Barcelona Cultura

Elisabet Roselló: the future cannot be designed

Elisabet Roselló (Barcelona, ​​1989) is the founder of Postfuturear, a research, consulting and strategy design agency based on Futures Studies, a discipline that studies and analyzes ongoing changes at a local and global level, projects them and helps to anticipate future scenarios, always considering a high degree of uncertainty.

Graduated in History from the University of Barcelona, ​​she has worked independently as a researcher and manager of cultural projects, trend analyst and project manager for various agencies and consultancies. Today he works full time at his agency, and is a Fellow at the Center for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies (CPPFS).

Roselló participated in the last conference "Design for living: designing futures in times of emergency" that the Design Museum organized with the aim of visualizing strategies with which design can contribute to making the likely future seem as much as possible to the desirable future: that which seeks common good. Curated by Óscar Guayabero, this year's sessions have been designed as a parallel activity to the exhibition "Emergency! Designs against COVID-19", which can be seen at the Museum until January 10.

In a scenario of generalized uncertainty such as the current, and about to start a new year, we decided to talk with Elisabet Roselló so she could give us her vision about the moment we are living, about how pending or worried we should be about the future, and about which role we play in a reality which, she insists, is not yet written.

2020 is almost over. A dystopian year, the year of the pandemic, a global event that we had not experienced. What do you think is the most important collective learning that we can take this year?

It depends on which social group you belong to, but I would say that managing uncertainty is a great learning experience this year – “uncertainty” understood as a lack of certainties, and the management of the sensations that derive from it (anguish, restlessness). Consequently, we have talked more than ever about emotional health, and we have broken the myth that human beings control nature, because a microscopic virus has had the ability to shake our lives from top to bottom: the economy, how we socialize, our lives, expectations, how we live our day to day... We’ve seen that the human being is not at the center and is not the only entity on the planet.

Do you think this learning is extended and solid?

We haven’t started over with a clean slate. Perhaps we are more aware of the time we spend working, or we have come to consider essential elements such as universal income and work-life balance... but no, I do not think that this learning is widely extended. Paradigm shifts are very slow processes: we are talking about thousands and millions of people and their life experiences. The events of this year have been catalysts for a debate, but nothing else.

Do you think it is an exaggeration to put the pandemic in the center so much? Many events have been happening worldwide since March and we always seem to be talking about the same one.

What has been put at the center, finally, is not the pandemic but the economy. Each country has done it in its own way, but it has been like that. We still live in an economic-deterministic society. Everything is a market, and it’s hard for us to actually imagine alternatives. As we also think in the short term, the priority now is to mitigate the effect of COVID, while other problems, which are also very serious but do not affect us right now –such as climate change– have been put on hold. In this sense, I highly recommend reading Capitalist Realism, by Mark Fisher.

You speak kind of lightly about it all.

I try to listen to and be inspired by people who are dedicated to scientific dissemination, who are trying to explain all this in the least dramatic way possible. I think we are lacking a good diagnosis of what is really happening. Perhaps it is not necessary for decisions to be made so quickly if what we want is to arrange this situation.

In articles and conferences you argue that the idea of ​​progress is a myth. Can you develop this?

The classical conception of progress, which is what we learn in school, is linked to the idea that the only possible way of evolution is to get better. The historical narration consists in taking examples from the past –of food, health, technology, safety– and comparing them with the present. So, of course, everything improves! If we compare the life expectancy of the Neolithic with the current, it is obvious that we have improved. But this is a fallacy: if we consider other aspects such as social organization, or how we model ourselves politically and culturally, or the way in which we have worked and enjoyed free time, we can see that we have been able to be more "developed" in moments of the past. In general, we assume that the present moment is the final destination of all possible evolution, and there is a fixation on studying history as if we were in a process of exponentiality.

When you say "the future does not exist", it can sound very pessimistic.

