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Risks and merits of Decolonising futures


Jonas Drechsel

Oct 24, 2023

Part of “decolonising” is to question one's own assumptions and asking questions to the ones in power. The term has a historical background that is broader than its metaphorical use. Futures Studies has been dealing with this topic in one form or another for over 50 years. This has brought about a rich body of work, including some thought-provoking and stimulating approaches and methods.

In the run-up to the upcoming event "Decolonising the future: a condition for survival in the anthropocene", this article aims to provide an overview of the current discourse including different contributors and their approaches. One reason for the summary is the great interest that our invitation to the event met with on social media:


Disclaimer: The author is a self-employed futurist who wrote this article out of personal interest and without any influence on the content. At the same time, he has been part of the team which has developed the Futures4Europe platform and is involved in the communication of the platform activities.


What is “Decolonising”?
Working Notes of the Diaspora Futures Collective


Decolonizing the Future is NOT:

  • Centering ourselves and our thinking around colonists or the colonial period — we existed before, during, and after
  • Romanticizing the past — pre-colonialist societies were in no way perfect
  • Synonymous with diversity and inclusion efforts
  • Merely about PoC representation in white spaces

Decolonizing the Future IS:

  • Questioning the futures methods that we use — many were created to serve the interests of the military and corporations
  • Amplifying and bringing in the lived experience of those that practice/study futures futurists — we are all individuals and can draw on our unique experiences
  • Challenging cultural definitions of time and “the future” — linear time is not a universal concept
  • Challenging our mental models and unlearning cultural norms that benefit a hierarchical worldview
  • Accepting that we don’t have all of the answers
  • Redefining who is an expert and defining expertise in a more inclusive way
  • Creating spaces for marginalized and underrepresented people and voices
  • Questioning the role of extraction and exploitation in material culture
  • Considering the impacts of settler colonialism on indigeneity, our own mental models, and on ensuring that we don’t replicate or reinforce this in out efforts
  • Considering issues of reparations, and of ‘giving back’ what was not ours in the first place, as well as including considerations of epistemic and structural injustices and dispossession
  • Embracing a plurality of decolonial knowledge, experiences and truth sources
  • That this is an ongoing journey that requires both learning and unlearning, as well as acknowledging the roles we play and privilege we bring in our exploration of futures

Decolonisation is part of questioning one's own assumptions

Decolonising your imagination means that you liberate your assumptions from past and future trends. By changing the way we see and perceive the future, it offers us the possibility to decolonize our imagination, question our perceptions and worldviews, and ultimately, promote change, writes Amerissa Giannouli in her “Futures Literacy for Change”-Article (2021). Michael Shanks (2020) also sees decolonising as part of futures literacy, with the task of undermining path dependency (only being able to think in the terms of the past) so that new futures can be imagined.


Dr. Vanessa Andreotti, guest at the aforementioned event, already points out the breadth of the use of the term in 2016 as part of her Decolonial Futures collective: Decolonization has come to mean many different things in different contexts, and, although this is to be expected, Indigenous scholars have taken issue with certain uses of the term. In any case, it is very important to ask questions about what assumptions, politics, and theories of change inform the analysis of colonization and the invocation and desire for decolonization in each context of use.


Decolonisation has a historical background that is larger than the metaphor

Using the term without context can mean reproducing the issue actually addressed by the term. Tuck and Wayne Yang already point out in 2012 the struggle on which the notion of decolonisation is based: Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. The easy adoption of decolonizing discourse by educational advocacy and scholarship, evidenced by the increasing number of calls to “decolonize our schools,” or use “decolonizing methods,” or, “decolonize student thinking”, turns decolonization into a metaphor. Seen in this light, a superficial, non-embedded use of the term could be detrimental to the actual cause.


The discursive coupling of decolonisation and the Anthropocene

The Decolonizing Futures Initiative is an independent global initiative founded by Pupul Bisht - mentored by Cat Tully (also a guest at the upcoming event) - that utilizes non-western folk storytelling as a tool for inclusion of marginalized voices, and cultural knowledge about the future in order to inform & inspire inclusive decision-making, planning, and innovation. Pupul Bisht (2020) brings important points to the discussion on decolonisation and the anthropocene: (...) the fatal images of the anthropocentric narratives, which tend to put humanity at the centre of the universe with the planet at our disposal and us being the central and superior species. To decolonise the way we practice foresight and the way we engage with futures is a very intentional decentring of Anglo- and Eurocentric ways of knowing, which tend to be dominant in the discourse.


Simpson (2020) suggests in his analysis how an anthropocene discourse can be less colonialist: He hopes to problematize taken-for granted logics that operate silently in the background of current debates by asking what ways of being, forms of knowledge, and ways of relating the Anthropocene concept occludes, delegitimizes or constraints.


Futurists, ask the powerful questions of decolonisation!

So instead of making a dichotomous distinction between "colonised" and "decolonised", Sara Bolgharian recommends at a Re:publica talk (2023) organized by Muslim Futures (a project of Superrr Lab) not to always want to replace every existing concept, but to consider the interconnectedness - all thinkers and histories are always connected anyway. Recognising this is at the core of decolonisation.

