I am a social theorist who has applied the focus on social time to the breadth of social science concerns, ranging from education and environmental matters to transport and work. In almost every piece of work I produced, the future featured as the unresolved part of this temporal perspective. An ESRC Professorial Fellowship (In Pursuit of the Future 2003–2007) enabled me to tackle this difficult subject matter head-on. As part of this work, I collaborated with artists to overcome the shortcomings of rationalist and scientific methods to fully engage with the ‘not yet’. I consider this work to be still in its infancy, requiring lots of thinking, exploration and experimenting.
On my retirement in 2012, I gathered together 12 people from across the sciences and the arts that share this concern and passion, to form the Future Matters Collective. In this group, we bring our diverse knowledge to particular subjects, always with unpredictable results that transcend our individual practices and modes of knowing.
My Futures Orientation
My engagement with futures extends over my entire academic career. For the first 20 or so years it formed the aspect that was left unresolved in my work on time and temporality across socio-environmental domains. However, from 2000 onwards I began to engage with the socio-enviornmental future explicitly and in 2003 I was able to focus on it full time for a 4-year ESRC Professorial Fellowship. During this period I addressed my concern that futures are being created for millennia hence, while emphases and foci of socio-political and socio-economic life were ever reducing and responsibility structures were becoming increasingly inadequate for our future-making prowess. Knowledge, action and ethics seemed to have got disconnected. In a book, published with Chris Groves, research associate on the Professorial Fellowship project, we traced these developments, showed where and how those disjunctures occurred and considered where necessary changes might be sought (see Future Matters. Action, Knowledge, Ethics. 2007). I see this work as a first step on a path of investigations that will take another academic lifetime. However, as the fault lines deepen and problems accumulate across space, time and matter, the pooling of understanding and skills across knowledge practices becomes essential. This was and is the motivation for collaborating with artists over the past fifteen years, forming the Cardiff Future Matters Collective, seeking to form an international Future Matters Network and for taking up a Senior Fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany.
Explicit engagement with futures has taught me that what we know is rooted in the past. We can project, plan and predict the future on this basis but it will always be the past masquerading as future. Exploring futures and engaging with futures is a much more complex process than that. Yes, it requires extensive past-based knowledge but it also entails much more that is beyond the reach of factual, empirical knowledge. It demands conceptual/theoretical prowess, creative/imaginative skills, understanding of both interdependencies and processes and, importantly, appreciation that actions ripple to the end of time, which inescapably implicates ethics. What has been separated in academic knowledge needs to be reunited into a very different mode of knowledge practice, one that is appropriate to the kind of future-making and –taking, whichr impacts so extensively on successor generations of beings for millennia hence. I have started this new development with work on three books: the first is entitled Future Imperfect: Knowledge Practices for Futurescapes, in which I consider the changes in knowledge practices necessary for encompassing the complexity of futurescapes. The second is entitled Changing Futures. Changing Minds. In this book I delineate institutional changes necessary for actions appropriate to the age of the Anthropocene. The third book, entitled Drawing Futures will be produced in collaboration with artist Seth Oliver. It is based on 20 years of my poetic theory work and futures-based art works by Seth Oliver.
I have come to appreciate that the way we organize and produce knowledge has to change in a world where everything connects to everything else, where the impacts of actions extend to the furthest reaches of our world and affect untold generations of future beings. It has to shift emphases from the individual to the collective, from present-orientation to past and future embracing, and from evidence-based knowledge to creative and ethically based wisdom. Given the need for knowledge that is inter- and trans-disciplinary, is conceptually and theoretically innovative, draws on creative arts practice, embraces complexity, connectivity and interdependency, understands process, is time literate, and takes a normative/ethical stand, it stands to reason that this requires collaboration.
In the Future Matters Collective we put into practice some of the insights gained from engagement with the socio-environmental future. We connect knowledge from a range of academic fields with a variety of arts practices by exploring futures issues and concepts through our diverse ways of knowing and doing. Almost invariably we find unexpected and surprising parallels, connections and intersections that lead to new and exciting insights and ways of seeing that, in turn, change the way we approach our own way of knowing: professionally and personally. Bringing together academic knowledge and arts practice enables us to build bridges to the social lives of contemporaries and successor generations, to a politics of sustainable transformation and to the impacts of past and present actions that ripple to an open future.
Concern with ‘impact’ needs to distinguish between focus on present future and future present. An impact perspective focused on the present futures seeks to take from the future for the benefit of the present, implicitly asking ‘What can the future do for us?’ In contrast to this, an impact perspective focused on future presents extends its concern to potential impacts of present actions. It implicitly asks ‘What are we doing to the future?’ It is an impact orientation that binds present actions to the timeprints of our actions, to potential outcomes across their time-space-matter extended reach. As such, it is oriented towards effects not so much for the benefit of the present as on an unknown future. Concern with future presentsacknowledges responsibility for decisions and actions whose impacts cannot be known with certainty. This shift in focus from present future (benefits for us) to future present (distributed effects on unknown others) turns ‘impact’ into a political and moral issue.
My aim is for concern with future presents to become an everyday occurrence that is fully integrated into our private and institutional lives. This is clearly not (yet) the case at present – but we need dreams and visions for deep changes to become possible.
My collaborations with members of the Future Matters Collective extend back over fifteen years and more, covering a large variety of projects, presentations and publications, with new ones in the planning stage all the time.
The first book Time and Social Theory and the second one Timescapes of Modernity are both pregnant with the futures problematic and address it mostly obliquely while Future Matters confronts it directly and deals with it explicitly.
The articles before 2004 approach the futures problematic indirectly through the subject matter. From 2004 onwards the future is treated explicitly.
The chapters before 2009 approach the futures problematic indirectly through the subject matter. From 2009 onwards the future is treated explicitly.
The linear form of writing text is rather unsuited to express the temporality and futurity of non-linear and networked processes. In light of this difficulty I have developed a form of theorising that compresses thought and gives it a distinct shape. I have first used this form of communication as interludes between chapters in my Key Concept book on Time Polity 2004. I have by now created some fifty or so pieces, but have only recently begun to have them published in their own right.