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
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
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
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
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
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.
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