Accelerating Progress Towards Different Futures

Posted on March 23, 2021

“Science fiction is simply a way to practice the future together. i suspect that is what many of you are up to, practicing futures together, practicing justice together, living into new stories. It is our right and responsibility to create a new world.”

Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds


We recognise that our world is in a liminal space – that space between one form of existence and the next. We recognise that the development efforts that have gotten us to date, might not be adequate for our futures which are most certainly going to be far more complex and uncertain than before. The very nature and scale of change and risk has changed so considerably that it surpasses our ability and our approaches to date to understand and manage it..

Interrogating development futures challenges us to see that past hegemonies don’t necessitate a similar future state. Are the notions of what human development is, as it has been over the last 50 years, the same that will remain for our futures? How we understand human development, has to evolve with its landscape, to see what is emerging within those sub-systems. Is it enough anymore to focus human development just on the immediate needs right in front of us, or is it time to start to consider how these needs and shifts are impacting future generations and future issues of equity, justice, and wellbeing? If traditional notions of development are focused on ‘quality of life’, what are the emerging future elements of this that need nuancing? How do we understand these emerging tipping points, and do they point to tangible alternatives? Do we merely accept these tipping points as a fait accompli or can we radically reimagine alternatives? Where do policy and imagination intersect? And how, do we, as human beings, sit within these pluralities and check how our views of the world, based on our own experiences, our sense of place and belonging, might influence how we see the future(s) and then the choices we might make towards it?

In thinking about what might shift the development paradigm, very often we pay attention to the trends that are the biggest, the noisiest. We tend to congregate where we expect change to generally happen. We are not so good though at paying attention to where change is happening perhaps at a slower pace, or in spaces we are not expecting or prioritising. And it is within these quieter, slower paces, that tipping points emerge – a nudge that perhaps is getting traction in other areas but not within the space we are inhabiting. But given time, or something completely big and unexpected happens, that tipping point can shift the scale – transforming our systems completely. 

So we ask – is the development paradigm as we understand it, the trajectories that we are working towards, are they set? Can we imagine anew? And how do we design tangible pathways to bring the new that we seek, towards us? We explore four ideas below:


Futures of human rights – Sushma Raman is the Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and is the co-author of the recent book The Coming Good Society

In order to protect and promote human rights and ensure a more just and peaceful world, we need to care about the future of rights, not just about the crises of today. Changes in norms and circumstances, new technologies, and other developments require us to think of rights in new ways. How do we protect our right to privacy in an era of increased surveillance by governments and commodification of data by corporations? Does living in a corrupt state violate our rights and should there be a right to live free from corruption? To preserve and promote the good society–one that protects its members’ dignity and fosters an environment in which people will want to live–we must at times rethink the meanings of familiar rights and consider the introduction of entirely new rights. 


Climate futuresErin Coughlan de Perez is a climate scientist with the Red Cross Climate Centre and Associate Professor at Tufts University

Science helps us understand the projections for climate change and its implications on all of us all over the world. We already see the impacts of this today. The work of being able to anticipate hazards and climate events using weather forecasts and climate models helps us protect those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and protect their assets. This is only possible when we can use these models of anticipation to unleash early action (both in terms of disaster preparedness and early financing). It is essential to blend the science projections with anticipatory decision making so that we can mitigate harms of today and of tomorrow. 


Health futuresMallika Auplish coordinates the WHO Futures Unit in the Western Pacific. 

Institutionalizing futures work and innovation at WHO is part of a major operational shift to longer term policy and programming planning to improve population health and well being. We recognised that the complexities of current and future challenges require new and innovative ways of working for our work and how we support global public health. 

This is particularly important to issues that are emerging, the signals of change that will impact on global health, and require longer term, health and non-health sector approaches to ensure successful mitigation. Cross-cutting agendas, such as advancing health through attention to gender and equity, call for new approaches to engage health programmes and partners, ask critical questions and encourage dialogue. We do not assume that the diseases of the past will remain the diseases of the future, and though our traditional areas of work are well established, we must continuously innovate, and mitigate future risks. 


Imagination to influence policy todayAnab Jain is the co-founder and Director of Superflux

Data-driven, evidence-based rational thinking is deeply important and the power of that is evident in myriad ways around us. However  what is also evident is the fallacy that what moves us to act as individuals is such deep scientific rationality. We are not cold rational actors in a newtonian universe, as much as we might like to believe it, it’s just not how we live, it’s not how we have evolved to live. We are emotional beings inhabiting a world of mythology and stories. And that’s what our work at Superflux focuses on – the power of embodied stories and visceral experiences to simulate different possible glimpses and fragments of the future. And bringing them into the present, into the here and now. In order to catalyse a rich engagement with the vast potential of the future. And in doing so assist in seeing past our own cognitive biases and make sure they are not reinforced during decision making processes.


The four different ideas are by no means finite but we see these as some that have tangible implications to development aid, both in terms of development trajectories and its implications on the institutions tasked to steward our ways through for future generations. We explore these as the start of a journey to rigorously examine long termism in our work, to question the assumptions we make about the pathways we are and how we might be better prepared to constrain future good and mitigate against future bad. 

It is part of our efforts to position foresight as a global public good, a collective process of action, and reimagination to evolve the pathways and adaptive capacity to bring forward the futures we want to see come to reality. 

If you would like to learn more, join us on March 24th at 10.30am Eastern Time. Register here:

This blog post has been researched and authored by Aarathi Krishnan, Strategy Development Advisor (Foresight) for UNDP Regional Bureau in Asia and the Pacific (RBAP). She welcomes readers to join her on a journey to Reimagine Development in Asia Pacific so that we can rearticulate its relationship to our collective humanity and the conditions that make us human in an uncertain future. Please contact Aarathi Krishnan ( for more information.


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