The Earth system is now arguably in a novel, uncertain planetary era – the Anthropocene – in which human activities are a major planetary force1. These changes have largely been brought about through efforts to increase human wellbeing, particularly through conversion of land for food production and the extraction and use of fossil fuels2. This situation leaves us confronted with the grand challenge of the Anthropocene: how can people create a fair, prosperous, and sustainable planet when many people remain poor, and the activities that have created the Anthropocene are the main ways in which we have alleviated poverty to date?
Although the challenge of achieving a just and sustainable planet is daunting, there is hope. People are increasingly responding to the Anthropocene challenge with new ways of living that could contribute to the creation of a more prosperous, equitable, and just world – A Good Anthropocene3. We call these actions ‘seeds’ and define them as existing initiatives that are not widespread or well-known. These can include social movements, new technologies, economic tools, or social-ecological projects that appear to be making a substantial contribution towards creating a future that is just, prosperous, and sustainable.
There are many examples of new thinking, new ways of living, and new ways of connecting people and nature that address aspects of global problems, which could create different trajectories of future change. For example, there are groups reimagining the smart city concept and reshaping how urban citizens move around and reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprints; groups trying radically to reinvent finance for a greener world; people trying to reconnect human and ecological health; and many others (See Box 1 for some more in-depth examples). Indeed, the future does not have to be bleak.
On the global scale, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a set of aspirations for a more sustainable planet, but the pathways towards achieving these in an integrated way remains open. Although individuals, organizations and governments have repeatedly stated their desires and are even taking steps to create a better world, there is little agreement in the scientific or activist community on the details of what constitutes a good Anthropocene and how to bring it about. This may be due to the complexity and scale of change required, because different people’s understanding of what is ‘good’ can diverge, because our sense of the right pathways to a good end are not the same, or because efforts that work in one context might not work in others. Indeed, sometimes, actions taken by one group to create a good Anthropocene create a worse Anthropocene for someone else in another location, at another time, or with a different concept of what is ‘good’.
One method to help explore more positive futures and different potential pathways for achieving them is through scenario development4. While scenarios are a prominent feature of the global scientific community (IPCC, MA, GEO, etc.), there have been very few analyses of radically positive futures or how to achieve them from diverse perspectives. Those positive futures that do exist tend to follow a similar set of pathways that overestimate the power of mainstream strategies to bring about radical change3. This opens up three challenges for the scenario community: 1) scoping different perspectives on what would constitute a ‘Good Anthropocene’, 2) pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking to imagine positive futures that are radically different from the world today to help motivate transformative change, and 3) exploring what deeper structural changes may be needed in our politics, economies and societies to achieve a more desirable future. The Seeds of Good Anthropocenes Project aims to address these challenges by developing positive futures of the Anthropocene from a diversity of perspectives that inspire and empower people to start realizing them. The goal is that these visions need to be creative, innovative and transformative and operate across levels – from the local to the global.
In this paper, we present insights from an ongoing research initiative, “Seeds of Good Anthropocenes” (SOGA) that is at the forefront of approaches for imagining, exploring and creating more positive futures in the Anthropocene. The rationale underlying the project is that the current predominance of dystopic visions about the future – climate change, population booms, biodiversity loss, increased inequality – makes it very difficult to imagine how the world could work differently and inspire solutions towards achieving radical change. Identifying positive and inspirational initiatives that already exist, and exploring the kinds of futures they might help create, can empower people to think and act in ways that start creating these more positive futures.
In order to achieve its overall goal, the SOGA project has four interconnected objectives:
- Identify and collect in a database a diverse range of ‘seeds,’ (e.g. initiatives, organisations, projects, technologies, networks) that have high potential to contribute to Good Anthropocenes; .
- Analyze the features of initiatives with high transformative potential, the contexts that best support these initiatives, and their cross-scale interactions; .
- Develop methods for building more diverse, positive scenarios that push the limits of current thinking and build on the seeds in the database, to imagine radical transformative change across local, regional and global levels; .
- Convene the change-makers behind the seeds to create new connections and help catalyse large scale transformations; and.
- Explore the systemic structural features of today’s world that need to be addressed to facilitate transformative change, and enable current innovative initiatives to grow and flourish.
A key aspect of all five aims is a high level of engagement with people outside academia because of the recognition that transdisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration is vital to achieving transformative change. For example, seeds were collected in a series of participatory workshops in Southern Africa, and elsewhere, as well as online. In a parallel process, discussions about how to help people think more creatively led to the use of game design for developing scenarios. The project also involved experimenting with tools and methods to get people to think differently and more positively about the future. Over the duration of the project, several events took place where the team could experiment with different processes for collecting seeds, developing creative narratives of the future, and facilitating new connections amongst the innovators behind the seeds. Here, we reflect on these participatory processes.
Description of participatory methodological approaches using seeds
A central goal of the project is to use seeds as starting points for envisioning radically alternative scenarios of Good Anthropocenes. The ‘seeds’-based scenario approach responds to the need to avoid creating purely dystopian, utopian or business-as-usual futures, and the need to imagine futures that are at once truly novel, as well as concrete enough to inspire practical action5. The scenario approach being piloted is specifically aimed at better imagining emergent change.
The SOGA project has implemented a range of different approaches for scenario creation, including basic narrative development, live role playing games, the three horizons framework and others (Table 1).
