Zarina Nalla

Zarina Nalla

The concept of literacy means much more than simply being able to read and write. Most of us may be familiar with financial or technological literacy. But, when we speak of futures literacy, we are referring to the area of human imagination.

One can only imagine the future. Futures teach us to harness the power of images of the future, and identify the diverse choices that can lead to different consequences.

Very often, underlying assumptions and fears limit this imagination to create an alternative or preferred futures when, in fact, our imagination is limitless. What inhibits us from freely imagining what the future can be? Past biases, cultural norms and preconceived ideas, just to name a few.

We may have to go through a process of unlearning to unleash the undiscovered power of imagining our desired futures. Speaking to various industry representatives revealed that many prepare for the future, but do so without foresight consciousness. Some claim they have all the data, but are clueless as to how to harness it.

By the time trends are properly qualified, it may be too late to act. Others have miscalculated and are ignorant to the daunting possibility that their organisations may no longer exist in a decade.

They could be "Kodak-ed". Did the taxi industry foresee the coming of Uber or Grab? Myopia sets in when managements become comfortable with their three-year action plans, which are not based on any upward trajectory aimed at the preferred future.

How do universities stay relevant and even excel? Today, with the new norm, digital onboarding is critical. Many businesses have disappeared because they were unprepared for the pandemic. Institutions that were strong with an online presence landed with a softer thud.

This is a case in point which demonstrates the importance of futures literacy. We cannot predict the future, but we can test probabilities and draw up action plans for different scenarios.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), headquartered in Paris, began building a global futures literacy network in 2012 by identifying local champions in more than 20 countries.

Multiple chairs have been initiated in Finland, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Tunisia, the United Kingdom and Uruguay. The chairs advocate innovative methods or tools of "using-the-future", while partnering members from the civil society, government and the private sector.

The International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) is proudly the 2020 Candidate for the Unesco Chair in Futures Studies. As such, we were offered to host a booth at the recently organised Unesco High-Level Futures Literacy Summit, which had more than 8,000 registered participants. Exhibitors included 100 institutions showcasing their past, current and forthcoming projects in the area of foresight.

The summit, which began on Dec 8, provided testimonials from around the world that being futures literate changes what people see and do. From high-ranking leaders in the public and private sector to activists, artists, students and professors, the summit showed how people become futures literate and the impact it has on all aspects of life, from dealing with Covid-19 to breaking the reproduction of oppression.

High level speakers had engaged in "futures conversations", including Higher Education Minister Datuk Dr Noraini Ahmad, the Costa Rican vice-president, ministers from Austria, Canada, Côte d'Ivoire, Finland, the Philippines and Sierra Leone. Others included heads of international organisations like the Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation director-general, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development secretary-general, Foresight of the European Commission vice-president and professors of universities in China, Egypt, France, Thailand, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

IIUM has taken concrete steps to adopt the foresight framework in its vision and planning. Still, after 37 years, how can IIUM fortify the higher education scenario in Malaysia?

The question had to be addressed urgently. With that in mind, the management embarked on the Futures Scenario Building workshop led by Professor Sohail Inayatullah. The event began with the course leader asking participants honest questions and later breaking them into different groups to represent the different scenarios.

The whole process was meant to map the future in a structured way through identifying emerging issues and trends, understanding their implications, deconstructing metaphors and narratives, creating alternative and preferred futures, as well as designing relevant strategies.

Institutionally, IIUM envisions itself as part of the global Muslim ummah, simultaneously acting as a global citizen, working for humanity.


The writer is head of Futures Studies, Office of the Rector, International Islamic University Malaysia

Published in: The New Straits Times, Friday 01 January 2021