Posts with the tag
“Futures”

Anticipate, Adapt, Act: Shaping a resilient future for civil society

13th February 2024 by Mareyah Bhatti, Eva Gondor, Patricia Mugenzi

It is widely understood that the civil society sector faces undue restrictions and threats to its operating space globally. To help strengthen the capacity of civil society actors, we need to develop the ability to anticipate the future and act in a proactive manner to shape the future. The International Civil Society Centre and Forum for the Future recently collaborated on this issue at the International Civic Forum (ICF) 2023, a two-day workshop in Brussels joined by 40 actors from across the civil society sector. 

 

 

How do civil society organisations (CSOs) accustomed to fire-fighting crises imagine more adaptative and agile ways of preparedness and planning?

In mid-2023, we joined efforts to design a replicable methodology that offered a creative and engaging way to use future stories and scenarios leading to 2034. The purpose of this was to help CSOs design current and future strategic plans and inform their practices. The objectives offered participants a way to explore a range of possible futures and identify potential action areas to navigate those varied futures on three distinct levels: as individuals, organisations, and as a sector. We hoped to use the ICF 2023 to test the methodology and receive feedback on how it can be developed to support future planning for CSOs. 

The sessions took the attendees on a journey… first immersing them in the present and exploring current trends, then travelling to alternative possible futures based on the set of trends, and finally bridging the gap between possible futures and their actions, resources and mindsets. While the workshop surfaced several sectoral actions, the sessions were designed to ensure a focus on the attendees present and their specific agency and role in driving the change needed.

How could they as individuals in their respective roles contribute to their organisation’s resilience? And how could their organisation work with others to reduce sector-wide vulnerability? 

We designed the sessions to be generative spaces that led the group to bring their experience and expertise while stretching beyond what exists in the present and imagining more ambitious (yet tangible) actions for possible futures. 

“As CSOs, we need to get used to ‘futurisingas this informs current actions and helps us to avoid ‘routinising’.ICF participant

 

The participants produced a range of ideas at the sectoral, organisational, and individual levels that we summarised below:

Sector-wide actions

  1. We need to empower and involve local communities

Anticipation is about participation and if we want to build a better future, we need to listen to local communities, invest in community relations, and change approaches to collaboration. Local partners need to be involved from the beginning of processes; communities need to be turned into co-investors and co-designers rather than receivers. 

  1. The language we use needs to shift to remove barriers to involvement

As raised by a participant and echoed by many around the room, the language around development is “colonial-centric”. It is often in English, French, or Spanish and filled with jargon that can be difficult to interact with. How can we expect to involve people in decision-making and hear their voices, if the language or medium of conduct is inherently exclusionary? For communities – and the youth in particular – to be deeply involved, we need to think about access to such spaces and especially the language we use.

  1. We need to apply a more holistic approach and deepen collaboration on intersectional problems

The challenges we face in the civil society sector are complex and interconnected, and therefore require intersectional approaches. Rather than approaching challenges in isolation, we can use a similar concept to the “whole child approach” or “one health approach” to recognise intersectional identities, needs, and experience.

  1. We need to craft futures across the civil society sector and together with other sectors

Foresight needs to be ‘humanised’ and made approachable. It was viewed by many as a key skill to prepare for the future, and therefore needs to be done by a wider range of stakeholders. Thinking about the future is inherently a human act. Instead of approaching uncertainty with the usual sense of fear, foresight allows us to plan and stress test approaches against potential futures in a more informed manner. 

The process led to some aha’ moments for me which will have a significant impact on my planning.” ICF participant

Organisational actions

The participants worked in pairs or peer groups to draft tangible organisational plans they can contribute to. The ideas revolved around two aspects:

  • Strengthening participation and inclusiveness in decision-making processes International and local CSOs need to invest more into co-creation, reflection, and exploration of alternatives with partners and communities.
  • Building foresight capacities and applying foresight within organisational activities
    The participants left motivated to involve their colleagues, partners, and allies in further collaborative foresight processes and exercises.

Individual actions

Building foresight capacities and their application were further underlined in concrete individual actions that the participants expressed their interest in developing such as:

  • Promoting and prioritizing knowledge sharing about foresight to broaden perspectives
  • Planning a foresight exercise for colleagues to strengthen organisational capacities 
  • Integrating futures thinking into existing processes and upcoming strategies

The individual actions identified during the ICF 2023 underscore the importance of fostering foresight at multiple levels — empowering local communities, shifting organisational language, and humanizing foresight for broader stakeholder engagement to ensure plans, projects, and strategies reflect our hopes for the future.

“Futures thinking is a systemic process and should be given due attention.

 

So, what does this mean? 

Being a systemic process, futures thinking should be approached comprehensively, considering all interconnected aspects. In essence, it means recognising the need for a thorough strategy when addressing global challenges in the civil society sector. By practicing futures thinking, we take a proactive stance in tackling the complex issues faced by the sector, while fostering resilience, collaboration, and inclusivity. It is about developing the capacity to not only monitor trends but also to envision, through a participatory approach, how they might unfold providing us with a powerful tool to break away from conventional crisis management practices. Futures thinking urges us to be strategic, forward-looking, and adaptable in our approach, ensuring a more effective response to the evolving landscape of the civil society sector. 

