Human-Centered Futures, Part I

Futures thinking can be awfully disembodied sometimes.

Sure, we talk about people all the time. Sometimes in “artifacts from the future,” there’s a hand holding some gadget. Some of us talk about embodiment as something important: embodied learning, embedded selves, etc. But that is different from looking at actual people. I’m not saying that people-centric futures don’t exist, but they’re more scarce than I would like.

Some time ago I embarked on a quest to figure out how to do human-centered futures work. This was before I started delving into anticipatory anthropology as an established whacky little sub-discipline stemming back to Bob Textor and Margaret Mead, thoughts on which will comprise a future post. In various ways, I’ve been trying to answer: how do you put people into futures thinking? This is the first post of a series in which I will take a stab at some answers.

For one, you involve everyday people—either as research informants, participants, and/or co-creators. The popular euphemism among some of my colleagues is “bottom-up futures,” ethnographic futures that take their insight and foresight from the details of people’s everyday lives in the present. This doesn’t mean that I, as a futurist, just regurgitate the future visions that people share with me. That’s interesting—I elicit them, especially if I’m using formal ethnographic futures research (EFR) techniques. That part’s like a backwards oral history.

But I also ask myself two primary questions: what will this person bring with them into the future, and what might they find when they get there? They’ll being their experiences, their assumptions, their bodies. These things will change as this person brings them into the future. The world will change around them, giving them new experiences and contexts, challenging their assumptions and giving them some wisdom, and finally wearing at their already aging bodies. And these factors grow exponentially more complex when we place them in a proper social context.

The simple sociological framework that condenses this rich soup of personal and collective change into three easy buckets is as follows:

Aging effects: The things that our bodies & minds naturally do as we get older. This includes senescence (body parts breaking, from the cellular level up), shifting balances of cognitive faculties and emotional maturity, and changing social configurations as their friends and family also age and eventually die. Even the hard core “I will freeze and upload my brain” longevity enthusiasts are subject to some of these aging effects, even in their wildest fantasies of immortality.

Cohort effects: The experiences a person has, both the sharp formative experiences and the everyday practices that build up habitus. This is most commonly used as a collective lens: strong cohort effects are most often those that are shared across an age cohort or a sub-current within it. Any momentous event leaves marks on the lives of all those who experienced it. And, with each generation subtle and not-so subtle changes in lifestyle and attitudes add up, over the long dureé, to significant culture change.

Period effects:
Sometimes things just happen, and they change the way people will experience the future. Floods, droughts, inventions, globalization—this is a ridiculously huge bucket that comprises most of what the run-of-the-mill futurist pays attention to on a daily basis. The creation of the road-and-car culture was an environmental change, albeit human-made, that radically changed how people experienced mobility. I could go on with dozens of examples, but I think you get the idea.

Those are the questions and the tools. Now how do you use them?

Stay tuned for Part II.

2 thoughts on “Human-Centered Futures, Part I

  1. Pingback: Human-Centric Futures, Part II « ever more perfect eyes

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