The public imagination of the future
Location Bowland North Seminar Room 4
Date and Start Time 27 Jul, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Jesse Hoffman (Utrecht University ) email
  • Peter Pelzer (Utrecht University) email
  • Joost Vervoort (Utrecht University) email
  • Roy Bendor (Delft University of Technology) email

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Short abstract

This panel addresses the status of 'the public' in practices that aim to imagine alternative futures such as scenario planning, design thinking and advertisement. We invite papers that critically explore how futures are made public and how the notion of the public itself may change with futuring.

Long abstract

One provocative way of looking at our inability to cope with societal problems today is to see them as part of a 'crisis of the imagination' (cf. Buell, 1996; Castoriadis 2007; Ghosh 2016). This particular way of looking at complex problems calls attention to our collective capacity to imagine and enact alternative futures. In the last decade a vast body of literature emerged on different practices to imagine the future, including complex modeling, gaming and design thinking to corporate advertising. Yet, while the work of imagining possible societal futures is inherently a public matter, the status of the 'public' is often uncertain. Public dimensions of futuring exercises are often covered in technocratic, institutional, or private/commercial codes, remain local or account too little for questions of politics and power. Moreover, for relevant issues like climate change the ties between key groups often remain unarticulated. This panel seeks to address this issue and invites papers that explore the status of the public in imagining the future and how the notion of the public itself may change with futuring. Both theoretical and empirical papers are welcome. Potential topics related to the central theme 'the public imagination of the future' include, but are not limited to:

Representing futures by articulating their multiplicity

Multiplicity of publics

Public performances of socio-technical imaginaries

Dramaturgy of meetings

Visibility of futures and the offshoring of alternatives

Intersections of public and private concerns

Relationship between experts and non-experts

The role of art and design in engaging publics

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Potential public use of 'Opportunity Radars'

Authors: Nicholas Rowland (Pennsylvania State University) email
Matthew Spaniol (Aarhus Univeristy) email
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Short abstract

As intellectual traffic between futures studies and science and technology studies deepens, identifying contributions that STS can make to FS has come into focus, and this presentation -- without irony -- imagines the potential public use of 'Opportunity Radars'.

Long abstract

As intellectual traffic between futures studies and science and technology studies deepens, identifying contributions that STS can make to FS has come into focus, and this presentation -- without irony -- imagines the potential public use of 'Opportunity Radars'. The authors make these claims, please note, as a collaborative research team composed of an academic trained in STS and an active facilitator of planning workshops for private sector organizations. The 'Opportunity Radar', as a tool, organizes aggregate imaginaries -- in many cases, real and potential market opportunities -- on a platform that resembles a (visual) radar screen. The potential of future public applications of this tool primarily hinges on the tool allowing for multiple inputs (i.e., from the public) in asynchronous collaboration. While most visions or imaginaries of the future are thought to be short-lived and inconsistent across actors, prolonged use of Opportunity Radars may help to overcome the perceived ephemeral quality of multiple local ontologies. The presentation concludes by staking-out how STS research can contribute to our understanding and application of tools like the Opportunity Radar.

The designer in the middle: urban futures for public consumption

Author: Roy Bendor (Delft University of Technology) email
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Short abstract

This paper asks about the role designers play in envisioning and communicating urban futures to the public. It suggests that the designer's capacity to evoke, challenge, and shape the public imagination is conditioned by three interrelated factors.

Long abstract

This paper asks about the role designers play in envisioning and communicating urban futures to the public. It suggests that the designer's capacity to evoke, challenge, and shape the public imagination is conditioned by three interrelated factors.

The first factor, following C. Wright Mills (1958/1963), concerns the ideological positioning of design. Here, designers are squeezed between the pressures of late capitalism (mass production, consumerism, etc.), and the possibility of maintaining the values and practices associated with traditional craft.

The second factor concerns the temporal orientation of design. On the one hand, design is essentially future-oriented (Fry, 2009), and designers are incessantly called upon to innovate and create novel future possibilities. In this sense, designers are deeply implicated in future-making (Yelavich & Adams, 2014) and worldmaking (Bendor, 2018). On the other hand, designers are firmly embedded in past traditions, heritage, and cultural memories, which they are wont to reinterpret and materialize.

The third factor concerns the place design occupies vis-à-vis the emergence and extension of urban sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff, 2015). Here, designerly visions inhabit a liminal space: neither committed to reproduce top-down bureaucratic visions of the future (such as those produced by city planners), nor entirely free to animate untethered imprints of the public imagination.

