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Exploring Social Futures: An ongoing journey

Thomas Baynes
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One of the things I appreciate most about working at Policy Horizons is the opportunity to develop a personal voice in a professional setting. That goes double for the line of research I’m currently developing as part of the social futures team because, in a way, Horizons is also developing its voice – at least as far as social foresight is concerned.

Horizons analysts have long been alert to social changes and attended to social impacts of changes in other domains, but the organization is better known as a centre of expertise on technological and economic foresight. Often we have positioned social life, organization, and experience as domains that bear the impact of outside changes .

From my team’s review of recent foresight literature, that seems characteristic of the international futures field. At the same time, other foresight organizations and governments around the world are demonstrating a growing interest in systematic thought about social futures.1

Thinking systematically about social futures means, in part, considering social life, social organization, and social experience as sources of change. That reframing involves much more than a simple rhetorical inversion of “society” as a thing acted upon; it means developing new ideas about change, research practices, and organizational and professional relationships.

The social futures team has been working on a report to describe existing social foresight and identify opportunities to contribute novel and insightful research on this challenging topic. There’s a certain degree of trial-and-error learning in any research, even more so when your research deals with the future. There are false starts, dead ends, and minor epiphanies: things that end up on the cutting-room floor – not because they have no value, but because they don’t fit into your overall program of research. And there are mistakes, sometimes educational, other times good for a laugh.

I am candidly recording our process, including bumps and tics. Why? Because as Charlie Chaplin fans know, the punchline is almost never as good as the setup. The how and why behind our finished research products may be just as useful to those who wish to explore the social side of the future.

The social futures team has been working on a report to describe existing social foresight and identify opportunities to contribute novel and insightful research on this challenging topic. There’s a certain degree of trial-and-error learning in any research, even more so when your research deals with the future. There are false starts, dead ends, and minor epiphanies: things that end up on the cutting-room floor – not because they have no value, but because they don’t fit into your overall program of research. And there are mistakes, sometimes educational, other times good for a laugh. I am candidly recording our process, including bumps and tics. Why? Because as Charlie Chaplin fans know, the punchline is almost never as good as the setup. The how and why behind our finished research products may be just as useful to those who wish to explore the social side of the future.

1 See Foresight [10], this year’s update from Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures for examples of emerging work. You can download issues of Foresight for free, here: https://www.csf.gov.sg/media-centre/publications/foresight-series

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Thomas Baynes
Thomas Baynes

Tom is an intellectual adventurer with a background in anthropology, art history, and public administration, connecting intangible aspects of human experience to concrete social policy issues. He strives to show the value of qualitative research methods in making informed choices about the future, and translate humanistic perspectives into usable insights. At home, his neuroticism and intellectual perversity are seen in his passion for textile crafts, bad television, great movies, and books on aesthetics, social theory, and cultural history.

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