Future Making for Social Impact

Professor Danielle Logue, Director of CSI UNSW, is honoured to feature in the 20th anniversary edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. This award-winning journal covers cross-sector solutions to global problems, and is written by, and for, social change leaders from around the world. As the special edition is released, here Danielle explains the concept and practice of 'future making' and how the decisions we make today can be reimagined for a better tomorrow.

A woman in a suit smiles for a camera in a recording studio

Danielle, first of all congratulations on your opinion piece in the 20th anniversary edition of SSIR. How did it come about?

Thank you! I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the 20th anniversary edition . The issue is focused around looking forward rather than just rehashing successes and what's been achieved. So, it was a wonderful opportunity to think about the future around social innovation and social impact. And it’s really at that nexus between research and practice that Stanford Social Innovation Review has been so valuable in informing both academics and practitioners.

Why did you choose to write about ‘Future Making’ for this op ed?

I think when you look around in the media, you’ll see a lot of celebrity entrepreneurs really cultivating what the future might actually look like. And we know from organizational and management research that this practice of cultivating a future and an image of the future has serious and material impact on how people make decisions today. So your image of the future - what you expect is going to happen, where you think the world is going - all of this influences your decisions about investment, how you allocate resources, the type of people that you hire etc etc. And this applies to organizations, corporations and government policy makers as well. At first, this idea of ‘future making’ may sound a bit abstract and academic, but it really does direct attention, resources, and ideas on a day to day basis.

To use your own words, it can come across a little bit abstract and academic, so how do you apply it in a practical sense?

Well, I think you've got to look at, what are the images of the future or the ideas about the future that your organization is working towards? When you have this strategic plan in place, think about the assumptions that you're making, for example about government policies or directions that may or may not be set in stone. Think about if you're predicting a change in government or have you considered disruptions to your industry or sector in different ways. Ask yourself, are you using scenario planning or different types of forecasting? What are some of those organizational management practices that start to unpack and reveal the assumptions that you're basing your strategies on? I include in the article an example of Elon Musk. I mean, as a celebrity entrepreneur he has a particular idea of how the future is going to unfold, and people are following him into that and making investment decisions based on his vision of the future. I think it might sound abstract, but it is very material today to business organizational practices.

So what do you think businesses should be doing differently in that sense?

Well, it's not necessarily what they're doing differently, but really focusing on future-making as a practice. Making sure that you are questioning your assumptions, that you are getting information and data from different sites. From public debates, community and policy forums, all of those things that are happening on the periphery of your field that might actually come into and take over and influence change. Start by exploring where are those sites of innovation and crazy ideas?

Do you have your finger on the pulse? Are you involved in the start-up community or the social enterprise world in your space? If you're in the health sector, do you know the latest developments in MedTech, for example? For this concept of ‘future making’, I think it's really important to have that breadth of data coming into your organization. So, making sure that you don't dismiss or overlook what seems like crazy ideas or loon shots as they are called. Instead give them some due attention and think about how your organization or team crafting an image of what you think the future is going to look like.

Is that going to cost more time and money for companies, not-for-profits or for-purpose organizations, that perhaps don't have the finances to do that?

I don't think it's a high-cost activity here. I mean, we essentially are already doing it but perhaps not explicitly. Whenever an organization does strategic planning, strategy days, risk analysis or retreats, they're the opportunities and moments to think about, "What vision or image of the future are we actually basing this strategy on? Are we engaging in the latest research? Are we considering ideas from other fields and borrowing from other fields?" So, I think it's important just to take stock of the imagined future out there that you're working towards, and if so, is that the right one, and if you had or are having a role in the imagining of that future? Who in your field is creating and controlling perhaps the imagined future that everyone is working towards?

And I think it’s important especially in the social economy to take an active part, play an active role in cultivating this alternative, imagined future. For example, the Australian Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, a couple of weeks ago was writing about values-based capitalism. Putting forward an alternative future where there are different measures of impact, of social impact, of wellbeing baked into our economic decision making.

There's a great example of putting forward an alternative imagined future, and now you can see the reaction to that about how people might change their investment decisions, how they might start putting in new measurement frameworks for corporations, hopefully taking ESG more seriously. So, he's putting forward an alternative imagined future that's possible and plausible and people start to move towards that.

How are you incorporating future-making into your new role at the Centre for Social Impact?

We have a wonderful opportunity at CSI, UNSW at the moment to take stock and look at, how have we emerged through the pandemic? How have our stakeholders emerged through the pandemic? And not just about looking at building back better, but really cultivating a different alternative imagined future for this conversation and ideas around social impact.

The social impact conversation has changed in recent years. We are seeing more and more organizations from different sectors, different fields, coming to us wanting to know how do they achieve social impact, how do they measure it, how can they contribute it? So, for us, it's about taking stock and actually thinking about what is our role in creating alternative imagined futures that is going to deliver social impact and provide the research and educational base to do that.

Read Danielle's opinion piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review .


Professor Danielle Logue is the Director of CSI UNSW and Professor of Innovation & Impact at UNSW Business School .