 

Find out more 

The ICF 2023 was part of a wider three-year initiative “Anticipating futures for civil society operating space (2022 – 2025) led by the International Civil Society Centre. The initiative aims to strengthen anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals who are working to defend and expand civic and civil society operating space. Check out this website to find further information and resources from this initiative and possibilities of involvement. 

 

Mareyah Bhatti

Change Designer

Forum for the Future

Mareyah is a Change Designer at Forum for the Future, with an academic background in medical geography and personal passion for food systems and their cultural significance. She works closely in the Food and Futures teams at Forum, managing and delivering their programmes. She was recently seconded to Singapore for the 'Protein Challenge Southeast Asia,' a runner-up for the esteemed Food Planet Prize. Beyond this, Mareyah contributes to Forum’s Future Centre platform as an editor, identifying emerging signals and authoring blogs on topics from the future of protein to human rights in the fashion supply chain.

Eva Gondor

Senior Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva leads on the Centre's civic space work - the Solidarity Action Network (SANE) aimed at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors, and the International Civic Forum (ICF), our annual civic space platform to network and identify opportunities for collaboration. Prior to joining the Centre she worked at the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation) in Stuttgart where she managed the foundation’s projects focusing on civil society and governance in Turkey, the Western Balkans, and North Africa.

Patricia Mugenzi

Strategic Foresight

International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC)

Patricia is the coordinator for Strategic foresight (Africa Region) at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). She helps IFRC’s National societies explore possible futures to address upcoming challenges. Before joining the IFRC, Patricia served in various positions in both international and governmental organisations, including the Government of Quebec. In this role, she provided invaluable insights and guidance on geopolitical matters, playing a pivotal role in shaping government policies and strategies.


Global Perspectives 2023 – Moments of Truth 

22nd November 2023 by Miriam Niehaus

Prolonged humanitarian crises, the rise of generative artificial intelligence, the use of disinformation to polarise societies and manipulate elections, the suppression of civil society from state and non-state actors and decreasing funding… are just a few of the ever-growing challenges that social justice, humanitarian, and development organisations must contend with. As progressive and rights-based civil society organisations – from local to international level – are grappling with these crises of the past few years, the International Civil Society Centre once again had the honour of curating our yearly conference, Global Perspectives on these topics. “Global Perspectives – Moments of Truth” happened on 9 November and brought together hundreds of online participants across five different sessions to not just ponder these challenges but provide concrete examples and explore ideas on how we can collaboratively tackle them.  

Though each session was independently curated, three overarching themes emerged. 

The Future of Civic Space is Now
Anticipating the factors that will constrict our civic space a decade from now demands our attention today. Civic Space has been in decline and is likely to continue on this trajectory. Are we adequately addressing the issues that will likely shape our societies in the next decade, impacting our civic engagement? In the session titled “Learn From and Engage on Futures Scenarios for Civic Space” participants learned about the outcomes of the Centre’s “A History of Civic Space 2024-2034”, exercise, where representatives from 15 civil society organisations collaborated to develop possible future scenarios for civic space. Session participants engaged in the scenarios and identified actionable steps to either advance or prevent undesirable outcomes. For example, a likely scenario of artificial intelligence (AI) first enabling a lot of good work at scale and then backfiring on civil society as “obstacles to progress”, highlighted the urgency to get into the AI game now. Later in the day at the “Digital Dialogue – AI: Solution or Threat to Mis-/Disinformation?” drove the point home: two scholars Liz Orembo from Research ICT Africa and Admire Mare from the University of Johannesburg, called on civil society organisations to address AI now, as governance advocates, watchdogs, as well as helping to increase media literacy. This is especially needed as there are a number of key elections coming up next year where we will likely see sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Henry Parker from Logically, informed us that there is a lot of potential to use AI to identify disinformation campaigns and reprimand the actors responsible. During “A Sector Conversation”, Stéphane Duguin from CyberPeace Institute warned us that we need to create a comparable countermodel if we wish to increase our capacity to oppose disinformation campaigns. Read their approach to responsible use of artificial intelligence here and watch this space as we are launching our Sector Guidance on Mis-, Dis-, and Mal-information: Insights and Foresights in early 2024.    

