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All possible futures

An interview with Roberto Paura

Published: 25 May 2023
Born in 1986, the scientific and cultural journalist Roberto Paura has helped bring to Italy the use of futurology as a scientific tool for predicting future developments in both the technological and social spheres. He has achieved this by founding the Italian Institute for the Future, the magazine Futuri and the Associazione Futuristi Italiani, as well as organizing various editions of the Futuro Remoto event and writing popular books, such as Occupare il futuro (Codice edizioni) and La fisica del tempo perduto (Cento Autori), that invite the public to understand the mechanisms and benefits of Futures Studies.

Considering you have studied both international relations and nuclear physics, you seem to embody the breadth of sectors that futurology deals with. How did you become interested in this science?

In many ways. On one hand, I am naturally attracted to the interaction of different disciplines, which pushes me to avoid becoming over-specialised. (I am neither a political scientist nor a physicist, and I am completing a new degree in history even if I am not a historian.). Futures Studies are a meta-discipline precisely because they are interdisciplinary by nature. On the other, I tend to see things in the long term and to try to understand where the dynamics of the present may push us if they are not adequately managed. Being involved in communicating science and scientific journalism allowed me to get to know many experts from different fields and understand how urgent the topic of the future is and how little it is studied. I then came across Futures Studies thanks to the very few people who were involved in this in Italy at the beginning of the last decade. The decision to try to relaunch this field of study therefore came naturally.

Futurology involves exploring possible probable futures. Which tools do you use to do this?

To be more precise, while futurology is founded on the study of probable futures – because it naively believes there is a foreseeable future out there – Futures Studies broadened this goal about fifty years ago by analysing the interdependence between three dimensions: probable futures, possible futures and preferable futures. Each of these requires different research tools. The best-known ones regard the first dimension (probability) and are mainly quantitative and statistical, like the construction of predictive indices or analyses of historical series. A typical qualitative-quantitative method is the Delphi survey which collects the opinions of selected experts on the probability and impact of events that may happen in the future. Qualitative methods mainly involve horizon scanning, i.e., the scanning of sources to understand the evolution of major mega-trends, identify emerging phenomena or anticipate wild cards (or so-called "black swans"); and the construction of scenarios, which is the final stage in any analysis of the future. Scenario planning uses various methods according to whether the aim is to define only the most probable future, or broaden the horizon towards several possible scenarios, or even identify a "preferable future" on the basis of which intervention strategies can be defined in the present.
Occupare il futuro
What is the goal of the Italian Institute for the Future, you founded in 2013?

To raise awareness of Futures Studies and the use of its tools, in order to broaden the national debate on the great challenges of the future. For us, the emphasis on methods is not an end in itself or limited to the sphere of consultancy but is always aimed at enhancing the "capacity for the future" of the citizens, young people, businesses and institutions we work with. This means strengthening their knowledge of global megatrends and their long-term implications and equipping them with tools designed to help them, not endure the future, but to change it to meet their own goals or mitigate its negative effects. The great future scholar Alvin Toffler defined this goal over fifty years ago as democratising the debate about our tomorrow to avoid the "shock of the future".

Today, many ecological activists say our future is increasingly at risk. Groups such as Extinction Rebellion or the aptly named, Fridays for Future demand that we change our production model to think about tomorrow’s generations too. How important is the environment when studying possible futures?

It is decisive. In fact, it is the rock on which Futures Studies was originally founded. This discipline developed out of studies made by the Roma Club on the limits of growth. This was the first major study on this issue, and it gave rise to the concepts of both sustainability and climate change. The scenarios created by the IPCC - the UN climate change panel - are based precisely on the idea of analysing the intersection between economic and political models and environmental transformations in a multidimensional, systemic perspective, similar to Futures Studies. Today the Anthropocene is the most correct way to define both the present in which we live and the future that awaits us. In other words, a world distorted by an ever-greater human footprint. This is why we need to identify ways of exiting the Anthropocene and creating a sustainable balance between human civilisation and the biosphere. This requires radical, innovative solutions rather than a simple ecological transition. Something more akin to a conversion of human thinking to new paradigms.

“I never worry about the future, it always comes soon enough,” said Albert Einstein. Big American tech companies are cutting their workforces, while political institutions are looking for tools to decrease the influence of Big Tech. Now, for example, a lot of people are worried about AI developments, and in Italy the use of ChatGPT has been temporarily blocked. Do Futures Studies place any hope in technology? Do they help you not to worry?

Technological acceleration is one of the issues that Future Studies analyse most, as its typically exponential development allows us to predict the enormous impact it will have on society. We can distinguish between two broad approaches in our sector: that of the techno-optimists and that of the techno-realists. The former believe that in the long run, technology will solve all of humanity's problems and allow us to usher in a new era of civilisation, abundance and perhaps even immortality. The techno-realists (which I think I belong to) view this rhetoric with suspicion and point the finger at the enormous concentration of Big Tech power, whose visions of the future have, today, become hegemonic and are clearly staking their claim to colonise the future. This obviously does not imply any tendency towards Luddism. Our goal is always to make the future more human-centric and to allow people to choose what the goals of technology should be and how we can use it for real human emancipation and concrete social progress. These are goals that are significantly different to those of Big Tech.

Can you tell us one thing in this complex world that makes you look to the future with optimism?

Our ability to imagine futures that are different to the present. Even if it is an increasingly limited capacity, as long as we are able to imagine that another world is possible, then there is hope for tomorrow. I have great expectations for the new generations and their capacity to try to change the future.