10 ways we can build a better relationship with the future

Which future will we choose for ourselves?

Which future will we choose for ourselves? Image: Arek Socha / Pixabay

Andrew D. Maynard
Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, Author of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
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  • There is a growing disconnect between what we can achieve through technology, and our ability to do so justly and sustainably.
  • This gap is straining our relationship with the future.
  • Here are 10 ways we can start to fix this and begin to create a future that will benefit everyone.

Individually and collectively, we have a profound ability to imagine futures that are radically different from the present, and to transform what we envision into reality. Our growing mastery of the physical, biological and digital worlds we inhabit attests to this.

Yet there’s a gaping chasm between what we can achieve, and our ability to do this justly, sustainably and responsibly. As a result, our relationship with the future has become strained to breaking point.

The current pandemic is demonstrating the fragility of our relationship with the future – not only in our failure to protect lives, but also in social backlashes to evidence-based measures designed to curb the spread of the virus. Yet this is just a symptom of a growing number of wicked problems that are challenging this relationship, such as endemic social injustice and social media manipulation, the ethics of gene editing, the dangers of superintelligent AI, and more. Through them all runs a thread of denial; we assume that just because things worked out in the past, the same will be true for the future.

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If we are to rethink and reset our relationship with the future, we need to learn how to think and act differently. But how?

One possible starting point is to begin with the following 10 approaches, which draw from work at the nexus between society, innovation, and the future:

1. Look to the past: 13.8 billion years ago, the universe came into existence, and the scene was set for us to emerge as a species with the ability to change the future. Yet the processes that led to us becoming who we are also impact where we are going. If we are to be effective builders of the future, we need to better understand these processes, and the universe we inhabit.

The author's book explores our relationship with the future

2. Value our capacity for reason: The universe is governed by time and, as a result, our future is connected to our past through myriad threads of cause and effect. One of the wonders of humanity is that we have evolved the ability to use these threads to change the future through our capacity for reason. The more complex and intertwined these threads become, the more we need to nurture this capability.

3. Respect our humanity: Reason gives us a powerful lever with which to change the future, but it falls short of indicating what that future should look like. Here, our feelings and beliefs, our fears and hopes, even our biases and seeming-irrationalities coalesce to define who we are, and to what we aspire. If we discount our humanity, we fundamentally compromise our ability to assess the health of our relationship with the future.

4. Revel in our creativity: If, as the evidence suggests, our relationship with the future is not as healthy as it could be, then something needs to change. Yet change means doing things differently. And this in turn depends on our capacity for creativity.

5. Embrace serendipity: One fascinating aspect of creativity is serendipity – those pleasingly unexpected discoveries that not only bring us delight, but also open up intriguing new possibilities. Serendipity provides a non-linear pathway between where we are now and where we’re heading – and as such it has the potential to vastly accelerate our ability to build better futures. Yet despite this, many of our approaches to how we learn and think discourage serendipity. This has to change if we’re to build a better relationship with the future.

6. Imagine with empathy: We need to become much better at imagining futures through the eyes of others, and to recognize how our future-building impacts their lives and dreams. Sadly, empathy – like serendipity – does not play a large role in how we learn and innovate. But perhaps it should, as we strive to build futures that enthral others as well as ourselves.


7. Listen with sensitivity: Empathy requires a willingness to listen to others, and to respect and learn from what we hear. Too much of our current relationship with the future is predicated on a need to be heard rather than to listen. This is increasingly reflected in how we engage through social media and other platforms. Yet our inability to listen with sensitivity will ultimately lead to fragile futures that are destined to warp and crack under the strain of ignorance and injustice.

8. Design with humility: Humility is another quality that too often gets lost in the noise of modernity. Yet we no longer live in a world where we can sweep the fallout from hubristic decisions under the metaphorical rug of the past and start again. Rather, to be effective designers of the future, we need the humility to understand our limitations, and to be respectful of them.

9. Innovate responsibly: Few people set out to innovate irresponsibly, yet the world we live in is so deeply interconnected that the smallest mis-step can lead to catastrophic failure. And as a result, we need to get better at recognizing the potential consequences of our actions as innovators as we navigate toward a more resilient and agile future.

10. Build for others: And finally, as with all relationships, our relationship with the future is not just about us. If we are to build a better future, we need to be mindful of those who will inhabit it and be impacted by it, and build for them, not just ourselves.

These are, of course, not the only approaches to building a better relationship with the future. But they do underline the need to think differently about this relationship if we’re to have a hope of pressing the reset button on a relationship that is in crisis.

If we do this, there is every chance that we’ll learn how to build a future where our imagination and creativity are set free as we combine our capacity for innovation with the maturity to innovate humbly and responsibly.

The question is, will we?

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