Anticipating future threats and opportunities, assessing their probability, imagining their possible harms and benefits, and identifying strategies to mitigate and defend against them or to develop and take advantage of them (as appropriate), are crucial activities for individuals, organisations and communities alike. Successfully managing this action involves particular expertise in thinking strategically and rigorously about the future, using “future-based information [and] acting in the present” (Poli 2017, 260; cf. Miller, Poli, and Rossel 2017; Miller 2018; Poli 2018). The aim of this briefing paper is to explore ways in which we might better understand this anticipatory thinking, and so deploy robust skills in “futures literacy” (FL), by recognizing the impact of effective storytelling and by taking practical steps to optimize the effects of narrative in strategic operations and communications work.
2. Future Narratives
Narrative is a loose term and is used to describe a wide range of phenomena broadly related to the idea of story and communications. Theorists simply define narrative as “somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purposes that something happened” (Phelan, 1996). This definition places emphasis on narrative as an action that seeks to accomplish some purpose and is the definition of narrative adopted here. In short, this definition focuses on the tellers (who are they; what’s their authority, their motivations, etc); the audiences (who are they; why do they care or need to hear this story, etc); the purpose (what’s the intended audience reaction and action, etc); and the occasions (what’s the context; why is this story good or bad for this time and place, etc) – TAPO. These narrative elements matter more than the story content. Most narratives look to the past, telling about something that has already happened, but these narratives can give signals (weak or strong) about the future and what may be about to happen. If an intention is to accomplish some future purpose or action then any narrative can also have a future focus. The ability to use narrative to identify these signals and to think about and plan for the future is a core component of what is known as Futures Literacy.
3. Futures Literacy
Futures Literacy (FL) – defined here as “the capacity to think about the future” – is particularly important for strategic planning work because it helps to clarify the knowledge and understanding that departments and decision-makers need in order to achieve optimal risk assessments and outcomes. According to UNESCO, Futures Literacy involves using narratives (Miller 2011, 27; https://en.unesco.org/themes/futures-literacy):
to develop and question the theories and models that define the variables and relationships, metrics and definitions being used to make sense of the present (note: pattern recognition/data mining is insufficient). The point of FL is to become more adept at inventing imaginary futures: to use these futures to discern system boundaries, relationships and emergence; to invent and detect changes in the conditions of change; to rethink the assumptions we use to understand the present.
This model of Futures Literacy also serves to remind us that in this domain of futures thinking we are not dealing with concrete certainties but “present imaginaries of future situations” – that is, with future scenarios and strategies which are essentially fictions (Beckert 2013, 325). When we imagine and explore the probabilities, costs, benefits, and risks of any kind of future we are dealing with a present imaginary of a future possible world – that is, a fictional world. Futurists and theorists have long argued that we understand and explore the future through narrative and stories (Poli 2018; Liveley 2019; Miller 2011, 2006; Currie 2007). As Miller points out (2006, 7): “it is crucial to recognize that the elaboration of exploratory situations (for human society) is largely a storytelling task.” But this has particularly important implications for understanding how we think about future risks. For, as Prince puts it (1990, 1): “[N]arrative … does not merely reflect what happens; it discovers and invents what can happen.” Our risk management strategies and plans for the future, then, become stories which “discover and invent what can happen”.
4. Anticipatory Narrative Systems
According to Kennedy (2013, 30): “In the case of future processes in which we are involved, we measure them by anticipation, but only if we already have some experience of what we are measuring or a pattern we have already noticed so as to make prospective calculations.” Here, we encounter one of the most significant aspects to the cognitive processes through which future anticipations and strategic assessments are produced. When we anticipate and so invent the future, we must necessarily imagine it from our present situation. As Miller points out: (2006, 7): “Of necessity, the very language used to conceptualise a future context is limited by the terms and practices of the present.” All future projections and imaginations are “extensions of the present” and “linked to known trends” (Poli 2017, 69). Research into anticipatory narratives and futures thinking is currently being conducted by UNESCO and several government agencies (including MoD, Dstl, DCDC, GCHQ, and NCSC).
