By Andy Inch
This piece was first produced for a seminar held at ICS in July, 2017. A fully referenced version was published as part of a ‘position paper’ on the website of the INTREPID Cost-Action here.
At this rate, we’ll never get to the future.
(Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters, 40)
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in getting to the future.
The existential threat posed by ecological crises and the logical impossibility of indefinite growth on a finite planet has, for example, generated a profound sense of urgency. As Bruno Latour has argued, time is running out to take action. However, its normal flow also seems to have been reversed. Innumerable threats now seem to stream back towards the present from a damaged future that we are responsible for creating yet seem incapable of avoiding.
In economic terms meanwhile, the long-drawn out unfolding of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8 has produced an eschatological mood amongst some critical theorists who wonder aloud whether capitalism’s time might finally be up but also question whether anything can take the place of the inequality, austerity and precarity that have become normalized as promises of growth-fuelled prosperity have unraveled. Others, however, offer much more optimistic accounts of the bold new futures that are now emerging as ‘disruptive’ socio-technical innovations promise to accelerate the transformation of our cities, our lives and even what it means to be human (see for example Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ book Inventing the Future).
Such contrasting diagnoses of our present moment and its emerging futures illustrate the challenges of understanding and generating knowledge to shape what is yet-to-come. They are a reminder that the future is inherently elusive and unknowable, neither empty and open nor fixed and given. Its very intangibility means that all attempts to think futures are speculative and normative, imbued with the affective atmospheres within which they are generated (whether hopeful or fearful; pessimistic or optimistic), but also potentially performative and capable of shaping how we act.
Perhaps for these reasons, mainstream social science has long had a problem with the future. Empirical research has been geared towards understanding the world as it has been and is, but there can be no observable facts about the future. Recent scholarship in sociology, anthropology and psychology has called for a centering of attention on the wide variety of practices through which all individuals and societies construct futures as ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ facts, enabling them to be understood and acted upon in the present by, for example, building hope and aspiration or taming fear and uncertainty. Others have sought to return to utopian traditions as a means of critically understanding our present moment, the futures we want, and the pathways by which we might get there. Such calls arguably share a common set of concerns. First, that the futures societies are currently producing are intensifying inequalities, injustices and unsustainability. And, secondly, that collective capacities to control the socio-technical and economic forces at work or to shape alternative possibilities seem worryingly limited.
The production of urban futures is often understood in similar terms. Represented as the preserve of powerful economic actors who operate beyond the political control of cities and states; shadowy forces that circulate hegemonic visions of ‘smart’, ‘creative’ or ‘eco-futures’ which function, above all else, to reproduce dependence on impossible promises of endless growth. Meanwhile, path dependencies literally built into urban infrastructures are understood to have locked-in patterns of unsustainable development that pose huge challenges for any attempt to re-shape complex urban systems.
Faced with such powerful intellectual pessimism, it can be hard to retain an optimism of the will. The idea of a normatively committed scientific practice directed towards changing the world has, perhaps, been more widely accepted within critical urban studies than in some other areas of social science, and may offer some, limited grounds for hope (e.g. David Harvey’s ‘Spaces of Hope’). Urban planning too is often defined by a commitment to linking knowledge and action, necessarily entailing a ‘future orientation’ that has profound consequences for the forms of future-shaping knowledge we might generate and value.
However, despite growing interest in ‘visioning’, ‘scenarios’ and associated tools and practices, active consideration of what the future orientation of planning entails remains underdeveloped. Whilst warning of the complexity of processes of future-shaping, John Urry presented six possible methods to generate knowledge that might assist in the task and which also suggest the potential value of bridging the physical sciences, the social sciences and the humanities: first, learning from past visions of the future; second, studying failed futures; third, developing dystopic thought; fourth, constructing utopias; fifth, extrapolation of current trends; and finally, building scenarios of possible futures. Even combining such methods, it is not possible to know the future. But it might be possible to build better understanding of what is probable, possible and preferable.
And, crucially, what we can do about it.
Andy Inch rejoined the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield (USP) as a Senior Lecturer in May 2018 having spent the previous two years as a research fellow at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. firstname.lastname@example.org