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The Futurist: Nicklas Larsen, interview from SCENARIO Magazine issue 62 (2021)

The audacity of hope: That’s the title of a bestseller by former US President Obama – but it could just as well be a headline for the intellectual journey that Nicklas Larsen has been undertaking for the past few years.

As a recovering marketeer, the past eight years at the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies have made Larsen a strong advocate for an approach to futures studies that considers the broader needs of people and systems at all levels of society.

“One of my first assignments was assisting in the creation of a roadmap towards sustainable procurement for the UNDP,” he says. “And while being incredibly diverse, the bulk of my futures portfolio has focused on public service broadcasting and all kinds of issues related to the future of health as we built up that vertical, today a CIFS-stronghold. This type of work really opened my eyes concerning how future studies can serve public interests by providing potential answers to societal challenges, and not just securing the survival of corporate multinationals into the future. So, while the demand for foresight today, for all its merits in strategy, risk management and innovation, is still mostly commercially rooted, I sense that the market is developing in a more altruistic and public direction, as cultural institutions and governments are gearing up to represent and safeguard the interests of future generations, and the educational systems start to acknowledge the value of training students’ anticipatory capabilities. It’s in these intersections that I believe I can make a difference.”

Today, Larsen is an integral part of the Institute's public outreach activities, and is working with educational and cultural institutions like UNESCO, who appointed him Senior Curator for the Futures Literacy Summit in 2020. He may also be known to readers of this magazine as the author of the 'Applied Futurism' column, in which, together with pioneers in the futures field, he explores the future as a source of hope, social innovation, and sustainable development across such domains as art, design, teaching, queerness, Africa and humanitarian aid. As a born optimist, a terrible cook, and a rebellious advocate for change, he aims to bring the future out of the ivory towers and boardrooms and into the public sector and the hearts and minds of the people through arts, culture, and education.


Larsen’s greatest inspirations of late relate to precisely those domains. “We are launching the Institute’s Arts & Culture focus area with a new report entitled ‘Futures Shaping Art:Art Shaping Futures’. It explores how futures influence the arts, and conversely, how wider audiences can engage through the arts with the possible futures that lie ahead of them. I’ll also be co-hosting a podcast series that will study the future of empathy, as a response to the broken promise of how the internet was supposed to bring us all closer together. In each episode, we’ll be inviting academics, artists, and start-ups that re-wire immersive tech with empathy at the centre of modern tech culture. Finally, I am stoked to see our Futures on the Curriculum initiative succeed, as we will be bringing futures literacy and foresight to thousands of students via Niels Brock, Copenhagen Business College, which is where I studied myself – truly a full circle moment for me,” he says.


Larsen defines futures literacy as the ability to imagine the future in different ways, and to know why it is necessary, while also using this to challenge one's own ingrained ideas, biases and assumptions, so that you can better conceive of alternative future scenarios and view the present in a new light. “I find that with futures literacy, the world has been given both an understanding and a language that hold the key to challenging ‘business as usual’ and to democratise futures thinking,” he says. “It prescribes how we plan and prepare for the future, and how we struggle to create spaces to explore new things, and as a result often end up reproducing the past in new shades – which we ought to question, in order to overcome blind resistance to change and poverty of the imagination.”


While making an effort to recognize the current state of affairs, Larsen’s optimism is of the principled kind. “We have an abundance of dystopias in pop culture to fuel our imagination,” he says. “But in terms of future alternatives, dystopias are limited in their ability to positively contrast the core developments that they warn against. In itself, dystopian thinking cotains a profound pessimism on humanity’s behalf, and in the worst cases, that results in apathy, which we can't afford, as our problems demand that we think beyond our own lifetimes. We now know a great deal about some of the changes that are on the way. This comes with responsibilities, as our moral horizon has been extended to those as yet unborn. That's why our public sectors need to adopt more anticipatory governance and go beyond party politics and election cycles, and that’s why the Applied Futurism format sheds light on the pockets of future use around the globe that bring us forward.”


The role that utopian thinking plays in Larsen’s approach to futures is of the critical and process-oriented kind: “Rather than seeking to provide a definitive answer to what an ideal society should look like, I am more interested in exploring paths to real societal improvements,” he says.


“So the focal point is on how to maintain hope and translate it into action. It’s equally important for our discipline to break with the false premise of short- vs. long-term thinking, and instead insist on providing clarity concerning what can already be done now. In that way the long term connects to behaviour and policy in the short term. When creating future scenarios for guidance or inspiration, I believe that our discipline has a responsibility to answer questions of privilege and inequality. Who will benefit from this future? Who will fall further behind? Who is rendered invisible? Who will have more power, access, and opportunity, and who will have less? These important questions are often left out in foresight. So, while we must beware of the limitations of the toolbox, the future ought to be the concern of everybody. After all, it is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives.

Interview by Professor and Author, Christian Baron. 

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