Futures literacy, or how we think about tomorrow today


Hanna Stähle


‘Imagine possible’, reads an advertisement on a large-scale banner when I am passing the security check to the central hall of the Brussels airport. Coloured in intense, deep ocean blue, the ad immediately catches my attention. ‘You can be the one who makes unimaginable possible’.

This campaign by a telecommunications company, delving into the future of connectivity and igniting our imagination, could be a slogan of this year’s Ariadne meeting in Berlin, to which I am headed – devoted to imagining alternative futures. We are invited to think of signals, challenges, and visions of the next decade that many started calling ‘the unthinkable thirties’.

The language of imagination has permeated magazines, conference talks, book titles, presentations, workshops and conferences across sectors and countries. There are invitations to rethink business, reimagine Europe, embark on regenerative economies, think of alternative futures, and expand the scope of our societal imagination and anticipation. The need to reimagine, rethink societies we live in and the way we work together, educate our children, build our economies and plan for the future has never been as urgent.

Decades of progress can be reversed

In its 2023 Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum predicts the next ten years to be a ‘new era of low growth, low investment, low cooperation’. Decades of human progress and development can be reversed. This means more extreme poverty and hunger, less access to opportunity and social mobility, continuing income divide and wealth gap between and within countries. Five out of ten global risks in the upcoming decade are related to the climate crisis: failure to mitigate climate change, failure of climate change adaptation, natural disasters and extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, natural resource crises, and large-scale environmental damage incidents. Large areas of the earth could become uninhabitable, forcing people to leave their homes in pursuit of safety and a healthy environment. The social contract is broken, and many are worried about the heavy burden we are imposing on future generations.

This year’s Ariadne Forecast is painting a similar picture. Human rights and social change funders in Europe are discouraged by the scale of challenges we are facing and how philanthropy can make a difference. ‘The sense of fatigue among activists and funders alike is palpable. And many foundations have reverted to business as usual, reimposing requirements that had been lifted during a time of emergency’, Julie Broome critically observes in her foreword to the publication. The term polycrisis, coined by the French theorist Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern in the 1970s and popularised by the historian Adam Tooze, vividly describes what we are experiencing collectively today – a multitude of crises that affect us simultaneously on personal, organisational, and societal levels.

There is no playbook for dealing with uncertainty

The polycrisis has exposed our vulnerabilities and lack of knowledge of how to cope with the mounting crises. In the last three years, we have experienced shocks that have deeply shaken our assumptions about how we work, how we interact with each other, how we consume, what we value, what we are afraid of or how we see the world.

It is not only deep technological change and the speed and complexity of information that make strategic decisions hard but also uncertainty how to deal with today’s and future crises. It comes as no surprise that many funders seek refuge in what is familiar and known. The tyranny of the present is ubiquitous, while these times require us to be brave and embrace solutions that do not exist yet. There is no playbook written yet how to deal with uncertainty. We are collectively writing this playbook today.

Why futures literacy and what is philanthropy’s role?

What are the skills, knowledge, and tools we need in the 21st century that would help us navigate current and future crises, better find relevant information, understand how we can use the insights within our own context? While the future remains uncertain and no one can predict what will happen tomorrow, we can develop a capability to better navigate uncertainty and understand major drivers as well as weak signals of change. These signals are everywhere, we only need the lens to be able to see and make sense of them.

Foresight and the discipline of anticipation offer a set of tools, questions, canvas, and games that can help broaden our horizon, explore important developments, trends, and signals, and open the mind to new possibilities. Being aware of past developments as well as future threats and risks is equally important when thinking about the future. This is what UNESCO calls futures literacy – a capability to better anticipate and imagine the future that everyone can and should acquire. We have been trained to think within the framework of established paradigms, while futures literacy urges us to think about tomorrow with tomorrow’s, not today’s mindset.

To better understand key drivers of change and critical uncertainties impacting society and philanthropy in the long term, Philea is inviting human rights and social change funders, philanthropy networks, civil society organisations, businesses, governments, media and research institutions to join the conversation on the future of philanthropy and society by contributing insights to the survey ‘EXPLORING 21st-century philanthropy survey’ (deadline: 26 May 2023).

Philanthropy’s role in anticipating and imagining the future has never been more important than it is today. While governments are often constrained by election cycles and businesses focus on short-term profits and immediate results, philanthropy can take a longer view and imagine what is possible. No one can predict the future, but exposing ourselves and being open to new ways of thinking and emerging possibilities is critical in these times of uncertainty. We desperately need stories of hope and inspiration that would help us address looming global risks and reimagine the current polycrisis. And we also need to act and inspire others to help address the upcoming risks. So, what is our vision of the unthinkable thirties?

Hanna Stähle is Head of Foresight and Innovation at Philea, Philanthropy Europe Association.

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In this context, occasions like the Ariadne assembly serve as platforms where individuals and influential thinkers can exchange ideas, explore possibilities, and collectively shape visions for the future.

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In this scenario, events such as the Ariadne assembly function as arenas where individuals and influential thinkers can share thoughts, delve into potentialities, and collaboratively mold visions for the times ahead.


In this context, gatherings like the Ariadne meeting serve as platforms for individuals and thought leaders to exchange ideas, explore possibilities, and collectively shape visions for the future. The multidisciplinary approach, with discussions spanning business, education, economy, and society, indicates a recognition that the challenges ahead are interconnected and require holistic, innovative solutions.

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