These different approaches have been implemented in different versions at workshops, scientific conferences, with communities of innovative initiatives and with students to develop seed-based scenarios. Rather than pre-designing a given incarnation of a seed scenario development approach, a co-design process has also been piloted, where in a workshop format the participants conceptualize and experiment with how to best represent how seeds interact with their contexts and each other (by designing game or other interaction rules). This co-production approach allows for conversations about the nature of transformative change in the face of the Anthropocene, as well as providing an open approach to incorporating inter– and transdisciplinary perspectives into scenario building methods5.
One particularly useful approach that we have modified and adapted to develop scenarios from seeds is the Three Horizons framework. The ‘Three Horizons’ is a graphical framework for thinking about what currently dominates the world and how it can change6. The currently existing patterns of the first horizon, shift to fundamentally new patterns of the third horizon, through a period of transition in the second horizon. In this process we:
- Identify a set of disparate set of seeds that currently exist at the margins.
- Imagine a world in which these seeds have grown from the margins and interacted to be a dominant feature of society.
- This vision is then refined by looking backwards to the present and imagining what dimensions of our present world would have to become less important and what would need to increase for this world to occur.
- This then leads to a consideration of the pathways to get from the present to the future and the conflicts between the growth of the seeds and the decline of the parts of the existing world with which they are in tension (i.e the transition of the 2nd horizon).
- Finally, we identify what types of enabling conditions would be necessary to enable the conflicts and crises identified in step four to be resolved in a way that achieves a world in which the seeds can grow and interact in a desirable way. These insights can be used to create rich, multi-dimensional descriptions of sustainability transitions from today to the future.
The relevance of the seeds approach has also been highlighted by international assessment bodies, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) run by UN Environment7,8. Each of these assessment processes have been tasked with implementing more novel and policy-relevant scenario processes 9–11. IPBES used the seeds scenario approach in a nature futures workshop in Auckland, New Zealand that brought together an international group of stakeholders interested in the future of the Earth’s biodiversity in order to create positive visions that could inspire decision-makers and inform modelling processes7. In the GEO 6 process, the seeds approach was used to create an ‘innovative’ outlook section that talked to the environmental policy makers that commissioned the report8. Each of these processes has been informed by the theory underlying the SOGA project- that existing positive initiatives exist now that if brought together in interesting ways, could chart a more positive future for the planet.
These workshop interventions have resulted in some inspiring and innovative solutions to global challenges. One of the key thematic focus points of the project has been around creating positive food futures, and two seeds-based workshops have been run with this in mind- one in Stockholm and the other in Kyoto (Box 2 and 3). These examples highlight how the seeds approach can shed new light on how to confront wicked and complex global sustainability challenges.
The global food system represents a nexus of wicked sustainability challenges: it needs to feed a burgeoning human population while staying within planetary boundaries related to climate change, biodiversity loss and nutrient cycles, as well as addressing issues of malnutrition, and safety risks such as antibiotic resistance. Clearly, we need a substantial change – a transformation – of the global food system. While some features of this transformation have been articulated (e.g. shifting to vegetarian diets and cutting food waste), it remains unclear how actually to realize this transformation. The seeds approach allowed us to explore visions of food system transformations that are plausible and grounded in local realities.
Differences and similarities in the perceptions of what such transformations can or should look like have been unearthed. For example, some key food system actors may see sustainable food systems characterized by seasonally adapted diets and geographically limited trade with neighboring countries. Others may hold a more global perspective and focus more on agricultural production at scales to make food affordable globally. It has been important to highlight the diverse cultural values around food systems – e.g. valuing cultural landscapes with biodiversity aided by grazing animals versus a vegan diet with no animal products and therefore a lower environmental footprint- because, despite such differences, there might be several points of agreement. Importantly, these tensions and synergies are mashed together in the seeds process and are central in generating a vision of the future that is made up of multiple perspectives and trends and reveals overlapping goals.
There are several interesting potential next steps for this project, including further development of the scenario approach; development of a project ‘theory of change’; and exploration of how the various seeds in our database are – or are not – successful at bringing about transformation of their situation to a better Anthropocene. Key next steps include trying new contexts that have sometimes been problematic for scenario development, including developing scenarios with indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups, and with individuals that have contrasting ideas of what would be ‘good’ in a good Anthropocene. We have also experienced the positive, idea-sharing aspect of bringing together seed change-makers to share insights about what works and what are barriers – everything from managing local politics to organizational strategy to financial resources. This could be further supported to inspire and help increase the ability of these entrepreneurs to bring about positive transformation by developing new collaborative projects through a seeds network.
SOGA would like to build a seeds network to mobilize collective action and explore how the seeds could be scaled up in different ways to achieve transformative change, in particular those that can help in achieving an integrated set of SDGs. A critical aspect will be to continue to learn through the research and reflect on the project process as it evolves and takes on new shapes.
- We need new, positive and inspiring stories and visions of the future
- Seeds – innovations and experiments at the margins – can be a source of inspiration
- We can develop radically alternative, novel and positive future visions for the Earth and humanity by combining different seeds and exploring their implications
- Connecting entrepreneurs behind different seeds can foster learning and collaborations that can help catalyze larger scale transformation
- There are a variety of diverse methods and approaches that can be combined to create transformative spaces within which actors can participate in inspirational visioning that can turn into action
- Creativity and new ways of thinking and doing are critical to fostering new trajectories for the Earth and humanity
The project is funded by Future Earth in conjunction with the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) and ecoSERVICES, with contributions from the GRAID (Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for Development) project.
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