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Imagination & Future Studies- Approaches for visioning the future we want to live in

Published: 04 April 2022
A green street view.

On 23rd March 2022, SLU Urban Futures and SLU Future Food kicked off the Futures Lab 2.0 with a seminar series focused on future studies with Assistant Professor Peter Pelzer’s talk on Futuring - concepts, practices & pedagogies

Imaginaries for the future we want

To imagine visions across longer time spans can be both fun, liberating, and productive in shaping the way we live, offering new perspectives, space for debate, and inspiration. Imaginaries are a valuable tool for personal and collective action towards a better societal future. Imaginaries come in different forms- advertisements using images of a future “good life” to sell electric vehicles, images of post-apocalyptic cities destroyed by climate disaster. What are the futures that we want rather than those constructed for us?

The need for future studies now

The grand challenges facing cities today require systematic and cultural shifts towards sustainability at a much faster pace than we are currently moving. How can research and teaching support such transformative change? Future studies meet these challenges by offering transdisciplinary collaborations to explore, research, teach and discuss complex urban issues. Current research methods are often limited to the boundaries of a place, the lifespan of a project, or data, maps and renderings that become quickly outdated. Futuring as practicing futures studies can be dynamic by using scenario building and broad participation that is grounded in the present, past, and speculation about what might be ahead. Simply put, futures studies are concerned with possible, probable, and preferable futures asking e.g. “What will happen?”, “What can happen?”, and “How can a specific target be reached?” Scenarios are one of the most basic concepts, next to imaginaries, visions, utopias, or myths as other theoretical conceptions in the field. Futures studies may help to bridge present condition to a desired future or visualize consequences of continuing business as usual.  

A return to imagination

The idea of imaginaries is not new, and offer ways of understanding social entities, mediating collective life, and shaping the way we live in the present and provoking change for the future. Most people appreciate works of imagination and world-building, whether it be through science fiction movies, artistic visualization, or fictional literature that transports us out of our current context to other place and times. We all have the capacity for building imaginaries but may forget, or are discouraged, to tap into these brain muscles for research and pedagogical pursuits.

Ways to engage in futuring

Dr. Peter Pelzer’s work encourages imaginaries to engage students, researchers and practitioners in future studies. Below are some themes from his toolkit:

  1. The Doable focuses on broadening a vision to consider both the needs of the present and future communities through optimism. Grounded in real-world challenges, the doable seeks to influence audiences of empowered groups towards collective action. For example, models and renderings can show renewable energy applied in a city in both feasible and aesthetically appealing ways.

  2. Juxtaposition involves using scenario building to illuminate the tradeoffs between different actions. This approach reveals nuances to complex problems and can foster engagement with people from different backgrounds.

  3. Guerilla involves intervening and blurring boundaries between fact and fiction to reveal the elephant in the room. It can be performative and offer metaphor to provoke audiences to have a discussion or take a stance.

  4. Defamiliarization involves the introduction of a new perspective or element to an otherwise well-known setting or object. An example is placing yourself in future to study the present. Peter, for example, asks his students to place themselves in the future and curate a museum collection that looks back at the present. This shifting time scale offers a way to be critical of both the absurdities and sensical aspects of the present.

How to make future studies impactful by reaching policymakers, practitioners and the public

Reaching the right audience as a researcher is important for making unknown visions of the future tangible to the senses. Placement matters with imaginary scenarios, to find locations where intended audiences are likely to experience and interact with the work. Peter offers pointers for imaginary presentation, exhibition, and participation:

  • Embrace the curator role
  • Physically exhibit the imaginary where people will see it
  • Given the spirit of the project, use collaboration or competition to gain attention
  • Include imaginaries in research questions as a form of inquiry

Ongoing Questions for future studies

This first seminar closed with a lively dialogue around questions that SLU’s researchers with interest and engagement in futures studies may continue to explore.

  • What is good futuring, and how can the value and impact be measured?
  • What is the role of academics in transdisciplinary research and how could they connect to other audiences?
  • How can different disciplines relate to each other through forecasting, back-casting, and other scenario building methods.
  • Futuring involves being undisciplined, but do you need your disciplinary roots to avoid free-floating?
  • Encouragement of a possibility space where identifying common ground is a continual cycle.

What SLU’s Future Lab 2.0 can offer

SLU’s Futures Lab 2.0 invites researchers, teachers and students to take part in a series of presentations and dialogues on our futures. Exploring the use and value of futures studies, fostering the awareness of various futures and supporting the development of new research questions, identification of knowledge gaps, and transdisciplinary work. The new seminar series is targeted at researchers but open to anyone to join.

The next upcoming webinar is taking place on 4 May, 13.00-15.00:
Visualising the future – adapting to a changing climate
with Helena Björn, head of environmental strategy at Lomma Municipality and Erik Kjellström, Professor of Climatology at SMHI.

Facts:

Dr Peter Pelzer

Dr. Peter Pelzer is an Assistant Professor in Spatial Planning and Urban Futures at the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning and is affiliated with the Urban Futures Studio both at the Faculty of Geosciences. He is also a board member of the Utrecht Young Academy. In both his teaching and research (see also Google Scholar and Researchgate), he is fascinated by themes of imagination and futuring, post-fossil futures, planning and policy methods, urban mobility and transdisciplinarity and the role of academia.

Futures Lab @ SLU

The Futures Lab was initiated in 2019 by the two future platforms SLU Urban Futures and SLU Future Food. The lab has its thematic focus where the subject areas of these two platforms meet: sustainable urban development and a sustainable food system. In 2020, an interdisciplinary research group participated in a project where the participants immersed themselves in future studies and developed their own projects with a future perspective. In 2022, the Future Lab will run a webinar series, where everyone who is interested in future studies is welcome.

Learn more about the Futures Lab