Playing With Futures: From Research to Participation

By: Sandjar Kozubaev

It’s often the case our clients are interested in doing futures work because of new knowledge or the unconventional ideas that this kind of work can generate. Widening the scope of what’s relevant and impactful is one of the most useful outcomes in futures research that often leads to new visions or opportunities to pursue. But it is also the case that such focus on deep research often sets unrealistic expectations about the novelty of an idea or a weak signal about the future. There is only so much truly “new” research one can uncover within a project, and there are diminishing returns on the volume of this information. What is also important to understand is that the value of futures research is not just in the depth and breadth of information that’s being processed, but in how connections are made between apparently unconnected signals in the world. And that depends on what stakeholders participate in the project, and how they participate. This is why balancing depth of research with depth of stakeholder participation is very important. One of the ways we achieve that is through games and other kinds of participatory activities that allow stakeholders to engage with the research in various ways and develop new narratives and concepts of the future.

Recently, we worked with a group of airport executives from across the U.S. to imagine the future of airports and transportation in general. We only had limited time and a whole lot of research we wanted to share with this group. Rather than developing a dense trend report, we made a series of activities and games which allowed these executives to not only understand key trends and weak signals, but also make connections across them in unexpected and useful ways. 

For example, in one of the activities, the participants had to connect 6-8 seemingly unrelated trends to create a coherent story of the future based on the concept of futures archetypes (e.g., a growth future, or a collapse future, etc.). In another activity, participants had to re-conceptualize jobs that could exist in that future, so that they could articulate larger systemic changes at a more human scale. This opened up a series of conversations about what the airport workforce of the future might be and what the role of airports should be in training and employing that workforce. Developing robust research and insights is integral to good futures work, but we should also remember about how we are engaging participants with that research and how they tell stories about possible futures.