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Futures Literacy

Futures Literacy: A Skill for the 21st Century

In its role as a Global Laboratory of Ideas, UNESCO is pioneering a powerful change in why and how people ‘use-the-future’.

What is Futures Literacy (FL)?

FL is a capability. It is the skill that allows people to better understand the role that the future plays in what they see and do. 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?

FL is important because imagining the future is what generates hope and fear, sense-making and meaning. The futures we imagine drive our expectations, disappointments and willingness to invest or to change.

We use the future every day. We predict, we fear and we hope. Anticipation is a powerful force shaping what we see and do, but we do not think very often about why or how we use the future. Futures Literacy is a capability that offers insights into both the reasons and the methods humans deploy when they anticipate. Being ‘futures literate’ enables people, together, to appreciate the world more fully, to use the future to innovate the present (Miller, 2015). When we only use the past to make sense of the future or only think of the future as a time/place to colonise by being clever at imposing today’s ideas on tomorrow, it makes it more difficult to sense and make-sense of the novelty rich present. Expanding why and how we use the future gives us more choices by expanding what we can see and what we might do. In this way Futures Literacy is a step towards integrating complexity into our understanding of what it means to be human.

UNESCO is building a Global Futures Literacy Network

Starting in 2012 UNESCO began shifting its foresight activities towards the development of Futures Literacy and the Discipline of Anticipation. This effort built on UNESCO’s decades of experience in fostering future studies and as a global laboratory of ideas where the latest advances in the theory and practice of using the future are discussed and prototyped. UNESCO is co-creating with local champions in over 20 countries to explore locally rooted anticipatory assumptions – the frames people use to imagine tomorrow. These special, co-created Futures Literacy Laboratories have a proven track record in developing the capacity to ‘use-the-future’ for different reasons and using different methods on the ground. UNESCO recently co-published a major academic book with Routledge, entitled: Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century (2018). The book provides evidence that by engaging people in carefully co-created learning-by-doing processes people become more ‘futures literate’, ask new questions and open up new horizons for innovative actions.

Over the last few years 8 UNESCO chairs have been initiated in Finland, Greece, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, Tunisia, United Kingdom, Uruguay. These Chairs are catalysts for the development of Futures Literacy Centres and are key nodes in the emerging Global Futures Literacy Network. The Chairs are championing innovative reasons and methods for ‘using-the-future’, working closely with partners in civil society, government and the private sector. Plans are well underway to create more Chairs in Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, France, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, etc.

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 the 60+ Labs UNESCO has co-designed and implemented over the last seven 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.

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