Representation Matters
Two sessions, “The Truth is in the Telling” and “Exploring Personal Realities (of Marginalisation)”, delved into the importance of representation. Insights from individuals working with and identifying as members of marginalised communities underscored the need for more direct dialogue with those in power. Nana Afadzinu from WACSI emphasised in “A Sector Conversation” the need for introspection and acknowledgement of systemic inequity. Festus Odingo from the SDG Kenya Forum emphasised the significance of partnerships as a key force for change, emphasising how they may broaden the scope and effect of community-based initiatives. Representation of course also happens through communication pieces – donor reports, flyers, fundraising advertisements and much more. Undeniably, communication about Global North-financed Global South projects has been a big part of manifesting white saviourism and entrenching power imbalances. By now, several organisations have begun to examine this reality and make changes. The Ethical Story Telling Guideline, a toolkit that PATH and Metro Group DRC contributed to, was presented by the speakers. It can assist companies in determining how to, for instance, become more ethical by making concrete adjustments to the planning process. Communication audits, such as the ones conducted every two years by CARE International, can be useful in holding teams accountable and providing incentives for improvement. As part of its bottom-up strategy to alter various communication channels, CARE has made significant efforts to maximise informed consent and minimise unconscious bias. Yet, there are still incredibly difficult dilemmas when organisations must weigh communication subjects’ agency against their safety, for example when portraying female CSO workers in Afghanistan. The emphasis is on respect. A key takeaway from our sessions is to aim to do no harm but failing forward is inevitable as we push one another to improve and recognise ethical storytelling as a fundamental  component of power shifts within the industry. 

Weathering a Perfect Storm
Our speakers highlighted this year a shrinking civic space, humanitarian crises piling up and worsening, colonial structures still fostering inequity, and growing cybercrime and disinformation adding to the complexity. All of this is happening in the face of a challenging global economy with a sharp decline for our causes. Are we experiencing a perfect storm? Yet, for most in the sector, there is a firm resolve to plough on despite difficult circumstances. There is no alternative. It has been inspiring to see among others, leaders from ICVA, CIVICUS, WACSI and the CyberPeace Institute sharing resources, knowledge and honest invitations to collaborate more, helping each other to overcome our deficiencies and capitalise on our respective expertise and strengths.  

To continue surviving the storm, the International Civil Society Centre will keep bringing attention to the incredible innovations that are being developed in the field. As Mirela Shuteriqi from ICVA said in her closing statement, we must also transform ourselves. We must encourage a culture and bring about changes at the UN level, using this as a chance to collaborate and tackle social justice issues. We remain dedicated to facilitating dialogue, sharing innovations, and fostering collaboration within the sector. It is through collective determination, thoughtful introspection, and ethical storytelling that we can face the challenges that lay ahead, transform ourselves, and forge a path towards a more just and equitable future. The journey is ongoing, but together, as a united force, we embark on it with unwavering resolve. 

 

Special thanks to all our speakers – Jennifer Abomnger, Nana Afadzinu, Stéphane Duguin, Patrick Gathara, Arnold Gekonge, Eva Gondor, Heather Hutchings, Wolfgang Jamann, Lysa John, Hussam Joudah, Admire Mare, Shalini Moodley, Patricia Mugenzi, Levis Nderitu, Nana Nwachukwu, Festus Odingo, Elizabeth Orembo, Henry Parker, Neha Rayamajhi, Mirela Shuteriqi, Clare Spurrell, David Verga, and Rachel Wilkinson.

 

YouTube

By loading the video, you agree to YouTube’s privacy policy.
Learn more

Load video

Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.


Anticipate, listen patiently, and build a peer network – three lessons from Leading Together

10th July 2023 by Miriam Niehaus

For the first time in four years, the Centre convened its Leading Together conference in person again. Leading Together is our annual space for the global directors of the ICSO divisions of Human Resources, Policy/Advocacy, and Programmes. These groups have parallel peer group discussions as well as joint sessions over topics that concern them all. This year, the Scanning the Horizon community of futures-focused senior sector professionals also joined the group. We were thrilled to welcome participants on our home turf in Berlin and spend 48h learning, debating, and reflecting. The Centre team is busily following up on those 47+ items/ideas/insights generated during the event, and we would also like to share three insights that were key to us:

1. Exercising that anticipatory muscle is challenging, liberating – and necessary 

At Global Perspectives 2022, we heard and stressed how anticipatory capacity in (I)CSOs is a collective muscle we need to exercise constantly. We took this advice and focused peer and joint sessions on this topic: Discussions with Russell Reynolds on the role of leadership and using AI for the good of ICSOs as well as shaping the future through participatory strategy making were sessions where participants engaged with trends and how to “organise futures”. The Policy/Advocacy Directors discussed with David Griffiths, Associate Fellow at Chatham House the future of the Human Rights diplomacy 

We also really challenged participants with some freshly generated scenarios created in a collective exercise (ParEvo) the Centre has just concluded. Participants had to discuss and reflect on how civil society (organisations) might deal with and shape civil society space after a series of mega-tsunamis hit the world and severed all IT infrastructure.  While some scenarios stretched the goodwill of participants to further consider, the exercise was highlighted by many as important to encourage imagining futures differently. A series of mega-tsunamis will throw the world into disarray (not unlike a global pandemic) and might need primarily our crisis-response capacity. However, spending time on creating long-term visions for different futures can put us as civil society sector professionals in a different kind of driving seat versus racing to manage with futures narratives others – usually more powerful actors – are creating. 

