An ongoing project aims to develop positive visions of the Anthropocene for southern Africa and beyond

Story highlights:

  • There is a need for positive visions of the future to counteract the negative narratives that surround us every day and influence our actions
  • Based on Seeds of Good Anthropocenes, a diverse mix of scientists, artists and changemakers created hopeful future scenarios for southern Africa at a creative visioning workshop held in Cape Town
  • Participants described the process as deeply transformative, and developed a set of radical scenarios with a strong emphasis on engaged citizenry, decentralized power and local, small-scale production systems

The Anthropocene, or literally the “Age of Man”, is the name for a new geological epoch in which humanity has become a dominant global force re-shaping the geological, biological and atmospheric dynamics of Earth. In the Anthropocene, we face new and diverse challenges, such as an increasing disconnect between people and nature, widening inequalities, and potential planetary tipping points. At the same time, ever-increasing technological progress and human development are opening up novel and exciting opportunities for addressing some of these key challenges.

But how do you reconcile both the immense challenges that we face in the Anthropocene, and the wonderful, novel opportunities that are emerging all around us? At a time like this, it is especially important to have positive visions of the future to guide us along sustainable trajectories for society. This is because visions and stories tend to be self-fulfilling, making it crucial to nurture alternative visions of the future that go beyond the typical narratives of collapse and dystopia.

Seeds of Good Anthropocenes

With this goal in mind, the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes initiative aims to solicit, explore, and develop a suite of alternative visions for “Good Anthropocenes” – positive futures that are socially and ecologically desirable, just, and sustainable. This initiative is a collaboration between the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, McGill University in Canada, and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The objective is to counterbalance prevailing dystopic visions of the future that may be inhibiting our collective ability to move creatively towards a better trajectory for the Earth and humanity.

A key factor in this endeavour are the “Seeds” – mostly small-scale, experimental projects, organizations and initiatives that employ new ways of thinking or doing and exist at the margin of the current world. These can be new social institutions, technologies, or frameworks for understanding the world. Over the past two years, these Seeds have been collected in a database through global online surveys and a number of workshops, funded by Swedbio in Sweden.

Creative visioning

Now the Seeds have been used as a foundation upon which to build better futures. In a first exploratory workshop co-hosted by the GRAID programme and the CST, a diverse group of over 20 scientists, artists, and changemakers were brought together in November 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa. Four groups of participants were formed, each starting with a set of three very different Seed projects and initiatives. Based on their Seeds, each group was tasked with imagining what southern Africa would be like if these Seeds were to grow, combine and become the new normal. Throughout the workshop the participants were actively encouraged to think outside the box and stretch their imaginations.

Tanja Hichert, an experienced facilitator in scenario planning and the futures field, led the carefully designed and creative process. She explains: “Instead of extrapolating from the present and coming up with more recognizable alternative futures as one usually does with scenarios, we’ve come up with a process that starts with Seeds, which are essentially these little pockets of the future that exist in the present, but that are marginal. Each group of participants gets three of these Seeds with which to start building a vision of the future. We specifically chose the groups to be diverse, and we chose very divergent Seeds for each group, so that the participants’ futures thinking becomes as far removed as possible from the familiar ambient future narratives that already surround us in our everyday lives. We want our visions of the Good Anthropocene to trump those ambient futures!

At the end of the two-and-a-half-day process, the groups presented their visions for the future to each other. From the start, creative expression was an integral part of the workshop, and all the groups brought their visions alive through theatrical performances including role-play and dance. In addition, a “graphic harvester” was engaged to visually capture the participants’ insights throughout the workshop, thus providing the graphic backbone for the different scenarios.

More details on the process, as well as the artwork, can be found in the official workshop report.

A shared outlook

Interestingly, the groups’ visions for southern Africa featured some striking commonalities, even though their starting points were so different. All scenarios placed a strong emphasis on decentralized decision-making and power, as well as collaboration over competition. Empathy is a core value that permeates all the future visions, and technological advances assist in connecting people to each other, but also to the biosphere. “Work” becomes about so much more than paying bills, and instead enables self-expression and community development. Most production and consumption processes are performed locally and in closed-loop systems, minimizing transport and waste. One of the key messages from this workshop is therefore that – beyond all our differences – we share a common vision of what a good, inclusive, equitable and sustainable future looks like. For a fuller picture of the workshop and the visions that were created, please refer to the workshop report and the whiteboard video below.

Overall, the participants found the visioning process to be highly emotive, sometimes challenging, but ultimately inspiring. As one of the participants put it: “It’s been hard work. Emotionally difficult work. To think into the future and in that process to kind of really try very hard to let go of some of your pet ideas, things that make you feel comfortable. Some of your unquestioned ways of engaging with the world.” The feedback indicates that the participants felt a greater responsibility, having gone through this process, to do what they can within their sphere of influence to make these positive visions of the future a reality.

For more reflections and lessons learned from the participants and organizers, please watch this reflections video.

Further research and engagement

The southern African workshop was just the start. The Seeds of Good Anthropocenes project is ongoing, and contributes to one of the CST’s major research streams Resilience and Transformation. Forthcoming scientific papers will outline the visioning methods applied in the southern African case that will form part of a special feature on facilitating transformative spaces. The storylines of the different scenarios and their points of convergence/divergence will also be written up as a contribution to the growing literature on more creative scenario processes. The next phase in this line of research will then focus on comparing insights and learnings across the different case study regions, with the aim of developing a blue-print for the successful creation of transformative spaces in which positive futures can emerge.

For further information on the larger international project, see