The stage was set for the International Civic Forum (ICF) before the end of 2023 in the vibrant and creative innovation space of Transforma Lab, Brussels. For two days, a workshop with forty participants from around the globe was held with the aim of preparing them, their civil society organisations, and the civil society sector at large for anticipating futures. This is by no means an easy feat, but we were fortunate to hear how it played out for three participants: Patrick Allam, the Legal Officer from Spaces for Change, Melissa Juisi Simo, the West Africa Civil Society Institute’s (WACSI) Programmes Assistant, and Răzvan-Victor Sassu, the Head of Strategy and Policy for the World YMCA. In the interviews, they shared with us their thoughts about foresight and futures crafting and their takeaways from the experience.
Regarding “futures” work, what has been your connection?
Before attending the ICF 2023, all three interviewees had varied connections to futures work. As Melissa noted, most civil society organisations are essentially in “reaction mode.” Although her organisation has begun pursuing futures work, it is still a new area for her personally to explore. Prior to taking part in the ParEvo foresight exercise run by the ICSCentre in the first half of 2023, Patrick hadn’t work with it before. ParEvo is a participatory and evolutionary approach to creating stories about possible futures. In the exercise, 15 participants developed stories about possible civic space futures through eight iterations of storytelling. Patrick began the exercise with a great deal of scepticism and uncertainty about the future. But later on:
“I now recognize the role that we can play in ensuring that the future is one that we can actively govern and possibly shape its outcomes.” Patrick
Through this work, he started to see potential for a more positive future. On the other hand, for Răzvan, it is a daily reality to acknowledge the importance of foresight in the development of global strategy and policy. Futures thinking had already been incorporated into Răzvan’s strategic processes, but he pointed out that:
“We also want to try to expand the network of people who actually think futures thinking is important. We don’t want it to remain limited to a bubble in Geneva who finds it significant.” Răzvan
The three participants all agree on the importance of futures thinking, despite having varying degrees of experience with it.
“We need futures if we want to lead the future that we are going into, if we want to see innovation, and if we want to see participation.” Melissa
How can we go about futures thinking?
Melissa compares futures thinking to a daily task, something one will do daily to ensure longevity, efficiency and optimal productivity. She thinks that this strategy will promote creativity and teamwork – all of which are crucial for imagining the future. When talking about the strategy of his organisation, Răzvan brings up the creation of a think tank to facilitate strategic foresight, especially with regard to the needs of young people. He highlights the challenges of prioritising future thinking amidst ongoing crises and funding constraints, suggesting the integration of bite-sized future thinking activities into existing processes. Patrick emphasises the value of systematic future planning, not only within his organisation but also extending to their networks, having been influenced by his ICF experience. In his view, this is a means of being proactive as opposed to reactive, working towards a situation in which upcoming events won’t come as a surprise.
Did you have any “aha” moments at the ICF?
“Where can we make a difference now that will make a difference in the future?” is a quote that motivated Melissa.
“How am I making a difference now for the future and not just making a difference now to correct the past? Because that has been the pattern.” Melissa
Melissa further underlined: “It was so beautiful for me to see that although we’re different groups from different parts of the world, we’re able to see similar risks and opportunities available for civil society.” But at the same time, she reflected that if there is too much alignment in thinking and we only stay within civil society, this might lead to the omission of some crucial perspectives. There is a need for increased cooperation between civil society and other sectors, including the government and business when it comes to shaping the future. Răzvan’s eureka moment centred on the notion that the workshop simplified the idea of “futures literacy” for those who are unfamiliar with it. He can imagine that creating a simple “package” for organisations would be helpful. Patrick’s realisation was that:
“Instead of finding ourselves in the future, where we are in the vicious circle of always reacting to issues as they come up, the goal is that everyone of us will move to the mode where we are actively shaping our future.” Patrick
He adds that this approach shouldn’t be only applied when it comes to organisational strategy but also for funding and community involvement.
What will you do with the insights from the ICF?
Melissa, Patrick, and Răzvan talked about how they wanted to incorporate futures thinking into their work going forward. Melissa intends to absorb the information and share it with others through an article that can be used as a reference. Her second ambition is to develop a curriculum or a learning material to share with other civil society organisations to strengthen their capacities. Patrick is eager to implement a more methodical approach to integrating foresight into the institutional thinking of his organisation and expanding it to their network. Răzvan advocates for the inclusion of strategic foresight as a fundamental component of strategic planning and proposes incorporating futures thinking and methods into routine meetings, such as a staff retreat.
Throughout the interviews, Melissa, Patrick, and Răzvan highlighted the growing significance of foresight and anticipation for civil society. They further emphasised the need for taking an integrated approach to futures thinking and making it a regular practice. The perspectives and experiences that they have shared serve as a reminder of the complexity of the issue, the opportunity it presents, and the teamwork needed to address it.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out Anticipating futures for civil society operating space – Solidarity Action Network (SANE). The International Civil Society Centre’s three-year initiative (2022 – 2025) focussing on strengthening anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals who are working to defend and expand civic and civil society operating space. The ICF methodology was co-developed by the ICSCentre and Forum for the Future, with support of Patricia Mugenzi.