Futures and Organisational Transformation

By Aarathi Krishnan, IARAN Fellow

If we are truly to be fit for the future, it is not enough to merely look at internal organisational structures, processes and policies. The question of being future fit is also about whether we are fit to serve communities of the future. Are we going to be able to deliver the types of programs and services that future societies – whether in instances of deprivation, vulnerability, or in stages of strength and agency, will desire? Will what we have to offer, the way we work, compliment and meet future citizen’s needs, desires and the way they lead their lives? Will we understand the complex systems that exist which impact on humanity’s ability to flourish? We cannot solve the challenges of the future with the same systems and structures that created them.

“In order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order” - Yuval Noah Harari, 2014

Eighteen months ago, the organisation I work for - the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) started a rather curious journey. We recognised that the world around us is changing at a much faster pace than we were actually prepared for, and we started asking ourselves some pivotal questions:

  • Are we paying attention to what is happening around us?
  • What do these rapid global changes mean for the type of organisation we must be in the future, and of the programs and services we offer?
  • How do we make sure that we are responding to citizens changing needs in a way that means that what we are doing is effective and efficient?

To understand what the emerging complex future might look like, we embarked on a process to introduce futures thinking within the Red Cross network. We ran an in-depth process over 18 months that involved extensive global consultations with Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, external experts, horizon scanning analysis and gaming simulations. The fundamental purpose of this was not merely to get a sense of the future of humanitarian and development need.  Rather we wanted to deeply interrogate and understand what would our future world look like, what the complex contexts in which change is happening, how would people lead their lives, what would be important to them, and therefore how would an international humanitarian network like ours fit within it?

Humanitarian organisations are generally traditional in its approach and culture. Most humanitarian organisations are exceptional at responding and reacting to the emergency right in front of the now, but struggle with being agile, forward looking and planning for the unknown. Introducing change within these types of environments can be a complex beast. To drive a different type of conversation, we needed to be creative and multi-disciplinary and not rely on the same tired approaches.

In November 2017, the IFRC hosted the 21st session of the Red Cross Red Crescent General Assembly Statutory Meetings. A key point of discussion during the Statutory Meetings was on the approach to the next global Red Cross and Red Crescent Strategy 2030 process. We took this opportunity to drive discussions on this to be broader than previous strategic planning discussions, and to have these discussions centred on anticipation, agility and change.

Rather than merely presenting the findings of futures consultations, research and gaming simulations, we chose to interpret our findings through an experiential futures approach aimed at stimulating critical thought and generate insights. Experiential futures are an increasingly popular and effective approach for forward-looking strategy development. It draws on storytelling, simulation, installation prototypes to push people’s imaginations beyond our everyday capacities, to gain a visceral experience of what future hypothesis might look and feel like. In this way, data and analysis isn’t just relying on an individual’s ability to read and understand what is written, but rather it takes the individual on a journey to truly feel, imagine and immerse themselves into future visions[1]. Utilising this approach, and complimented with futures workshops that were run concurrently, we aimed to push decision makers and policy advisors beyond just the everyday.

To achieve this, we worked with a variety of experiential futures designers including EdgeDNA on augmented reality (https://edgedna.co/), Superflux (http://superflux.in), Open Lab at Newcastle University and Changeist (http://www.changeist.com/) on futures installations, as well as Situation Lab (http://situationlab.org/) on guerrilla futures. We also created a range of guerrilla artefacts ourselves based on conversations and feedback from IFRC staff and youth volunteers. We worked with our designers on understanding our analysis – it was important for us that our designers understood that we weren’t just presenting isolated trends (which is normally how trends are presented: urbanization/climate change/emerging technology) but rather we wanted to present trends and drivers simultaneously, exploring how they impact each other and how this complex correlation shapes the future of society. It was also important that we weren’t just presenting future scenarios of humanitarian need, but rather a holistic scenario of what society would look like, what people would want, need, how they would interact each other and in turn, how this might impact humanitarian need.

The designers used our reports and analysis as the basis for hypothesis that they created of what 2030 could look like. We debated and tested these, and applied a practical lens to what we felt our diverse range of participants might connect with. It was essential that we didn’t propose installations that were too ‘out there’ (we are a very-hands on, practical organisation at the end of the day), but ones that could be understood by delegates from over 190 countries, but yet pushed their imaginations. All installations and artefacts were translated into our four main languages (English, Spanish, French and Arabic).

In 2019, the Futures team at IFRC have been tasked with leading the design and consultation process of the next Global Red Cross and Red Crescent Strategy 2030 – the Future Red Cross and Red Crescent. The multi-prong approach we used to not just teach and embed futures, but importantly to drive a different organisational conversation and narrative about whether we were fit for the future, has led to an incredible upsurge in the support of and for futures and foresight to lead strategic planning and operational design conversations.

This is what we’ve learnt through our journey. To get futures and foresight embedded across an organisation, requires diversity in process, excellent and strong communications, leadership support, creativity in engagement and a focus on landing broad futures topics in a way that meets people where they are at. Futures is a brilliant igniter for organisational transformation, but it has to supported by approaches which drive curiosity, experimentation and the permission to dive into the unknown.

Aarathi is the Global Futures and Foresight Coordinator with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). 

Follow Aarathi on Twitter @akrishnan23 and learn more about the IFRC's futures work at [1] https://media.ifrc.org/innovation/future-and-foresight/the-future-is-now/