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Horizons Talks: Plural futures – A way forward

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The Horizons Talks speaker series brings experts from Canada and around the world to share their forward-looking research and ideas with public servants.


Prateeksha Singh, Head of Experimentation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Asia-Pacific Regional Innovation Centre, shared her thoughts on the importance of plurality and equity in foresight—a field that has fallen short—and why this matters. She introduced the audience to Lotus, a framework she is building that supports foresight practitioners who want to conscientiously engage in equity- and inclusive-driven foresight work.

Prateeksha’s presentation and the subsequent conversation included examples from her work with immigrant youth in Toronto, experiential installations, the co-authoring of a feminist post-COVID-19 foresight framework with International Women’s Development Agency (Australia), and her experience with the UNDP offices in the Asia-Pacific region. 

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Transcript

ERIC WARD: Thank you, Imran. And Prateeksha, it’s a real pleasure to have you here. It’s very generous for you to join us, and thank you.

Prateeksha Singh is a multi-disciplinary practitioner. She collaboratively explores how applying the living system lens can provide additional tools and perspectives for working with complex yet adaptive challenges. She is driven to be working with diverse voices and harnessing inclusive and plural images of the future.

Prateeksha is currently based in Bangkok, is the Head of Experimentation with the UNDP, Asia Pacific Regional Innovation Centre, the United Nations Development Program, where she supports the building of institutional innovation capabilities within regional UNDP offices. These capabilities range from foresight to reflecting on cohesion of current portfolios, systems change theory, and public policy innovation.

Prateeksha holds a Masters in Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from OCAD University in Toronto. She sits on the Board of the Association of Professional Futurists. She chairs an annual virtual APF Futures festival and is the 2019 Next Generation Foresight Practitioner global award recipient. She is a committed black and white film photographer and I don’t know if you will be sharing any of that with us but it’s helpful to know a little context.

Thank you so much and without taking any more time, Prateeksha, I will turn it over to you.

PRATEEKSHA SINGH: So thank you so much for the introduction. I am indeed based in Bangkok so it is just 12 hours ahead, so 9:00 p.m. over here. And yeah, so you already know a little bit more about my background and what I do. And I hope that at the end of this presentation what you will see is that there is (inaudible) to the way that I practise my work and the values and principles that have been driving my practice in foresights, and ow that is sort of an integral part of how I am on the Board and sort of the principles that I stand for on the Board being around equity and representation because foresight hasn’t traditionally been that much of a global field or that much of a diverse sort of diverse field. But it has been making amazing strides in the last few years as I think all of you can agree.

The word “foresight” and futures has sort of gained more popularity and so I think that is a positive step towards having more voices at least engaged in that conversation. And that through line comes into how the Futures Festival runs and I really look forward to speaking to you as well about that sort of power that we have as convening (inaudible) and as convening beings who run events who have the opportunity to choose who to bring forth as speakers and how that power can really help amplify diverse voices and world views, not just sort of visual diversity.

During grad school — so of course, as Eric mentioned, I went to OCAD. I took a leave actually between my studies and for a few years just worked on my own, And it was partially about exploring ways to apply the theories that we were learning in grad school around foresight and systems out in communities and I explicitly chose wanting to work outside the realm of academia and corporate foresight, and actually to a large degree government, although I engaged on projects with government.

So I explored how do I actually take these concepts and principles out to others who haven’t studied them in their Masters programs or who don’t necessarily have the resources to hire me to do multiple month projects. And I worked with young people of colour. I worked with immigrant young immigrant youth in Toronto first generation, you know, residents, and I also worked with the federal government. I actually worked with ESTC in Ottawa for several months and in my work looking at youth employment, I actually, you know, sort of chiselled in foresight wherever I could in our engagements as a way to sort of discuss the past, present, future, and how does actually bringing that narrative and that through line allow to perhaps have different types of conversations. And I also worked extensively in health care though not in foresight, but of applying systems and systems visualizations as a way to explore for our clients how actually concrete and through systems mapping can be used to advocate successfully for policy change.

And so I think that probably hopefully resonates with many of you in terms of the capacity of scope that our work offers us to sort of play with.

I went back after a few years to finish my Masters because I knew it was either then or never. And so that was part of my research sort of research, final research work. And so at that point I had already been on the Board. I had already been running Futures Festival. I had already been having — been working with — through empathy and of course at this course work.

