Welcome from the future

Keynote Address by Catarina Zuzarte Tully, founder of the School of International Futures, delivered in November 2023 to a group of democracy activists and funders exploring the value of foresight and long term thinking for the democracy sector.

I am writing from the year 2043. I am in a room in New York City with 20 members of the public. We are participating in ‘America We Want’1, an intergenerational dialogue. 

To the left of me is a woman in her 40s from the Bronx. Opposite me is an elderly gentleman bouncing his granddaughter on his knee. Next to him is a 14 year old girl wearing a now ‘retro’ Justin Bieber t-shirt. To my right is a member holding a small globe in their hand, tasked with representing future generations.2

As we delve into rich discussions, so too are other similar groups in Vermont, Montana, Indiana, and other states across the country. Together we are building a vision for the country 25 years ahead. We are imagining the America We Want as we approach the 300th anniversary of the US Constitution.3

Any useful idea about the future must at first sight appear ridiculous.” – Jim Dator

This isn’t the first time these dialogues have taken place. They happen every four years and are purposely timed to occur a year ahead of elections4. Intergenerational dialogues have become standard at the local and state level. They are part of an embedded civic infrastructure that also includes citizens’ assemblies, liquid democracy, and pol.is style engagement. Members of the public actively explore different scenarios presenting possible challenges and opportunities ahead, while expressing their preferences about policy frequently and easily.

Deliberative processes like these are used to gather voices of the public and use them as inputs for consideration by the Congressional Committee for the Future5, the Office of Policy Horizons6 and the Strategic Foresight Council7 in the White House. These three bodies ensure that America is futures-ready, more resilient, adaptable and anticipatory, and responsive to the voice of the American public.

In addition, Federal executive branch agencies are tasked to brief Congress8 and the public on long term insights, and more broadly, Congressional committees, supported by the Government Accountability Office, which reviews legislation to assess its intergenerational impact and long term focus.9

How we understand our economy has evolved, too. GDP in 2043 is no longer the only measure of the US’ economic health, with well-being budgeting used to allocate and report on government spending.10 Looking internationally, the North Americas Futures Observatory collects regional demographic/environmental long-term data with Canada and Mexico11, the OECD’s 20th edition of its Anticipatory Government12 ratings has scored the US 6th in the world, and the newly appointed 5th UN Special Envoy for Future Generations13 for the first time is an American.

I am sure you are wondering how we got here. 

The origins of change

In 2023, I sat in a similar room, but with a different group of people. Around me sat a mix of democracy innovators, reformers, disseminators, and originators. We came together with a common question: How do we stop the world continuing with the status quo that is unsustainable for our people and planet?

We saw that the winds of history were on our side – but we were losing the short term battle very badly on two fronts: on one hand to the authoritarians and on the other to technocrats who thought upcoming challenges needed expert solutions, not democratic ones. We acknowledged the challenge of the dramatic reimagining necessary to respond to the moment and we collectively thought through different alternative scenarios, coming together to lay the groundwork for a shared vision.

We started off by building on early signals we could detect around us; Montana’s ruling for environmental rights of younger generations14, California 100’s intergenerational dialogues and innovations with policymakers15, Vermont’s interest in adopting a well-being of future generations framework16, the growth of interest in citizens’ assemblies17, and technologically AI enabled public deliberations at scale.18 

We could see the puzzle pieces, we just needed to bring them together to create a cohesive ecosystem across the United States of America. Not just in the democracy sector, but cutting across to those in other sectors facing similar disruptive change, from health to security to education, as well as with international allies, all facing the same overwhelming stress and feeling as though the world is crumbling around them. 

In fact, in September 2024, just a year down the road from where we imagined what the future of American democracy could look like, the UN Summit of the Future19 was held for the first time. There, it established global legal instruments, institutions and a declaration for the rights of future generations that catalysed a global network of early adopters – in countries around the world. Activists, political leaders and officials began sharing approaches and created a movement to radically and confidently reimagine what democracy fit for the 21st century could look like. It is where Presidents and political leaders stated their support for intergenerationally fair coalitions20 and took up the mantle as leaders representing current and future generations21 willing to consider the institutional changes to make this happen.

The future is only a story we tell ourselves in the present.” – Betty Sue Flowers

I can’t say that the last 20 years since that first meeting in 2023 have been easy. I cast my mind back to an especially tough mid-late 2020s for democracy. Even now, in 2043, we are not in a rosy world but US democratic infrastructure has adapted, remains resilient and is legitimate. It has been able to weather unseen challenges and was prepared for shocks like the major decline in tax revenue from AI impacting the economy, all because the system is designed to scenario plan for different situations.