 

2. Taking time for nuance and learning advances us collectively 

What was particularly enriching at this year’s conference was the participants’ willingness to engage in the substance of discussions and openness to critical challenges, and generally a learning mentality. We tried not to gloss over differences with buzzword definitions like “power shift” or “decolonising” but acknowledged the complexity of the matters we deal with and that we may get some things right and others wrong along the journey. Similarly, a joint discussion between the Programme and the Policy/Advocacy directors in exchange with AWID over anti-rights groups and the threat they pose to civic space was exemplary for constructive engagement: Participants brought so much nuance to the discussion and – it might sound like a cliché – embraced the diversity of viewpoints and created patience for understanding our individual or organisational contexts.  These high-quality discussions were incredibly enriching and displayed a high degree of collective responsibility for advancing as a sector.  

 

3. Our organisations are shifting fundamentally – from strategy making to recruitment processes – and peer support may just help keep the head above water 

A few years back someone said “’powershift’ is the water we all swim in”. This was certainly true for Leading Together. In so many sessions participants explored topics that come from our journeys to become organisations that are at least more power-aware or even mirror a decolonised, equitable and just society that we want to see. It was hugely encouraging to see the spread of organisational initiatives and the degree to which ambitions for change are permeating the organisations: to learn from the experience of WaterAid’s participatory strategy making journey, engage with Superrr Lab in what it takes to break western-centred views of futures making. In similar vein, Mission Talent and the cohort of Human Resources directors discussed the challenges and possibilities our changing sector holds to build more diverse organisations; the Programme Directors explored with Comic Relief what ways there are to work differently with bilateral donors to enable more equitable partnerships; and the Policy/Advocacy Directors are already experienced how shifting mandates of ICSOs hold increased expectations for their departments. Senior leaders from the ICSOs are demonstrating resolve and yet acknowledge that these are unchartered waters where peer exchange, inspiration and support is just what you need. 

If you are also an ICSO senior leader and you want to learn more about our offer, do reach out. We already look forward to the next round of Leading Together in 2024 – online – and in-person in 2025!  

 

Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.


What trends did we miss and why do we miss them?

30th March 2023 by Paola Pierri, Rachel Wilkinson, Will Garrood

Spotting emerging trends at an early stage is key for the international civil society sector to be able to adapt and respond to those trends before they could have a negative impact or in order to make the most of an emerging opportunity.  

Trends and early signals are not always easy to spot and futurists and strategists within ICSOs are always looking for new ways and methods to get better at anticipating future scenarios in order to make the sector more resilient. 

Last Autumn during our Scanning the Horizon annual community meeting, Will Garrood from WaterAid ran an inspiring session to map, together with other key players and (I)CSOs, what trends we missed from 2022 and reflect together on why we missed them. 

Scanning the Horizon is the only collaborative trend scouting and analysis platform in the civil society sector. Members include leading ICSOs, national CSO umbrella organisations, philanthropy and development consultancies. It is a cross-sector community of experts and practitioners that gets together to share insights, explore key trends and develop relevant strategies.  

Here we are sharing our main learnings looking back at the trends we missed, and – more importantly – trying to unpack why we missed them.  

What trends we missed 

We were thinking a war was probably likely, but no one anticipated there would have been one in Europe! (a Participant) 

In a group exercise we mapped a series of trends that by that time had become visible but that no one in the group had anticipated before. Below is a selection of the missed trends. 

Conflict in Europe: this was something that no one in the group had anticipated as an imminent risk and that has profoundly impacted the sector, including through a diversion of funding towards supporting the local population after Ukraine’s invasion. 

‘Weaponisation’ of Energy: one of the after-effects of the war in Ukraine was that the use of energy sources and access to them became an additional ‘weapon’ used by Russia to put pressure on countries to not intervene in the conflict.  

Cyber and Digital Security and cyber conflicts: (I)CSOs have generally a good awareness of the possible impact of digital advancements as well as digital threats to their work, for example in the ways in which digital tools and media could exacerbate misinformation/ disinformation and malinformation but the large rate of increased attacks and risk to cybersecurity and the huge leap in large-language AI models, such as ChatGPT took many by surprise. The Centre recently published a study sharing useful practical insights on how can (I)CSOs better protect the communities they serve and their own work against cyberattacks.  

Why did or do we miss trends? 

The second part of our exercise with the Scanning Community focused on why people and organisations had not seen these trends coming or underestimated them. This is an even more important question to ask because if we reflect and identify the reasons why people usually miss these trends, then we can at least attempt to not fall into these traps again. 

Below is what we learnt. 

