On Wednesday 21 July 2020, the normally busy streets of Cairo and Alexandria were quiet. Egyptians had hoped to enjoy a long summer weekend after a 3-months lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, they still found themselves confined as public parks and beaches remained closed. On that very same day, and with the support of UNESCO, 27 visionary young Egyptians were seeking to develop their capacity to imagine the future, and to reassess the assumptions driving their fears, expectations, plans and willingness to invest in change.
The disruptive shocks generated by the COVID‐19 pandemic have already affected most of the population in Egypt, producing a great deal of anxiety, reflection, and (re)action. The uncertainty forced many to feel as if they are trapped in the present; placing their hope on scientists to find a cure to the virus to get their lives back on track. On the other hand, the pandemic has also presented many with an opportunity to use a different logic to inform their everyday perceptions and choices, one that is more humble, welcoming difference and uncertainty, shaping humanity’s resilience through diversification, improvisation and fluidity.
Mariam Makramalla, a young PhD holder in education from Cairo, has had a mixed experience with COVID-19.
The worst thing I have experienced [about COVID-19] is the constant sense of not knowing what to expect or how matters will unfold, losing the sense of control of one's own health and often also wellbeing. The best thing is being allowed the time for self-reflection and the opportunity to slow my pace and re-address my priorities, […] to take courses and enroll in activities, that prior to COVID, I was physically restricted to participate in.
Along with 27 other visionary youth, Mariam participated in the Futures Literacy Lab – Novelty (FLL-N) entitled “Egyptian Youth Rethink the Future of Wellbeing in 2050”, organized virtually during 21-24 July 2020 by the UNESCO (Cairo Office and Research, Policy and Foresight Section in Paris) and the Egyptian Ministry of Youth and Sport. The aim of the Lab was to provide a structured process for young participants from Egypt to examine the assumptions that shape their images of wellbeing and push the envelope of their creative thinking. It also sought to develop participants’ futures literacy – the competency to ‘use the future’ to innovate the present. Technical support was provided by Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the United Nations Fund for Population Agency (UNFPA) and UN Women.
Dr. Ghaith Fariz, Director of UNESCO Regional Bureau for Sciences in the Arab States in Cairo, saw a strong rationale behind holding the FLL.
Without a doubt, the world will be vulnerable to future shocks. Consequently, we must consider shocks as part of a normal way of life, and reassess the level of resilience and the meaning of well-being in our societies. In this context, we asked ourselves, how can Egyptian youth turn this pandemic into an opportunity and emerge from it with more hope in the future, and a greater ability to envision new horizons for achieving shock-resilient well-being?
The Lab was structured to lead participants into a learning journey. On the first day, participants were asked to imagine themselves in 2050, describing, from ‘a day in the life’ perspective, what is wellbeing like in a probable, ‘realistic’, most likely future. They subsequently were asked to imagine a desirable future of wellbeing in 2050, depicting wellbeing in the community they belong to. There was a mixture of optimism and pessimism in each scenario drawn by the participants. A few predicted dramatic changes in economic systems, whereas there were contradictory views on the future state of the environment. Several participants were hopeful that in the future, humanity would address key issues such as racism and discrimination, wars, equal access to healthcare and education.
Yasmein Ali, a postgraduate student from Gharbyia governorate, reflected on her FLL learning experience.
The FLL helped me change my way of looking at the future. I used to look at it like we have only one destined future and we can't change it, but now I came to realize that we can think of the future in many different ways and imagine different scenarios about it. I acquired new techniques to overcome the poverty of the imagination through a collective intelligence process; I worked in a group with other talented youth and we shared ideas about the future. Another important technique was storytelling […] I managed to learn how to construct a story when talking about the future
On the second and third days, participants were encouraged to leave behind their images of the probable and desirable futures, to liberate their imaginations from the constraints of speculating likely outcomes or expressing their current hopes. Working in groups, they were asked to illustrate a ‘re-framed’ future by creating a collective mash-up (collage) image of wellbeing in 2050. A common thread among the different groups relates to the impact of technology on wellbeing in 2050. Whereas technological advances were thought to lead to improved healthcare, education and transportation, yet there were mixed feelings whether this would lead to further individualism or would promote social interaction.
Amr Mohamed Fayed, another FLL participant from Port Said appreciated this approach.
It was indeed a more than wonderful experience. We were able to see the future many times with different images and shapes. […] In fact, the multiplicity of options for imagining the future was a wonderful thing, perhaps because we became more aware of the various ways in which we may march towards the future.
On the last day of the workshop, participants were asked to explore new questions and to consider matters that they thought were important for wellbeing before COVID-19, but seem less important now in light of exploring other images of the future. As a result of the Lab, different aspects of the present models of wellbeing emerged that were either invisible or marginal but now offer unexpected potential.
Four FLL participants shared their experience in the Lab with over 500 young Egyptians during the celebratory event held on 12 & 13 August 2020 by the UN Country Team in Egypt to mark International Youth Day.
If the future lab taught me one thing, is that it's ok to be a dreamer, it's not just ok, it is necessary to dream passionately about the future, and how you want to live it. You have the power to create the future you want to see. If you can visualize it, then you can make it happen!