And one of the through lines that I constantly kept coming up with that I couldn’t put aside was this notion of inclusivity and representation within the field. And so actually my research study became ultimate need to understand the sort of Western influence on the field of foresight as a form of (inaudible) field. And to sort of make a case for its transition from being what it was to being an ally and being more inclusive. And what ended up coming out of it, although completely unintentional, was this initial authoring of a framework that I hope to share with you today in the brief time we have called Lotus.

And fundamentally it was — it ended up becoming this — is becoming a guide rather to support practitioner who fundamentally want to question their own belief systems, their own world views, and their own sort of unintentional groundings to their work in a way that unearths these things in the hope that we can actually fundamentally as a practice, personal and professional, move towards generating futures with our broader community that are hopefully more inclusive and plural and culturally sensitive and anti-colonial. And those are big words and so this is — what I hope to share with you will show how it’s not just my own framework but actually it’s a community asset that is going to be ever-evolving. And so I really hope you can contribute to that, both tonight in the conversation but also after today’s conversation.

Actually, if it’s okay with you I will actually take just a few minutes and walk you through the framework, and then come back to some of the other ways in which this framework has informed the ways in which I have applied this work once I left and joined UNDP.

So let me just escape this and then just share with you the website.

So if you go to my website which I’m happy to share links with you and it’s also in the presentation. I actually just put this out a few days ago and I’m actually really excited to share it with you and get your feedback.

Part of the framework that I want to share with you tonight and it’s fundamentally about sort of ways in which we can practise becoming more intentional practitioners in the field is objectively about increasing world views and representation in the space. And this notion that I think while I offered this a couple of years ago, I think globally, especially in the region at least that I live in and am immersed in now in Asia Pacific, there is a growing normalization of a dominant narrative being forced as normative. And I think, not to be preaching, but I think just as a practitioner, as a responsible foresight practitioner for me that — my response has been to challenge myself to even more operate from a place of self-awareness and intentionality so that I can, through my work, challenge, I think, some of those notions because they are not representative, I think, of many many voices.

And so I think that’s partly when I was reflecting on updating this and putting the framework here, I wanted to reflect on. You know, in 2021, why does work like this still remain so so relevant? And I think — I hope that in partnership with you we can actually make it much more reflective as well of the needs of the time.

The framework is actually intended to push us to actually challenge our practice as practitioners across multiple realms. I was quite conscientious and hope when you actually — if you have a moment after the presentation to look through it, so think about how is it that we actually prescribe value and worth in the field, because how we prescribe value and worth is fundamentally the foundation of anything we do and what we keep and that leads us to how we conceive knowledge, how we transfer knowledge, what we even consider as valid knowledge.

And whose knowledge do we consider valid? And so these are small differentiations that have profound impact in both what becomes part of the field or has been part of the field formerly and I think what going forward can be part of the field and part of this is opening that shell, I think, for us to be much more conscientious and open to this.

And of course, once we think about how we conceive and transfer and validate knowledge and what knowledge we consider valid, is fundamentally then what we consider as being part of the field, the ontology of the field.

And fundamentally of course, from the ontology and what we even consider part of the field, comes our methods and our ways that we practise, the tools that we tend to create and use. And these are all things that I wanted to challenge at some point. And I am very privileged to have had several months to be able to reflect on my own experiences and also through experts and interviews with practitioners from around the world, actually from multiple different disciplines, form sort of this basis to create something,

I also, I think, want to — and hopefully again as you see some of these materials with a bit more time, realize, I think, without even knowing unintentionally there is a number of, you know, accepted — generally accepted principles about frameworks. And I really wanted to interrogate many many of them from the things like the 2-D aspects, the static aspect of frameworks that were are traditionally used to.

I think fields like — and conversations about equity and representation and being culturally sensitive are evolving topics. And so I wanted to create something that I think as my own and I collected (inaudible). So does this framework. Not to create multiple things but actually to have that very same thing grown and so this notion of a dynamic framework.

What I will share with you today is still in a static form as I convert to being more dynamic, but to share with you some of the things that I think we take for granted.

This notion of authorship — I’m actually quite uncomfortable being call the author. I see myself as a primary author and that’s in part because I think frameworks as being singular authors are not very (inaudible) because most of the work that we do is inspired by things, inspired by people, inspired by the things that we’re reading. And my framework is — and this framework in particular is certainly that. It is an amalgamation of inspiration from many many practitioners and many many people’s representations and experiences.