  • Trend Overload: for those who are not full-time futurists (and even for those who operate in this role full-time) keeping up with all the trends, publications, signals are not an easy task. ‘Trend overload’ might become a problem as we are not sure which one to consider and which one to prioritise. Getting trends scouting to become a regular exercise may help with that and learning to prioritise our sources for trends mapping and foresight will also help.  
  • Between Black Elephants and Black Swans: Some events are of course simply unpredictable (so-called Black Swans) but others are known and understood and yet not addressed. These phenomena are described as Black Elephants and they describe events that people tend to ignore, like global warming or the risk of more pandemics going forward. Ways to mitigate the impact of these Black Elephants are various, including calling these ‘elephants in the room’ by their name, celebrating the mitigation stories that help us remember that black elephants can still be avoided or breaking the silos of different organisational departments that stop important knowledge about trends and risk to circulate more widely.  
Elephant and Swan in continuous line art drawing style.
  • Disconnect between communities and language: When many people in (I)CSOs, corporates and governments don’t share language and discussion spaces, this is likely to mean things are missed. It may also be about who in (I)CSOs is thinking about these issues. There may be areas where government-facing teams are talking about issues a lot, but it isn’t percolating into the wider organisation. We talked about Ukraine in the discussion, but China/Taiwan may be another useful example. 
  • Unconscious bias: when we observe the trends that are emerging we cannot avoid bringing with us our unconscious bias, the things that we assume to be true based on what happen in the past and that help us orienting ourselves in the future. Unconscious Bias (e.g. confirmation bias or affinity bias) are associations we all hold and that we might not be aware of but few techniques are available that can help are people to break their Bias habits. Opening up the future scanning exercise to a more diverse group and bring into our future thinking new and different perspectives might be another way to address this issue. To deal with unconscious bias we would need to make sure we get the right information first, but then we have to make sure we don’t discount it!  

The unpredictability of global trends and the challenges of mapping and noticing the new trends emerging makes it very difficult for civil society organisations, in particular those with an international remit, to better use the future in order to deal with the present. Coupled with the busyness of everyday workload it seems increasingly difficult to take the time to pause and think through where organisations are potentially vulnerable or how to be more prepared and proactive to make the most of future trends and opportunities. However, it is incredibly important for civil society organisations to be planning for the long-term and taking the time to ensure we are fit for purpose and able to meet the challenges and embrace new innovations in our work. This will help (I)CSOs to respond rapidly when these events do happen as they will not be starting from scratch. 

At the Centre we are collaborating with our members and other partners to develop a stronger future literacy in the sector and work together in mapping as well as anticipating the emerging trends. The Scanning the Horizon Community brings togethepeers from across multiple sectors to share learning and expertise and collectively learn and trial new future methodologies. If you are working on foresight in your organisation and would like to know more about the Community feel free to contact us we would like to hear from you.  

Paola Pierri

University of the Arts Bern

Paola is Professor of Social Design at the University of the Arts Bern where she specialises in Design and Anthropology of Technologies. She advises the Centre as an Associate on its Futures and Innovation pillar (which Paola has also co-led until August 2023). She brings to the Centre her expertise on design research and future oriented methodologies, including her research on the impact of emerging technologies on the civic space and on our democracies. Paola was previously Director of Research at Democratic Society and a Research Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute, researching on issue of Digital Inequalities.

Rachel Wilkinson

Programme Manager – Futures and Innovation

International Civil Society Centre

Rachel co-leads the Futures and Innovation programme with Paola Pierri. Rachel is jointly responsible for managing the portfolio of projects and events as well as leading and developing the Scanning the Horizon strategic peer learning platform. Rachel has more than 15 years of experience working in the third sector, on a national and international level, working for various ICSOs in international development and human rights in both London and Berlin.

Will Garrood

Strategy and Transformation Director

WaterAid

Will is the Strategy and Transformation Director for WaterAid. Previously, Will held strategic and policy roles at the BBC and Ofcom and trained at LEK, a strategy consultancy. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and King's College London.


New – 2023 events and programme flyer, find out what’s on and what we are doing

2nd January 2023 by Adriana Sahagún Martínez

You can download the flyer below to find out about what we plan to do this year and how you can get involved.

Adriana Sahagún Martínez

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Adriana is responsible for developing and implementing the Centre’s communication strategy. Prior to joining the Centre, Adriana worked at ShareTheMeal, an initiative of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), where she developed and implemented multiple global marketing campaigns. Before that, she worked for six years in the private sector, where she held various positions in Corporate Social Responsibility and Integrated Marketing Communications.


Whose future is it anyway? Civil society and strategic foresight

12th December 2022 by Ben Holt

This blog is based on a keynote speech delivered at the International Civic Forum 2022 (ICF 2022), the Centre’s annual civic space platform to network, build trust and identify opportunities for collaboration on emerging issues. The ICF 2022 focused on “Anticipating Futures for Civil Society Operating Space”. It kicked off a three-year initiative to strengthen anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals working to defend civic and civil society operating space.

Every one of us wants to change the future.

That could mean making a difference to the life of one person, altering the entire course of history through revolution, or stopping the rise of the oceans as our climate crises deepens.

We’re all here because we want to make an impact on complex, messy issues, and that takes time. So, every day we make decisions, we implement plans, we deliver services. We move forward.

Understanding possible futures

All of these actions are intended to influence the future. We’re working to create something new or to prevent something worsening, to change somebody’s life or to remove injustices that affect us all.

