12/21 — Reasons and Methods in Dynamic Tension – Parsons School of Design at the UNESCO Futures Literacy Summit

December 2020 / Notes from the Field

Lisa Norton

“2020 brought an unexpected opportunity: a powerful challenge to entrenched ways of thinking about the future. The pandemic shock, which has touched every single one of us in various and diverse ways, has allowed for a global experiment with uncertainty. This experiment unveiled a significant flaw in the way humanity uses-the-future today, and opened the door to put into practice new ways of thinking about, and using the future.”[i]

–Riel Miller, Head of Foresight, UNESCO
Lisa Norton

What would have to be true of a future in which hope was viable? Well, it depends on who you ask. These sorts of questions are great for helping us see our underlying anticipatory assumptions and the identities and worlds they bring forth. The following are reflections on my experience last week at the UNESCO Futures Literacy Summit, in the context a ‘contemplative working group’ that I’ve been chairing on the ‘futures of futures’ at my home institution, The New School. Attending last year’s summit in Paris with my colleague and then dean Jane Pirone, we felt aligned with network members, their initiatives and overall aims. Since then, under the leadership of our new dean Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, we have been building a relationship with the UNESCO Futures Literacy initiative as a way to scaffold organizational learning and contribute to the evolvability of our School of Design Strategies, part of Parsons School of Design, which along with the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, the New School for Social Research and other colleges comprise The New School university in Greenwich Village in New York City. With an incredible faculty, student and staff community we are indeed privileged. This is an educational enterprise with many divergent origin stories and anticipatory assumptions. Built on a commitment to academic freedom, tolerance, and experimentation dating to the University in Exile established by Alvin Johnson in 1933, The New School’s progressive mission is to “prepare students to understand, contribute to, and succeed in a rapidly changing society, and to make the world a better and more just place.” Parsons, the new kid on Fifth Avenue, is a glossy top-ranking global educational brand in art and design education with all the legacy challenges that accompany mainstream success and innovation. 

Some of the aims of our contemplative working group included seeing ourselves as a system, activating alternative contexts for university service, and expanding our process repertoire beyond faculty governance to include practices of reflexive inquiry and new ways of orienting to time. We are learning to think and more importantly decide and act together in relation to everyday paradoxes such as how to embody collective imagination, and how to collaborate without constraining individual expression. Identifying anticipatory assumptions at individual, team, school and university level, better discerning dissonances between our espoused theories and our theories in practice (‘eating our own dogfood’ as one colleague affectionately puts it), updating the stories we tell ourselves, and confronting the dependencies of educational futures on the futures of education. How might we make the flows of power, authority and influence discussable? 

Making a shared object of some of the performative contradictions that are endemic to faculty life is key to seeing-while-being the system. Metrics and categories used to evaluate faculty performance take the individual as the unit of analysis. Perceived precarity incentivizes the exercise of optionality and disincentivizes commitment to shared goals. In the legalization of HR functions, compliance has eclipsed faculty learning and development. The strong consensus bias in academic culture further complicates our efforts to see our shared anticipatory assumptions and self-deceptions. Shifting the burden to university fiscal decision makers only obscures our holonic interdependencies. How might we work and play with our situated rivalrous dynamics?

Why is this role worth my precious time? I can be of greatest service in the one to one learning encounter. Yet I experience less incoherence and fragmentation when I work both in and on the organization. Curriculum and program development is largely controlled at the state level, reducing real time response-ability to hacks of the crisis bureaucracy. For me personally, this project has demanded that I learn to be more resonant as a leader at The New School while remaining authentic – which sometimes means being a contrarian, a freak or unthinkably – a centrist. This humbling process helps me learn to see my emotional needs as they arise, and my projections of my own shadow onto the organizational dynamics – to the degree that this is ever possible. And finally, this role offers a spacious leadership context with meaningful stakes for the capability of the organization to enact its mission at a decisive moment in its history. In what ways might we practice individual and institutional humility?

The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for colleges and universities worldwide to assess their nested scales of relations and interdependencies – from the scale of the individual learner to the social contract – and to dare to take the necessary risks to renew their missions. Now if only we can channel the momentum in timely and useful ways. Colleges and universities have lost the plot, forgetting our core mission of teaching and learning. Given that the cost of college degrees excludes most families, accessibility of learning and education is one of the most urgent justice issues of our time. At the level of the individual college or university, surviving the coming shocks will have a lot to do with the degree to which we can see our interdependence with/in our social ecologies at every fractal scale. And as faculty, to confront our own complicity in this system that sustains our livelihood. How might we deconstruct our own reasons for and methods of, being embedded in the systems we help to sustain and reproduce?

