Shapes of the future

Staying in the zone at lunchtime: food looks different depending on what future you’re in
Staying in the zone at lunchtime: food looks different depending on what future you’re in

There’s something very powerful about the idea of citizens driving change.

Because, at whatever level – from organising as a community to keep a local library open, to leading the mass protest that topples a government – it’s a reminder that we don’t need to wait for heroes to change things, just someone like you or I, who’s sufficiently pissed off to do something about it.

But even if there are some great examples of user or citizen-driven ideas (and even if ‘entrepreneur’ has become an acceptable job title for a 21-year-old), there’s no guarantee that citizens will push for changes that make for a more sustainable future.

That’s what the futureshapers network is trying to do:  it’s the people-focused part of EU Innovate, a three-year research programme looking for ways to anticipate and prepare for the demands of a future in Europe that – given the intense squeeze on resources – will have to adapt in ways that may be unknown but that, most certainly, will have huge impacts on the way we live, work, and interact.

It’s not yet clear how we – a loose network of some 200 Europeans – and our ideas will contribute to that research. As people already working on or at least with a strong interest in sustainability, I doubt we’re representative of the average European. Nor do we know yet how involved we’ll be over the three years, though at the least one value will be in the connections made across sectors, across countries (maybe one of the best arguments for European Union programmes?).

Anyway, at a first meeting in Berlin, 30 of us were told to project ourselves into 2050. “We’re programmed to think the future is more of the same”, we were told; but today, we were to picture the detail of four future scenarios (developed by another futures research project). In each of these, Europe has managed to reduce its energy consumption to a quarter of today’s level – but in very different ways, along a spectrum of either an individualistic or collective culture and from us shaping technology, to technology shaping our lives.

Imagining a future changemaker – ‘Sebastian’ will end the marginalisation of those stuck outside virtual networks

I wanted to explore the scenario that made me feel most uncomfortable: ‘Governing the Commons’, a collective culture where technology controls how we live. This foresees a bewildering mix of positive changes – high participation and trust in a new form of ‘wikidemocracy’, smart food production – and unpleasant or uncomfortable developments – e.g. virtual networks dominating in every respect over real ones, and all information being stored and used to optimise what we do. The detail, of course, was not specified, but as we discussed what this scenario would look like in our daily lives, our group kept coming back to questions like: who really has the power? Where is the room for privacy, for creativity? How do we relate to nature? What about the rest of the world? Perhaps the most frightening thing was that none of it seemed unlikely: much of what we imagined is already happening or starting to happen: synthetic meat, technology that guides behaviour for better personal health, reputations built by one’s position in virtual networks.

There’s a natural distrust of new technology. But as someone commented: it’s not technology that changes things – it’s people. What kind of Europe will Europeans make?

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