But how well do we understand the future? How often do we explore the possibilities? When do we visit plausible future worlds to understand the challenges and the opportunities?

Or is ‘the future’ obscured, a grainy, opaque continuation of today with a bit more technology, a change in government, new fashions and a flying car or two?

Something that happens to us, rather than something we actively shape.

Connecting to the future

Part of everyone already lives in the future; a little corner of your brain and a collection of emptions is always there.

You might never have noticed but they are. Listen to them now.

I want you to put yourself on this grid. Move yourself up or down, depending on whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Move left or right depending on whether you think you can make a difference or can’t make a difference.

When I do this exercise with humanitarians, activists and civil society organisations, I always see lot of green and blue…

We tend to have a relatively pessimistic – or maybe realistic – view of the future but feel we can make a difference, which can give us hope. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.

But not everyone feels like that… because people don’t all have equal access to the future.

Entire groups of people are down there in the bottom left; disempowered, scared, angry, ignored and excluded by the system that is shaping the future they will have to live in.

Participants at the International Civic Forum

Participants at the International Civic Forum share their feelings about the future.

Who shapes the future?

So many people are not asked or involved in reimagining the future, even by the people who say they’re here to support them. They are just expected to exist in it once it arrives. They are stripped of power now, and they are denied power over the future.

What can civil society do? We can give people a path to other side of that grid, where they feel they can make a difference, where they have the power to imagine a world that has a place and protection for them. (That means involving people, amplifying their voices, championing their perspectives).

And the institutions we run have to constantly navigate and shape that future. They have to become better at anticipating shocks and considering the implications of emerging trends. It has to be part of our daily operations, the mechanics of how our organisations function.

How do we do that? Thankfully, all humans have an amazing ability to time travel….

Storytelling and strategic foresight

Storytelling is deeply human. It is part of who we are as a species. We tell stories as individuals, as families, as organisations, as sectors and societies.

And that is what gives us this amazing ability to time travel; we can project ourselves into possible futures and tell others about it.

We all do it, all the time. It is how we make plans to meet at the weekend, how we set ourselves goals, how we organise our communities to take on a new challenge, it is how we mobilise people in politics and it’s how we ferment revolutions.

We tell stories about different visions for the future and ask for help to make it happen.

All the people who make real change in the world are futurists, whether they call themselves that or not; they have had the courage to question things and imagine something which is not yet visible.

 

Strategy and possible futures

Organisations already tell stories about the future all the time. We create visions and strategies, growth trends and budget projections.

We tell the story via formal documents and spreadsheets (to make it seem rational and reliable), but it is still a story about how we want the world to be, and how we will work to make it happen. And they are full of assumptions about what the future will be like.

But how many organisations consider what the world might be like when that strategy is supposed to thrive….? How many create different versions? And how many keep an eye on the weak signals and emerging trends that will shape the world tomorrow?

A nice strategy or vision is not enough. Our organisations need to be constantly engaged with possible futures, constantly anticipating risks and moving fast on opportunities, and we need to shift to anticipatory governance models to enable that.

Anticipating the future

This is critical because, left to their own devices, humans are actually not great at anticipating the future.

There are lots of psychological reasons – from optimism bias to data blindness, shifting baseline syndrome to an overreliance on past experience – so we need a more systematic way to explore the future, to add evidence to our imaginations, to create, examine and explore different possibilities.

Strategic foresight is a useful set of ideas, tools and methods that can help with this.

Emerging trends and change

Where do we start?

The world constantly changes. It can seem overwhelming. We are already living in a pretty dysfunctional dystopia. How do you start to make sense of today, let alone things that haven’t even happened yet?

There are some forces which shape human history and society, and always will. So, mapping some of those big drivers of change is a helpful starting point.

For example, politics shapes our lives and the history of our country and communities. It will continue to be a powerful force even as the personalities change, the institutions erode, and new movements emerge.

 

Gathering evidence

Civil society can act as a sensing network to spot things early and understand their impact in different places.

We must gather evidence, add detail, identify emerging trends and layer on different types of information. Add anthropological research and consultation to the mix, asking people about their changing world and hopes or fear for the future.

All of these elements help us to start spotting patterns and see the connections between seemingly random issues – they let us start to make sense of that overwhelming change.

And from this we begin to structure different possible futures and detailed scenarios. These artefacts become really useful tools for discussion; they open space for people to connect, talk and challenge assumptions about the future and imagine different possibilities.

Using strategic foresight

What do we do with it? Strategic foresight can be used in several ways.

We have already mentioned strategic planning: by expanding the range of alternative futures we plan for we are better prepared for the challenges we face.

Foresight also helps us deal with uncertainty and complexity by improving our understanding of emerging risks, issues and their potential implications.

In a sector well known for being risk-averse, this can only be a good thing.

I think that considering the future is a critical element for good innovation. Plausible, powerful scenarios are useful places to innovate in because there are new opportunities and challenges there.

It is also critical to consider the world any innovation will grow into – is your latest product or service ready for the future? Can you build anything into it as it grows which will make it stronger tomorrow?

