Put on by the Center for Complexity at RISD
Funded by Infosys
In an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world, we cannot control the future, but we can control how we anticipate and prepare for emerging futures. The chaos of the present moment reveals how difficult it is to prepare for, and to respond to, failures in intricately interconnected systems. In this paper we share some insights from our professional experience that we hope can serve others in the days and months ahead and in the crises yet to come.
Design Consultant; Associate Professor, RISD
Founder, Virtuu, former West Point faculty
Associate Professor, RISD and co-founder of the Steel House
As we grapple with the entangled epidemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism in America, we as a team are listening, learning and reflecting on what it means to imagine, design, and work towards more resilient and just futures.
In his address to the graduating class of 2020, Barack Obama wove the hopeful imagination we are witnessing in this moment, with the long history of structural change: “America changed – has always changed – because young people dared to hope,” he shared. “As someone once said – hope is not a lottery ticket; it’s a hammer for us to use in a national emergency; to break the glass, sound the alarm, and sprint into action. That’s what hope is. It’s not the blind faith that things will get better. It’s the conviction that with effort, and perseverance, and courage, and a concern for others – things can get better. That remains the truest part of our American story.” 
 It was Rebecca Solnit who wrote: “I say this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, for the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and the marginal. Hope just means another world is possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope. (Solnit, Hope in the Dark, 2006)
The hope that Obama described and the collective imagination and action we are watching unfold across the country spring not from a misguided sense of control, but from an imperative to act; from a sense of agency and responsibility to imagine and “embody the just and liberated worlds we long for” and the belief that we hold both the power and the responsibility to imagine a just future and actively work to bring it about.
We recognize that the tools and methods that we use, the stories and objects we create, and the imagination we exercise are never neutral.
The world we live in is increasing in both complexity and interdependency. The most pressing (and worthy) challenges we face cannot be solved by a lone genius, a group of technical experts, or indeed by any one sector of society. They cannot be solved by predictive models built on a vast array of assumptions drawn from our experience of the past. Nor can they be solved by any single vision for our future. In fact, they may not be solvable, they may require our constant attention and adjustment. To work in this way, we need one another more than ever, and we have to refocus our efforts. Predictions, forecasts and other signals – long the foundation of planning-based approaches – are not sufficient. One of the many things that COVID-19 has taught us is that despite signs, warnings and lessons learned from previous public health emergencies, we are not good at imagining the future. The swift spread of the virus vividly demonstrates three characteristics of complex social challenges: (1) the situation is emergent, (2) as a result, there is a constant flow of information to navigate, and (3) this means actors are constantly adapting their behavior. Predicting emergent situations is difficult – controlling them is impossible.
But that is not to say we cannot prepare for emergent situations. Rather than focusing efforts on predict, command, and control, we need a resilience framework that emphasizes anticipate-withstand-mitigate-adapt. This approach recognizes our lack of control, and thus tries to build the tools, skills and systems to think about the future, to enable the shaping of the future, and to proactively adapt to the future that actually comes.
Acts of Imagination
In our work, we draw on foresight practices (trend analysis), future studies, scenario planning (storytelling about emerging trends) and design (making objects to ground stories in lived experience) to help our partners imagine various emerging futures.
Operating as we do, between these disciplines, we are mindful of the shortcomings of each of them. We try to elide the easy instrumentality of pretending that our work can secure or should focus on a particular solution. At the same time, we are wary of developing speculative scenarios that are untethered from reality. Instead, the point of these acts of imagination is to examine the dynamic interactions that we might see, in order to better prepare ourselves for the dynamic interventions that multiple futures may require.
We do that by
prompting participants to think about the dynamic interactions of emerging trends (note the plural). An exercise that forces them to consider wider social, cultural and environmental contexts.
Asking them to write stories about the worlds (again note the plural) that could be shaped by those interactions. An exercise that requires them to think more precisely about the ramifications of these trends.
Examining objects intended to illustrate and extend those scenarios, an exercise that invites them to think about how they would respond to the worlds they have described.
The goal of these nested efforts is to help build the participant’s personal resilience, their organization’s capacity to respond to emergent trends, and through those efforts be able to positively contribute to society’s larger responses. The difficulty our partners, and indeed all of us face, is creating a space for imagination in our organizations, in our political discourse and in our daily lives.
But how do we respond and imagine when we are operating within organizational structures that value expertise and experience? Recently, we’ve begun our workshops by inviting participants to not only acknowledge their specific roles within their organization, but to suggest that they have more to offer than what their job title or recognized area of expertise might offer. This simple adjustment to an introduction (While I may be an expert in _______, I also offer unique value by _______.) immediately presents the idea that our greatest problems will not be solved by staying within the boundaries of our expected areas of knowledge and even comfort. It will certainly take scientists, engineers, technologists and policymakers to address tomorrow’s challenges. But it will also take really good listeners, deeply thoughtful mentors, and maybe even someone who knows how to lighten the mood to contribute.
When faced with the unknown, we often draw from a collection of our lived experiences in order to process and respond. Or at least we should. We believe to build a sense of agency, it will take acts of imagination and the space to practice it.
Crisis, Imagination, and Transformation
The entangled epidemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism have created a moment of intense grief and intense purpose and opened new space for imagination and transformation.
Over the last several months, the coronavirus pandemic has changed and challenged our imaginations. “What felt impossible has become thinkable” Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in May. “We’re getting a different sense of our place in history... We know that we’re living in a moment of historic importance. We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters.”
And over the last several weeks, young leaders organizing for change in response to the atrocious murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the broader systemic racism in America, have renewed calls for radical imagination. As activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham described, “we are reimagining what public safety can look like […] imagining what it would look like when we don’t even have traditional systems because our communities are so healthy from the ground up.” The current calls for radical imagination echo a long history of black leaders and social movements that powerfully “transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine a new society.”
We hopefully, and modestly believe, that the methods we have described can support these and other acts of radical imagination. Radical acts of imagination needed to make real progress in the present and to prepare for our futures.
The current calls for radical imagination echo a long history of black leaders and social movements that powerfully “transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine a new society.”
We face difficult challenges. And those challenges are all the more difficult because of their relatively unpredictable nature. As Rittel and Weber note, “social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved—over and over again.” When we consider the complex and unpredictable nature of the future, we should stop aiming to predict it and “solve” our next crisis; rather we must prepare ourselves to resolve it, or re-solve it. And that means building our capacity, at the individual, organizational, and institutional level, for adaptability and resilience.
We reflect on the imagination and transformation in this moment, and our own agency as foresight and design practitioners. We recognize that the tools and methods that we use, the stories and objects we create, and the imagination we exercise are never neutral. As Adrienne Maree Brown wrote in 2017, “We are in an imagination battle. Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others are dead because, in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on imagined, racialized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable.” She goes on to say “We have to imagine beyond those fears. We have to ideate – imagine and conceive - together.”
And so we must.