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Lessons from an unpredictable future

Sustaining social justice is difficult. It’s not enough for social entrepreneurs to be opportunistic, you need to be systematic. Futures practice provides clues. Esmee Wilcox outlines some practical ways to start.

Tackling the most important social issues necessitates operating on the edge of institutional power.

Instead of the might of those traditional resources behind you, what social entrepreneurs do have is the power to be inventive, to be inclusive of difference, and to embrace change with vigour.

Having these qualities and skills in abundance can be much more advantageous to influencing within the dynamic and unpredictable world we inhabit.

However, you need to know how and why to deploy them to best effect.

In this article I will share learning from two left-of-field schools of thought to help you think through how to be more effective in influencing from the edge of institutional power.

These aren’t quick fixes, but they should start to help you get more out of what you put in, and – what I really care about – be more effective over the long-term.

Firstly, “Futures” practice: commonly thought of as horizon-scanning, but also a broader set of methodologies which help us to understand what’s changing in the world around us, look for clues as to how these trends might play out in the future, and be prepared for that future. It involves thinking about what’s plausible (less likely) as well as what’s more possible, and recognising that many of the underlying values that we take for granted can shift as much as our behaviours and activities.

Secondly, “Complexity Theory” helps us to understand the dynamics at play in complex systems such as communities of place, partnerships of institutions and communities, mechanisms for delivering public services; and to work with these properties even though they can go against our habits. For example, it sees that systems thrive when they are led by themselves rather than by outside forces, and challenges us to think about our behaviours when we tend to short-cut this (think social action in poor communities). It recognises the exponential connectivity of actors in the systems, and challenges us to keep thinking broadly rather than focussing in on one area (think the reality of networked communications in hierarchies or boxing up projects into neat chunks that become problematic when they don’t fit).

What social entrepreneurs have is the power to be inventive, to be inclusive of difference, and to embrace change with vigour

Both of these theories encourage working with unpredictability, rather than trying to limit it.

In practice this can look like:

  • Having a number of different tactics on the go (multiple micro-strategies is the phrase) to see which ones come to fruition.

  • Taking the ego out of our favoured approaches and genuinely looking for what emerges when we try different things and hold back our desire for control.

  • Working very deliberately on maintaining latent capacity (resilience), to prevent failure from an unlikely but possible event.

The other important property to understand (and not quite the converse) is stability: complex systems (including institutional power) are really hard to change because they are stable (no s***).

However, when they do start to shift there are opportunities for dramatic changes.

Think ‘Brexit’ and the longer and broader trend around European nationalism. Think Harvey Weinstein and the positive and negative trends around human (equal) rights.

These changes don’t happen very often, so we have to be in a position to take advantage of them when they do.

That’s where “Futures” practice comes in for me: it’s about being more influential in the present by having a clearer understanding of what makes up your preferred future (and then how to use particular trajectories to best effect).

It’s about being more influential in the present by having a clearer understanding of what makes up your preferred future

People don’t tend to have that clarity: most people find it hard to describe the future in enough detail, or see it as anything other than a continuation of the present.

People also don’t understand and get overwhelmed by complexity, instead of embracing it.

So here are your advantages.

OK, so I might buy into this in theory, but what, in practical terms, can I do?

Articulating a deep understanding of your ‘preferred future’ is a really good starting point.

You know where you’re going, but have you ever really made time to consider what’s happening when you get there? What are the values that come into play? What are the people habits? How is it distinct from where we are now?

Try spending 30 minutes once a week, using your strategic and creative thinking time, to build up a picture. Think 15 years ahead – different enough from now – but you’re in this for the long haul right?

You’re aiming to get enough detail articulated to help you understand the opportunities you need to create or capitalise on now that get you closer towards your future. For example, if communities are more able to tolerate differences in your ‘preferred future’ how does that play out in your business model, your interactions with competitors, as well as the communities that you are aiming to benefit?

At the same time, you need to think broadly about the trends affecting your future. An easy way to start doing this is to go outside of your existing networks for some of your on-line reading material. What are people ‘not like you’ looking at? What surprises you or piques your interest?

There are some great on-line resources by professional Futurists and Complexity experts: European Futures Observatory, Association of Professional Futurists, LSE Complexity Programme for a start. These give clues to the issues and trends that ‘professional’ strategic thinkers are looking at, as well as some of the methods they use.

My experience of leading on ‘Strategic Foresight’ work for a large local authority taught me that it works well when it’s participatory and inclusive:

  • you need a breadth of expertise to understand trends;

  • you need conflicting perspectives to challenge your in-built biases; and

  • skilled facilitation to harness these tensions.

You can see the output from the community events I co-hosted in the publication Communities of the Future: Tales from Suffolk in 2030.

That type of programme is a big piece of work that your networks or community forums might be interested in making happen in time.

But for now, think about the resources, qualities and skills you do have in abundance, and see what comes from committing yourself to some deep “Futures” thinking.

You never know, there might just be something in it.

Esmee Wilcox (above) runs Socially Adept, an organisational development practice to help organisations stay tuned and face the future with confidence.

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