The current moment affords an incredible opportunity to reimagine the relations and contexts of learning within, between, and beyond the university. And yet there’s a gap between this potentiated moment, and our current capability to sense, respond, and metabolize. The future of learning is nothing if not disruptive and may have little to do with the higher-ed sector. The ‘futures of futures’ is, to the university context, what ‘water futures’ is to the Nasdaq – contested, polarizing, timely and vital. Confirmation bias is another threat to the resilience of the academy and to knowledge creation. Tending to be densely connected, hyper redundant and relatively homogeneous social–ecological systems, universities tend toward Rigidity Traps, (Gunderson and Holling 2002).[i] rendering them rich in resources yet brittle and incapable of responding in timely and relevant ways. Dare we confront the assumption that storehouses of knowledge will be relevant to future life conditions?

Zooming out to the global context, the 2020 UNESCO Futures Literacy Summit is an inspiring and visionary project that, due to its planetary scale of concern and its process logic grounded in evolutionary and living systems theory, deserves attention. Building on Amartya Sen’s vision of capability as freedom and the prerequisite of a eudaimonic society, the Futures Literacy network and initiative developed and led by Riel Miller, Head of Foresight at UNESCO[i], aims to create the conditions for the emergence of capacity to build capacity at multiple nested scales. As Riel puts it, “Narrowing our conscious use-of-the future (our ability to imagine it) exclusively to plan the future is a powerful obstacle to constructing our identity, perceptions and actions in ways that embrace complexity…We are at the crux of one of the most important enablers of a capability-based approach to realizing human potential. Learning to use our imaginations more efficiently and effectively for a variety of different purposes.”[ii] With 8000 attendees, the context of the summit afforded the opportunity for almost 100 educational, private sector and NGOs to host dozens of live events and prototypes for alternative modes of learning, sharing, discussion, critique, debate, and dialogue. 

And, a reasonable skeptic might ask, what can be meant by ‘literacy’ after humanism? Don’t literacies necessarily entail universalizing and therefore reductive, oppressive and colonial standards? “Futures Literacy” is defined in the UNESCO context as an innate skill, accessible to everyone. We develop this skill as we democratize powerful images of the future that influence our relationship to reality and what we see as possible and actionable. In centering human capability, the construct of Futures Literacy attempts to thread the needle between anthropos and misanthropos, confronting the injustices and x-risks attributable to our modern ways of being while refusing to give up hope in the diverse human ‘uses’ of the future and the alternative ways of being human that we may re-member to enact.

The School of Design Strategies hosted three live events which my descriptions below merely hint at. The first event, Faraoyść: Imagining Futures Built on Joy, was a workshop facilitated by Nour Abou Jaoude, Anna Lathrop, and Julia Wieslawa Szagdaj, MFA Candidates in Transdisciplinary Design. Faraoyść (fah-row-she-tchi) is a neologism describing that feeling of ‘realizing that something oppressive might be coming to an end, which provides a glimpse into a liberated, joyful future.’ Drawing from research on the geopolitics of language and culture, and speculative futuring methods, and aided by Kool & The Gang and P-Funk, facilitators guided participants in an exuberant and playful process of translating their “individual pasts into co-designed futures” and through the subsequent conversation and knowledge sharing, to “center collective joy.”

Next up, Conversations in the crisis of imagination, was one in a series of faculty conversations designed to deepen the register, relax the formality of faculty service duties, trouble the boundaries between titles and roles, and invite playful surprises. This particular conversation began with the question, If there is a crisis of imagination, what is it exactly? and what does it mean for you? The magic trick was hosted by Transdisciplinary Design MFA program director and faculty whisperer John Bruce in the context of his informal weekly drop-in ‘TD Coffee.’ A virtual fishbowl, it included colleagues from our futures working group – Barbara Adams, Michele Kahane, Hala Malak, Elliott Montgomery and Jane Pirone as well as other colleagues, students and summit participants. Starting where we are, we also invited two expert insider-outsiders embedded in both the UNESCO Futures Literacy Network as well as The New School. Kewulay Kamara, a poet and multi-media storyteller, earned an MA in Economics at the New School for Social Research. He is the founder of Badenya Inc., an organization that established Dankawalie Secondary School in Sierra Leone., and Markus S. Schulz, a sociologist who also completed his PhD at the New School for Social Research, engages with social theory, globalization, digital technologies, social movements, and future imagination. His latest book is Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World: Towards the Futures We Want

Beginning with the prompt, “If there is a crisis of imagination, how does it impact your way of being?” This wide-ranging sharing of first, second and third person perspectives touched on themes such as democratizing anticipation; what is the self in the Anthropocene?; being captured by the attention economy; pollution of the collective imagination; balancing practices of expertise with decolonizing expertise; balancing deconstruction with reconstruction; grieving, hoping and dreaming; alternate temporalities and rhythmicities; and the constructs of work and play.

