An introduction to futures thinking
My research aims to study risks and possibilities associated with future autonomous mobilities, with a goal of informing strategy and shaping a more equitable future. Through focusing on security and narrative, it explores possible futures that are attentive to the needs and experiences of diverse groups of people, using a novel design thinking process. This futures-focused approach looks to address the harms and insecurities linked to current automobility systems by employing long-term thinking and foresight practices. The output of this research is expected to include a set of principles for shaping a fairer and more successful future at a variety of scales, and will seek to identify potential impediments to a transition alongside good examples of future mobilities.
What is futures thinking?
We frequently use words like ‘unimaginable’ to refer to major world events. But these 'unimaginable' events, like the pandemic, often have been imagined. What may be lacking is a translation of that imagination into concrete action to prepare for, mitigate, or encourage that 'unimaginable' event. Futures thinking is the discipline that focuses on using imagined possible futures to set policy and strategy in the present. UNESCO describes this as a skill that empowers the imagination and helps us 'prepare, recover and invent' in response to change and uncertainty. And the Research Institute for Sociotechnical Cyber Security—RISCS—notes that it is a 'practical capability' that enables rigorous thinking, with the future used "to inform action in the present". In essence, there are many possible futures, and by being 'futures literate' we can take action that helps lead to, or prepare for, the risks and opportunities in a given future.
Why research possible futures?
The UK's National Cyber Security Centre notes that managing risk in an increasingly uncertain and complex world means we need new tools and strategies to reason about future uncertainties. This is crucial to keep people safe online. But it is also true more widely in an age of increasing technological change. But at present, much futures thinking is quite limited in scope, and constrained to large government and corporate entities. This means that a lot of work going into shaping futures offers a limited perspective on what the future could be given the similar backgrounds working on it, and hence we risk missing out on alternatives and instead extending the present—complete with all the inequalities and insecurities it contains—into the future. This represents a missed opportunity given the vast potential for change and opportunity in the future, if we merely stop to see that. Hence, research into more participatory ways of thinking about the future is important if we are to arrive at a future that truly addresses the big problems in society. Without this, a frequent focus on shorter-term predictions and foresight exercises centred on extending the status quo means taking away agency and possibility from people—both current and future generations—who occupy this future. Roman Krznaric equates this to treating the future as "a distant colonial outpost devoid of people", and calls for more long-term thinking in society.
What's wrong with automobility?
There is a lot that's good about automobility. Cars offer us freedom, meaning, social mobility, and they are also wonderful pieces of engineering. But alongside these benefits, there are harms. The obvious one is the violence of the automobility system. 1.3 million people are killed each year, and many more injured. They also have a significant climate impact (both in operation and upstream in production), they remain inaccessible to many people, and by designing society around cars over the last century, we've created a car-dependency that means alternatives like active travel and public transport are frequently overlooked—resulting in cities that are getting more congested and dominated by the car. Autonomous cars could solve many of these problems, but if they continue to be used as cars currently are, then cities may even become more congested, transport may remain inaccessible to large parts of society, and active travel might actually reduce—harming health and the planet. Yet many visions of future autonomous mobility strongly resemble the current system, with private cars used mainly by urban commuters and traditional nuclear families in the suburbs. If we want better cities and more accessible mobility options, this imaginary of autonomous mobility needs complicating.
How does security and narrative factor in?
A focus on security and narrative is a way to approach thinking on future mobilities. A security focus shines a light on two core aspects of futures—the values that get secured into the future (the what), and the power dynamics and logics that secure a particular vision (the how). Taking insight from security studies can help reveal and make explicit these dynamics and assumptions, and therefore inform strategy. Narrative, meanwhile, is a powerful way to connect to the future, and gives storytellers influence over it. Stories are a tool to both secure and contest futures. Approaching futures with an eye on the stories told about the securities and insecurities in them therefore helps reveal assumptions in visions of the future, and helps us articulate new stories that engage with 'what ifs' and future possibilities.
What's the benefit of this?