And so this notion of what could a framework be if it became a community asset, in that we could all contribute to it. And there are several other elements as well in terms of even a visual statement, how used to are we to seeing frameworks in ways that actually are circles, squares, and triangles and actually not as comfortable seeing a framework that perhaps looks a bit like this. And I think for me this was a bit of a risk but perhaps grad school allows you to take that risk in seeing if I were to put this forward to you and say it is a thorough framework but it looks like this, you know, you might take it less seriously.

But I think if you — you know, everything about this framework from the choice that it being a lotus to why it’s a lotus, to why it’s even a pink lotus, are all actually very conscious choices on my part as a designer. And I speak a lot about this in detail but I will just share with you that I think we all — you know, it’s — I think this is what I’m really grateful for about design school. I think this notion of challenging yourself and challenging what we’re given as sort of — Imran mentioned accepted principles.

This note to holism versus reductionism. It would be much easier for me to just have a very pretty flower with just the petals as opposed to also showing you the roots. But actually what I realized as I was working on a framework, and al of this hopefully translates towards the end of this small chat into seeing why this is so important. But actually our roots anchor us and for me the roots anchor my principles, anchor my practice. And I wanted to pose sort of this anchoring principle to practitioners who wanted to use this framework to ask themselves certain questions.

And actually this is inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism, the lotus, and what the lotus actually stands in these two religions. But what I was even more inspired was that while the inspiration came from this place, around the world lotuses are known to grow in muddy water, and to rise above that muddy water and be this beautiful thing. And I thing for me as I was writing this I was in India and I was surrounded by a lot of discourse around anti-nationalism which is still — it’s only getting stronger. And I only say this to say that as I was writing this I couldn’t help but be surrounded by this discourse and for me it started to represent this negativity and this polarization that has been surrounding us.

And actually how could a framework like this offer an alternative to what might be overwhelmingly the norm in terms of discussions and discourse.

Just quickly a few other principles and then I will move on.

But in a lotus often actually the leaves provide a layer of division between the water and the petals. And again this was actually very very symbolic to me because I started to realize as I was authoring this and I was in India, if I was coming in without having a true knowledge of the cultural and social discourse that was taking place at the time, it might be very simple for me to come with the right intentions of wanting to do inclusive futures work in India but actually the difference between the muddiness and I think to me what is the beauty of inclusion and plurality is an acceptance, a conscious acceptance of the fact that we have to ask ourselves, if in a country censorship and openness and the ability to actually discuss plurality is even accepted or if doing so fundamentally puts people at a risk of being called dissidents and anti-national. And those are very very real things, at least for me in the region again that I live in and I think many many other countries, and so maybe even very close to home, to be honest.

And so I think this notion of before we can actually practise something that sounds so positive we have to as practitioners be really aware of the broader environment within which we want to do this work and whether this work will actually maybe perhaps even put people at risk, yourselves included.

I think if we can pass those things, this is where I — you know, as I think it gets exciting — is what I pose to you through this framework is in layers, different kinds of prompts and questions. If the core is actually to surface diverse futures and world views, how do actually we perhaps even start in the first layer by asking ourselves questions of how we design our sessions. And you have to excuse the visual chains. This is my design work and that’s a professional designer. So I’m not a graphic designer but I wanted to share with you a few things that I hope will spur our discussions, and actually why these things matter so so deeply.

I think as foresight practitioners whenever we do work in communities we hold a lot of power. And we hold a lot of power to also influence many different elements of power and privilege that we take into our work. When we even design an initiative, we actually have — you know, we set that sort of purpose and objective of a futures session ourselves generally without maybe in consult with the audience itself. I’m not saying that’s always the case, just saying that that is the power we hold.

As practitioners we also hold the power of designing the kinds of imbalances that might come forth in that room when we are — you know, between who is facilitating the session and who is participating in the session, and those are very all constructs of power. And I think the last is, as practitioners at least one or the other sort of power principles I was exploring and playing with wanting to dismantle or at least consciously be aware of as I design, is how as a practitioner I could have the power to create further imbalances based on how I decide just purely to organize my session. What are the methods I use? What are those sort of outputs I create? How and when do I do these sessions? And these are very small things that I think though are actually very powerful in terms of the equation we set with who and how we work.

And there is — when you see this work, there is actually also principles, right? So when you set an objective of a futures exercise — and I hope through all of this, instead of just listening to me, I hope you are also able to reflect a bit on your own practice. And I hope this resonates and really I look forward to hearing about that.

These were some concepts that emerged to me as I was working on this. They felt really important for me to be concise and clear about.