Our third event, Applying Futures Thinking in Design: A Discussion with Parsons Alumni, was curated and moderated by my colleague Elliott Montgomery, Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at The New School, as well as the co-founder of The Extrapolation Factory. Because this took place in the context of the global Futures Literacy Summit, it functioned like a virtual Zoom fishbowl, with six Parsons alumni in dialogue within a larger collective of participant-observers to the discussion. Alumni discussants included Melika Alipour Leili, a UX Designer at Grab in Singapore and formerly with Samsung Research, working on digital marketing and business management experiences for small business owners in South East Asia. Isabella Brandalise, a PhD student at RMIT and a design practitioner with experience working in government innovation labs in Latin America. Andrea Karina Burgueno Castro, a Service Designer and Design Researcher with IBM where she investigates how IT roles could be improved as well as the impact of technology in our world. Jack Wilkinson, a Senior Strategist at Jam3 where he designs innovative experiences and new offerings for brands like EA, Adidas, Google and VISA. Jimmy Hagan, an Innovation and Design Strategist at Oracle where he practices a human-centered approach to technological change and facilitates teams with diverse skills and backgrounds. Joe Mauriello, a UX Researcher and Strategist at DocuSign studying Public Sector agreements by day and moonlighting as a technologist, dreamer, and artist working at the intersection of games, social media, and future literacy. In what ways might our alumni become our teachers?

Apropos our aspiration to become an organization that learns, Dean Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo encouraged alumni to help us better understand how studies at Parsons prepared them to practice futuring and how their educational experience might have been improved. The pre-set format asked each discussant to pose questions for one another about the roles of futures thinking and speculative design in their lives and work. Each respondent then in turn posed the next question. This process lent well to propositional knowledge exchange among experts who share many common theories of change, methods, and lexicon. And as Joe noted, it also surfaced choices of vocabulary as x-boundary objects that may constrain or enable translation, perspective coordination, insight, affinity and identification.

Boundary crossing – of domain, sector, discipline and lexicon come up not just as theory but as ways of being. Much new language was coined at the intersection of these expert and populist ways of being and doing, their temporalities and respective worldings. A Parsons DesignFutures critical lexicon might include problematizing “futures thinking,” contesting “literacy,” and contesting universal singulars. Anarcho-progressive heuristics such as “contaminating” the organization with futures, and “stealth” futuring co-mingled with antipodean poetics of “accidental” futuring, “incomplete objects,” and the speculative past. How might we leverage the creative tension between realist methods of futuring – which prioritize sensemaking, and speculative methods of futuring – which tend toward strangemaking?

Distinctions between content and process were prominent in the conversation. Grounded process rigor was mentioned as relatively weak in comparison to concepts. Jack mentioned that his classes at Parsons exposed him to amazing ideas testing the limits of our scientific paradigm such as “…post-planetary design, human computer interaction design, designing alternative realities… that stretched what I thought the future could be,” he nevertheless wished he had been exposed to more tangible futures processes and methodologies. How can we bring more awareness to what it means to be part of an expert consensus and in turn how does that identity and way of being influence our interactions with others?

It was fascinating to hear Gen Y and Z design practitioners uncovering their own personal and professional anticipatory assumptions regarding the future of work and the viability of playing “Game A.” Melika asked, “what is the impact of short-term thinking on early career strategists? Can we gain insights into our own assumptions and motivations?” Jimmy noted the ‘toxic’ levels of denial in the corporate sector in response to the pandemic. He spoke to the importance of practices of leadership vulnerability, mentioning the work of Peter Senge at MIT and how his research drew from the ‘speculative past’ of indigenous practices to include first-person experiences in the workplace. 

