Austerity Futures: Imagining and materialising the future in an age of austerity.

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Sociology


- In what ways is the future imagined?
- Do changes in economic and social circumstances, like recession and austerity, change our view of what the future holds?
- How is the future planned for, anticipated and/or pre-empted? How do austerity cuts encourage or discourage certain plans for the future?
- What are the different ways in which policy or business attempt to prevent certain futures and bring other futures into being?
-How do we experience the future in the present and what does a focus on the future tell us about today's values, beliefs and ideals?
In recent years the idea that we are progressing towards a future that is better than the past and present has tended to dominate Western societies. Barack Obama campaigned for the US Presidency on a message of hope in 2008 and in 1997 the Labour election anthem promised that 'things could only get better'. However, this optimism about the future has been placed in doubt following the 2008 global financial crisis and in the face of predictions about environmental catastrophes, terrorism, food and security issues. It seems that today, in what David Cameron calls a new 'age of austerity', hopes that the future will not be better -richer, healthier, happier- for the next generation are diminishing.
In the context of an austerity society, this series of events brings together leading researchers with those working on techniques in the public, private and third sectors for mapping the future in order to provide a forum for the exchange of knowledge and understanding and to stimulate debate and discussion on the future. The series is particularly interested in addressing how a shift to an austerity society, where both personal and state thrift is emphasized as a means to correct a flatlining economy, effects the kinds of futures that are seen as possible. Are hopes for the future that new medical and technological developments promise on the wane, or, conversely, is technology seen as a means of generating a better future? Are activists' conceptions of a more environmentally friendly society diminished or re-invigorated by austerity measures? Have our aspirations for the next generation faded as a result of widespread economic, social and policy change?
The series of five seminars and one international conference will be held at different universities across England and at the Work Foundation, London. They will cover topics such as environment, health and medicine, finance, design, new media and security. They will also explore more everyday experiences of and plans for the future, including life narratives and patterns of inequality. In an austerity society, are the futures of some people more likely to (be seen to) decline or stagnate? If hopes and aspirations are reduced, do these feed into and reproduce unequal power relations?
Key principles of organization for the seminar series include an emphasis on ensuring that organizers and participants come from a diverse range of locations/positions within higher education; a commitment to ensuring the participation and engagement of a number on non-academic stakeholders and user groups; and the dissemination of research through the creation of a website to include filmed or written versions of all papers delivered during the series and other relevant materials. Interested parties will also be encouraged to become involved through a Facebook page and Twitter account.
The application is put together by a team of experienced and early career researchers from the universities of Lancaster, Durham, York and Goldsmiths College, London and the Social Futures Observatory. The team have track records in this field and have demonstrated that they can produce a series of events that is original and intellectually exciting and designed to have impact outside of academia, on policy making, third sector and industry thinking.

Planned Impact

There will be non-academic beneficiaries both during and following the research period. We have identified the following as the primary users and beneficiaries:

Industry, think tanks and government departments concerned with futures and austerity
Conceptions of the future are highly relevant to policy-making, trend forecasting and product design and these conceptions are made more prevalent in the context of austerity, where certain groups of people are described as having 'no future' (see Clegg 2011). Thus a range of people will be interested in the exchange of information and ideas. The participation of speakers from industry and the public sector at each event, and particularly at Seminar 4, will benefit these sectors during the series itself. For example, we will invite speakers to participate in the series from:
- The Work Foundation, the leading independent authority on work and its future:
- Foresight the 'horizon scanning' Department for Business, Innovation and Skills programme with interests in digital technologies, new media, population, finance, health and wellbeing:
- Technology Strategy Board, the UK's leading innovation agency, interested in new technology based products for future markets:
- The Futures Company, specialising in future trends and modelling techniques and with whom John Urry is currently working:

Social movements: the third sector, charities and more informal social movements
These users will also benefit from and be interested in the research. For example, versions of and methods for modelling future climate change will be of interest to environmental campaigners, predictions for a rise in obesity will be of interest to health campaigners and charities and, more broadly, images of dystopian or diminished futures will be of interest to educational, social justice and equality movements.

