NGFP African Futures

How we imagined the future of African digital societies

Designing the process using a spice-box of methodologies

Most futures and foresight work rely on the use of certain tools and techniques developed specifically for the field. Some projects utilize individual tools while others incorporate a variety of tools that enable development of the required outcomes. Aware that most of the participants in the data governance project were new to foresight work, a dedicated team at SOIF developed a program that consolidated various tools in futures work to achieve the desired results.

The first foresight-related concept that the participants were introduced to was “The 200 Year Present”, developed by Elise Boulding. This concept helped participants to grasp the connectivity between the past, the present and the future. As the concept states, at any one time during an individual’s life, they will share that moment with someone who was born 100 years ago, and someone who will be alive 100 years to come.

The Futures Triangle was an additional tool that helped participants note how past and present actions are intimately connected to the future. This triangle demonstrates that a plausible future is the result of three factors: the weight of the past, the push of the present, and the pull of the future. The “200 Year Present” allowed participants to identify factors relating to the wight of the past and the pull of the future.

In order to identify factors in the present that affect how the future unfolds, participants were introduced to the VERGE frameworks. This tool enabled the cohorts to frame and explore the various issues through the lens of six domains: Define; Relate; Connect; Create; Consume, and; Destroy. Use of these tools enhanced participants’ awareness around the interdependence of different time periods with regard to creating feasible futures.

However, the words plausible and feasible infer that all futures conceived are to be expected. Therefore, use of Impact Wheels and the Manoa Method encouraged participants to understand how unpredictable the future is. The impact wheels tool facilitated envisioning of possible first, second and third-order impacts of certain changes they had identified. Participants took a particular change, for example “shift to remote working”, and imagined it as a resultant mature condition 30 years out. In this case, the resultant condition could be “most professionals now work from home.”  It is this resultant condition that participants envisioned impacts for. To ensure that the impacts were as broad and far-reaching as possible, the STEEPV categories were used: Social; Technology; Economic; Ecology; Political; and Values. Use of STEEPV ensured that the envisaged impacts covered all facets of human life.

The Impact Wheel tool is a part of the Manoa Method, another tool used in the process to generate scenarios.  The Manoa Method relies on the second- and third-order impacts generated developed using the impact wheels. Dr. Wendy Schultz, developer of the Manoa Method, noted that its purpose is to maximize the degree of difference from the present so as to obliterate blind spots created by stale assumptions, and potentially identify “black swans.” Accordingly, participants were encouraged to consider all possible impacts, even those they regarded as absurd or ridiculous.

All the earlier mentioned tools dwelt on the horizontal spatiality that is the mainstay of foresight work. Participants however needed to know that the vertical dimension of current issues is also a crucial element of foresight work. To assist in this regard, the Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) tool was employed as a paradigmatic technique that reveals deep worldview commitments hidden beneath surface phenomena. The CLA is a four-level analysis that explores the litany, systems, worldviews, and myths and metaphors linked to an issue. The iceberg imagery associated with the CLA was quite effective in demonstrating the way in which surface level issues are moderated and shaped by numerous underlying phenomena. With regards to the iceberg, only the litany is at the visible surface; the other layers, that is, the systems, worldviews and metaphors occupy increasingly larger portions of the submerged part of the iceberg.

Adding more spice to the process by plugging in thematic expert speakers

Socrates is credited with quoting, “I can never teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” This was true for the expert speakers that were brought onto the process to illuminate various aspects related to futures and foresight work. Despite the immense knowledge and expertise proffered by the speakers, it is the nature of reflections and debate that they spurred in the cohorts that demonstrated the importance of bringing on board the various thematic speakers.

One of the critical factors that participants discovered as crucial to foresight is that of stories and narratives. Participants noted that the manner in which they depict the future has a phenomenal impact on the way the future manifests. The first speaker to illustrate the importance of stories in this regard was expert foresight practitioner Tanja Hichert, Ms. Hichert provided insight on how stories not only define the reality that we live in, but also shape the same reality. People are more likely to confront a scenario of doom and gloom is the dominant stories have themes of disaster, fragmentation, and breakdown. Positive stories, on the other hand, have the power to drive much more hopeful transformation.

Ms. Hichert further introduced the concept of the “Seeds of the Good Anthropocene” which enabled participants to know how novel ways of thinking, doing things and living can act as catalysts for development of desired futures.

The role of stories and narratives in shaping our reality and futures was corroborated by experts from The Orature Collective, Dr. Mshai Mwangola and Aghan-Odero. “Can people create something they have envisioned?” posed Dr. Mshai. An important question since one of the key outputs of the program was the speculative fiction developed by participants to illustrate the kind of futures they desired. Participants therefore learnt that conditions for hatching the future have to created, partly with the aid of techniques such as story-ing and -story-telling, as demonstrated by the Orature Collective. The expert plugins further provided the participants with enhanced awareness on gaps in their own knowledge. During the session with The Orature Collective, participants in various cohorts noted the disconnect that modern-day Africans have with their cultural roots, and the role played by education curricula and oppressive systems such as colonialism. Participants noted that a significant part of their African and cultural stories have been lost, stolen, or devalued.

An unforeseen, but advantageous aspect of the expert plugins was the overall harmony in the content that they provided. While Ms. Hichert mainly covered issues concerning “Seeds of the Good Anthropocene”, this session included information of the relevance of stories to creation of desired or undesired futures. The topic of stories was comprehensively covered by the Orature Collective in their session of African narratives. The importance of stories and narratives was further affirmed by journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, who has extensively written about topics spanning the African continent. In his session on Afrofutures, Onyango-Obbo exemplified the nature of stories that are written about the continent, the relationships between these narratives, and the way in which they lead to the development of certain futures. For instance, he drew parallels between the growing income inequality gap on the continent, the growing popularity of techno cities, and the rising prominence of private security. It is abundantly clear that the entire program would have been lackluster, and would have resulted in lesser quality results, without the input of these expert thematic speakers.