I am telling you all of this in the hope that I am making a strong case for adopting a futures mindset for collectively creating a joint vision to build powerful coalitions for change. 

I am telling you all of this in the hope that it inspires you about what’s possible, both here in the US and globally. Because where I am writing from in 2043 may sound fantastical – but all the component parts that I have stitched together are happening somewhere around the world now in 2023. I hope that this shows you that far from being a luxury, futures thinking in the democracy space is a must have at these times of systemic rupture. It can work, but only if we set in motion an ecosystemic web of intergenerational democracy. 

We can explore the futures of democracy by understanding systematically the drivers of our landscape and the range of futures around us so we are better positioned to find the way through to a positive vision and avoid shortsighted moves. 

“Midwife the new and hospice care the old.” – John Vasconcellos

But we can also explore the Future of democracy – as the Maori suggest – by walking backwards into our future, by understanding our past, looking to what we can learn from our elders, being led by our youth, so we weave the future from the ideas that we have around us, and let the future emerge from us and through us. I think this is a complementary approach to engaging with the future in a world where repair, restoration and healing must also play a major role.

I hope that through my letter you also hear my message of Futures for Democracy.

Building a framework for the future Democracy

Across the world there are new governance institutions that are addressing the now existential representative democracy failures to take into account the interests of unrepresented voices or really engage with generational distribution and coalition building in a world where we have gone from 2.5 gens alive at any one time to 4 at any one time in the space of 80 years. These innovations include Wales’ Well-Being of Future Generations Act 1, the European Union’s Foresight Network and Ministers of the Future7, the German constitutional court ruling on Intergenerational fairness22 (putting a duty on all German businesses and citizens to take the long-term into account), and Brazil’s participatory budgeting23 – many seeds of change in Brazil, in Zimbabwe, in Uruguay in Kenya – green shots that are really becoming a movement.

Insights from our research and early adopter global community indicate that there is no silver bullet; it’s an ecosystemic approach that’s needed. The successful recipe is a combination of what you are working on – supporting citizen voice so the public can explore and shape its futures and building technocratic long-term capability in the administration to steward change, together with scrutinising and holding political leaders to account for long term impacts. 

As you embark on this journey of exploring the future together, I leave you with three of my favourite quotes from US futurists who have inspired me when I felt I was pushing against the tide: 

Jim Dator’s 2nd law of the future states that “any useful idea about the future must at first sight appear ridiculous.”24 He invites us to understand that rejection is part of the natural life of a futurist and is often the initial response to a challenging idea.

Betty Sue Flowers says that “The future is only a story we tell ourselves in the present.”25 Whether we are talking about 2050 or 2076, 2024 or 2043, these are all narrative ways to reframe the present, to challenge our assumptions about what is possible and empower us to open up new action.

And, finally, John Vasconcello’s profound quote about the endeavour as being to “midwife the new and hospice care the old.”26 exhorts us to appreciate the magnitude and challenge of what we are doing, to bring love and empathy to the emotional turmoil that underlines moments of change, but also cede space and power for the new to emerge.

