At an ‘Anthropocene Visioning Workshop’ hosted by the CST in November 2016, a diverse group of key thinkers in southern Africa − including artists, social entrepreneurs, researchers, and policy-makers, was convened to engage in a visioning process to scope a range of plausible “good” futures based on perspectives from a variety of regional actors. Graphics: G. Johnson/Graphic Harvest
The Anthropocene is the name for a new geological epoch in which humanity has become a dominant global force re-shaping the geological, biological and atmospheric dynamics of Earth. This means big challenges but also many opportunities. Ever-increasing technological progress and human development are opening up novel and exciting opportunities for addressing some of these key challenges. There is a need for alternative visions of the future that go beyond the typical narratives of collapse and dystopia.
Seeds of Good Anthropocenes
With this goal in mind, the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes initiative aims to collect and develop a suite of alternative visions for “Good Anthropocenes” – positive futures that are socially and ecologically desirable, just, and sustainable. This initiative is a collaboration between the Stockholm Resilience Centre, McGill University in Canada, and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The objective is to counterbalance prevailing dystopic visions of the future that may be inhibiting our collective ability to move creatively towards a better trajectory for the Earth and humanity.
A key factor in this endeavour are the “Seeds” – mostly small-scale, experimental projects, organizations and initiatives that employ new ways of thinking or doing and exist at the margin of the current world. These can be new social institutions, technologies, or frameworks for understanding the world. Over the past two years, these Seeds have been collected in a database through global online surveys and a number of workshops, funded by Swedbio in Sweden.
Now the Seeds have been used as a foundation upon which to build better futures. In a first exploratory workshop co-hosted by the GRAID programme and the CST, a diverse group of over 20 scientists, artists, and change makers were brought together in November 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. Four groups of participants were formed, each starting with a set of three very different Seed projects and initiatives. Based on their Seeds, each group was tasked with imagining what southern Africa would be like if these Seeds were to grow, combine and become the new normal. Throughout the workshop the participants were actively encouraged to think outside the box and stretch their imaginations.
“Instead of extrapolating from the present and coming up with more recognizable alternative futures as one usually does with scenarios, we’ve come up with a process that starts with Seeds, which are essentially these little pockets of the future that exist in the present, but that are marginal.” Tanja Hichert, workshop facilitator
At the end of the two-and-a-half-day process, the groups presented their visions for the future to each other. From the start, creative expression was an integral part of the workshop, and all the groups brought their visions alive through theatrical performances including role-play and dance. In addition, a “graphic harvester” was engaged to visually capture the participants’ insights throughout the workshop, thus providing the graphic backbone for the different scenarios.
Watch video with Tanja Hickert explaining the visioning workshop process:
A shared outlook
Interestingly, the groups’ visions for southern Africa featured some striking commonalities, even though their starting points were so different. All scenarios placed a strong emphasis on decentralized decision-making and power, as well as collaboration over competition. Empathy is a core value that permeates all the future visons, and technological advances assist in connecting people to each other, but also to the biosphere. “Work” becomes about so much more than paying bills, and instead enables self-expression and community development. Most production and consumption processes are performed locally and in closed-loop systems, minimizing transport and waste. One of the key messages from this workshop is therefore that – beyond all our differences – we share a common vision of what a good, inclusive, equitable and sustainable future looks like.
Overall, the participants found the visioning process to be highly emotive, sometimes challenging, but ultimately inspiring:
“It’s been hard work. Emotionally difficult work. To think into the future and in that process to kind of really try very hard to let go of some of your pet ideas, things that make you feel comfortable. Some of your unquestioned ways of engaging with the world.” Workshop participant
The feedback indicates that the participants felt a greater responsibility, having gone through this process, to do what they can within their sphere of influence to make these positive visions of the future a reality.
For more reflections and lessons learned from the participants and organizers, please watch the reflections video below:
Further research and engagement
The southern African workshop was just the start. A second workshop, focusing on the northern European region, was held in Stockholm, and more workshops are planned across the globe. The Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project is ongoing, and contributes to one of the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s major research streams on large-scale transformations to sustainability. Forthcoming scientific papers will outline the visioning methods applied in the southern African case, as well as the storylines of the different scenarios and their points of convergence/divergence. The next phase in this line of research will then focus on comparing insights and learnings across the different case study regions, with the aim of developing a blue-print for the successful creation of transformative spaces in which positive futures can emerge.