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Futures, Data and Detecting the Magic: Reflections from Cat Zuzarte Tully

During Small Foundation’s global team gathering in November 2023, we reflected on the importance of data to understand impact. We tend to look to past and current information to piece together a view of the system, what is changing, and why. But is it also possible to look to the future for pathways to impact?

Speaking to the Small Foundation team, Cat Zuzarte Tully, Managing Director of School of International Futures (SOIF) shared insights on how the field of futures and strategic foresight relates to impact data.

Cat outlined several dilemmas:

  1. There is no evidence about the future.
  2. Futures analysis should include non-expert data (such as from informal sources or indigenous knowledge), which is hard to collect and validate.
  3. Causality of events is hard to demonstrate or attribute.
  4. The duration of data is hard to determine.
  5. Outcomes in complex systems are often emergent.
  6. Lip service versus behaviour; what people state happens is not necessarily what happens.
  7. Stakeholders are varied; ideally data should be collected across generations, disciplines, sectors and beyond.

Despite these challenges, SOIF has methods to assess dynamics that influence the future. They employ an appreciative inquiry approach to thinking about how complex systems might evolve; and have developed an Intergenerational Fairness Policy Assessment Tool for policy-makers.

SOIF futurists are also creating new spaces to collect and analyse data about the future. Cat pointed to innovations of SOIF associates, such as Bunmi Ajilore founding the Centre for Development Futures across West Africa; and the Farmers Futures Programme in Nigeria by Fisayo Oyewale.

“Magic happens from multidisciplinary connections.”

Looking to the year ahead, Cat signalled cause for optimism in how futurists can navigate impact data collection. She highlighted the importance of building linkages across siloes to access the ‘magic’ of multidisciplinary connection. The UN’s Summit of the Future 2024 will be an ‘unmissable opportunity to reimagine governance fit for the 21st century’, offering a platform for emerging voices in the field to shape how we think about the future.

She acknowledged that while results may not emerge from one entity or initiative directly, learnings can nonetheless be drawn. And that while data and stories are difficult to uncover, storytelling is essential to capture and share data in ways different communities can engage. An example is NGFP’s Future Methods from Around the World, which supports collective futures-based storytelling from indigenous and marginalised communities.

Finally, Cat shared a call to action for funders such as Small Foundation. Support from philanthropy can amplify and scale the innovations of foresight actors. For example Tolu Oni’s Urban Better project, activated by her NGFP fellowship and pilot impact fund, received significant investment from Unorthodox Philanthropy. She highlighted that philanthropic organisations should also leverage their ability to capture stories of impact, and support partners in their own storytelling.

We are grateful to Cat for sharing her insights with us and look forward to continuing learning from SOIF in the years to come.

SOIF is a global non-profit group of foresight and policy practitioners. Small Foundation has partnered with SOIF since 2020 to provide funding for the Next Generation Foresight Practitioners (NGFP) network in Africa that SOIF incubated and supports.

Launched in 2018 by SOIF, NGFP is a global network of more than 1,000 people using futures and foresight to create positive impact and systemic transformation in their communities and beyond. The seventh annual NGFP Fellowship launched today. Please reach out to katie@soif.org.uk to find out how to join the judging panel or otherwise support the Foresight Transformation Mission fellows.

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