Hawai’i’s Futures – Contrasting Images

Happy New Year!

I thought we would start off this year’s writing with a piece on Hawai’i’ futures.

Images of the Futures

As we’ve written about in our new Primer on Foresight and Futures Studies, the field of futures studies is underpinned by a few key issues, one of which is a concern for images of the future.  Images can come from econometric projections, community vision workshops, science fiction or art, or from business-oriented scenario planning.  Wherever they come from, they describe a possible or preferred future, and each one has the potential to influence our assumptions, expectations, desires, and anxieties about the future.  In turn, this affects what we think we can (and should) try to accomplish and the strategies we pursue to resist, channel, or accelerate change.

Turning back toward Hawai’i, let’s look at three particular images of Hawai’i’s future.  None of these images are visions, which is to say, a preferred future for anyone I know.  Nor do any of these come directly from econometric or statistical forecasting, which alone are poor at anticipating and exploring long-term structural and social change.  Two arise from the concerns or expectations expressed by a wide variety of residents while the third forecasts the conflict that can arise from the unsettled tensions between the identity groups of Hawai’i’s people.

More of the Same: this future is one in which our current trend lines continue and in which we continue to desire and pursue the same things.  More housing subdivisions slowly appear across the landscape, more cars fill up the roads, and hotter temperature leads to more air conditioning.  More people want their kids in not-public school (but can’t afford it), more people want a better job (but can’t find them), and more of us seek release in the comforts we seem to afford (large flat screens and on-demand entertainment).  Things don’t get better, but somehow we muddle through.

Cultural Schism: this future finally gives lie to the narrative of happy integration so many local-born residents heard growing up.  Unresolved historical grievances, rapidly changing demographics (a tipping point of generational change, in-migration patterns, and a widening chasm of wealth inequality), and the failure of Hawai’i to evolve its economy put too much pressure on local society.  Like the different layers of a foundation sliding apart in different directions, the “American” cultural layer, the light layer of a Judeo-Christian worldview, and the incomplete Polynesian and Asian cultural layers separate, pulling society apart.  Hawai’i is a tolerant paradise no longer.

Staggered Collapse: this future illustrates the effects of a slow breakdown of global economic integration as limited energy and scarce resources collide with exponential growth in human demand.  While not a sudden, Hollywood-style collapse of world order, this image does show us a world that is unraveling, in which goods and services get very expensive, and then become very hard to come by.  Hawai’i, being the most isolated long-term human habitation on the planet, is radically ill-prepared to replace its energy and material flows.  First, people start to leave, then they attempt to leave, then disorder.  Life will survive in Hawai’i, but it won’t be pleasant for a long, long time.

Why These Images are Important

These images are important for a few reasons.  One, they articulate the expectations that different stakeholders in Hawai’i hold about our future.  Such imagery plays meaningful roles in our perception and our actions.  Two, they draw our attention to important things that many of us would often prefer to not talk about.  Three, collectively they highlight different aspects of our reality, and in doing so they call attention to the different assumptions that stakeholders hold about what is most important in creating our shared future.  Among the aspects that these images highlight are:

  • The bias and belief in continuity
  • An understanding about the nuance of local Hawai’i “culture” and the importance of identities and identity politics
  • Social conflict, which is poorly dealt with in American society period, and worse so in Hawai’i
  • Hawai’i’s structural dependence on external flows to sustain human life here
  • The patterns of power and inequality in Hawai’i society that provide context (however obscured) to the continuity that is enforced and the changes that are both pursued and allowed

Another reason that images of the future are important, whether they are gleaned from the stories that people tell each other or developed in scenario workshops, is that they help us focus in on the issue of change.  In casual conversation, we have a tendency to paint the issue of change with a very broad brush.  Yet, how and why different types of change happen (or don’t happen) is critical to anticipating the future and to successfully shaping it.

Considering the three images above, we could frame these in terms of continuity versus incremental change versus abrupt change.  When it comes to social or institutional change, continuity is more prevalent than incremental change, which in turn is more common than abrupt change.  Yet most discussions about the future either bet on continuity or obsess about abrupt change, all while we as individuals tend to expect change to happen in a gradual and understandable fashion.

Finally, these images of the future are important because they force us to think about our own assumptions and expectations for the future.  Without images like these to compare and contrast, most of us would proceed through daily life without stopping to consider some of the bigger questions regarding Hawai’i’s futures.  In this way, images of the future become an important tool for engaging each other in meaningful yet structured discussions about where we are headed and how to move forward.

Hawai’i 2015 and Beyond

People often ask me, “OK, but how do we make systemic change?”  I think the more important question to start with is, “Do people want change?”

Most of us readily desire small changes, the types of things that have little meaning for society as a whole: more money, a nicer car, less stress, more free time, etc…  But the important changes in our communities spring from things deeper, from the structures that give shape to our world and from the worldviews that say those structures are appropriate and desirable.  The type of meaningful social change that people speak of when they talk about a “better future” usually requires changes at these deeper levels.  But when pressed, how many of us actually want change at these levels?

If we in Hawai’i are to hold any serious (and informed) hope of effecting meaningful change to transform Hawai’i into a truly sustainable and (at least, more) equitable society, then we are going to have develop some tools and processes for articulating truly preferred futures, for understanding the deeper changes those futures require, and identifying the realistic and long-term strategies required to effect those changes.

And engaging in discussions around serious images of the future is an excellent way to start.

Happy New Year!


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