Futures: cultures, trends, forecasts and making it happen yourself

Futures and futurising - why bother? A post on trends, culture, stagation, education, world challenges and our attitudes for change.

What’s the point in futurising? Long-term forecasts are seldom accurate – we still can’t even predict the weather accurately more than a few days away. Forecasts are sometimes right but, moreover, thinking about the future is useful for changing the present: it forces us to step out of our daily grind; it inspires us to aim for something better; sometimes it helps us to anticipate, circumnavigate and avert problems; it helps us to see opportunities and jump at them. Not many of our visions are likely to come true in their detail; but most of them will help shape an actual future that’s probably even more exciting (and almost definitely more pragmatic!).

What of our world? Climate change threatens livestyles and livelihoods across the globe. We’re set to run short on food and fresh water within the next few decades. The global population is growing to over 9bn by the middle of the century and an ever larger proportion of that population is expecting ever higher standards of living. There’s been a gradual erosion of manual labour for a couple of centuries but now globalization and artificial intelligence are moving it from blue to white-collar work: lawyers, doctors, policy-makers watch your backs. The circular economy, and human and technological innovations will bring new employment but with self-driving cars threatening the jobs of millions of haulage drivers worldwide, as one example of many, a movement of people is looking in earnest at a Universal Basic Income. Young people, in particular, are finding it harder to find jobs as an aging population increasingly refuse to let go of theirs.

Social media is enabling a new, flatter democracy but meanwhile religious extremism, and sometimes wealth inequality too, seem to have developed compelling ways of quashing it. Tech, tech, technology develops apace in just about all walks of life and is, for some, a utopian answer to most problems. But what do we think about global monopolies on our own data, or the tech economy ultimately thriving on selling us more stuff when we undeniably need to consume less?

What of culture and cultural learning? Maybe when robots and machine intelligence mean most of us don’t need to work as much (and can’t find any work to do anyway) our culture will be the mainstay of our lives. So what will that “cultcha” be? Will football and sex count or does it have to have a paintbrush, old words or an opera singer in it to make it into the curriculum? Depending on this definition, culture, or at least “the arts”, still seems something that’s accessed by, or accessible to, more affluent socio-economic communities – so is it a matter of pulling people up – “socio-cultural mobility” - or broadening our notions of what culture is?

Culture, like anything in the future, weather permitting, is what we make it. Culture is our ideas made real, our conversations made communal, our shared values, attitudes and beliefs. In 20 years time will culture be something we consume, conjoin or create? A belief in the ideas of children and young people has been bubbling for decades, and for a good 20 years we’ve had great hardware and software for making startling creative productivity accessible for millions, but realistically the vast majority of people are still consuming popular and high art that other people make – not creating their own. Is it just a matter of time? Or education? Or just part of the human condition?

Education continues to be polarized by the progressive and the conservative agendas but there is a growing international traction around enquiry-based, real-life learning, and learner-centred education – education that really works with learners and real-life challenges.

Arts and culture, over the same 20-year period, have expanded, become more intermingled, international and much more accessible but we are only very slowly beginning to explore how arts and culture can be harnessed for society in a rigorous and systematic way. Should we stop asking what culture is and ask, instead, what it can do?

If anything is hard to forecast, apart from the weather, it’s technology. 20 years back from today, before Google or Facebook existed, few would have predicted that in the space of one or two decades two companies would be able to make it from scratch into the global top 10 and to reach more of the population than perhaps any organisation has ever done.

But we can use tech trends and forecasts today to shape how we develop cultural learning for the future. Moore’s law is leveling off: it’s more a case of how well you use computers than how you make them smaller and faster. Connected computation has gone from the desk to the hand: how, over 20 years, could cultural learning take advantage of nano, wearable and ubiquitous technology? In 20 years we’ve gone from the Microsoft paperclip to talking bots and AI that stumps humans at Go: how will future cultural learning work with tech servants and how will it respond when AI makes 50% of today’s jobs redundant? And what of Augmented Reality, where Facebook and others are investing heavily: most arts and culture is about providing heightened, enhanced experiences of life and, in this regard, AR could be a huge gift to culture and cultural learning.

Cultural learning and cultural education is as much to do with attitudes, beliefs and tastes as it is with pedagogies, curricula and government policies. Teachers, parents and policy makers might ask, is this culture preferable or better than that that culture, or is it better for children? What are young people’s ideas? Are they significant for their education? Are they interesting enough and significant enough for us to try to work out what to do with them and how to develop them, or should we stick with what we know?

What about technology and education? Surveying the last 20 years, there’s been a slow, steady but earnest incorporation of technology into education in general, and varyingly, into arts and cultural education. The technology we use – for documenting, creating, producing, connecting, and sharing – hasn’t often changed radically but it has got smaller, cheaper, better and easier to use. Why has it taken so long for us to become ready to learn with technology? Is tech the teacher’s foe, friend, competitor or collaborator? Is technology best placed to help educators do what they’ve always done or to discover new things they could do?

These are all questions of attitude. Over the last 20 years, on aggregate cultural education in England has, it’s probably fair to say, moved on a bit, but perhaps only a bit, and of course it’s currently threatened with making quite a dip. But we can change this with attitudes: teachers will listen to children’s ideas above policy dictates if they’re determined to; children and young people will develop their own expressive ideas if they, and those around them, believe in those ideas. Cultural learning will move on a lot over the next 20 years if a lot of us really want it to. If we are interested in making predictions about the future, we will also need to inspire the right attitudes now so as to allow those predictions to be made reality.

See, the future gets people excited!

(I’ve been involved for some time in working with organisations and teams on future visioning, and looking at how it can be used to shake up the status quo. If you want to get involved, or are doing the same thing, please get in touch.)

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