So if we want interconnected Futures4Europe, committed to thinking in alternatives and colonizing as little as possible, the Futurist-Communities need to be both: merciful and strict in negotiating with dominant political institutions like the European Commission, the Council or the European Parliament (see Kevin Jae1* 2023).


This is also explained by Maruyama et. al. in their book project "Decolonising Futures: Collaborations for New Indigenous Horizons" (2022), in which the majority of contributors, including artists, participated in the 2017 International Conference on Policy towards Indigenous Peoples in Sapporo: Although United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is presented here as the subject of our book, we must ask: does it truly speak the Indigenous language? Does it represent the language of decolonization? Decolonisation amplifies the voices historically sought by the powerful to dislocate.


Jewlya Lynn and Jen Heeg discussed a related issue in 2021 at the Decolonizing Evaluation Week: Are you ready to bring foresight into your evaluations in ways that break out of our Western mindsets? To change who is centered, not just in the story, but also as the “expert” bringing the method forward? To step back and create room for new futures to emerge?


What Futures Studies has learned after 50 years of engaging with decolonisation

Robert Jungk, one of the founding members of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF), which is committed to thinking in alternatives, wrote as early as the 1980s about the need to oppose the colonisation of the future by one-sided technocratic forecasts and planning. He found that those affected want much more humanity and less technology. The problem, he said, is that the meaning of new technology without participation is often not oriented towards those affected (people and nature).


Jaes Paper (2023) deepens the historical view of decolonisation discourses in Futures Studies. A short excerpt: Jim Dator, former president of the WFSF, campaigned strongly for a decolonisation programme in Futures Studies in the early 00s, because he perceived desirable futures as difficult to negotiate, since dominant ideas of the future were anchored in the discourse by powerful actors as almost fixed. Inayatullah took up Dator's point in 2013 and summarized it as “The future is not neutral”. Both share a vision of Futures Studies as a vessel through which the future can be decolonised. The water for this is the participatory involvement of those affected by issues. As early as 1998, Inayatullah pointed out: Case Studies and Courses show the necessity of decolonisation to enable thinking in alternatives. To better understand the human condition as futurists, research should always be multileveled, empirical, interpretive and critical. Only one year later, Sardar (see Jae) emphasized the need to think about alternatives based on non-Western agency and to develop independent frameworks. I would like to sketch some of these in the next chapter.


Different approaches and methods from practicing

  • Inayatullah: Used Futures und CLA: Indeed, for many nations, the only hope forward is to leapfrog, to resist purchasing used future, and instead change. Futures seen in this lens is about decolonizing the past. The past often becomes the key barrier. Board directors often say, “but we have always done it this way.” (...) Using the method CLA or causal layered analysis, we change the narrative, the story that gives meaning.
  • Pupul Bisht (2017): Reimagining one-size-fits-all futures, one story at a time. (...) Just like many other Indian stories, the Kaavad represents past, present and future fused into one. There are images of real people/ patrons who are dead and gone, patrons who are living, the saints like Kabir who once existed and then there are gods that are eternal. So it accommodates all kinds of time and all kinds of spaces. The artifact in itself represents coexistence of many time periods within one space and within one story. Inspired by Kavaad, Bisht has developed an inclusive storytelling tool.
  • Jae1 (2023) explored the question of what futurists can do to include non-standard ways of thinking and knowing in their projects. Five key themes were identified and described: 1. Methodology, 2. Project design, 3. Role of the futurist, 4. Futures through others’ worldviews, 5. Decolonising hegemonic time
  • “Decolonized Futures” (2017-2021) was an interdisciplinary project that aims to examine and dislodge dominant and oppressive settler colonial narratives. The project’s title refers both to the political project of decolonisation and to Indigenous Futurism. The term “Indigenous Futurism” was coined by Grace Dillon after “Afrofuturism.” Indigenous Futurism centers Indigenous cosmologies through a storytelling framework that creatively and aesthetically interrogates the history of settler colonialism, critiques contemporary Indigenous contexts, and re-visions a decolonised future.

What other approaches and methods do you know in the context of Decolonising futures? Feel free to link your own project in the comments.


My personal take on the current state of the decolonisation debate

The future(s) is not neutral. Participation opens up alternatives. This is well known - and yet often too few non-Western stakeholders are involved, as indicated by the many voices from all parts of the world mentioned in the article. Decolonisation is a difficult term. It has a history as a term that must be taken into account. Name it: Subjugation of other regions. But there are also risks in “metaphorical” decolonisation, as the discussion about the western-influenced anthropocene approach shows. Decolonisation projects should always keep in mind whether their activities are perceived as colonisation by others and face the negotiations.


Numerous initiatives currently exist around the world that engage with decolonisation, and their numbers are continuously increasing while offering more and more concrete solutions to swing the pendulum more and more in the direction of "decolonised". It is time to connect the learnings even more and in a more systemic and solidarity-based way. If aspiration and practice continue to stimulate each other well, then the project of decolonisation can make a significant contribution to a better world for all.





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