And it is not all about speculation and innovation. You can use strategic foresight to stress-test decisions that have to be made now.

When you are choosing between option a and option b, you can walk them into the future and see if they will cope with a changing world or if they need to be rethought or refined now.

Critically, strategic foresight allows you to bring people together, to explore and negotiate a better world. It can create a shared vision that generates new energy, enthusiasm and hope.

All of this means we become better at anticipation: “identifying and preparing sooner for new opportunities and challenges that could emerge in the future” (UN) and we can bring people with us to face them, we can redirect finances, and we can mobilise resources.

I look to the future because that’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. – George Burns

Anticipation, surprise and action

Why is it important?

Strategic foresight is not about predicting the future. It is about avoiding surprise and shocks, about having more time to respond, and about actively working towards a future we believe to be better than today.

Because if we – as Civil Society organisations – don’t do that, we’re carrying the inequities of the past into the future and accepting that the injustices and inequalities that we’ve inherited from the past will inevitably be part of the future. We can do better than that. We can imagine a more hopeful future, and we have the power to deliver it, or at least fight for it.

Shaping the future

A lot of futures and foresight work is currently carried out by governments, corporations and the military. If they are deciding what humanity’s future should look like, it will reflect the biases and privilege of the people with power in those institutions.

Remember, Civil societies great strength is its reach and its diversity.

As my friend and futurist at the UN Aarathi Krishnan says: “Being more anticipatory necessitates being more participatory”.

We can surface new information and new stories. We can challenge the fact that not everyone gets an equal say in the future.

Done well, futures and foresight work can bring very diverse groups together and open up new options for action.

It can be a radical approach as it challenges short-term interests and hierarchy. It can create a new space for debate and a new horizon – beyond the election cycle or the next shareholders meeting.

Start by changing today

Good futures should challenge the world to consider different perspectives, different impacts, different needs and hopes so we can create new futures with new power structures, new representation and inclusion, and new ways to deliver powerful change.

We can imagine and champion these different futures.

It will take time to make them real. And that is why we need to start today.

Ben Holt

Global Lead for Strategic Foresight

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

He works for the IFRC’s Solferino Academy, helping the Red Cross Red Crescent network to explore possible futures and learn the skills needed to make them useful to decision-making and delivery. He regularly collaborates with the Cambridge University Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).


Discover the ‘Anticipating Futures for Civil Society Operating Space’ report 

10th November 2022 by Eva Gondor

This report contributes to the Centre’s multi-year initiative Anticipating Futures for Civil Society Operating Space to strengthen the anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals who are working to defend civic and civil society operating space. It is intended to provide a basis for further activities, especially in identifying gaps that require collective sector commitment. 

The report is the outcome of an exercise to map the current landscape: the issues impacting civic space, the strengths and weaknesses of civil society organisations’ (CSOs) responses and their reflections. 

Download Report

Eva Gondor

Senior Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva leads on the Centre's civic space work - the Solidarity Action Network (SANE) aimed at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors, and the International Civic Forum (ICF), our annual civic space platform to network and identify opportunities for collaboration. Prior to joining the Centre she worked at the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation) in Stuttgart where she managed the foundation’s projects focusing on civil society and governance in Turkey, the Western Balkans, and North Africa.


Podcast: Integrating technology into children’s daily lives

11th November 2021 by Elizabeth Parsons

For the Centre’s 2021/22 Report on “Civil Society Innovation and Digital Power Shift’’, we’re speaking with inspirational innovators from civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world to hear the stories of their inclusive innovation approaches to advance people-centred digitalisation, to either address system power imbalances or capitalise on emerging people power and technological capabilities.

In this episode, María Berenguer, co-leader of the Youth&ICT4D department at SOS Children’s Villages International, talks about the organisation’s Digital Village project, which aims to integrate technology into the daily lives of children and families.

Click on the button to load the content from open.spotify.com.

Load content

Find out more about the Digital Village project.

Explore the Centre’s ‘Civil Society Innovation and Digital Power Shift’ report. 

If you are interested in joining this exciting project, please fill in the form.

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre


Tools for inclusive futures: Futures Frequency: A workshop method for building alternative futures

29th September 2021 by Vicky Tongue and Lena Tünkers

Members of the Scanning the Horizon community recently met online to continue our exploration of ‘tools for inclusive futures’, engaging methods to democratise futures conversations in organisations, using digital tools which do not require previous experience from either facilitators or participants. These tools have been highlighted in our recent Sector Guide on Strategic Decision-Making in a Whirly World.

Futures Frequency

This time, we wanted to find out more about Futures Frequency, from the Finnish innovation and futures fund Sitra. The idea behind Futures Frequency is that it inspires thinking and action towards positive, preferred futures and can be ‘used and applied by anyone’. You can check out an intro video here.

We decided to use it to explore futures of human diversity, and felt that a group of 9-12 is a good size to allow the discussion parts to take place in threes. No advance preparation was requested from participants, just encouragement to join with an open mind, and be ready to ‘enjoy the ride’, go with the process and put their heads in a different, more creative and playful space.

