Imagine shaping your future

Author: Olivia Bina

An inquiry into how art and science can at times disagree about our future, and why it matters

Science and research agendas are an exercise in future thinking. They help to shape futures by planning to create the knowledge that will bring about desired change and transformation. For this reason, research policy, matters. And when it happens to reach a budget of almost 80 billion euros – as is the case of the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020) from 2014 to 2020 –it matters a great deal. Horizon 20202 is meant to help member states and the EU to respond to seven “societal challenges” that essentially define the strategic focus of Europe’s programme and of all the annual calls that arise from it.

Figure 1- Europe’s Societal Challenges

Fig 1-EU Societal Challenges

It follows that the framing of “societal challenges” will have a major influence over the kind of knowledge funded and, hence, over the shape of our future, illumined by the knowledge produced. Just like defining the problem is a way of circumscribing the realm of possible solutions. Thus, within the context of the EU funded project FLAGSHIP “Forward Looking Analysis of Grand Societal Challenges and Innovative Policies”, we decided to explore how speculative and creative fiction envisage the future and its challenges, and to compare notes (video).

Fiction in the form of filmic and literary representations of futures can offer ways of embodying, telling, imagining, and symbolising “futures”. It is explored here as a form of creative forward-looking (“foresight”) technique – capable of providing alternative perspectives on future ‘possibilities’ and ‘warning signals’, and of revealing seeds of the future in the present. Our interdisciplinary team asked three questions: 1) What are the main concerns and hopes in futures fiction? 2) Can they enrich our capacity to understand and envision future challenges, and thus today’s framing of “societal challenges”? 3) What differences between challenges in fiction and in EU research policy, and what implications?

We studied 64 “texts”, including 27 novels and 37 movies with long-lasting impact on popular imagination, produced over the last 150 years (the list begins with “Paris in the Twentieth Century”, 1863, and ends with “Elysium”, 2013). Through content analysis we build a hierarchy of themes and identify major patterns of long-lasting concerns about humanity’s future.


Figure 2- Exploring futures in fiction as part of FLAGSHIP (EU project)

Figure 2-futures fiction

The result of this journey through the arts is a rich and diverse understanding of what challenges lie ahead for humanity: revealing both similarities and some illuminating differences in terms of what really might matter into the future.

The study reveals a prevalence of three archetypal impulses: anti-utopia, dystopia and collapse, and identifies two alternative disruption paths that may lead to them. The first path is through natural catastrophic and often sudden events linked to environmental crises and resource scarcity, or to human conflict and technologically-driven disasters. The second is a gradual evolution towards disruption that builds on socio-cultural tensions and on often a-critical acceptance of technological advances. The tight link between rapid technological advances and demands for economic growth, that pervades rich and rising economies around the world, means that both pathways are potentially relevant today. They are emblematic paths towards an anthropocene (the age of humans as a force of nature transformation) that may turn out wrong. Wrong for the planet: “we are changing Earth more rapidly than we understand it”, and for humans, as we may be changing humans more rapidly than we understand them, thanks to advances in biotechnology and the many areas contributing to transhumanism. As the artist Cao Fei puts it, questioning the systemic aspirations of economic development and efficiency in his documentary on “Whose Utopia”: we are building “a system that desires machines with human intelligence and humans that can perform like machines”.


Figure 3- Humans+ The Future of Our Species: Exhibition at the CCCB which included Cao Fei’s documentary “Whose Utopia

Figure 3-CCCB-Humans adaptive-images

The detailed content analysis allows us to identify a wide range of patterns of concern and hope, which are frequently explored and often repeated across a period of 150 years of futures fiction – but which are poorly treated or absent in the EU research agenda and related “societal challenges”. It highlights how fiction sees inequality, oppression and a range of ethical issues linked to human and nature’s dignity as central to, and inseparable from, innovation, technology and science. Technology, in fiction, is often used for social domination and manipulation, as socio-political means of control. Its use restricted to specific ends favouring elite groups. Science too, more often than not, ends up as a tool for manipulation, control and rationalization. The study identifies warning signals in four major domains, arguing that these signals are compelling, and ought to be heard, not least because elements of such future have already escaped the imaginary world to make part of today’s experience. Even a cursory reading of the Economist’s “Science & Technology” section can provide persuasive arguments.

Linked to these techno-scientific characteristics, often bridging utopia and dystopia, as well as anti-utopia and collapse, we find that scarcity, in fiction, abounds. All forms of “orthodox” scarcity underpinning the EU “societal challenges”, including natural resources such as water and energy, as well as biodiversity and food, are present in these stories. However, our analysis also proposes a broader, “unorthodox” definition of scarcity, observing the ways in which future societies emphasise any kind of: insufficiency, rarity or limited supply. The result (see table 1) is an abundance of scarcity relating to individual dignity, freedoms, human values and wellbeing, resulting by – inter alia – processes of dehumanization, control, and strong homogenization. In summary: what makes us human.


Table 1

And yet the silver lining here is that it is precisely these “unorthodox scarcity” traits that will save the day for many of these stories. They are precious to our present and our future. We thus conclude with two broad sets of implications from this inquiry into imagined futures: caution and daring. Each aimed at avoiding sudden or gradual pathways towards disruption.

First, we recommend greater caution with the dominant techno-scientific and innovation agenda that underpins the “societal challenges” and the EU programming, so as to avoid unintended consequences. We argue for the need to strengthen research into the human, social, political and cultural processes involved in techno-science endeavours. This entails a much greater effort to integrate the perspectives of the humanities and social sciences into future research programmes: the understanding of how smart growth can deliver solutions to current challenges will differ significantly if you take an ethical or engineering perspective. This should be taken into account when formulating new research calls. The recent review of Horizon 2020’s first year of funding suggests much can be done to improve such integration.

Second, we recommend that – in the light of insights from futures fiction – a more daring agenda that balances the focus on innovation in techno-science with the evolution of human flourishing ought to be considered. A list of 31 patterns (summarized in Table 2) arising from the texts is proposed to support this. The idea is that we should go beyond the crucial integration of hard sciences and social sciences and humanities, intended to ensure caution, and embrace a wider perspective about our future possibilities arising from the worldviews and paradigms of social sciences and humanities.


Table 2

Our findings also support the recent promotion of “Science With and For Society” and of “Responsible Research and Innovation” within Europe’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. This means combining interdisciplinary with transdisciplinary practices, which represent a tall order for both funding agencies and academic institutions, still largely set in disciplinary mindsets poorly fit for 21st century challenges.


Olivia Bina é investigadora principal do Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa.


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