cohere | Future Making
Cohere is sustainability & wellness design consultancy. We partners with progressive organisations, architects and design teams to collectively shape a better, more sustainable built environment.
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Future Making

Sustainability isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s a future to be co-created – and the only way to get to where we want to go, is to paint a picture of a world that pulls us forward.

Future-Making

I originally trained as an engineer, and at the core of everything we learnt was design thinking and problem solving. We were taught how to use our expertise to pull things apart, find problem’s, analyse options and provide solutions. And for most of my career as a sustainability consultant, I have unquestionably applied this thinking to almost everything I did.

But recently – I have been starting to seriously question the whole problem solving thing.

Why? After completing a Masters in Psychology, and studying Regenerative Development with Regenesis and CLEAR – I have become increasingly aware of its limitations. Don’t get me wrong, problem solving has a useful role in the right context, e.g. if you want to design a simple system. But if you want to work with potential in complex systems, as we do in sustainability and regeneration, there are much better tools in the design toolbox.

The limitations of problems solving

There is growing consensus that taking a backward lookingproblem solving perspective is one of the greatest strategic flaws when trying to create lasting change. When we take this perspective, its psychologically primes the quality of our thinking, leading us to focus on mitigating weaknesses and ‘doing less harm’. And while it may produce a solution ‘out there’ in the world, what we tend to find is it fails to inspire lasting generative change.

The reality is, sustainability and regenerative challenges are complex, interconnected and interdependent. They are challenges that not only require solutions ‘out there’ in the world, but they also have an inner component that must be addressed – in shifting peoples underlying beliefs, values and worldviews. Therefore, using a process that fails to inspire people to meaningful action is perhaps not the best way to approach sustainability and regeneration.

Learning from the future as it emerges

Future making is the process of cultivating high-quality, generative relationships – with ourselves, others and nature.

It’s for this reason, as a designer, I’m making the shift to using forward looking – future making practices such as Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry and Humble Consulting. These emerging practices lead to radically different ways of approaching sustainability and regeneration. Rather than looking backwards at what’s wrong, and what needs solving – future making learns from the future as it emerges, asking people to collectively envision what could be right. It’s a process for stewarding generative potential in a way the pulls people forward. Future making asks: what are the unique seeds of potential that want to be actualised? How can we go beyond what ‘is’ –  and become what ‘could be’?

Creating Futures

Future making ‘creates the space’ for people to bring something new and unique that they care deeply about into existence. It promotes meaningful shifts in awareness, unifying the change that wants to happen ‘out there’ in the world and the change that wants to happen in our underlying beliefs, values and worldviews. It’s a powerful tool for mobilising creativity, imagination and commitment in the service of creating a better future.

Future making in action

An example of ‘future making’ in action is the classic case of a school with a bullying problem. We all know that no school has ever really ‘solved’ a bullying problem. But what many schools are doing today to address this challenge, is using Appreciative Inquiry to create futures.

Instead of focusing on their problems, these schools ask – what generative vision brings the school alive? What are the seeds of potential in these perceived bully’s that wants to be expressed? How can they contribute to the seeds of potential in the broader school community? Appreciative Inquiry has been shown to elevate schools to new levels of potential and vitality – and issues like bullying fall away as part of the process.

The wolf you feed grows

“Any movement – any culture – will fail if it cannot paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to” – Martin Luther King

What do you think? Which wolf are you feeding? Are you using the right practices for the future you want to create?

My key take way is this; if you’re in the business of creating lasting change – guess what, you are also in the business of co-creating futures. Its where the real leverage lies. While problem solving processes offer some value when aspiring to ‘do less harm’, only future making practices can promote cultures of wellbeing and regeneration.

Want to find out more? Check out these great videos on future making by Peter Senge and Donella Meadows.

Ash Buchanan (@CohereSustain) is Director of Adaptive Development at Cohere.