The ideas about whether or not the future is diminished in a shift to an austerity society and the wide range of topics the series will explore, are likely to capture the imagination of wider publics who follow current affairs.

See Pathways to Impact statement for details of how these users will be engaged.

How will they benefit?
While not over-emphasising its potential impact, the series is likely to benefit the users specified above through the development of knowledge and understanding of the visions and methods of capturing the future, and of the effects of austerity on the ways in which the future is both imagined and lived out in the present. The series is organised around the exchange of knowledge and ideas and will benefit, firstly, participants throughout its two year duration. Secondly, following the series this exchange of knowledge and ideas has the capacity to generate research to improve the critical understanding of the future of those in industry and public services/policy making which may, in turn, have consequences for the ways in which, for example, products are designed, scenarios visualised and policy made.

Academics, perhaps especially early career/postgraduate participants, will develop research and professional skills through learning about methodological approaches, ways of working and best practice from industry, the public sector and the third sector.

Given the series involves the formation of a network to exchange ideas, information and ways of working so that academic and non-academic users may learn from each other, these results may not be immediate. However, following the impact achieved throughout the series, we envision the research generated to be absorbed into prevalent ways of thinking about the future.

We will explore opportunities that arise throughout the series to collaborate with non-academic participants to expand research agendas and widen impact following the seminar.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/J021512/1 14/12/2012 31/07/2013 £17,928
ES/J021512/2 Transfer ES/J021512/1 31/08/2013 31/12/2014 £12,134
Description This grant funded five seminars/workshops and a two-day conference held between November 2012-September 2014. The aim of the seminar series was to facilitate discussion between academics and non-academics on how the future is imagined, planned for and brought into being, what conceptions of the future tell us about the present, and whether the current 'age of austerity' has impacted on imaginations and materialisations of the future. The series helped to foster a network of international researchers on this topic, and to provide a base from which further research projects, including those involving empirical research, could be generated.

Events were organised by academics based in Sociology, Geography and Design Departments at Goldsmiths, University of London, Lancaster University, University of York and Durham University, Speakers at the events included academics and those working in the hi-tech industry, art and design, and a think tank, and were drawn from Australia, United Stated of America and the Netherlands, as well as the UK. The final conference attracted 100 international delegates, including many postgraduate students.

Some events were paper/presentation based, and others were designed as workshops to include practical activities and/or 'brainstorming' for further projects.

Through the grant, members of the seminar series have developed a range of more concrete plans to expand on further. These include: the need for the development of theoretical frameworks to research and understand time and futures; the need for the development of creative methods to research and understand the intangibility of time; the need to consider how austerity measures have effects not only in the present but also in the future.

In addition, a number of outputs from the project are in process: see below.
Exploitation Route The initial findings from the seminar series are been taken forward by members of the series in the following ways. These include: an edited edition of New Formations on austerity, indebtedness and politics, edited by seminar series member Rebecca Bramall and including contributions from other seminar series members; a series of artists' film screenings, discussions and workshops with artists and academics to develop visual methods for researching futurity and disasters, led by seminar series members Rebecca Coleman, Michael Guggenheim and Yasmina Reggad; a proposal for a two-year project studying the multi-media texts via which time and futures are encountered and experienced has been submitted by Coleman (September 2014); a panel of an international conference, the Association of American Geographers, has been accepted for April 2015 on the topic of 'the present', led by seminar series member Ben Anderson and including other seminar series members. A proposal for a panel on 'the present' has also been submitted for consideration for the British Sociological Association Annual conference, April 2015 (led by Coleman, October 2014). A proposal for a special issue of an academic journal based on the final conference will be submitted in November 2014, edited by seminar series members Coleman and Richard Tutton.

The findings of these projects, and the seminar series more generally, might also be taken forward by policy-makers in terms of the affects of austerity on both manifestations and imaginations of the future.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Findings from the seminar series have been published by The Conversation to reach a non-academic audience. In addition, the research has been disseminated in an arts-based workshop, held in collaboration with AutoItalia South East (both 2014, ES/J021512). Both of these forms of non-academic output aim to enhance quality of life, health and creative input. The Conservation article generated 1356 readers (correct as of 4th March 2016).
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services