One of the big questions of futurism is what kind of world we want to live in tomorrow. But as attendees at a recent conference on futurism discovered, "tomorrow" is relative. People in Egypt look at the future very differently than people in Canada do.
This was a heated topic of discussion at the recently concluded WorldFuture 2012 Conference held in Toronto, Ontario. One panel devoted to the issue consisted of several members of the Millennium Project, a multinational effort that's addressing the world's most pressing problems in a highly targeted manner. Speakers came from Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Germany, and more.
Is developing world futurism different from developed world futurism? The answer is undeniably yes.
Opening the future
"Futurist" has two meanings depending on the context. The traditional definition has to do with holding a positive sense of the future. It's an expansion of the humanist suggestion that progressive developments in society, institutions and technology can make the world a better place. The second meaning refers to people who makes it their business to predict the future. That would more accurately be referred to as futurology.
The futurists at the WorldFuture conference most definitely subscribe to the former definition. And as the panel discussion revealed, visions of the future tend to get more restrained depending on the state of things in one's home country. It's difficult to dream of a grander future when conditions are tough. Consequently, the panelists centered their discussion around such topics as clean water, literacy, poverty, internet use, unemployment, ecology, and the threat of terrorist attacks. For many countries, the alleviation of these problems is part of a broader futurist project.
Countries on the rise
The situation in Egypt provided an excellent example. Panel member Kamal Zaki Mahmoud Sheer talked about how shocking the Arab Spring was to his country — but in a good way.
The toppling of the Mubarek regime sent a wave of hope through the country where previously there was none. Suddenly, and totally unexpectedly, the general public was concerned about the processes of democratization.
"The future suddenly opened up before us," he said, "and it created a new kind of engagement where we could actually have discussions about creating a constitution and new institutions." The Arab Spring inspired the rise of a futurist voice in that country — one that could suddenly and freely engage in strategic thinking and long term planning.
The Dominican Republic's Yarima Sosa shared her colleague's sense of hope, but her priorities were elsewhere. Sosa's talk focused on a bare necessity of life most of us take for granted: food. She talked about how one in six people on this planet go hungry every day, and how a diminished quality of life results in despair and loss of hope.
As Sosa's talk revealed, a fundamental goal of developing world futurists is to grab hold of their own destiny. To that end, she is working to see the UN pass a resolution in which they acknowledge the problem and start to work on regulating the food market. "The system needs to be more transparent, to bring more ethics to it, and to show that food cannot be used as a financial asset," she said, "it should be used as a source of nourishment, and not for the wealth of a couple of people playing on their computers."
Sosa is engaging in what she calls "creative destruction" — the act of putting an old world to rest in favor of a better one.
Second World Problems
The panel also featured members from what is often called the Second World. Reyhan Huseynova of the Azerbaijan Future Studies Society expressed concern about food security and developing a world-class IT infrastructure.
Panelist Pavel Novacek from the Czech Republic is focused on sustainable development. He has been studying the state of affairs in his country, as well as Slovakia and Poland. Unhappy with the GDP index, he's working on what's called the Future Oriented Thinking Index, a way of assessing just how prepared a country is to deal with the challenges of the future. It's a way of measuring just how ‘futurist' a country actually is.
But as he works to refine his new index and propose viable models for growth, he admits that there are challenges. "How do we go about this without compromising the quality of future generations," he asked, "and what's acceptable, and what's not?"
The panel's conversation was not limited to the needs of the developing world, or to Second World countries. Cornelia Daheim of Germany talked about middle class population growth, climate change, and sufficiency models. She said, "We need to look at this problem differently and discuss those things that we don't want to discuss, like the need to do less, to consume less, and buy less." But like her Czech colleague, she does not want to reduce the quality of life too substantially.
This is a revealing contradiction. The developing world sees the future as one where they're able to establish food security and infrastructure. But the second and first world countries are trying to step back from growth and consumerism as they forge a path into the future. As William Gibson once wrote, "The future is already here - it's just not very evenly distributed." Before we can truly shape the future, we need to appreciate that tomorrow looks very different depending on where you live.