Given the urgent crises we’re trying to address, is thinking long-term relevant or viable in civil society?

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
6 min readMar 28, 2023

A guest post by Forum for the Future, a leading international sustainability non-profit. Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies engaged with Forum for the Forum to conduct a workshop for our partners on the topic, The Art of Possibility: Futures Thinking for Changemakers.

India’s civil society is at the forefront of the evolving polycrisis. The cascading and reinforcing impacts of climate change, water and food insecurity, and inequality across multiple factors, to name just a few, make ‘change making’ an increasingly complex mission. Add the urgency factor and the way the context is seemingly changing faster than ever before, and civil society organisations (CSOs) have their work cut out. Forum for the Future had the privilege of working with Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies Foundation (RNPF) grantees in Feb 2023, to explore how Futures techniques might or might not be useful when working in such complexity.

Futures, sometimes known as Strategic Foresight, is a field that uses multiple ever-evolving techniques, including scanning the horizon for signs of possible change, analysing trends, developing possible future scenarios, and creating deliberate visions of the future.

In Forum’s case, we work with others to apply these techniques to better prepare and enable positive adaptation and transformation. The field acknowledges that we cannot possibly accurately predict the future, but in the case of civil society, it can help by defining what we would like it to look like so we can better build the pathway, and by understanding different possibilities, we’re more aware of how we may need to change that pathway in order to have an impact. It can help to understand the big picture context and the nature of change, explore interdependence and surface and explore different perspectives. Importantly it helps hold long-term goals even when working in uncertainty. Our hypothesis is that using these techniques collectively means a changing ecosystem can be more agile, and ensure what we’re doing today is part of a transition to a more just and regenerative future.

Not even experts can accurately predict the future…

● “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927
● “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
● “It will be years — not in my time — before a woman will become Prime Minister.” Margaret Thatcher, 1974

The CSOs attending the workshop explored a couple of Futures techniques in a short workshop. It was a whistle-stop tour — normally, we’d dedicate days to such an activity — that aimed to spark thought in a playful yet useful way. Using the Trajectories as a base, the participants tried their hands at scenario immersion and world-building, each group piecing together a different possible future where a particular mindset is dominant. They explored how the light and shadow sides of that possible future might impact their work: how it might be harder to create change on their multiple agendas and what might actually help them. Many common themes came out across the varied impact areas the participants in each group work on — which range from gender equity to land use to climate change and beyond -and they chose one to explore further using a sprinted rapid prototyping exercise.

Looking at the themes that came out from the group discussions, it is clear that the sector needs to be prepared for shifts in the role of civil society, be that from increased threats to political voice and justice in some possible trajectories or an evolution in the ways of working and type of organisation involved in others. This implies that building cognitive agility and the
enabling conditions that it requires to rethink the role of civil society is essential. Organisations and the sector as a whole need to be able to anticipate how missions and ambitions might change and how existing work might need to evolve so that they are not caught unprepared.

A form of rapid prototyping — not just fun — tapping into different parts of the brain to explore issues and responses more deeply

Groups highlighted that some trajectories suggest a risk of new forms of marginalisation emerging, with more or different segments of society being left behind as our world transitions. This has implications for those civil society sees as end beneficiaries and suggests a need for the prevention of new marginalisation, as well as increasing responses to existing forms.

Unsurprisingly, almost all groups highlighted the risk of technology and governance being misused no matter what trajectory we are on, and how it could undermine impact across almost all areas worked on by participants. Already an emerging field of expertise, this suggests a need to intervene, encoding ethics and good governance into technology. It was acknowledged that technology holds great potential for positive change as well, but everyone stopped short of techno-fetishism, deeply aware of the complexities already being witnessed, such as the digital divide and the proliferation of misinformation.

A rich seam of discussion emerged over the different ways polarisation may or may not increase, and how societal siloes might be reinforced or broken down. An increase in a community agency, action and identity — spurred by different factors in different trajectories — had wide-ranging implications, both shadow and light. Too strong an affiliation to singular
communities was seen as a risk for increased polarisation and extremism. And yet, if people can grow stronger affiliations to multiple communities, a rich web of empathy and connection is seen as possible. Many of the CSOs already work on community building. It raises the question of how they may enable their communities to interconnect.

Using Futures techniques, especially at this speed, can feel uncomfortable, refreshing and fun all at the same time. Experimenting like this reinforced the importance of allowing time for exploration, and structured conversation about the implications for action now. In one room in particular, there was a shared acknowledgement that working with different mindsets present in the world — now and what might emerge in the future — is valuable, and in fact, essential in ensuring we continue to have an impact as a sector. We possess a readiness to think long-term.

As a next step, if each organisation can look at how their plans mean they’re in a position to make good use of the opportunities they identified as they might arise, and how they can be prepared to manage the risks and adapt, not only would the organisation itself increase its resilience, so would the whole change ecosystem. If applied in this way, even this short
sharp application of Futures could therefore support civil society.

The understandable temptation can be to focus on the urgent, but this leads to a reactive and sometimes duplicative approach, constantly on the back foot and often forces organisations to invest limited time in crisis management. We all know this in the sector, and yet the conditions tend to force us to perpetuate this behaviour. The workshop clearly demonstrates CSOs have the creativity and imagination ready to be applied.

How might we make better use of what Futures has to offer on navigating uncertainty and building resilience, needs sorely felt in an already overstretched civil society?

If you’d like to apply Futures techniques to build your organisational or sectoral resilience, here are a few resources to get you started:

  1. Resilience Trajectories resource pack: This toolkit codifies the process we designed for the exploration of resilience trajectories for climate action civil society organisations (CSOs) in India and can help you to explore your own sectoral resilience
  2. Emerging trajectories that may shape our future | Future of Sustainability 2020: This resource can help you explore the four trajectories emerging from the radical change brought by polycrises or significant shocks such as COVID-19, each underpinned by a different mindset or set of values — and with both positive and negative aspects. This resource was designed in the context of Covid-19 but was adapted in our workshop.
  3. How to use trajectories? A guide to using the four trajectories that we used at our workshop
  4. Futures strategy tools to get you started
  5. Focusing on the Future: Why going big on futures is critical
  6. UNDP’s Foresight Playbook with an overview of foresight tools, why they are relevant and how to use them