You know, when you set an objective and when have people participating, at least I can speak my practise certainly even now in my own work. It’s very easy to work with middle organizations that represent the groups that ultimately we will be doing work with or who we serve. And I think it’s a conscious realization to just even remind myself that nothing I do I my sessions should be without the people that I am ultimately serving in the room.

And so in the — in sort of this framework I started to realize that I think a lot about these things and perhaps I know what to — you know what tools can help me even think about the diversity of participants I should have in a room. And so part of this is where — this was sort of where (inaudible) idea of a community tool and ask it also was born in that. I started to realize that for each of these petals in all three layers I could reference to different practitioners who were spending time creating frameworks and research studies and practices built just on these specific tenets. And so that’s part of the goal is how can I connect each petal actually to work of other people so that if this isn’t something you know particularly too much about, how can we actually create this framework that actually isn’t just with foresight practitioners, but actually practitioners across disciplines who spend a lot of time thinking about these very questions of equity and maybe ways in which this manifests.

You know, the second layer is again these more deeper, wider principles that inclusive design sort of inclusive futures principles. And I couldn’t find principles anywhere as I was searching so I didn’t actually set out to create this framework. I was really just trying to write up my research and I realized that whether it was academic walls or research walls, I couldn’t find inclusive design principles that coherently sort of brought together multiple different layers. I couldn’t find inclusive futures principles and so I ended up sort of creating some based on these things. And their locations matter actually.

Sorry it’s not so visible. I’m happy to — if you don’t make fun of my PowerPoint level of visual skills here — going to OCAD made me very conscious of working with brilliant designers and my non-visual design skills.

So for example, these were sort of the principles that ended up coming out of this work and they are all actually specifically placed on the locations based on the petals. And the goal is actually (inaudible) framework is online and dynamic that you can actually move petals and shift them in different places because I realized I put them in this order but you might actually want to ask these questions in a different order.

Who am I to — even though as a primary author I’m putting them there for you to respond to but who am I to actually tell you to read them in this way or in this order? So my goal is actually what I’m playing with and experimenting with and if anybody would like to join me, it’s saying actually if we move things around what are some new principle that might emerge at these different intersections?

And for each of them, you know, in my research I explain to you at least how I see these principles playing out. What do they mean to me and how do I define them? Not that this is the only definition, but merely to give you a place of inquiry in terms of where I see this coming.

And the last sort of layer is, I think, maybe more resonant in some sense is after we looked about how we design the physical room and interaction which is that first layer, what might be some of those principles I actually want to fundamentally keep in my mind as a second layer, then became for me integral to think about what other kinds of prompts and elements I need to keep in my sessions that actually allow me to be much more sensitive and aware of the different geographies and places that I’m working with.

And so I have all sorts of things that I ended up putting here based on my research and based on my interviews. And some things again sound random so there’s, you know, another sort of (inaudible) of things that you know, something that was really interesting for me that made me actually explicitly put consider spoken and oral languages, for example, which is right here at the bottom.

I was speaking to practitioners that were going to Japan and South Korea to do futures work. And to my knowledge what they told me was that there is no plural word for futures is these languages. And so when they went there they had to on the fly, you know, sort of adjust. And I put this here so that if you are going someplace to even consider something so minor that just because in English we have future and we have futures and we work in the plural, that that very concept may not translate. And so how can using a framework like this actually allow you to prepare yourself for that translation so that when you go there at best you can actually at least create a bridge of a conceptual bridge, if not a literal sort of linguistic bridge to the kinds of things that we’re trying to get to.

And so this is in part something that I’ve invested a lot of time in, and a lot of energy thinking about and evolving. It’s not static, like I said, even in its content. There is already things that I’m constantly realizing need to be here that are not. But to the degree possible, everything from funding to the kinds of ethical considerations we should take, including asking ourselves, “Are we the right person for this job?” There’s lots of practitioners that want to go work and come to work in our region. And sometimes it’s because it’s an exciting region for many people. But that does not make them the right practitioner for this job.

So I think part of my aim was to politely create a space to put these kinds of provocations and question in front of me, in front of anyone who is using it so that we can at least ask ourselves and answer those questions and not chalk it up to not even having thought about it before we go because I think we have a profound responsibility and we have an impact when we work with people.