Based on these three factors, and exemplified with urban futures created in Rotterdam, designerly visions of urban futures appear as forms of mediation: quasi-public instantiations of the sociotechnical imaginary, equally reflective of technocratic demands, and of potentials for more radical, transformative urban futures.

Overshooting futures: investigating digital representations of scenarios with climate change

Author: Simon David Hirsbrunner (University of Siegen) email
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Short abstract

The paper conceptualizes 'overshooting' as a metaphor for understanding, conceptualizing and analyzing public imaginations. Focusing on digital mappings of sea-level rise and according debates, I investigate if and how public imaginations of futures with climate change may be (re)constructed.

Long abstract

'Overshooting' is a term leading through various debates on the future with global environmental change. It is a constitutional element of the planetary boundaries concept (Rockström et al. 2009), describing thresholds of the earth system. It is also explicit in the ‚Earth Overshoot Day' initiative, describing (un)safe environmental operating spaces for individuals and publics. Moreover, it is a term used in computer modeling, where "overshoot scenarios" describe future trajectories of greenhouse gases that temporarily exceed a dangerous threshold.

In my paper, I will take the ‚overshoot' metaphor further. Focusing on the example of digital sea-level rise mappings, I will argue that overshooting generally structures public imaginations of the future. While the mappings may be perceived as extreme scenarios, the amplification creates an overshoot of meaning, enabling the translation of scientific scenarios into cultural tropes such as the Abrahamic deluge; amplification as a way to shape imaginaries out of the invisible meta-crisis of climate change (Welzer / Leggewie 2010).

Overshoot is also fruitful to describe methodological and ethical challenges marking the investigation of public imaginations in the post-digital age. Based on a collection of digital material around the flood mappings (Twitter data, blog posts, articles, images, videos) and recent scientific debates (Marres 2017; Ruppert et al. 2013; Lury / Wakeford 2012), I ask how and what public imaginations are (re)constructed through our (digital) research strategies. 'Overshoot' may be productive to describe what is perceived, accounted for and can therefore be researched as public / future / imagination.

Disconcerting (big) data futures through data sprints

Author: Michael Hockenhull (IT University of Copenhagen) email
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Short abstract

This paper explores the co-construction of public imaginations of the future related to technology and (big) data taking place by limited publics on a mainly discursive basis, and suggests a novel method assemblage, the data sprint, as a way to produce disconcertment about these imaginations through practice.

Long abstract

This paper explores the co-construction of public imaginations of the future related to technology and (big) data in the scandinavian welfare state of Denmark, and discusses methods for gaining access to and studying this co-construction process. The paper provides an empirical account of such imaginations through ethnographic fieldwork of industry events aimed at both private and public sector actors. It describes how data-related futures of increased productivity, efficiency, smartness, livability and green are imagined by and for extremely limited publics, mainly consisting of corporate actors, civicl servants and administrators with token if any participation by actual diverse representation or citizenship. The fieldwork traces the co-construction of imagined futures mainly to discursive and sociomaterial presentations, omitting practice-based experience. Furthermore, the paper describes experimentation with a collaborative digital method assemblage and work practice, the data sprint, which through the course of the fieldwork came to act as both gateway to gain access to informants and as a collaborative meeting between ethnographer and informant in which disconcertment could be produced concerning the imagined futures at play through the practice of working with data and the mess involved in this process. The paper thus seeks to make two contributions: the first empirical, detailing how limited publics around data and technology-focused industry events are imagining futures in the Scandinavian welfare state. The second methodological, on how data sprints can act as ethnographic probes by providing access and provide a space for being disconcerted about imagined data futures.

Techniques of futuring: imagining sustainable cities of tomorrow

Authors: Jesse Hoffman (Utrecht University ) email
Peter Pelzer (Utrecht University) email
Maarten Hajer (Urban Futures Studio) email
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Short abstract

Building on recent writings on transdisciplinary science, this paper calls for a better understanding of the actual acts through which the future becomes represented in social and material forms and how this affects the relation between public deliberation, exchange and social inclusion.

Long abstract

It is widely acknowledged that overcoming the current planetary crisis warrants new ways of producing and integrating knowledge in in policy processes. The depth, width and urgency of issues likes climate change requires, it is argued, knowledge practices that not only explain change but that actively help to shape sustainable development. A key issue in this respect is the way in which specific epistemic practices like cost-benefit analysis and design thinking integrate ideas, feelings, analysis, and aspirations with building legitimacy and capacity for achieving change in practice together with diverse societal actors. Building on recent writings on transdisciplinary science, this paper calls for a better understanding of the actual acts through which the future becomes represented in social and material forms and how this affects the relation between public deliberation, exchange and social inclusion. It introduces and develops the concept of 'Techniques of Futuring' defined as practices bringing together actors around one or more imagined futures and through which actors come to share particular orientations for action. The paper introduces a theoretical framework that is empirically explored and refined through a case study of a transdisciplinary research and design project on the Neighborhood of the Future.

