panel have repeatedly informed our research undertakings in the past and for the future. Emily has been working with creative practitioners to study the ways in which the arts and creative practice impact on the world, with the principle that one needs to be in that world, working with those for whom creative practice is their daily living in order to do so. In seven years working on the theme of alternative housing, Melissa has produced events, films, and academic work in close engagement with local authority representatives, housing association personnel, policy-makers, members of parliament, charities, NGOs, housing activists, designers and film-makers. Her current research has a large steering group committee with representatives from within and outside the housing sector. Emre’s research on judgement and decision-making in financial markets to date has employed methods that involve close collaboration with finance practitioners in real-life settings.  His current research on immigrants and their finances aims to extend this collaboration to service providers and policy makers.   Carlos’s longstanding interest in cities and infrastructure and how history can help us to think in nondeterministic ways about their future has been key in his past and ongoing involvement with practitioners and themes such as the UK government’s Transport Systems Catapult programme on key drivers of urban mobility in 2030, and the Department of Transport’s History and Policy series, where he will be speaking in February 2018.

In sum, our discussions at Anticipation reminded us that we, as members of society with multiple identities and roles, are actually part of how social futures are made. These remarks are intimately tied to one of our core beliefs at ISF, that is, we need to find new ways of thinking about what we are doing if we are to avoid falling into a fatalistic mindset that just ‘lets the future happen’ in line with apparently unavoidable economic trends or technological developments. And, as our panel discussions revealed, those new ways of thinking start with reflecting on what we are doing and thinking right now.

Emre Tarim is a 50th Anniversary Lecturer in Behavioural Sciences in the Department of Marketing, Lancaster University School of Management.

You can watch the full-length video of the panel here.


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