NGOs will embrace uncertainty

“People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”
Ray Bradbury, Beyond 1984: The People Machines


I spend a lot of time imagining complex, messy, uncertain, and chaotic futures. I am a huge fan of this quote by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, as it captures not just the sense of precarity around us, but also perhaps how we can address it creatively. I want to highlight a few potential signals that could directly impact on development NGOs’ work.

Social Upheaval: Undoubtedly, the events of 2016, especially in the UK where I am based, and the US where I do some work, suggest that certain communities and groups are going to become targets of politically motivated anger and hatred. This is likely to result in social upheaval, which will force people to lose jobs, move countries and deal with separation - affecting the living conditions of large communities. INGOs, and civil society more widely, will be required to step up to this upheaval and uncertainty with swift, yet sensitive measures that serve the best interests of those in need.

Mass Surveillance: While the UK implemented its Snoopers Charter late last year, nations across the world articulated their versions of the mass surveillance. Citizens’ ability to talk freely will be hugely impeded as such measures come into effect. Civil society organisations and INGOs will need to develop technological expertise and secure tools to be able to engage with various communities.

Beyond Data: While governments and companies continue to collect citizen data, 2016 wasn’t a great year for data itself. Big data, complex modelling, algorithms, and polling organisations all failed to predict the recent political outcomes across Europe and in the USA. Everyone, including INGOs, will need to create new toolkits and attitudinal shifts that empower people across the board to embrace uncertainty.

To meet all these challenges in 2017, INGOs will need to be open to uncertainty and experimentation by acknowledging multiple trends, possibilities and futures. They will also need to develop tools and strategies for becoming more future resilient.