Creating a future literate society

On the day of the announcement of Stephen Hawking’s death and a week on from the press launch of HVM’s report on genetic technologies for the Royal Society it seems apt to remind ourselves of the importance of ongoing public engagement with the technologies that will define our future. Hawking reminded us of the power of dialogue,

Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking.…With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.
— Stephen Hawking, 1993

Continuing the conversation

Here at HVM we were thrilled to see that the Royal Society titled the presentation for the press conference ‘Continuing the conversation’ as we firmly believe that no public dialogue project around the 8 Great Technologies can be the end of a journey of engagement. In dialogues we inspire initial engagement with big societal issues but more is needed to make society future literate.

I attended a talk by futurologist Mark Stevenson last weekend, the author of We do things differently, a book with amazing stories about communities across the world that have become future literate and turned an understanding of the need for change into new ways of doing things.

Given that current systems for food production, health care, energy supply and education are not coping, future literacy requires comprehensive public engagement rather than one off discussions about the things the future is asking of us as a society. Future literacy has to be integrated at every opportunity in what we learn, see, watch and hear. Households across the UK out of water due to the big thaw? A real inconvenience for many but an excellent opportunity to link people’s experiences to the fact the world’s fresh water table is dramatically reducing (I didn’t come across any such news items).

Seeds of change across divides

At public dialogue events magical things happen. Many participants experience a light bulb moment and become aware of things they had never given any thought to before. We call that the participant journey, which in the genetic technologies’ report was summarised in the diagram below:

Taken from figure 51: the public dialogue learning curve, p.112

Taken from figure 51: the public dialogue learning curve, p.112

What we also see in public dialogue is that people are able and willing to cross social divides to find pathways towards a more sustainable future, which is an incredibly powerful sentiment to build on for those wishing to drive behaviour change.





Taking dialogue into communities

The big changes society is facing will be informed by an amalgamation of local action. This is why we often recommend that conversations instigated at national public dialogues are taken into communities and supported by a comprehensive system of messaging through educational and media channels. Community level conversations based on resources developed for national dialogues offer excellent opportunities to build on the sense of empowerment participants experience as a result of their learning. It would enable people to explore the potential risks and benefits of the technologies that will shape our futures and discuss what action can be taken at community level to contribute to system change.  

We have to keep talking.