Building peace in the minds of men and women

Futures Literacy

Futures Literacy: a capability in which UNESCO is pioneering efforts

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. Anticipations of the future shape our actions today, 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.

How is UNESCO developing Futures Literacy?

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.

Global Futures Literacy Network

Over the last few years 8 UNESCO Chairs in Futures Literacy 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 parts of an 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 Chile, France, Morocco, Thailand, etc.

Thanks to the deployment of over 40 Futures Literacy Laboratories (FLL) worldwide over the past 12 years, thousands of people have been introduced to Futures Literacy and may claim to be more Futures literate. Each of them has been empowered to carry out projects enhanced by another approach to and for the Future: Anticipation-for-Emergence as well as Anticipation-for-Future (see Transforming the Future for more details). Each of them has the potential to co-design and run other FLL in their local communities. Each of them could make use of the opportunity to creatively produce collective intelligence with local champions from all around the world, as part of the Global Futures Literacy Network.

The fruits of this work are now starting to take off. 8 new UNESCO Chairs have been established in the last few years and 10 more are in the pipeline. A special project is underway, called Imagining Africa’s Futures, which is prototype testing Futures Literacy Laboratories as major innovation in the development and dissemination of the capacity to use-the-future.