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Essay Michiel Schwarz: 'Future is a verb'

At the invitation of Waag Futurelab, Michiel Schwarz wrote an essay on the future. Schwarz is an independent cultural thinker, social innovator and sociologist of the future. He focuses on design, urban planning and social sustainability. In the essay: Future is a verb (from future-shock to future-making), Schwarz argues that new local forms of collaboration are the only way to achieve a sustainable and inclusive future. 

download the essay

Hi Michiel. Why do you call future a verb?
'We often talk about 'the' future. But I don't see it as a destination or something coming at us at high speed. It is something we have to create together. Often it seems like external forces like 'technology' will cause the future to look very different.

But just as we write history, we must also write the future.

But just as we write history, we must also write the future. The future must be our future and not their future. Hence the subtitle: from "shock" to "make. We need not fear it, but we must change our attitude from passive observers to active participants in shaping the future.'

An important concept you describe is sustainism. What do you mean by that? 
'It is a form of culture, how we look at the world, what our values are and how we shape the world. I see it as the next phase of culture after twentieth-century modernism. In the last 10 to 15 years, we have seen a cultural shift toward important things like a more sustainable social environment, ecology, engagement and small scale. Take city makers: developing the city from the bottom up instead of from the top down.

Joost Elffers and I gave this culture change a name for over a decade in a sustainist manifesto: if sustainability is the goal, then sustainism is the culture needed to achieve it. Carried by people and communities. Local markets, Do-It-Yourself movement, self-building and city makers are examples of a new practice. And it is fundamentally different from the global view focused on scalability and growth. People want things up close again. This essay is a plea to invent those new local forms as the core of our social future-making.' 

People want things up close again.

Who has the most influence on our future? And who ideally sits at the design table of the future? 
'The big powers and forces in construction, medicine, agriculture and technology are still leading. But the movement that began as a counter-movement is really beginning to take shape. In ten years, twenty to twenty-five percent of our economy, agriculture and production will be based on these other values. You can already see it in the growth of cooperatives and activity in the local economy. We have to get rid of the idea that the whole world has to deal with economy and production in the same way. 

How do you yourself see the future? Are you optimistic? 
'Certainly. If you look at how fast things are going in recent times. Local is growing and really getting volume. When I see how young people look at nature and sustainability I am really optimistic. Change like this often goes through governments and large institutions.

If 30 percent of these types of organizations start working with a different mindset, the models will shift. Think of the locality principle: what can be done locally, should be done locally. If you start introducing this by law, which I certainly see happening, you can make great strides.' 

You write about "civic design" as a method. Can you cite an example? 
'I see our future as a collective design question. 'Civic' is about communities and relationships in society. City-making is a good example of that: that people themselves start to design places, maintain them and live in them. Neighborhoods, community gardens, communal spaces, all based on shared ideas about how we design our local environment.' 

If there's one person to read the essay, who do you pick? 
'That conflicts a bit with the point of the essay, because I think everyone should read it. At the very least, all civic leaders and local politicians in the Netherlands should read it. Not so much from a political decision-making perspective, but more from the tone of the public conversation in municipalities and the local component of my story. The future lies at the local level! It really takes a shift to think about the big issues from a local scale, rather than the other way around.

There really is a shift needed to think about the big issues from a local scale, rather than the other way around.

In addition, I want people working on a local initiative to see that they are part of a much bigger picture, a movement. All revolutions started small and local. If you add up all the local alternatives, hundreds of millions of people worldwide are already working on shaping their future.'