Setting the stage

We started with some relaxed individual reflection about the big ‘what if’ question – in relation to futures of human diversity in 2050 – which occurred to us. Then we introduced ourselves and our big question in plenary and it was already really interesting to see the different angles which people had already come up with – from gender fluidity, to intergenerational working with people living longer, to racism being history, to humans being seen as just another part of nature. Just this initial sharing already encourages you to open up and expand your own thinking more.

First stage, challenge your assumptions about the future

Then we had to activate our imagination muscles more by moving into the first main stage of the Futures Frequency method, challenging assumptions. We were given an audio drama snippet to listen to individually and then as a small group, we discussed what assumptions we heard in the piece and how it connected to our own assumptions or what felt familiar. This was a really interesting process to go through, surfacing both small assumptions or questions but also bigger ones about when in the future the conversation was set or whether we were just defaulting to assumptions about things in this future were still working in a similar way to the present. From a facilitation angle, you could either use one of the many supporting resources which Sitra provides for this, or you could create your own snippet – audio or written – linked to the theme you’re exploring.

This process does highlight biases you weren’t aware of in your own thinking and how your brain tries to ‘fill in the gaps’ around incomplete information you have on a situation. It also helps you better understand and appreciate how those you are working with are also thinking. This would be particularly important in a very diverse group, or especially if exploring potentially sensitive topics together. This stage increases your awareness of why you think certain things, before you then move onto imagining preferred futures.

Second stage, imagine your preferred futures

In this stage, you again start with individual reflection to imagine what the theme – for us, human diversity – might look like, without boundaries, with new possibilities, and envision a mental snapshot of the future you personally prefer for this, trying to engage different senses to bring this image to life. Then moving into Miro or another digital whiteboarding space, each person in the group writes up their personal vision in one sentence on a post-it and shares it with the others in the group. Then you all work together to combine your (three) different visions into a new statement which integrates the main ‘spirit’ of each. We didn’t really have enough time for this as we were primarily exploring the method – rather than the topic – fully, but in a full session this stage clearly needs a good amount of time to complete. Again, all this has templates from Sitra.

Take action towards your preferred futures

The final stage involves thinking through actions which you can take towards bringing this vision about.  First, we were guided through an individual brainstorm to come with ideas that would lead us to our vision. Time was the creative constrain here. In our small groups we were then tasked with coming up with a news headline from the future which captured what would have happened in the intervening period. We imagined we were living in 2030 and working as reporters for ‘Future News’, sharing our headline and a short explanation of the actions that had taken place and answering any questions from the other groups. And we could add visual images to represent the story as well.

Final reflections on the method

It’s recommended to add further methods to this final phase if you want to build out the process into more of a detailed action planning process. For instance, you could use backcasting or future literacy labs. But from a first experience, it really is a very useful way of getting the participants into a different space to share ideas and inspire others, appreciate the diversity of perspectives in the group and be encouraged to use your imaginations, within a simple but effective framework. It really does feel like a universal method which anyone can just pick up and use!

Vicky Tongue

Vicky Tongue was the Centre’s Head of Futures and Innovation/Scanning the Horizon project manager from 2018-2022, leading the Centre’s futures strategy and collaborative trends scanning community. In this role, Vicky wrote and edited many of the Centre’s Scanning Sector Guides and Civil Society Innovation reports.

Lena Tünkers

Co-Founder and Partner

Zukünftige

Lena Tünkers is an entrepreneur, process designer and facilitator, guided by the purpose of empowering people to cheerfully move towards the future. She has designed and executed a variety of strategy and innovation processes in Denmark, Kenya and Germany and applied the method Futures Literacy and Futures Frequency to the topics of education, collaboration, leadership and culture. From her work with the UN, Spotify, HelloFresh and Hugo Boss, among others, Lena brings experiences in business model design, strategy as well as innovation development. She is a board member of Founders of Tomorrow and hosts the House of Beautiful Business in


Podcast: Strategic Decision-Making in a Whirly World

13th September 2021 by Elizabeth Parsons

Listen to Miriam Niehaus and Vicky Tongue discuss our Scanning the Horizon Sector Guide on ‘Strategic Decision-Making in a Whirly World’, the culmination of our 18-month learning journey on complex and uncertain futures.

The Guide brings together insights from interviews with strategy leads from 14 ICSOs and global movements from this community, and a review of more than 60 management and academic literature resources on leadership, complexity, uncertainty, strategy and systems thinking from the past year.

We would like to thank our two cooperation partners – Direct Impact Group and Ford Foundation – for kindly supporting our Scanning the Horizon work over the past 18 months.

Read and share the Sector Guide: bit.ly/3hZ4ViD
Discover the Scanning the Horizon Community: bit.ly/3vUgI7d
Learn more about intergenerational fairness: bit.ly/2UWTuAD

Click on the button to load the content from open.spotify.com.

Load content

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre