Op-Ed from The Futures Project CEO Dr Julia Stamm, originally published at Inter Press Service on 27.05.2020. Co-written by TFP Project Assistant Jenny Shirar.
Crises make us think smaller. When everything is uncertain, we turn inward: to our families, our communities, the immediate needs around us. We focus on the essential and the immediate; we survive. On an individual level, this instinct can be clarifying, as it may bring into focus the realm of the Truly Important: our closest human relationships, our health, our community, our freedom.
Looking past this circle of immediacy, however, it’s clear to see that the current global pandemic will demand much more of us. Beyond the here and now, it is becoming increasingly clear that the covid-19 crisis is creating enormous need and essential work for the future. Preparing for and addressing these future challenges is also a matter of great urgency. Responding to the urgent needs of the moment while keeping the futures we want in our field of vision requires us to be intentional and thoughtful about the choices we make now. The Futures Project exists precisely at this juncture where present and future come into conversation, and from this vantage point, it is clear that we cannot talk about problem-solving in the present without making sure we know where we want to go.
The present we have is a mirror for the futures we want
One need not look far to see the roadmap of future needs that is emerging in light of the covid-19 crisis. If you follow the cracks, long-existent but willfully ignored, that have come starkly into view in the past few months, you can trace your way to some of the challenges that will shape our future. With the closure of schools, we see not only the fact of disparate access to internet networks, but also the direct translation of this disparity into outcomes: some students will return to school having kept up with their learning, and others will fall further behind. We see that for those without stable housing, social distancing, handwashing, and safe shelter at home are simply not possible. We see that our essential workers have long been the least celebrated, their livelihoods among the least protected. These are only a few examples.
We see also that solutions are possible—that, especially if we are willing to acknowledge the inequalities that we’ve grown comfortable with, in the parts of the world that benefit from them, we can fix our problems. This will take a massive reimagining of what’s possible, and a massive recalibrating of what is acceptable to us.
The big questions
The UN75 global conversation initiative, launched to celebrate the 75th birthday of the United Nations in October 2020, has opened an international dialogue on precisely these topics. The initiative asks people to talk about the future, asking three “big questions”: what kind of future do we want to create? Are we on track? What do we need to bridge the gap? Of course, when these questions were written and the initiative launched, no one foresaw the upheaval that was to come. Given the massive disruption that covid-19 has caused, these questions may, at first glance, feel out of place. In a crisis, everything feels immediate. And to some extent, it is true: we have to adapt, respond, pull together, and make it through.
Our view, though, is that crisis response and thinking about the future go hand-in-hand. In this uncertain moment, asking ourselves and each other about the futures we want to inhabit provides light for our path. Given the sometimes-overwhelming scope of the crisis, using the future as our guide will help us find our next small step. 2020 was to be the beginning of a crucial decade for the UN Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and even though most did not factor a global pandemic into their response plans, the SDGs also provide a blueprint for the future that can serve to guide our crisis response. If we have any hope of repairing the cracks, of finding solutions to urgent problems that not only carry us through the moment but also pave the way to a more resilient future, we must bring people together across borders, sectors, and boundaries to create a vision for the future and make plans to act. This is exactly the task that the UN75 questions facilitate, and the backdrop against which The Futures Project builds its work.
The imagined world of tomorrow can teach us to do better today
Our commitment during this time is to serve as a steward of thinking and doing that helps us all keep the futures we want to inhabit, and the futures we hope future generations can inhabit, in our field of vision. Our current initiative, Innovators for the Future, bridges reflection and action, thinking and doing, by building off of the UN75 questions. By identifying projects that are having positive impacts on their communities now, while also keeping an eye on the future they want to see, we are looking at what the UN75 questions look like in action. Innovators for the Future extends the UN75 dialogue by asking not only what kind of future we want to create, but also, what are we doing to get there? And for our part at the Futures Project, we’re asking: how can we help build the bridge between thinking and doing; between present and future? Through our Social Impact Accelerator, we’re also lending a hand, supporting the do-ers of the world and the future visions for their communities towards which they are building.
Above all, The Futures Project and the Call for Innovators are about commitment to the idea that we can—and will—build better futures. We do not know exactly what this looks like. Creating these future visions are part of the work. We do, however, believe wholeheartedly that our imagined world of tomorrow can teach us about how to do better today. We are committed to doing the work it takes to build the world that we see outlined in the UN Vision, and we remain hopeful.