Discussing Post-Normal Futures

At a recent futures network meeting—where a number of fellow professionals with an interest in the application of foresight, come together—we explored the idea of Post-normal Futures. This article is not meant to represent a full description and exploration of the topic but merely an indication of the discussion we held.

The discussion fell into six broad themes: the Post-Normal Futures context where we sought to understand the nature of Post-normal Futures; accounting for highly uncertain events (in our foresight work); truth, post-truth, and factfulness; relating the Covid-19 pandemic experiences to post-normal futures; change and transition; and skills and education.

The Post-Normal Futures Context

The idea of Post-normal Futures is predicated on the natural and social sciences with the proposition that we can't reliably look at the past to predict the future. Previous stabilities are breaking down which leads to events that are inherently unpredictable.

With the increasing regularity of unusual events; both natural (largely through human interference in the natural world) and human technological developments, we are into a transitional period to a new, more uncertain, and complex future. Therefore Post-normal Futures can help us to consider the implications of radically different but plausible potential futures.

In a similar vein, Hunter Lovins coined the term “global weirding” in relation to the “crazy” outcomes of global warming.

Accounting for Highly Uncertain Events

The emergence of "weirding" where unusual and unexpected events have significant impacts on bigger systems (for example the regional and global level) seems to have a connection to what we might more traditionally call black swans or indeed black elephants where the unlikely, unexpected event has potentially enormous ramifications.

As our ability to process increasingly large amounts of data improves, perhaps we will eventually be able to identify more complex interrelationships between data points that could help us tame both black swans and black elephants. In any case, perhaps our recent experience with the Covid-19 pandemic suggests that creating a sense of genuine importance of unlikely, unexpected events with potentially enormous ramifications is crucial in them being actively addressed by society, rather than society being in denial about them.

Truth, Post-truth, and Factfulness

It is increasingly true to say that technology is used to create fake reality which begs the question, can we rely on a single truth? The multiverse (from immersive technologies) and artificial intelligence can help us create and experience contested realities; various forms of coexisting truth. So how do we obtain and disseminate true factfulness to counter misinformation?

In the context of foresight, one challenge is that if we can't agree what's true now, how can we agree on the future? The Trump Presidency has shown that a desired narrative can challenge the notion of truth and factfulness with—as we saw very recently with the Capitol riots in Washington DC—disturbing consequences.

Of course, many times we project our current world view into the future to make predictions and satisfy our need for certainty. Moving forward into an ever changing world requires us to consider new and emerging realities, which can need some form of verification before acceptance.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges here is that more chaos in the world (greater uncertainty, greater complexity, and wider potential implications) can lead to more post-truth and different realities.  In other words, chaos makes space for more chaos.

Post-normal thinking challenges our sense of past comforts, familiarity, and loss aversion (a desire to hold on to what we have) and post truth can bring our reality, or our perception of reality and sense of safety into question. Could this in turn lead to regulation and legal frameworks supporting the promotion of truth?

Relating Pandemic Experiences to Post-Normal Futures

We know that pandemics have for long been on the watch-list of futurists around the world, and in retrospect we can see that much of the coronavirus pandemic was foreseen through past foresight work.

The pandemic has changed our perspectives on critical issues and events; for example how natural systems work, how easily man-made systems can be brought to their knees, the complex nature of connected events that gave rise to the global nature of the virus, the positive impact on harmful emissions when humanity stops moving around, and the fragility of many health, economic, and social systems to deal with such a devastating and rapidly moving situation. We have also experienced conflict between our notion of collective responsibility to find solutions and the desire to protect our own people first.

The question here is, are there lessons to be learned that suggest post-normal thinking is required to change and adapt our way to a better future?

Change and Transition

The reality is that chaos and radical change conflicts with human preferences to find simplicity and certainty. We have been using the word "normal" to help humans feel safe, comfortable, and confident about the prospect of the post-pandemic period; the “new normal.” Have we seen evidence of political will and societal acceptance of new emerging and as yet uncertain realities?

Does considering the transitional period to a post-normal future fuel fears that things might never settle? That "normal" is over? Given that for decades we have been talking about "change is a constant" the notion of “normal” seems somewhat false.

Perhaps moving forward we need to find new ways of defining different levels and types of change because the impacts and experiences from different forms of change are experienced differently. Certainly a number of us (in the network) believe that foresight should play a far greater role in working through change, and perhaps we should be exploring the role that Post-normal Futures might have in that determination.

Skills and Education

One thing is clear from our deliberations; that we need to re-skill society to make sense of the uncertain and complex nature of our future. In the context of education we are often talking about critical thinking, evaluation (of what we are hearing), creativity, problem solving, systems thinking….you know the list. But suspending assumptions, leaving space for the "unthinkable" are crucial to post-normal thinking.

Post-normal Futures can help us to really consider and factor wild cards into our scenario thinking; not so we necessarily have clarity on one particular outcome, but that we have a breadth of understanding on a range of possible and plausible outcomes that helps us frame effective possible responses. Perhaps the development of these skills needs to start in school and apply through college, university, and work-based training to help ensure we learn for the future and not for the past. 

Concluding Observations

What struck me most through our discussion was how critical the role of effective foresight is - however it is generated - to inform our choices around change. It seems to me that foresight and change need to be more explicitly linked than we often see them at the moment. The change question is, do we want to change for today or change for tomorrow? Do we want to lead change with foresight for future growth?

Image Source: Pete Linforth https://pixabay.com/illustrations/fractal-complexity-mathematical-1906796/