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Future tense: looking back to look forward

Sensemaking / Future tense: looking back to look forward

How often do we pause to think about how social constructs came about - such as money, time, agriculture or sleep? What are the perennial stories that we now see as starting to break? And what new concepts could emerge?

By Corina Angheloiu / 21 Dec 2016

In Forum for the Future's System Innovation Lab, we’ve been developing a series of scenarios set in 2050, which depict what sustainable lifestyles might look like and the different ways in which we might get there. They’re augmented scenarios that build on this research project, and are part of a 3 year research project called EU Innovate, which focuses on enabling citizen innovation for sustainability.

Looking forward to 2050 through the lens of sustainable scenarios, we know that deep, radical, paradigm level changes may lie ahead. Before we jump ahead and explore these worlds, it is important to understand how social, economical and environmental understandings ('constructs') subtly created the societal changes that brought us here today.

To do so, I’ll use three of my favourite examples of change. These stories aren’t new, nor are they undocumented, but in their uncanny subtlety, they reveal precious insights around how change happens, insights crucial in informing how to be deliberate about the types of change we need to see happening in going forward (and surviving as species for that matter).

1. Changes in transactional models: the invention of money

The usual textbook story tells us that money was invented to replace complex barter systems in order to enable ancient societies to exchange goods based on a common denominator. Digging deeper, which is what David Graeber’s brilliant book ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ does, it emerges that the use of coinage was most likely a way of mediating between borrowers and lenders — a credit system, rather than an exchange one.

In time, the adoption of money as signifier of debt ushered in the economic growth paradigm — moving away from the self-sufficient resource management of the commons. This enabled the shift from medieval land productivity to Industrial Revolution labour productivity, a shift beautifully exposed in James Moore’s ‘Capitalism in the Web of Life’.

Tracing the steps to today’s financial system, we realise that we’re still operating on the basis of the norms and practices created in that pivotal early shift, and that debt is still a powerful capital creation tool. And yet, we are starting to see methods (such as Value Networks), experiments (such as Time Banking), concepts (such as Sweat Equity), tools (such as Blockchain), and practices (such as Commoning) that start to depict new social norms where complex forms of exchange develop outside traditional monetary exchanges in which ‘everything solid melts into air’.

2. Changes in social practices: how we got to sleep for eight hours

The second shift is exemplified by the change in sleep patterns. Today, there are thousands of studies, articles and guides unpacking the ingredients needed for good night’s sleep, mostly recommending 6.5 hrs to 8 hrs of sleep a night as baseline. That was not always the case, as segmented sleep patterns were the norm until late 17th century.

The shift from a first and second sleep (with an interval in the middle for praying, reflecting on dreams, having sex, or even visiting your neighbours) is attributed to the rise in domestic and street lighting, as well as a surge in coffee houses. The night became a timeframe for legitimate activity, which eventually saw the amount of time dedicated to one’s self dwindle.

As new technologies enabled us to stay up later, soon night time became a ripe for commercialisation — from the 1900s, Americans could gather at honky tonks or juke joints to listen to the jukebox, while Webster Hall, founded in 1886, is credited to be the first ever modern nightclub.

By the 1920s, the idea of a first and second sleep completely disappeared from our social practices, while today, the sleep apnea devices industry alone is set to hit $8.8bn by 2023.

Changes in sleep patterns are yet another manifestation of the ways in which social norms have developed to overcome the natural patterns that governed our lives before the Industrial Revolution. In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment through which he demonstrated that the self-regulated sleep patterns are bi-phasic. In other words, when there’s no external factors to influence how and when we sleep, our bodies self-regulate in two symmetrical bouts (each lasting several hours), with a waking period of 1–3 hours in between.

It turns out, as with many other things, that how we sleep is also a socially constructed norm.

3. Changes in environmental perception: the separation of human and non-human, or 'Society' and 'Nature'

If once we were one with Nature, “insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish”, to quote Harari’s Sapiens, how did we end up perceiving ourselves as the dominant species and hence subordinate everything as mere resources to our developmental pursuits?

Baboons, wolves, and other animals also know how to function as a group, of course, but their groups are defined by close social ties that limit their groups to small numbers. Homo sapiens has the special ability to unite millions of strangers around commons myths. Ideas like freedom, human rights, gods, laws, and capitalism exist in our imaginations, yet they can bind us together and motivate us to cooperate on complex tasks.
Bill Gates’ reviewing Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens

James Moore argues that the mechanism through which we arrived where we are today is capitalism. More than an economic system, more even than a social system — he sees it as a way of organising nature, which in turn has swiftly led us to internalise the belief that nature is subordinate in relation to mankind, rather than us being a (small) part of it.

The Age of Discovery helped propel the powerful idea of the ‘civilised society’, which instantly created an us and them division that served as mandate for imperialist violence, dispossessions, as well as divisions of race, gender and faith.

The implications of the separation of human and non-human agents, of 'Society' on the one hand and 'Nature' on the other, are multiple: from the myth of the man as conqueror of nature, to the remoteness of the foreseen climate change impacts to most people.

It influences how we talk about our history, about how change and innovation happen and helps propel the myth of the sole genius. It fails to acknowledge that breakthrough innovation (especially in regards to complex challenges) is the result of a perfect storm of social, economical, technical and political conditions, as well as the right people at the right time to take advantage of the context.

We are still living with the consequences of this lens through which we view the world, whereby the economy, society and the environment are seen as free-standing silos with no interrelations, nor causality between them.

Despite (or perhaps in spite) of the state we’re in, the interconnectedness of our systems and hence our impending crises are starting to become apparent.

The discourse around the Anthropocene is coming to the conclusion that “Earth’s most recent geologic time period has been human-influenced, or anthropogenic”. This is based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans — diagnosis which should serve as an urgent call to action.

“We must recognise that the distinction between ‘environment’ as commonly understood and ‘built environment’ is artificial.” (David Harvey)

And yet, a call to action is impossible without new narratives and compelling myths behind which to rally. We need to talk about the value systems we share, rather than the ideologies that separate us, in order to truly tackle the complex array of challenges we’re likely to face in the future.

Before being seduced by what the future might look like in a world where trends and predictions are becoming increasingly used in quenching our thirst for certainty, it is important to acknowledge that we’re continuously crafting the conditions in which the seeds of tomorrow will grow.

This article forms part of the Citizens bringing the future forward Explorer where we discuss how we can rethink governance, how citizens are creating change for a world where life can sustain itself, and what it will take to unlock a paradigm shift. If you like what you see, visit the site to find more and join the discussion on social media with hashtag #citizeninnovation. Together let’s make this a revolution.

Corina Angheloiu is designer and project manager at Forum for the Future's System Innovation Lab. For comments and feedback, do get in touch at

Originally published on Medium.

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