References, Resources & Case Studies

  1. ‘America We Want’ inspired by:
    1.1. ‘Wales We Want’: The ‘Wales We Want by 2050’ was a National Conversation and helped inform the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 – one of the very few such laws in the world that legislates for sustainable development.
    1.2. Finland’s Committee of the Future and Government Report on the Future 2023 are informed by fifty dialogues on the future of Finland, involving diverse voices, that were conducted to support the preparation of the report. ↩︎
  2. ‘Future Design’ is an emerging movement among Japanese researchers looking for answers on how to secure a sustainable future for generations to come. It includes role play methods such as ‘imaginary future generations’ to improve “futurability”, the capacity to have empathy for future generations.
    2.1. Future Design: Bequeathing Sustainable Natural Environments and Sustainable Societies to Future Generations
    2.2. Research Institute for Future Design – Kochi University of Technology
    2.3. Reconciling intergenerational conflicts with imaginary future generations: evidence from a participatory deliberation practice in a municipality in Japan ↩︎
  3. A Constitution for the 2076, created by ‘Democracy 2076’, is a visionary project to imagine the future of the US Constitution. ↩︎
  4. Features of effective systemic foresight in governments around the world 
    4.1. Accompanying Case Studies designed as a guiding framework to build and sustain foresight in policy-making. Case studies from: Canada, Finland, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and the United States.
    4.2. See also: US National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2040 Report. The NIC prepares a Global Trends Report every four years designed to provide an analytic framework for policymakers early in each presidential administration. It is an example of interregnum as a time for long-term thinking to surface ↩︎
  5. Finland’s Committee of the Future and Government Report on the Future 2023. Fifty dialogues on the future of Finland, involving diverse voices, were conducted to support the preparation of the report. ↩︎
  6. Policy Horizons Canada – Government of Canada’s national centre of excellence in foresight. ↩︎
  7. European Union Strategic Foresight Network and Ministers for the Future.
    7.1 The Commission produces an annual Strategic Foresight Report, which informs the Commission Work Programmes and multi-annual programming exercises.  2023 Strategic Foresight Report ↩︎
  8. Long-term insights for decision makers:
    8.1. The New Zealand ‘Public Service Act 2020’ introduced a requirement on departmental chief executives to publish a Long-term Insights Briefing at least once every three years. The purpose of the briefings are to make information about medium and long-term trends, risks and opportunities in the public domain, to be used cross-sector for long-term decision making..
    8.2. UK Parliament All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations set up to foster cross-party dialogue on combating short-termism in policy-making. ↩︎
  9. The Netherlands are showing signs of accessing intergenerational impact of policy decisions. In their ‘Now for the Future National Delta Programme 2024’, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management are applying generation tests in decisions about the spatial planning of the Netherlands to take the long-term impact of their decisions into consideration. ↩︎
  10. New Zealand Well-being Budget : Since 2019, New Zealand has moved away from traditional measures of economic success towards a long-term, intergenerational approach to reach the Government’s well-being objectives. ↩︎
  11. United Nations Regional Economic Commissions. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed has suggested the Regional Economic Commissions have a key role to play as “regional think-tanks” to support the 2030 Agenda and the partnership needed to get there.
  12. There are a number of ‘indexes’ measuring well-being including: 
    12.1. World Happiness Report and Ranking 2023 ↩︎
  13. UN Policy Brief 1: To Think and Act for Future Generations. Suggestions for practical steps to fulfil the sustainable development principle of meeting the demands of the present in a way that safeguards the interests of future generations. ↩︎
  14. Held v. State 2020. Young people in the US State of Montana won a lawsuit on the basis of their ‘right to a clean and healthful environment’. ↩︎
  15. California 100 an intergenerational, citizen informed initiative to envision a better future for the State of California. 
    Accompanying toolkits: Toolkit for Intergenerational Fairness, Beyond Strategic Planning, and Foresight Toolkit for Policy Educators ↩︎
  16. The US State of Vermont is showing increasing interest in legislating to protect the needs of future generations. Watch Sophie Howe, Future Generations consultant and former Future Generations Commissioner for Wales ‘Exploring the Potential for a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act for Vermont’. ↩︎
  17. Democracy Innovation Hub – The Hannah Arendt Centre for Politics and Humanities, Bard College ↩︎
  18. Professor James Fishkin is best known for developing Deliberative Polling. a practice of public consultation from a representative sample of the population
    18.1. James Fishkin Publications
    18.2. Stanford Deliberative Democracy Lab ↩︎
  19. The UN Summit of the Future will take place in September 2024 to strengthen international cooperation on critical challenges facing future generations.
    19.1. The UN Policy Brief on Future Generations has made 4 key recommendations: An Envoy for Future Generations; Better use of Foresight, Data and Science; a Declaration on Future Generations; and an Intergovernmental Forum. ↩︎
  20. The Intergenerational Fairness Assessment Framework was launched at the Gulbenkian Intergenerational Fairness conference “O estado do Future: Um compromisso entre gerações” on 22 March 2022, with the Gulbenkian President, Bank of Portugal, Court of Auditors and Finance Council sharing their experiencs.  The President of the Portuguese Republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa made a public statement championing Intergenerational Fairness and incorporating the assessment framework into his legislative scrutiny process. SOIF has trained the President’s team at his request.
    20.1. Foresight Portugal 2030
    20.2. Solidarity between generations ↩︎
  21. 2022 State of the Union Address by President von der Leyen, talking about the importance of strengthening democracy for future generations (Sept 2022) ↩︎
  22. Germany’s supreme constitutional court ruled the country’s climate legislation was deemed unconstitutional as it constrained the rights of future generations in 2021. ↩︎
  23. Participatory Budgeting: An Innovative Approach by Think Tank, European Parliament ↩︎
  24. Jim Dator is Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies ↩︎
  25. Betty Sue Flowers is a Scenario Planning Consultant; Poet; Author ↩︎
  26. John Vasconcellos. A list of publications can be found at the Californian Online Archives ↩︎