Futures Literacy

An essential competency for the 21st century


Futures Literacy, a universally accessible skill that builds on the innate human capacity to imagine the future, offers a clear, field tested solution to poverty-of-the-imagination.

What is Futures Literacy (FL)?

FL is a capability. It is the skill that allows people to better understand the role of the future in what they see and do. Being futures literate empowers the imagination, enhances our ability to prepare, recover and invent as changes occur.

The term Futures Literacy mimics the idea of reading and writing literacy because it is a skill that everyone can and should acquire. And it is a skill that is within everyone’s reach. People can become more skilled at ‘using-the-future’, more ‘futures literate’, because of two facts. One is that the future does not yet exist, it can only be imagined. Two is that humans have the ability to imagine. As a result, humans are able to learn to imagine the future for different reasons and in different ways. Thereby becoming more ‘futures literate’.

Why is Futures Literacy important?

The future is uncertain. Climate change, pandemics, economic crisis, social exclusion, racism, the oppression of women, inter-generational conflict, and more, shatter the conventional images of the future that humans use to plan, to feel secure, to be confident enough to invest in tomorrow.

This is not a small problem. Without images of the future that inspire hope and foster collaboration there is a high risk of despair and war. The malaise of poverty-of-the-imagination must be overcome. The question is how?

UNESCO, in its role as a global laboratory of ideas at the cutting edge of human knowledge, has demonstrated that people and communities everywhere are capable of becoming more futures literate.

Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change’. A potent transformation in what people are able to know, imagine and do.

Futures Literacy is such a change. And it is happening now because the old ways of ‘using-the-future’ are no longer adequate given changes in both humanity’s aspirations and tool enhanced capabilities. We want and can do more than ever before. But as always this depends on being able to do so.

Futures Literacy addresses the urgent need to transform human governance by empowering everyone to use-the-future more effectively and efficiently. This is not just about understanding how to prepare for potential crises or plan how to overcome grand challenges or realise the important goals of Agenda 2030. It is about moving beyond a dependency on the illusion of certainty and the fragilities this creates.


Futures Literacy Activities

Since 2012 UNESCO, in its role as a global laboratory of ideas, has demonstrated that people can become aware of why and how they use the future.

Through structured on-the-ground learning-by-doing activities people from all walks of life and all ages learn about the origins and power of what they imagine. By delving together into topics they care about, from the future of health and well-being to the future of jobs and gender, they undertake learning voyages that enable them to source their hopes and fears in their history, culture, context and aspirations.

These Futures Literacy Laboratories deploy action-learning and collective intelligence to co-create the meaning of sustainability, peace and inclusion where people live, work [and play]. When people are capable of deciding why and how to use the future, they become better able to detect and create the otherwise invisible – innovation and transformation. They are more at ease with novelty and experimentation. Less anxious about uncertainty. Humbler about controlling the future. More confident about being able to comprehend and appreciate the potential opened up by change.

A special project is also underway, the Imagining Africa’s Futures project, funded by the OCP Foundation of Morocco, is providing an exceptional opportunity to conduct prototype testing of UNESCO’s Futures Literacy Laboratories. This effort builds on more than 80 Labs UNESCO has co-designed and implemented over the last eight years. These action-learning/action-research initiatives have enabled thousands of people to become familiar with Futures (see Transforming the Future for more details). Running these Labs around the world, with highly diverse ‘local champions’, covering wide range of topics, is an effective way to develop the capabilities needed for ‘local champions’ to co-design and implement Labs, to engage collective intelligence, and give life to the Global Futures Literacy Network.