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Future literacy

August 2023

future literacy

Summertime and holiday seasons are good opportunities for reading and recharging the batteries of our imagination. Imagination opens up creativity and learning, especially in challenging times, which demand different ways of out-of-the-box thinking for exploring possible futures in order to shape the present better. Imagination is important, as without the ability to image possible futures that inspire hope and foster collaboration, there is a high risk of resignation and despair.

In a world of rapid technological advancements and constantly evolving societies, making good decisions becomes ever more complex. The risk is that decisions are either driven by fears and reactions to implicit threats, or that they focus merely on the here and now. To avoid dystopian thinking and the tragedy of time horizons (Opens in a new window), we need to nourish our future literacy skills. Future literacy can help to understand and navigate complex futures, anticipate emerging trends, and adapt proactively to change.

What is future literacy?

The future exists only in our imagination. Future literacy is a capability which allows us to better understand the role of the future in what we see and do. It is a skill that builds on our capacity to imagine the future. The idea of futures literacy mimics the idea literacy, referring to the ability to read and write as basic skills. As for future literacy, it is about becoming more skilled at ’imagining’, ’reading’ and ’using’ the future. In principle, it is the capacity to know how to imagine the future, and why it is necessary. Put differently, it empowers the imagination, enhances our ability to prepare, recover and invent as changes occur. Importantly, it is about the ability to rigorously imagine possible futures, while avoiding the traps of presentism and dystopian or wishful thinking.

Future literacy is about empowering people to think critically about the future and make informed decisions, harnessing imagination and creativity to envision various scenarios, and developing the capacity to navigate uncertainties confidently. It encourages individuals to become active co-creators of their futures rather than passive bystanders.

Among others, the UNESCO and OECD are strong advocates of future literacy. Both of them work with ‘future literacy labs’. They aim to foster innovative approaches to build societies' capacity to deal with an uncertain and rapidly changing world. The idea of ‘future literacy labs’ emerged from the need to prepare individuals and societies for the challenges and opportunities brought about by disruptive technologies, climate change, demographic shifts, global interconnectivity, etc. The labs are based on the idea that, when people can decide why and how to use the future, they become more able to reimagine, detect and create the otherwise often unseen future pathways. This makes people also more at ease with novelty, experimentation and the potential opened up by change, and less anxious about uncertainty. More concretely, the UNESCO Futures Literacy Laboratories (Opens in a new window) deploy action-learning and collective intelligence to co-create the meaning of sustainability, peace and inclusion where people come together to live, work or socialise.

Why is future literacy important?

Future literacy is more than just an abstract concept. It is a critical skill that helps individuals and societies to actively shape their destinies and to ‘use the future’ more effectively and efficiently. The ability to imagine possible futures opens up new horizons in much the same way that reading and writing skills change societies. It is a ‘change in the conditions of change’, a transformation in what we can know, imagine and do. This is not just about understanding how to prepare for potential crises or plan how to overcome grand challenges or realise societal objectives. It is about moving beyond a dependency on the illusion of certainty and the fragilities this creates.

In that sense, future literacy helps to improve social and public imagination and to overcome the imaginary crisis, i.e. our sociteal struggle to imagine positive alternatives. It opens up wider menus of possibilities for our societal futures, which help to navigate through uncertainties and towards desirable futures. It helps both thinking about ‘ends’ in terms of aspirations or vision and thinking about ‘means’ in terms of strategies and plans to address the future.

This is important for various reasons:

  • Navigating uncertainty. The future is increasingly unpredictable, and being future literate enables individuals to anticipate potential outcomes, prepare for uncertainties, and respond effectively to unforeseen challenges.

  • Strategic decision making. Future literacy allows individuals and organisations to make informed strategic choices that align with long-term goals and aspirations, avoiding short-sighted decisions driven solely by immediate gains.

  • Embracing innovation and change. In a rapidly evolving world, innovation is a key driver of progress. Future literacy cultivates a mindset that welcomes innovation and encourages the adoption of new technologies and ideas.

  • Social resilience. As societies confront global issues like climate change and economic shifts, future literacy helps build resilience and adaptability to thrive in the face of adversity.

  • Sustainable development. Future literacy is an essential component of sustainable development. It equips individuals with the ability to understand the consequences of their actions and make choices that promote environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

Improving future literacy

Improving future literacy is a journey that requires dedication, open-mindedness, curiosity and willingness to embrace uncertainty. It is about developing essential skills and mindsets needed to navigate the complexities of the future. Embracing lifelong learning, fostering imagination and creativity, developing foresight thinking, engaging in critical discussions, and applying future literacy in decision-making are first steps to boost the own future literacy.

Often, future literacy exercises start with engaging in ’what-if’ discussions and imagining how different factors could shape future realities. As Rob Hopkins pointed out, moving from ‘what is’ to ‘what if’, is the first step to unleashing the power of imagination to create the futures we want.

by Kai Böhme (Opens in a new window) (Opens in a new window)
Topic Scenarios & visions
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