Futurist as Trickster

All tricksters are on the road. They are the lords of in-between. They are the spirit of the road at dusk.  –  Lewis Hyde

Last week I moved from Australia to Sweden so today I somehow feel like I live between these two countries. I’m in Sweden physically, but most of my thinking concerns work, projects and people back in Australia. I still haven’t settled in Stockholm – my new home – and my things are in suitcases or boxes being shipped between continents.

This is a strange state of being and it has made me reflect on how the futurist often plays in the space between places and between ideas and thoughts.

In my last blog post on the APF site I mentioned characteristics such as amorphous, incoherent, uncertain and emergent to describe the nature of the futurist. I think ‘being in-between’ is another one…

I am slowly reading Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World, about the trickster figure in various cultures. Tricksters are often found on the road or at the edge of town, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering people. They have prophetic qualities, but in contrast to other prophets, tricksters steal, cheat and lie to deliver their message.

I am interested in the futurist as trickster, as a figure who works between organisations, cultures and paradigms. Larry Ellis in his article Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal writes that the trickster “dabbles in the creation of the world that will be, and provides tools, food, and clothing to the people who will inhabit that world. He may assume an array of contradictory personae in the course of a single narrative, moving from one to the other with the skill of a practiced shape-shifter while tripping on his tail at every turn.”

That sounds a lot like a futurist to me.

In my last blog post I also wrote about myself not relating to or resonating with most of the roles futurists have today, such as the academic, the consulting or the organisational futurist. Many futurists however seem to work between these in roles as ‘pracademics’, i.e. practitioners / academics, or roving organisational futurists who spend more time outside than inside their organisations. I believe we need more of these hybrid futurists and have thought about a couple of new hybrids. I currently use entrepreneurial futurist myself, as I thrive when I am involved in start-ups and emerging communities, which aim to create the future they want.

The supra-organisational or systems futurist is another title that came tom mind in the shower this morning. This futurist is not hired to work or consult for an organisation, but for the larger system, of which organisations are parts.

This networked futurist works towards a healthy, generative system, and to optimize this ‘whole’ rather than the parts of the system. Like tricksters, these futurists sometimes help organisations, and sometimes hinder them – depending on what they assess that the system needs. And with the super-connectivity we have today, the online trickster futurist can do very effective futures work across nations, cultures and worldviews.

Some aspects of the work for systems futurists might be:

  • To strengthen existing connections in the network (futurists are often skilled at seeing weak links and emerging issues early and can with simple, elegant solutions build and reinforce relations)
  • To link new stakeholders in the system (the systemic futurist is a natural systems thinker and can often ‘see’ links others cannot). This can for example be to link an organisation in Holland with one in Singapore, or a person in Paris with one in San Francisco.
  • To weaken and break connections between organisations or people (this is a typical trickster futurist aspect, which is very hard to practice in today’s paradigm. What organisation would pay someone to destroy seemingly successful links, which they have built up?)
  • To envision future entities or nodes in a system, or even help start new entities or nodes in a system, when needed. Entities like hacker spaces, maker labs, or other DIY creation spaces which don’t fit into the system, might be examples of this.
  • To help to highlight and bring down unsustainable nodes in the system, by clever, simple actions – characteristically a role of the trickster, who is often armed with powerful weapons in jokes and tricks.

I know futurists and others who play this role, but generally they spend most of their time and energy with clients or employers rather than where the system needs them most. This is naturally the case in our current paradigm where the system is set up to optimize single nodes rather than the whole system.

A challenge for the supra-organisational futurist is therefore financial: Who will pay for all this trickster mischief / heroism?

This is a question I’ve had endless conversations and thought a lot about recently, and I will leave this question for a later blog post, possibly titled ‘future business models for futurists’.

Another challenge for the systems futurist is (as always) moral. Who decides what the systems futurist should do, what types of systems acupuncture is right and wrong? I think we have to look further into the trickster literature to find an answer here. According to the legends, the trickster creates the world as it is – not an ideal, perfect utopia, which other mythical figures and gods often do. The trickster rather creates messes. And may therefore also be the only one who can orchestrate, manipulate, cheat and inspire communities to solve these messes.

The shape-shifting trickster futurist who ‘dabbles in creating what will be’ might be a figure who can help shift thinking and actions from optimizing the parts to optimizing the whole.
(This post was originally written for the Association of Professional Futurists blog)

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