Re-imagining the future: Is UNESCO on to something?

Re-imagining the future: Is UNESCO on to something?

Most famous for its World Heritage Programme, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has in recent years championed the idea of futures literacy – the skill and practice of diversifying why and how we imagine the future. Vis-à-vis increased reactionary use of an imaginary past, what can we take from how the organisation approaches international politics generally, and this specific idea? 

UNESCO is the United Nations agency most responsive to, and representative of, the idea that symbols, monuments, and the narratives they generate or support shape our lives and our politics. This includes an awareness of the exclusionary, discriminatory, manipulative role they can and have played, as well as a belief in their potential for good. The preamble to UNESCO’s constitution thus reads: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. One could characterise UNESCO as the international institution most straightforwardly challenging a mere global institutionalism, calling for attitudes of global citizenship and global solidarity.

The difficulties and shortcomings UNESCO encounters and embodies resemble that of all intergovernmental organisations: limited finance, colonial continuities and heightened nationalism within a governance structure entirely built upon the idea of sovereign, independent nation states with distinct interests. Two links UNESCO is attempting to forge against this backdrop are particularly noteworthy to those interested in the affective and attitudinal dimension of politics: That is the bridge between past, present, future, as well as local, national, global attempted when designating local cultural sites or practices as national as well as global heritage. Using the past as a progressive tool for the future, building on a critical patriotism as a school for cosmopolitanism – political theorists who wonder if and how that might work (or not), do well to pay attention to an organisation that, however flawed, however troubled, is giving these ideas centre-stage.  

Taking seriously the idea of diversifying, and decolonizing, how we imagine the future, we must take account of the fact that people have comprehensively different understandings of what the future even is.

Beginning about a decade ago and intensifying in recent years, UNESCO has put forward a new idea in championing futures literacy as a skill for the 21st century. It is promoted as the capability that allows us to imagine the future beyond mere projections of the past, and to use these images of what our futures could look like to live different in the present. UNESCO understands itself as a “global laboratory of ideas” – and I will here discuss futures literacy mainly as such an idea and a theoretical concept. Of course, such concepts risk being empty and need to be brought to life in educational and political practice, something UNESCO attempts to do by establishing participatory futures laboratories, as well as research and teaching programmes. The ambition of developing futures literacy is to “change […] the conditions of change”. It suggests being able to see and use the future in a different mode, not merely as something to be predicted or optimised, but as something we can explore imaginatively, something to be shaped beyond existing expectations and inherited ways of thinking. 

We can look at futures literacy and imagined futures as possible alternatives to imagined pasts as sources of orientation and belonging. People turning to imaginary pasts – including often dominant narratives of an allegedly secure past built around the idea of a homogenic community – can be analysed as a reaction to a perceived loss of ontological security in a globalised world. This comes with a lost belief in an (automatically) better future for future generations, which is why ideas of improvement are portrayed onto the past, rather than the present or future. It is worth reflecting on who can find what type of security and orientation in a past shaped by domination and oppression for so many groups and who could have a sense of history naturally progressing towards the better. Accepting that neither was the past secure or free for most, nor will the future automatically be, we make space for reflecting more openly about past, present, and future.

The promise of re-imagining the future lies in not taking anything for granted – neither the bad, nor the good, thereby challenging simplistic understandings of the future even where they might sound progressive. To take on a prominent slogan as an example, the future won’t simply be female, but we might be able to envision and build feminist futures. The climate crisis is already here, but tackling it might not just mean sacrifice, but more spacious, healthier cities. Fridays for Future activist Luisa Neubauer has termed her approach and ambition “empörte Zuversicht”, i.e. outraged optimism or confidence, resonating with the idea of us becoming futures literate, finding orientation and purpose in the futures we build amidst the threats to our security and freedom we experience.

This blog was produced following the “Re-Imagining the Past” Conference, jointly organised by CIPS and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University ofDuisburg-Essen in Germany.

If the idea of futures literacy is to live up to this potential however, those who advance it – including organisations like UNESCO – must be aware of its potential shortcomings and blind spots. Here, I’ll hint at three of those. First, portraying futures literacy as a skill can suggest a problematic individualism. Imagining the future needs to be a collective endeavour, where we learn from each other’s experiences, perceptions, hopes, and ideas. We should think of it more as an activity, or better still a practice, rather than a skill (UNESCO uses these terms interchangeably).

Second, we must be careful not to confuse an embrace of an open future with romanticising uncertainty and insecurity. Uncertainty is unevenly distributed among different groups of society, as are the resources to deal with it and we should work towards better protecting people from arbitrary interferences with their lives.

Finally, taking seriously the idea of diversifying, and decolonizing, how we imagine the future, we must take account of the fact that people have comprehensively different understandings of what the future even is. We must not presuppose a shared ontological idea about the future, but find ways to explore it across understanding it as linear, cyclical, shaped by fate or not. This complicates the idea of futures literacy, but as it asks us to embrace complexity, nuance, and diversity, it remains a powerful idea to confront reactionary use of imaginary pasts and unimaginative futures alike.

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