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How can future thinking contribute to transformative changes?

Published: 15 September 2022

Johanna Tysk

Programme manager

At Vinnova, we have an overarching mission to work towards sustainable system change, where we engage actors from many different fields and sectors linked to issues such as climate change, health, urban planning or the school system.

"System innovation" requires radically new ways of thinking and doing together, where we challenge our established approaches, see new opportunities and meet across different borders. What potential does future thinking have to play a key role in these larger changes?

To answer that question, we need to understand what creates sustainable change in a larger system. A metaphor often used to explain systems thinking is the iceberg, where concrete events – a pandemic, a war, increased gang crime or floods – form the tip of the iceberg. Often we act by trying to curb these symptoms, but do not look at what lies beneath the surface: an interconnected web of relationships and structures that together constitute forces of change in constant transformation.

When we look into the future, we look for signals of these deeper forces of change, and pull them to the surface to jointly ask questions such as: What causes concern? Hopp? Vilka possible futures can these signals lead to, and for whom? What future do we want, and what do we need to do to get there? Where the focus on symptom-fighting easily creates division, speculating about the future opens up safe and creative spaces where you can build a larger collage of insights that together can create an understanding of possible ways forward - instead of allowing different images of reality to be opposed/debated each other.

Future scenarios can in this way set in motion a system change spiral that could never be orchestrated or controlled in advance, but is based precisely on people's activated sense of agency and meaning. I become an activated agent instead of a passive recipient.

It also creates the opportunity to capture signals from environments that are at the forefront of the system changes we are facing, look not only in the established innovation environments but in e.g. environments that out of necessity had to change in new directions or innovate in response to new conditions. It opens up to thinking in the longer term and on a larger scale, creating a breadth of possible futures to relate to and helping us create direction for exploratory efforts, without for that matter losing ourselves in static target images or utopias.

Finally, future thinking trains us in many of the skills required to dive below the tip of the iceberg and create innovation that makes a difference. The ability to embrace reality in all its aspects of hopeful and worrisome signals. Empathy being able to understand how different groups or societies might react to a certain scenario. See "beyond the visible", understand wholes and the value of both the logical and the emotional aspects of the systems we work with!

Text: Johanna Tysk

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