Bettina Warburg - "People Underestimate the Power of the Future"




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Mar 11, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Bettina Warburg - "People Underestimate the Power of the Future"

In order to look to the future, we must first understand our past, or so the saying goes. For those at the Institute For The Future (IFTF) that is a daily norm in preparing for the years ahead. Bettina Warburg addresses the session participants regarding the importance of new "open spaces"

Bettina Warburg, a Public Foresight Strategist at the Institute For The Future (IFTF), a non-profit research organisation based in California, is remarkably effervescent and almost contagious in her positive outlook for the future when we meet at the recent philanthropy session in Salzburg. “I really believe the future is a safe space,” she explains.

She reflects on Salzburg Global's ethics as similar to the IFTF’s mission, “People underestimate the power of [the future] because we don’t have time to think about it very often, but when you do sit down in really diverse groups to consider the future, and you think far enough out, like ten years or more, you end up realizing that people are much more open-minded and much more excited about options that are pretty close and are actionable today.”

Warburg’s primary focus is on revolutionary “think-spaces”, open places for communities to come together and collaborate in innovative and creative ways on unique projects. The open spaces are not just a retreat or a haven for many people, but they are oftentimes the only space in which to express themselves in big cities, not only in the California area, but increasingly around the world: in Paris, in Berlin, in Barcelona.

“You do something different with your society, you play out your politics and dialogue and meet people who come from different socio-economic backgrounds and really challenge your stance on different areas of interest. And I think that is where we get creativity, we keep our diversity and we avoid polarization of societies.”

Passion and enthusiasm are key drivers in the revolutionary model. She considers California as a state populated by the more liberal, the more innovative, and the more open-minded. She describes cities where people work together on projects for areas in which they have little or no experience, and limited resources, particularly financially. Despite the almost hyperbolic descriptions, there is no doubt that these projects are having massive success, regardless of restrictions.

“If there’s no financial incentive, then that is the one reason we are brought together. You end up with a lot more freedom to bring your best self to that project. So that is a lot of where that creative spirit comes from.”

The Institute supports these innovative projects because they are trying to revolutionize the way we consider the future, and what we are capable of achieving if we cooperate outside of normal social interactions at work. “The lack of agenda is really important in that we bring our best selves to projects that are just pure passion.

“In doing that we have opened the door to people thinking about problems differently and thinking about the resources that they have at their fingertips these days and trying to tinker with systems and systemic problems, not just objects and products.”

That is not to say that the IFTF forgoes existing institutions and means of communications. Warburg readily admits that she has a penchant for print books and would hate to see the New York Review of Books go out of publication. She insists that if there is clever innovation, these resources can remain important. “It is more a relevance question and we should be asking those institutions to address their own relevance and ensure they stay relevant in the long run.

“You see things like libraries across America that have taken on the task of including 'maker spaces' in their space. Thinking about how space is used and what the community really needs and what is called for.”

Monitoring progress, the IFTF invests its efforts in learning from cultural, social, and particularly, technological developments. The projects that it supports are often not just original, but they contribute to the Institute's “toolkit of foresight methodologies”; that is to say, the group is better able to advise on development projects and suggest areas for investment for other philanthropy groups as well.

There will be a rise in “the evolution of feedback” to support this process, suggests Warburg. “You want all of these forks of the same information to be able to come back to the central source and say this is what we learnt, this is how this is going, and iterate throughout the process. I think that is a lot of the future for our information age. It is much more about feedback loops and learning from our own learning.”

This casual approach to progress has been welcomed in some parts of the US, where Warburg credits the can-do philosophy as the reason for the boom, describing “an attitude towards giving and particularly volunteerism.”

“[When] you see you have built something yourself, or you’ve taken the trouble to find a group that you want to help in some way, or you have found a group that will help you do whatever you have set out to do, then you will have a certain amount of tacit experience and knowledge that you have gained from that which is valuable beyond words.”

For all Warburg’s enthusiasm, the key to the IFTF’s projects is collaboration and interaction. It will take a continued commitment to plan for the future, and that could prove the real stumbling block, as was reflected at the “Value(s) for Money?” session.

“There is definitely a role to play for all societies in being able to - individually and as communities - take on their own challenges and run with them in creative way; a sense of being global and local at the same time.”

Bettina Warburg was a speaker at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Value(s) for Money? Philanthropy as a Catalyst for Social and Financial Change", which was sponsored by Hivos. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the