Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

As outlined in a previous post, to have hope is to be powerful. Many wonderful things are achieved by people simply acting from hope. Hope can be seen in foresight workshops when people have the opportunity to envision their preferred futures, when they are still in the ‘what if’ phase, invigorated and energised by what could be. From experience, it is clear that to have a vision is not enough. Leadership and change require individuals to act in the present to bring about the future that is desired. A theory of Hope was developed over 30 years ago that aims to explain the agentic and goal directional qualities of hope through cognitive psychology. Though probably not the whole answer, it has been rigorously studied and appears to hold up under a number of different scenarios. According to this theory, Hope can be learned and its qualities taught to those who do not already have them, and it can be passed on to children. It is this ability to be learned, and the positive correlations with psychological health and enhancement, that makes Hope Theory such an attractive framework for futurists.

Futures Studies, especially when developing images of preferred futures, inevitably falls across the concept of hope. Part of the work futurists do is facilitating people, both individually and in groups, to develop positive images of the future that then move them to action. The conventional view of positive images of the future is that it is the image itself which harbours the agentic qualities. The well-trained futurist is expected to work with a client to generate such a compelling vision that the client will move towards it of their own volition; however this may only be half of the story.

Hope theory suggests that the cognition of hope is broken down into three strands: goals, pathways and agency. These three strands interweave to deliver the successful nomination, pursuit and attainment of goals which results in high levels of hope. People who exhibit high hope cognition are able to achieve more difficult goals, have higher self esteem and better health outcomes. Those who are low in hope exhibit anxiety, extreme goal setting and lack of direction.

The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future – his future – was doomed.

With his loss of belief, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay .

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, reports when he was imprisoned in a concentration camp, some prisoners decided they would be liberated on a particular date, but when that date passed with no liberating troops in sight, they died soon after. He suggests that they gave up hope. However, his story also illustrates that in the most depraved situations imaginable, hopeful futures emerge. Viktor kept his personal hope alive by imagining himself giving lectures to students on a variety of topics, he had a goal to get out of the camp and thrive at a future time. From concentration camp survivors, women in war ravaged countries and children living through domestic hell; the anecdotal evidence is there that people who are high hopers will surmount large obstacles to achieve their goals.

From my perspective, the application to futures work is clear. As the future does not exist, it is those foresight outputs which have a goal-like appeal, consider the best paths to take, at the same time encompassing the motivation to work hard to achieve them that will be the most useful. This is perhaps most closely captured by the French concept of ‘prospective’ – ‘the knowledge of the past and the present join the desirable and build the choice and the action’ (Masini, EB (2002) ‘Visions of Cultures’). Foresight outputs without these aspects flounder as they are more closely aligned with wishful thinking and may in fact result in low hope thinking as the negative feedback loops in the thinking process increase. A foresight intervention aimed at eliciting a powerful vision of a preferred future for an organisation, which also energises the individuals within the group to believe they can achieve it, will be far more enduring than one that simply delivers the vision with no way of identifying the pathway to achieving it or who is able to move forwards. Similarly, if a futures intervention is to succeed in the present then it needs to have an outcome value for each individual which is greater than the effort needed to achieve it. This may come down to making sure that the people tasked with the delivery of particular elements have an affinity to those elements and have not simply been given something to do because of their status or job description.

Futures outputs, be they visions, scenarios or narratives of the future that contain goal setting, pathways and motivating factors will by definition be hopeful, but will they be moral and socially acceptable? Hope Theory is ostensibly value neutral, so there is no obvious moral guidance within the cognitive process. The first step, before goals are set, must be to populate the created future with a number of preferred moral standpoints. Hope Theory postulates that the goals set by most people will represent ‘good’ moral goals in line with the culture the person represents. However, in an organisational setting, this cannot be assumed and will only occur through an open and honest conversation between futurist, client and participants which explicitly places values at the centre of the futures being created.

We have developed the framework Actionable Foresight to encompass the dynamic of Hope Theory in foresight. We use this framework to both diagnose the point of intervention for a client and to design foresight processes. Actionable Foresight allows groups to engage with goal setting, pathways identification and identifying sources of agency. Our use of Actionable Foresight over the past 5 years or so has led us to understand how powerful the concept of hopeful futures is for individuals, groups and communities. Our workshop processes always encompass goal setting, pathways identification and engagement with where the agency for goal achievement will come from. We use a variety of tools to do this, overlaid with our use of Hope Theory as our meta-model, in addition we engage groups with the mantra ‘just because we can, does that mean we should?’ to open up the moral space for discussion of which future is ‘right’ and for whom.

This concept is one of the cornerstones of our practice, and it is becoming clear to me that it is a concept needed in a world where action on futures which are hopeful is going to become more important as time goes on.