A shared pain point was mainstream business incentives for convergent and short-term thinking. Isabella, Andrea and Melika initiated a fascinating conversation when they shared how by using a range of tactics including their ethnographic interviewing and deep listening skills, they were able to enter into the worlds of their clients and colleagues and to craft language, ie. “jobs to be done ten years from now” that cast themselves in the role of a permeable boundary, ie., as a learner capable of generating shared meaning while expanding one’s own sense of identity. Melika brought something akin to a Spiral Dynamics analysis in stepping back from life conditions in various countries to take a more neutral perspective on the relative affordances and constraints of each. This highlighted the value of different diagnoses of interrelated systems and differing interpretations of what interventions mean, and how to collectively assess and prioritize among options. 

There were several moments in the discussion where curious pauses suggested that there may be opportunities for organizational learning. One such moment occurred when Peter Padbury, Chief Futurist of Scanning and Foresight at Policy Horizons Canada, shared his view of the strategic landscape thus introducing a different methodological perspective and mental model of the system(s) and leverage points. His view was that the public services sector, including civic design and behavioral economics oriented ‘nudge’ units emerging in city governments and NGOs all over the world tend to be ideologically and creatively aligned with our alumni discussants, i.e., creative social change proponents often acting from egalitarian and pluralist values that center justice, equity and decolonization. My interpretation is that in urging panelists to place their energy on the more fundamental political level of the systems they seek to influence, Peter was identifying alien mindsets and cultural worldviews as practical systems leverage points – if we aim to have social impact – at the interface between foresight, policy, design and co-creation. In that pause, any number of responses might have been possible – agreement, acknowledgement, counterpoint, perspective sharing, contestation. What did happen was an absence of response, followed by a shift in topic. It was this pregnant moment when the encounter between perspectives pointed to generative potential. 

Depending on how we diagnose the problem we will arrive at very different starting points. In addition to revealing how a different role/function lens discloses different features of a social mess, this conversation also highlighted the importance of geographic, cultural and intergenerational perspective exchange. Another question that generated an especially potentiated silence was from Sally Lin on the UNESCO team, “What is your likely future? What is your desired future? And if your likely and desired future prove to be different, what would you do to move towards desirable? This suggests that another meta skill might be remaining present and working skillfully in the presence of conflicting views and ideological tensions. This requires both courage and humility and the ability to witness the ebb and flow of our identities, reactions and needs. Our colleague Brett Barndt likens the zone of proximal development to a membrane. “…there’s a floating idea, and it just doesn’t land because it’s not part of anybody’s experience.” Brett asks, “…how can design schools, as part of who they are, become more reflective…and develop some awareness, skills and practices that can kind of open up that membrane, you know…create a porous membrane and let signals in? And what does that actually mean in practice on a daily basis?”

The 2020 Futures Literacy Summit aimed to make tangible the rich plurality of “reasons and methods for imagining the future.”(Miller)[i][v] Raising conscious awareness about the diversity of human uses-of-the-future serves as a tangible demonstration that diversity is essential for resilience, that anticipation is fundamental to all life, and that the universe is creative. In “creating some distance from our fears and hopes” (Miller) we create new vantage points from which to see our reasons and ways of imagining futures as open and contingent upon our participation. This invites us – even goads us – to decolonize our future(s) of path-dependent imaginaries and legacy assumptions about our imaginations, reasons, and methods. As alumnus Jimmy Hagan puts it, “What other new normals are possible?” This review gives just a glimpse of a vast diversity of ways of imagining futures. Content will remain online through January 11, 2021. Registration is free, explore here.


[i] Miller, Riel. UNESCO Futures Literacy Summit email blast, December 18, 2020.

[i] See Miller, Riel. Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st Century. Routledge, 2018.

[ii] Miller, Riel, “Lenses are Only Lenses: Understanding UNESCO’s Futures Literacy Summit.” Forthcoming, 2020.

[i] Carpenter, S. R., and W. A. Brock. 2008. “Adaptive capacity and traps.” Ecology and Society 13(2): 40. [online]

[i] Miller, Riel. UNESCO Futures Literacy Summit email blast, December 18, 2020.

About the Author

Lisa Norton is a guide disguised as a professor. She is piloting Uncertainty Lab, a social-emotional learning context for practicing uncertainment – the states of negative capability, humility and wonder capable of grappling with our global crises of meaning, learning and creativity. Professionally, Norton’s coaching, facilitation and consulting practices focus on cultivating conditions for the emergence of resilience in complex adaptive systems such as creative teams. She is Professor of Design Leadership in the School of Design Strategies at Parsons School of Design where she teaches Creative Team Dynamics: identity and change. She is a member of the Deliberately Developmental Practitioner Network, the Deep Adaptation Forum, the Participatory Agility Working Group, and a fellow of Studio at the Edge of the World. www.designbeing.org

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