It's fun to imagine possible futures, for a start—but for industry and government, thinking about possible futures helps inform strategy and actions. Potential weaknesses in policies and plans can be highlighted, alongside new ways to mitigate risks and harms. It can also focus attention on the wider social and economic impacts of sociotechnical changes, as well as build resilience, enhance our ability to respond to change and uncertainty, and highlight forward-facing opportunities. On a personal level, it helps with mental flexibility, it reduces our bias towards seeing the future as a mere extension of the present, and it gives us hope and future possibilities to work towards. And stories are a potentially powerful way to conduct futures thinking, helping us explore the everyday human implications of complex sociotechnical futures.
What comes next?
My research aims to be participatory. I am engaging a wide range of groups in thinking about possibilities for autonomous mobility, ranging from industry, to government, to civil society. Given my research focus on diverse futures thinking and narrative, I'm employing a range of methods to engage with, explore, and challenge possible futures. These are broadly collected under a design thinking process that begins by asking what possibilities for autonomous mobility exist at the moment—through conducting a series of interviews—before moving on to analyse and expand on the underlying scenarios, which will then be translated into a series of speculative story prototypes—inspired by Science Fiction Prototyping methods—that can be used to explore what possibilites work with people. This approach combines speculative and participatory elements alongside established futures methods in an effort to complicate and interrogate possible futures for autonomous mobility.
FuturesAdam, B. and Groves, C. (2011) ‘Futures Tended: Care and Future-Oriented Responsibility’, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 31(1), pp. 17–27. doi:10.1177/0270467610391237.Liveley, G. and Wardrop, A. (2020) ‘Challenging chronocentrism: new approaches to futures thinking in the policy and praxis of widening participation in higher education’, Teaching in Higher Education, 25(6), pp. 683–697. doi:10.1080/13562517.2020.1733957.Ord, T., Mercer, A. and Dannreuther, S. (2021) Future Proof: The Opportunity to Transform the UK’s Resilience to Extreme Risks. The Centre for Long-Term Resilience.Urry, J. (2016) What is the Future? John Wiley & Sons.
Autonomous mobilityCrawford, K. (2021) The Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. Yale University Press.Culver, G. (2018) ‘Death and the Car: On (Auto)Mobility, Violence, and Injustice’, ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 17(1), pp. 144–170.Sheller, M. (2020) ‘Mobility justice’, Handbook of Research Methods and Applications for Mobilities [Preprint]. Available at: https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781788115452/9781788115452.00007.xml.Stilgoe, J. and Cohen, T. (2021) ‘Rejecting acceptance: learning from public dialogue on self-driving vehicles’, Science and Public Policy [Preprint], (scab060). doi:10.1093/scipol/scab060.
SecurityAnderson, B. (2010) ‘Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies’, Progress in Human Geography, 34(6), pp. 777–798. doi:10.1177/0309132510362600.Roe, P. (2004) ‘Securitization and Minority Rights: Conditions of Desecuritization’, Security Dialogue, 35(3), pp. 279–294. doi:10.1177/0967010604047527.Smith, G.M. (2005) ‘Into Cerberus’ Lair: Bringing the Idea of Security to Light’, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 7(4), pp. 485–507. doi:10.1111/j.1467-856x.2005.00204.x.Zuboff, S. (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power: Barack Obama’s Books of 2019. Profile Books.
NarrativeLiveley, G. (2017) ‘Anticipation and Narratology’, in Poli, R. (ed.) Handbook of Anticipation. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 1–20. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-31737-3_7-1.Liveley, G., Slocombe, W. and Spiers, E. (2021) ‘Futures literacy through narrative’, Futures, 125, p. 102663. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2020.102663.Söderström, O., Paasche, T. and Klauser, F. (2014) ‘Smart cities as corporate storytelling’, City, 18(3), pp. 307–320. doi:10.1080/13604813.2014.906716.Wibben, A.T.R. (2010) Feminist Security Studies: A Narrative Approach. London: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203834886.
MethodsCandy, S. and Kornet, K. (2019) ‘Turning Foresight Inside Out: An Introduction to Ethnographic Experiential Futures’, Journal of Futures Studies, 23(3): 3–22, p. 20. doi:10.6531/JFS.201903_23(3).0002.Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press.Johnson, B.D. (2011) ‘Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction’, Synthesis Lectures on Computer Science, 3(1), pp. 1–190. doi:10.2200/S00336ED1V01Y201102CSL003.Ramos, J. et al. (2019) ‘Our futures: by the people, for the people’, Nesta, p. 72.The Futures Toolkit (2017). Government Office for Science, p. 116.