And so this is in part what the intention was of this framework. And I am at this next stage where I am sort of in my drawer consistently making note of different kinds of frameworks and practitioners that I can actually link this work to. And again, not just in the foresight field but across fields. And so I would actually love to hear from any of you who might be in your work, in your interests, in your free time, actually following different kinds of practitioners who perhaps think about, you know, this concept of time in multiple different ways.

We think of time as linear but we know many cultures don’t. How does that fundamentally impact the way that we do this work of inclusive futures if the very notion of time, which is, like, foundational to what we’re doing, isn’t even seen in the same way.

And so these were the kinds of things that I spent a great deal of time thinking about and felt very lucky to have the time to reflect and think of. And the other reason I wanted to actually ultimately sort of ended up coming up with this was I got to spend several months thinking about this but not everybody might but I think many many people do want to be much more conscious and intentional in their practice and so how can we create something that allows for that space?

So that is definitely a work in progress that I’m constantly building and further sort of developing and would love to engage with you on further.

Building off that work with the lotus, last year while I was working at the UNDP on the side — at the moment last year we were just in the days of the pandemic and (inaudible) response. And this opportunity came up by the International Women’s Development Agency based out of Australia who were saying that post-COVID they want to run sessions in the Pacific. But they want to use feminist principles to come up with them (inaudible) futures after the pandemic.

And as you can imagine, you know — and feminist principles aren’t just about gender. Actually it’s about, you know, a very thorough and sincere level of intersectionality being the foundation to how we do this work. And in coming up with this — a number of us — so this is sort of a consortium of practitioners. We worked with Changes as the foundational sort of consulting company, and authored this framework for IWDA.

And what we realized and in sort of an additional level of analysis after having worked on lotus was I think the sense of awareness hat hopefully we can have discussion about, for me felt that the field is not very feminist. It rarely in its frameworks provokes us to think about gender or intersections. And I think that was something that while we were writing this framework we were actually interrogating and actually authoring and thinking about and layering above the field. And that was actually a very very — it was actually very very profound — again, in small ways but actually a very profound experience because it made me again be very critical of the way that our field is structured, and the very foundations of our field and how there is so much room for growth if more or less want to engage in that conversation and that evolution of (inaudible).

And lastly, you know, before I stop speaking, is just this notion of foresight in our sort of broader institutions. I mean, I work for UNDP. I work on the regional innovation team, and slowly through time have been sort of creating this space, this container to talk about foresight. And I think the pandemic really helped me in creating more paths although not in the immediate aftermath while I tried. I realized, you know, people are in crisis response and they don’t really have time to think about these things, which is why foresight is never done, I think, at the very, you know, impetus of implosion. Not at the very point of implosion but actually much much much ahead and so, you know, at least it’s opened the interest and actually not just interest, but a sense of urgency.

And the ways that we’re applying course at UNDP is internal capacity building. How do we even talk about these principles? How do we start at the very basics of these principles? How do we actually make our programming and our design of projects much more future conscious and adaptive and responsive? How do we actually engage with our partners which for UNNDP is largely governments? How do we engage with our governments in a way that actually offers the principles of anticipatory governance, these principles of inclusion? And you know, in some of the things that I am designing, I am experimenting with our country offices on how do we weave in these notions of gender and climate and socio-economic inequity and inequality as sort of staple things that we have to consider in all of our work.

And again, I design sessions and I run them so I think I have some flexibility to paly with these things and these are some three things at least that I’m trying to play with in how do we include them; and for me this is part of this discussion that I’m sharing with you is when we’re doing this sort of work in environments where foresight isn’t as — hasn’t yet been embraced as heavily, how do we start in some small places and build that space for a conversation.

And in closing I think for me one thing that has been interesting is beyond just having some considered gender, climate, and socio-economic inequality and inequity is asking colleagues why they see these three things playing out the way they see them in their scenarios. Is socio-economic inequity being caused by religions, motives, or is it being caused by climate change? Is it being caused by governments and government policies? Because that “why” is actually a really really important point, entry points (inaudible) because I am, much like many of us are, actually visitors to many of the countries that I work in, and not from there. So that “why” offers me a window to not assume that the same reason a particular thing is playing out in one country in our region, it’s playing out in another.

And so for me this is a little bit of a snippet to share with you around my practice and how inclusive futures has been evolving from my work and my consulting practice with empathy with communities to having worked now with UNDP and working actively with our country offices and governments in the region.

I hope I’m not over time but yeah, this is kind of some of the things I wanted to share with you and I would love to hear if any of that sparked anything, particularly as Policy Horizons and the power that you hold, implicit or explicit in the public sector.

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Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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