Futures limited: innovations pathways in public foresight

Author: Petra Schaper-Rinkel (Austrian Institute of Technology) email
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Short abstract

Public foresight as a policy practice to imagine and anticipate alternative futures produces often very 'limited futures'. The mainstreaming of possible futures towards innovation, jobs and growth is a result of processes and actors that are conceptualized to represent the public.

Long abstract

This paper analyzes how public foresight processes limit the anticipation of alternative futures. Foresight is used to create scenarios and visionary concepts and to promote cooperation between and among agencies, departments, academia, and stakeholders. Foresight and especially technology foresight processes shape and define research and innovation agendas and (re-)establish science-industry-society networks. Whereas knowledge and expertise related to future technologies (such as nanotechnology, SynBio or blockchain technology) is clearly connected to specific disciplines and research fields, the knowledge related to social and societal dynamics is not associated to disciplines and research fields. Instead it is linked to the public and to policy, not to knowledge but to a specific representation of the public through citizens or civil society organizations.

The aim of the paper is to show how the anticipation of alternative futures is limited by a specific and narrow definition of the representation of the public in public foresight. The paper offers a framework for understanding the limitations of today's public anticipation practices. Anticipating a future other than an extrapolation of the present needs to discuss disruptive events and path-breaking developments but the dialogic practice of public foresight reproduces innovations pathways limited by the policy frame of creating innovation, jobs and growth.

In conclusion, we discuss the implications of these findings for the epistemic and social development of anticipation practices that can overcome the limitations. Finally, the paper discusses approaches for the future development of public foresight towards societal futures.

Comparing visions via scenario development

Author: Coyan Tromp (Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Amsterdam) email
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Short abstract

Combining systems and design thinking in participatory scenario and vision development.

Long abstract

Defined as a package of future focused, science-based, value laden and policy oriented ideas which are captivated in a coherent overarching framework, visions can be considered as synonyms of paradigms. Forming the highest leverage points for intervention in a societal system (Meadows 2008), they are subjects of high stake public debates.

Scenarios provide rational frameworks for thinking about and mapping out various visions and possible futures. Though it breaks with modernity’s outdated idea of a manageable society, such frameworks do offer us the opportunity to make rational choices by showing us the condition space that define the possible scenarios, thus enabling us to choose the preferred future we want to go for. Using scenarios to depict visions of various possible futures enables us to compare political viewpoints and their varying underlying assumptions, and use it as input for well-informed and balanced public debates.

In my paper presentation, I’d like to explain how this approach enables us to sketch the various possible futures of human kind on planet Earth, as these are envisioned by renown scientists and world leaders, and how this can help to inform and engage the public in debates about desirable futures.

I can also explain how we have worked out this approach in the curriculum of our Future Planet Studies programme, to teach bachelor students how to engage with visions, and ultimately learn to develop visions on sustainable futures themselves, where possible in participatory processes with public involvement.

Women’s imagination of future, less polluted, urban environments

Authors: Maria Loroño-Leturiondo (Manchester Metropolitan University) email
Paul O'Hare (Manchester Metropolitan University) email
Simon Cook (University of Dundee ) email
Sam Illingworth (Manchester Metropolitan University) email
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Short abstract

Contemporary environmental challenges prompt exploration of local knowledge and of different societal groups. Here we present findings from interviews with women, who are key actors in the two main contributors to air pollution: transport and households. We discuss their views and imaginings of air pollution and clean urban environments.

Long abstract

In recent years there have been calls to explore local perspectives of global environmental challenges, and provide a more detailed study of people holding different socio-political positions in society. In response to the major air pollution crisis that we are facing globally – where 92% of the world’s population live in places that exceed the recommended annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 – we explore women’s imagination of future, less polluted, urban environments. Women are key actors in the two main contributors to air pollution: transport and households. In the UK today, women have different travel patterns to men. Studies show they sometimes value safety over travel duration, and today still assume to a greater extent of the responsibility for escorting children to school. Additionally, women still carry out most of the domestic work, such as cooking and laundering – according to the Office for National Statistics (2015), 60% of unpaid work in the UK is performed by women. Exploring women’s visions is necessary for two reasons. First, so that they are recognised in policy development and awareness raising efforts. And second, because they might be able to lead moves towards cleaner air as they already lead more sustainable lifestyles: they drive and own less cars than men, they also travel less miles per year, and make greater use of public transport. Here we present findings from a series of interviews with women, where we discuss their experiences of air pollution, and their imaginings of a cleaner urban environment.