Most recently, “script”, “schema”, and “frame” theories in cognitive psychology and narratology (informed by the latest insights into AI and machine learning), suggest that one of the ways in which we make sense of the unknown future, both in the real world and in stories, is by regarding new data and experiences as repeating and resembling old data and experiences already stored in stereotype and pattern form in our memories. We make sense of the unfamiliar by assessing its resemblance to the familiar―testing its relation to so-called “knowledge frames” or “knowledge scripts” and making predictions of future patterns based upon templates shaped by our prior knowledge (Tait and Norris 2011, 20). This research suggests that certain narrative archetypes or story plot patterns may be “hard-wired” into human cognition as a basic standard for futures thinking. Archetypal Narratives are stories that follow familiar and traditional patterns. They are found in every age and culture, organising and communicating both individual and social sense-making. As such, they shape not only film and TV scripts, but media and news reports, and the stories people share on social media. They are also widely used in marketing and advertising. They function as an evolutionary cognitive resource to make sense of the unknown and to connect communities. Research into archetypal and generic narratives in scientific and environment/climate understanding has been conducted by the Royal Society (https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/ai-narratives/AI-narratives-workshop-findings.pdf) and British Academy/ESCR (https://www.narrative-science.org/events-narrative-science-project-workshops-environment.html).
1. Strategic narratives
The term strategic narrative was popularised in the 1990s. Since then it has been widely adopted as a useful analytical framing device by business, regulatory agencies and military organizations ranging from IBM and Starbucks to NATO and OFGEM. A strategic narrative contains the following qualities:
- It is designed purposefully
- It has elements that actively create meaning and sentiment
- It seeks to secure preferred outcomes
- It wishes to inspire/engage employees, partners, customers, and influencers
- It connects to mission and vision of narrator
The strategic narrative is a story that an organization tells about its purpose, intent and will to make change. This might involve the generation of a memorable tagline such as Nike’s ‘Just do it’ and IBM’s ‘Building a smarter planet’, and/or generating in the case of Starbuck’s a positional ‘third space’ between the office and home. Strategic narratives often loom large in the public and professional imagination when a crisis or disruptive event occurs (e.g. British Petroleum’s rebranding ‘Beyond Petroleum’ – President Obama purposefully referred to ‘British Petroleum’ rather than BP when discussing the Deep Horizon disaster in 2010). A strategic narrative might also matter when an organization is facing a new challenge such as NATO in the aftermath of the Cold War in the early 1990s – NATO answered that challenge by emphasising methods such as public diplomacy and strategic communication and developing a humanitarian role/peacekeeping role in places like Bosnia. The War on Terror led to a long-term military commitment in Afghanistan – far removed from the original North Atlantic theatre of operation.
2. So what?
To improve strategic and communication narratives across all parts of your organization, attention to the narratives IN and the narratives OUT are equally important. To understand the future impact and effects of both, consider the following (TAPO):
- Teller (who are they; what’s their authority, their motivations, etc)
- Audience (who are they; why do they care or need to hear this story, etc
- Purpose (what’s the intended audience reaction and action, etc)
- Occasion (what’s the context; why is this story good or bad for this time and place, etc)
Stories IN (media and news reports, blogs, social media, Youtube, etc) are an excellent way of horizon scanning – picking up signals from the present about the future. In collated form, they can also provide robust evidence for emerging trends and dominant narrative archetypes. A simple Wordcloud based on a weekly horizon scan collation (see below), can signal continuity or change in real time, and prevailing narrative conditions and other story-form characteristics to look out for, such as:
- language (here, positive words predominate: new, can, reserves, change)
- geopolitical influences (here: USA, China)
- characters (here: robots, universities, Amazon, RSPCA)
- tropes & trends (here: technical innovation, research)
- dominant plot archetype (here: rebirth)
Understanding the shape of Stories IN can help the strategic shaping of Stories OUT. For maximum impact and influence (including upon future action) Stories OUT will align with the dominant characters, language, tropes, trends and plot types of Stories IN.
Copyright FLiNT 2022 (FLiNT – Futures Literacy Through Narrative).
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