From paternalism to cocreation: the youth in foresight

From paternalism to cocreation: the youth in foresight

Preferable futures are often imagined and decided upon by those who will not actually live in them. In other words, the youth are or at least have been often ignored in foresight. Therefore there is a bit of a paternalistic perspective in foresight: the current dominant generation seems to knows what is best for the next generations and therefore is allowed to shape their futures. In the last Foresight Friday on the 10th of April Kimi Uosukainen from Nuva challenged this view and emphasized that youth should be included and have the dominant voice, since they will live in the future. Let’s look at these two perspectives in more detail.

Listen to the old

In the discussion after Kimi’s presentation another complementary view was expressed: that “the old” have experience that helps avoid problems, and therefore should also have a say in what the future will be. The youth lack a knowledge base helping to understand the historical context, trajectories and paths and to know what has worked and what has not. However, this may also be a barrier, as the future world might behave in an unprecedented way and therefore past experience might not be useful.

However, even though the world would be very different, there is one thing “the old” have that is useful to “the young”: being able to question things youth take for granted. For example, there is talk about “diginatives” and how the youth is fluent in using computers, the internet, social media etc. But there is a difference in knowing how to use something and knowing how that something came to be. Knowing the history sheds light into the choices inherent in for example a social media platform, and enables thinking of alternatives. The diginatives might be blind to these alternatives, implicitly assuming that things have always been as they are, for example that we naturally do not own our information, or that privacy is important only for criminals.

There is a delicate balance though in surfacing and challenging the implicit assumptions of the youth and telling them how things should be. The latter will result in the paternalistic perspective of shoving current values down the throats of the youth. As a principle the idea that we must leave a good world behind is worth pursuing. But we must be aware of the values on which we base our judgement of what “a good world” is and be willing to include the youth in that discussion.

Listen to the young

The main argument for including the youth in foresight is that they will be living in the future and therefore they should have a say in what the future will be like. If the youth are not included, it is hypocritical to talk about preferable futures – and quite impossible to know what the preferred future is. Inclusion also brings with it societal stability by giving the youth a voice and a chance to influence the development of society.

The youth bring with them a fresh perspective. They are not bound by old values – it is almost expected of them to challenge them. An example of this is the attitude towards privacy in social media. Once everybody has a visible past, a digital footprint, it becomes a non-issue. Challenging old values brings fresh energy to the societal discussion and enables the renewal of existing structures. However, there is a balance to be kept in challenging the old and avoiding chaos – to use the terms from complex adaptive systems theory, a dynamic stability needs to be found. Or in a more poetic term, the society needs to be on the edge of chaos in order to renew itself.

While able to challenge the old, the youth are bound by their own biases. One was already mentioned: taking some rather new developments for granted. Another bias is the tendency of people to keep repeating old futures by dressing them up as new -  “It’s all just a little bit of history repeating”. Sohail Inayatullah uses the term “used futures”. While everyone is susceptible to this bias, the youth may lack the knowledge of experiments done in the past, and how they show the infeasibility of some “futures”.

Cocreating the future

With expanding lifespans, the youth are not the only ones who will live in the future. In addition, the boundary between “the youth” and “the old” is artificial. The way to move forward from such boundaries is to see youth as both an object and a subject when talking about alternative futures. The approach should go beyond inclusion, which assumes that someone is “allowing” the youth to participate, to cocreation. Cocreating the future means giving all stakeholders a voice – and listening to one another. It means building upon the ideas of others, and giving up one’s own agenda in order to move away from one sided or used futures. And it means treating the youth as equals when talking about preferable futures.