Thinking about thinking about futures

How can approaches to imagining our futures be enhanced?
How can diverse teams of people, imagining together over time, contribute to that enhancement?
How can we find ways to “articulate and synthesise a wide range of ideas whilst avoiding aggregation into an averaged consensus” (Pau and Hall, 2021)?

Professor Max Saunders and I [Dr Lisa Gee] used funding from the recent Quality Research call to start exploring these questions in the contexts of wellbeing, health and social care. As a first step towards preparing a funding bid for a comparative international study, we ran an online workshop for sixteen participants, drawn from wide-ranging backgrounds and with a broad stretch of lived and professional expertise.

Lisa and Max made this presentation as an introduction to their workshop for the Forum for Global Challenges 2022

The workshop was based on a methodology I developed with colleagues at Furner Communications Ltd (who facilitated this event) and the Health Foundation for the latter’s Inclusion Panel.

First step?

It was our first step because we want

a)  a diverse team of people (including us) to work together to form the substance of the bid, so we all share ownership of the research questions, aims and methods, rather ‘us’ involving or engaging ‘them’, and ‘them’ participating in ‘our’ research and
b) to start forming this team.

Who was there?

Participants included members of the Inclusion Panel, the Institute for Mental Health’s Youth Advisory Group, Birmingham Future Thinking Network and others drawn from our networks. 

We were also joined by four creative writers chosen for their combination of writing skills, lived expertise and capability as facilitators. Bidisha, Joanne Limburg, Maria Farrell and Phoenix Andrews led and fed back from the four breakout groups that explored the first of three questions we asked.

  1. What should we ask about to discover how people think about the futures of
    a. health and social care?
    b. wellbeing?
  2. Who should we involve in preparing this bid?
  3. What things do you think affect how people think about the future of health and social care, and wellbeing?

Our Furner Communications facilitators brought the participants together to discuss the other two questions. All the conversations were incredibly rich, and enabled us to much better understand what we need to do and how we need to do it. 

Why this approach?

Because it enables us to embed principles of co-design, co-creation and co-production and the processes of generative conversation and power sharing from the start. Email me if you’d like a copy of our report, the plain English summary, or to see any of the materials we prepared for the workshop.

Some background

Imagined Futures book coverMax and I come to this work from different directions. His book, Imagined Futures: Writing, Science and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923-31 (OUP, 2019) explores this extraordinary series of essay books, in each of which a subject expert writes an extended and individual future vision. The books explored a range of topics from science to swearing, and the overall approach, Max noticed, differs markedly from how we do futures thinking today; usually by committee, in a context where

Imagination, in other words, tends to be circumscribed by the experiences, situations and (usually corporate) interests of the people doing the imagining. His thinking led us to initiate of the FUTURES series of essays: a 21st-century reboot of To-Day and To-Morrow (we’ll have some exciting news on this to share soon).

My interest comes from work beyond (if adjacent to) the academy. While this workshop’s methodology was knowledge-transferred directly from my work with the Health Foundation, it’s also informed by my experience facilitating people in multinational (often multilingual) companies to think about the futures of their roles and organisations with Professor Lynda Gratton’s company HSM-Advisory and her Future of Work Consortium. I also bring several decades of varied work exploring, assessing and implementing various aspects of Equality/Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Participatory futures, imagination and abduction

There’s much I’m drawn to in Nesta’s approach to “participatory futures”; its focus on events and processes that go beyond the rational and intellectual to include “[a]rt and embodied and experiential processes” – often involving varied forms of role-playing games – as these “have a much greater influence on citizens, their sense of meaning, motivation and subsequent actions” (2019, 23). Likewise, Pau and Hall’s ingenious experiments in employing “[i]magination and abductive thinking” (a way of reasoning forward to generate or justify hypotheses) to enable “non-experts to participate in futures research” (2021, 5).

But there’s something about the focus on discrete processes, events and art-making, in both approaches, the direction of travel of influence in Nesta’s, and the concept of “non-experts” in Pau’s and Hall’s that Max and I think can be improved on. For example, one of the things that struck me most about Panel members’ responses when my Furner Communications colleagues and I reviewed our collective progress after the first year, was how significant it was that we were able to get to know each other over the months. Conceptualising people as “members’ or, perhaps, a “team”  rather than a diverse group of “citizens,” or experts by experience, or “non-experts”, enables us to see influence and change travelling in multiple directions, ebbing and flowing over time, as change happens.

Our hypothesis is that while “[a]rt and embodied and experiential processes”, “[i]magination and abductive thinking” are key to enabling people to think into possible futures,

  • the evolving relationships between the people doing the imagining – especially when these involve getting to know people from unfamiliar backgrounds whose experiences, and whose perspectives they may not have previously considered


  • the length of time over which they work together to do the imagining

are also key. Tuckman’s oft-quoted concept of teams “Forming, storming, norming and performing” (1965) has resonances here, as does the importance of the relationship between therapist and client in producing successful therapeutic outcomes. There’s also something interesting about the relationships between stories/narratives, story-tellers and the development of trust that will make for rewarding exploration here.

What’s next?

On the basis of what workshop participants told us, Max and I are now in the process of formulating our next steps. To summarise briefly, we plan to

  • Develop our “vision statement” showing what we want to do  and how we want to do it
  • Talk with colleagues and contacts to identify possible partners here and in other countries
  • Think about how we can best involve people with diverse lived and professional expertise in fair and mutually-beneficial ways
  • Look at how we can use words in ways that help people think past their present contexts
  • Work out and articulate how we’ll care for the people who’ll be doing the Future Thinking
  • State our egalitarian and inclusive principles clearly so we can make sure we work with people and organisations with similar or complementary values.

We are, of course, already talking to colleagues at Birmingham with research and practice interests and experience cognate with ours – but haven’t yet had the time or opportunity to approach everyone we’d like to. So, we’d love to hear from you if you might be interested in working with us.