Changing futures for gas in the Netherlands – exploring the role of the public in energy system change

Authors: Toyah Rodhouse (Delft University of Technology) email
Eefje Cuppen (Delft University of Technology) email
Udo Pesch (Delft University of Technology) email
Aad Correljé (Delft University of Technology) email
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Short abstract

The Dutch energy system is to be redesigned in response to public controversies regarding gas. Here, we present a conceptual framework to longitudinally explore the relationships between the evolving public debate on gas, concurrently evolving energy futures of decision-makers, and the process of redesign.

Long abstract

In recent years, use and production of natural gas in the Netherlands have brought about substantial public protest (Correljé 2018; De Boer 2015; Dignum et al. 2016; Metze 2017; van der Voort and Vanclay 2015). Contrary to the past, when the public had little actual influence in the decision-making process (Correljé 2018), decision-makers nowadays are making efforts to incorporate – and are arguably even driven by - public viewpoints on gas issues. Actions taken are various and include lowering the production ceiling of the Groninger field and decoupling the built environment from the gas grid.

As a consequence, the Dutch energy system is increasingly redesigned in response to public viewpoints regarding gas. In this paper, we develop a conceptual framework for understanding how system reconfigurations co-evolve with public viewpoints regarding gas. The framework explains how energy futures of decision-makers take shape (Delina and Janetos 2017), and how they concurrently interact with manifested and imagined publics (Walker et al. 2010) over time. To understand how this interaction materialises in specific energy projects, we will analyse a number of concrete real-world cases, such as a municipality’s ambition to go “off-grid”, a local project in which hydrogen is used as an alternative for gas, and a natural gas exploitation project.


Correljé, A., 2018. The Netherlands: resource management and civil society in the natural gas sector. In Public Brainpower (pp. 181-199). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

De Boer, R., 2016. Tussen hoogmoed en hysterie. Vijf jaar strijd tegen schaliegas in Nederland. Veen Media.

Delina, L. and Janetos, A., 2017. Cosmopolitan, dynamic, and contested energy futures: navigating the pluralities and polarities in the energy systems of tomorrow. Energy Research & Social Science.

Dignum, M., Correljé, A., Cuppen, E., Pesch, U. and Taebi, B., 2016. Contested technologies and design for values: The case of shale gas. Science and engineering Ethics, 22(4), pp.1171-1191.

Metze, T., 2017. Fracking the debate: Frame shifts and boundary work in Dutch decision making on shale gas. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 19(1), pp.35-52.

Van der Voort, N. and Vanclay, F., 2015. Social impacts of earthquakes caused by gas extraction in the Province of Groningen, The Netherlands. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 50, pp.1-15.

Walker, G., Cass, N., Burningham, K. and Barnett, J., 2010. Renewable energy and sociotechnical change: imagined subjectivities of ‘the public’ and their implications. Environment and planning A, 42(4), pp.931-947.

Imaginaries of acceptance

Authors: Bernhard Wieser (Graz University of Technology) email
Martina Lang email
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Short abstract

Analyzing focus group discussions, we assess digital health care technologies. We use video clips on imaginary health avatars to spark off discussions on sociotechnical futures. Our method invites you to join our critical reflection of the social construction of acceptance.

Long abstract

New technologies stimulate imaginations. Especially in relation to health care, digital innovations raise both hopes as well as fears. Robots and avatars promise solutions for an ever-increasing demand for care in ageing societies with growing rates of dementia and chronical illnesses. Yet, digitalization of medicine is also met with apprehensions. These range from privacy issues and loss of autonomy to concerns regarding inequality and marginalization within society.

Our research team produced video clips showing imaginary applications of digital health avatars. Showing these clips to a diverse variety of focus group participants, we stimulated them to envision more concretely possible scenarios of how future health care technologies might be applied. This allows us to obtain in-depth insight into how such imagined futures can be used to assess sociotechnical futures.

It was an important aspect of our project that we developed the displayed scenarios of future health care technologies collaboratively with medical doctors, IT specialists and health care providers. As trained social scientists, it was our explicit assignment in the project to assess the public acceptance of these socially constructed, sociotechnical health care futures. We include this significant context into our reflection on the potentials and limitations of our empirical methodology as well as the role of STS under the given circumstances.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.