Thinking about the future is important for taking effective action in the present. While futures thinking by specialists and elites can be useful, it risks not taking account of the knowledge and values of the public. The field of participatory futures aims to correct this by developing democratic and inclusive processes for people to explore and develop the futures they want.

With this goal in mind, Nesta have been exploring the idea of participatory futures, and have collected many examples of how it can be done. A report currently being developed will push this further. It will clarify what participatory futures is and share available best practice and methods. We have done some initial thinking in this area as well and would like to contribute our findings to this work. In this post, we will outline a series of observed trends that are relevant to participatory futures, propose a way of categorising different methods depending on what one is trying to achieve, and share some future lines of inquiry.

Political and social trends provide new opportunities for the use of participatory methods, and new technologies offer new ways of participating. Digital tools can help scale participatory futures across large populations and can enable access to rich, interactive visions of the future.

Through our initial research, we came across the following interesting trends in participatory futures.

Collective intelligence

The field of collective intelligence could provide new ways of doing participatory futures that combine the capabilities of groups of people with machines. Emerging technologies such as machine learning help make this more possible. An example of this is Climate CoLab, an open problem-solving platform from MIT aimed at exploring and solving complex problems.

Example methods: hybrid forecasting, collaborative argument-mapping software.

Participatory governance

Movements around participatory local governance are gaining prominence, and are using digital technology to help with this. For example, the municipalist movement is a radical movement that seeks to build bottom-up forms of governance using participatory methods. For example, participatory budgeting projects in Paris, Madrid, and Mexico City have used digital methods. One such tool is Empatia, which provides an environment to test out participatory systems.

Example methods: citizens assemblies, participatory budgeting.

Immersive experiences

There is a strand of futures work that puts people in immersive environments so that they can experience the future and use that experience as a stimulus for thought. Emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) are making these experiences much more immersive and can support more constructive discussions about the future. For example, VR and AR have been used in facilitating participatory urban planning decisions. Games also help with immersiveness. For example, IMPACT is a game where participants play different roles in the future and see how future changes could impact those roles. The Block by Block project uses the Minecraft game as a space for children to participate in designing their environment.

Example methods: serious games, speculative design, VR-enabled participatory urban planning.

Creative activism

There has been a trend towards using creative methods in activism. Not all of this is futures-focussed, but some is. For example, temporary autonomous zones such as Burning Man or Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen provide an enclave for a new way of living without having to change the whole of society.

Example methods: temporary autonomous zones, prefigurative intervention, legislative theatre.

Focusing participation on neglected voices

Although all participatory futures methods aim to widen participation, some are particularly focussed on including people that tend to be neglected in discussions about the future. For example, MH:2K involves young people in mental health work as citizen researchers. Similarly, the Guardian’s Gene Gap project involves five different UK communities to help identify different stories to tell about gene editing. Afrofuturism uses science fiction to imagine and explore science, technology, and cultures of the future from the perspectives of the African diaspora.

Example methods: citizen journalism, citizen science, participatory international development.

What types of participatory futures methods are there?

The abundance of different methods for engaging people in conversations about the future makes choosing an appropriate method challenging – where to begin? You could start by asking yourself two questions: Which type of question are you asking about the future? And which actors will be driving the process?

Type of question Ask Example outputs
Predictive What kind of future can we expect? Predictions, scenarios, trends
Value-based What kind of future do we want? Values, visions, ideologies, speculative design
Strategic How can we get the future we want? Plans, strategies
Driving actors Who initiates the process? Who controls the process?
Top-down Traditional authorities (e.g., local governments) The initiating authority
Bottom-up Members of the public The public

Together, these two variables form a framework in which we can place methods.

Predictive Value-based Strategic
Top-down Forecasting competitions
Crowdsourcing platforms
Speculative design
Citizens' assembly
21st century town meetings
Participatory backcasting
Bottom-up Betting markets Temporary autonomous zones
Prefigurative politics
Legislative theatre
Online petitions

In addition to the type of question and driving actors that form these categories, there are several other variables that it might be useful to consider:

  1. What are participants contributing? There are a wide variety of inputs that people could contribute, such as: prediction, observation, knowledge, value, goal, preference, concern, theory, vision, or framing.
  2. Design of the process. The design of the process considers how people will be brought together and think together about the future. It will include: how participants are selected, how they participate and contribute, how they are coordinated, what the output of the process is, how this output is used.
  3. Practical considerations. There are also practical variables such as: money and time cost of running the process, time and energy required from participants, knowledge requirements for participation, political complexity of the topic.

Where next?

This post summarises some initial ideas based on a small amount of research; more in-depth research will challenge and refine them. Further work could also explore:

  • What can we learn from the long history of participatory methods more broadly?
  • What outcomes do we want from participatory futures, and how do we measure them and build up an evidence base?
  • How do we ensure that participatory futures methods are genuinely participatory, and are not co-opted by powerful groups and individuals?
  • Which futures tasks are most suited to participatory methods, vs expert methods? How can experts and the public work together most effectively?

Interested in learning more about participatory futures? You could start by checking out Participedia, a repository of participatory projects and methods. Beautiful trouble similarly presents a database of creative activism techniques. Involve’s participation knowledge base has a wealth of information related to participatory methods. And finally, we’ve also made our own research spreadsheet available for you to download and modify as you wish.

Getting a better understanding of participatory futures methods is an important part of the wider project of democratising futures thinking. We’re glad that Nesta is pushing this field forward and are excited to see further work in this area.