It is not. The future does not exist simply because it has not happened. And in the universe there is no such thing as a clue that tells us that the next few years are predefined. There are always uncertainties, you cannot know or calculate everything: even if you have the best mathematicians and the best calculation tools, there is always a degree of uncertainty. Mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb conceived the idea of ​​"black swans", understood as totally unpredictable events, which do not make any sense based on the evidence we have, but which, once they occur, have a very profound impact on society. "Black swans" that have happened throughout history show us that we cannot know what we call "future", and that nothing is marked or scheduled. Discovering that is liberating, because you realize that we can make decisions, that we can build realities.

Do you think that the Judeo-Christian cultural base of the global North leads us to a collective mindset according to which we assume that things are written, even though we are not individual believers?

Yes, quite. Often the narration within an environment such as the technological one makes statements such as "the future will be Artificial Intelligence" or "Artificial Intelligence will surpass human intelligence", and things like that, basically predicting events that we do not know will happen. In contrast, there is a cultural movement called Afrofuturism, which starts mainly from music and literature, and which is being linked to political movements, which seeks to define the future according to the knowledge of different African cultures, which have very different perceptions about time – in non-linear ways, for example. Two representative examples are the jazz musician Sun Ra and the books by Ytasha Womack.

And how did Futures Studies begin to exist as a discipline?

Futures Studies were founded as a discipline during the 50s of the last century, between the United States and the two Frances, that is purely in the Western world. They start off from the forecasting that was made for the Cold War –they are studies based on game theory– to be able to anticipate "the enemy". As a result of this, company consultancy arises, in which the oil company Shell invested a lot of money. Basically, the consensus is reached that predicting as it had been done until then is not useful, because there is a scenario full of contradictions that often ends up not happening. Thus, a different way of relating to change arises, and of understanding that we live in an increasingly complex system, to predict scenarios but from uncertainty. At the academic level, there are  Futures Studies research groups in Finland, the United States and Asia (Singapore, China, United Arab Emirates...).

As a historian and being in constant contact with future scenarios, do you defend the idea that "history repeats itself"?

Not entirely, in fact I'm not very much in favor of saying this. While it is true that we can observe collective patterns that can develop in similar situations, the causes are never the same. For example, when the anti-racism movements that Trump has fostered in the United States have emerged, many people have spoken out that this is a mirror of the history that occurred more than half a century ago. This is not true, because the causes that are fueling this racism and this fascism are economic, social and psychological factors that are very different from those of that time. Each moment and each place has its characteristics: the reactionary ideas of the United States are not the same as those of Spain or Poland. We must take a look and a study at the systemic level, because all these are complex phenomena, more related to the socioeconomic differences between people (which continue to expand), and with the economic model that we have.

Capitalism. It seems that everything always goes back to the same cause. At the moment, this doesn't seem like it's going to change, does it?

It’s a structural system, it is deeply rooted and we find it everywhere, in all our day to day life. On a cultural level, it is like sexism, it is in our mind, we have integrated and we practice "micro-capitalisms" on a daily basis. This type of transformation, therefore, must also be cultural, starting with changing daily practices and reducing consumption. The global economic model cannot change overnight... but yes, at some point it will disappear. The question is: where to? This is where we have something to say. This year Amsterdam has decided to impose the circular economy model, for example. There is more and more awareness, and the generations that go from the early thirties downwards are increasingly clear that this capitalism is absurd. But a system change is complex: you have to get down to work.

We know that you don't have a crystal ball, but now that we are closing the year and everything is so uncertain... Can you give us any certainty for 2021?

The vaccine is very close, but with the vaccine it is not all over. The problem will come when large quantities have to be produced in a short time, because this has a very high cost. In 2021 only a part of the population will be vaccinated, we will continue to wear a mask and keep our distances, life will continue to develop with measures, and new rituals will appear on the cultural level. Apart from that, climate change continues to evolve, and in China the new five-year plan has begun, one more step towards its consolidation as the world's leading power.


Ajuntament de Barcelona