Interview with Riel Miller at Cesco Week Santiago 2019

Riel Miller: “I hope that the mining industry would have the confidence to say that they could be wrong”

The Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO was the keynote speaker at the Cesco Dinner 2019. Dr. Riel Miller’s speech challenged the audience to think creatively about the mining industry and its role in the world today. He explained that such creative thinking depends of understanding why and how we imagine the future.  Getting better at ‘using-the-future’ is a crucial ingredient for enhancing what we see and do in the present.

Riel Miller, Canadian economist, is a world leader in the field of Futures Studies. Currently he is travelling around the world to co-create UNESCO’s Futures Literacy Labs. The goal of these Labs is to explore why and how people use the future. This tool offers a learn-by-doing approach to getting better at using-the-future. Over the last seven years he has conducted more than 60 Labs, in over 20 countries. Participants in these custom designed Labs gain the capability to harness their imaginations in new ways and open up new opportunities in the present.

Recently Dr. Miller visited Chile to run Futures Literacy Labs and give a keynote speech to more than 1.700 industry leaders attendeding the Cesco Dinner 2019.

In an interview with Cesco, Riel Miller speaks about the role of Futures Literacy in equipping people to engage with complexity and the impact that cultivating this skill could have on society, the mining industry and humanity in general.

In simple words what is Futures Literacy?

Futures Literacy is the ability to understand the different ways we use the future. It’s like reading. When you learn to read you need to first learn the alphabet, then you start to understand words and paragraphs; and eventually you are able to distinguish different kinds of literature, non-fiction, etc. And you become able to write and read for many different purposes. Futures Literacy is similar, it is a skill that helps people to understand that you can use the future for difference reasons and with different methods. Being ‘futures literate’ enables people understand why and how they are using their imaginations to describe the future; and it helps them to grasp the impact of the futures we imagine on what we see and do in the present.

How can you train the ability to imagine, think and balance the ideas about the future?

One of the things that we know is that different children learn to read in different ways. In the same way, learning about the future and how to use the future is something that different people do in different ways, but I have observed – because I do this all around the world – that it’s quite important to let people learn by experience. So, inviting people to think about the future is the way for them to learn to use the future in different ways for different reasons.

How much impact do assumptions about the future have on our actions today?

There are many different kinds of assumptions that we make both in order to imagine the future and take action. These assumptions shape the images we imagine about the future. For instance the assumptions we make about what defines a “good future” or about the practicality or ‘realism’ of a particular future. We use such assumptions to create scenarios, like a simple one you invent when considering which restaurant to choose for dinner. You imagine what it will be like and depending on your tasts and mood you will decide whether to go or not. Same thing when thinking about going to the cinema. You make a bunch of assumptions, based on experience, reports by critics, etc., which allows you to imagine what it might be like – then based on that ‘scenario’ you make your choices.

Bottom line – since it is your assumptions that determine the future you imagine (you can’t go to the future to test your assumptions, since the future does not exist yet) and the future you imagine has a huge impact on what you perceive and do right now – anticipatory assumptions have a huge impact on our actions today.

Are there any techniques to ensure we make correct assumptions and avoid mistakes?

No. There is no way to know in advance if you are making the correct assumptions. Mistakes cannot be avoided. We live in a creative universe, not a deterministic one. The good news is that this creativity gives rise to incredible phenomena, like humans, the bad news is that the search for certainty is a trap. A more humble point-of-view accepts that the future cannot be engineered while at the same time appreciating that both success and failure are opportunities to learn. I call this ‘walking-on-two-legs’, from the 20th century perspective on the relationship between two radically different and incompatible paradigms: industrial and agricultural, worker versus peasent. The point here is that we are making bets all the time, locking in our assumptions and images of the future and making irrevocable choices. The challenge is to combine this planning based conception of human’s ability to see and do with a more open use of our imaginations. One that helps to detect and give meaning to the diverse experiments taking place all around us. This is the key to being more agile, more innovative and better able to avoid excessive sunk-costs and the ensuing path-dependencies.

What is the utility of Futures Literacy for the mining industry?

The mining industry is powerful, for many reasons. History, expertise, importance in the functioning of today’s world. With power comes responsibility and opportunity. I think that the mining industry has the responsibility to take advantage of the opportunity to deploy its wealth of experience, expertise and resources (of all kinds) to experiment with new approaches to meeting humanity’s challenges. I’m not saying go wild, bet the store on one big gamble. Even though the mining sector has more experience with that kind of exhuberance than almost any other. No, what I’m suggesting are small but highly creative initiatives – ones that question the basic ideas that today we take for granted. What about a world with no mining but sufficient minerals to live “well”? Or perhaps a world that is no longer “monumental” but light, fluid, neo-nomadic, where today’s mining companies enable raw material sourcing where-ever, when-ever? These are not meant as goals or utopian futures, but as ways to question current assumptions and detect and invent the potential of the present. My hope is that the mining industry could play a leadership role in taking advantage of complexity, the unknowability of the future. I imagine a mining industry with the confidence to experiment – to go outside its confort zone, beyond the box of engineering tomorrow.

Is Futures Literacy the best way to achieve sustainability in a business?

Yes and no. Yes because a better understanding of why and how to use-the-future provides a much better basis for sensing and making-sense of the world around us. No because there is a difference between the sustainability (continuity) of one company or one organism and the resilience of whole systems (as transformation). The world around us works in an evolutionary way; trial and error, things that fail, things that die. If you have many companies trying many things then you have a strong evolutionary context. But if a firm or organism were to live forever, be forever sustainable, then you defeat the purpose of an evolutionary system. The dinasours would still be around and I’d be working in the fields as a peasent. So, if firms die, if sectors die, if nations disappear, it’s not a problem, that’s something wonderful about our universe, which is full of complex emergent evolution. Expecting that a firm should live forever makes no sense to me. On the other hand, being able to adapt and maintain a connection to what we consider to be important in terms of value, that is how the limits are tested. Entry, exit, birth, death, these are the dynamic movements of a system. Futures Literacy helps us to take advantage of both of these dimensions.

Can you name any successful experience globally where Futures Literacy had helped a business or a sector to go further?   

As I hinted at in my answer to the previous question, what is important is to understand what we mean by success. Imagine that a baby was successful in always crawling. What an amazing story of successful crawling, but a very bad story of successful walking. Right now the main success of the work being done to explore Futures Literacy is that we are generating evidence of people use the future for many different reasons, deploying many different methods. In this sense the success so far is making something that was largely invisible visible. This is like the microscope, which made the previously invisible bacteria in a drop of water visible. Yet, it took two hundred years to understand the meaning or role of bacteria in creating infections. And even when the evidence from laboratory experiments and statistical analysis showed the necessity for doctors to wash their hands before surgery, many physicians resisted. Why should they change their methods? Why believe the new theories and related evidence? Today the realisation that do not understand our anticipatory systems and processes is only beginning. Daring people, ready to experiment and step outside-the-box of current thinking, are experiencing the power of Futures Literacy. There are companies and communities, take a look at the case studies in the book (Transforming the Future) that have significantly enlarged the menu for action and been willing to make new choices from the new menu. What is already clear is that a futures literate organisation will be able to see and do much more than one that is illiterate.