Opening the future

November 7, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedI was interviewed a couple of months ago by Sarah Woods, as part of her work on a project called The Roadless Trip, which she has written and directed with Richard Gott. The production, which sadly I’ve not yet been able to see (I was away from home the night they staged it in London) takes the form of a multi-media exchange between the actors, the audience, and various “experts”, including me, who have been pre-filmed and are trapped in digital aspic. I’m writing about this here because the work represents a conscious attempt to open up future possibilities – and the actions these entail – which deserves wider consideration.


The Roadless Trip had a standing ovation when it premiered at the Centre for Alternative Technology in north Wales. Woods’ work is a radical form of theatre, partly influenced by the Brazilian Augusto Boal, which uses film, story and research and is designed (in her words) “to let go of the art-for-arts-sake of late modernism and value more participatory and socially interactive models.”

I’d had contact with Sarah before, for a documentary on the end of oil, which was, I suppose, about a probable energy future. This time, she’s more interested in preferred futures – the futures we want – and also the role of stories in helping us to reach them.

The value of theatre is that it creates a space in which the actors and the audience can create open meanings, and it turns out that Sarah’s evolved a theory of narrative – more exactly, layers of narrative – which links narratives at different levels to increase our ability to act and respond. Of course, this is a deep problem for futures work; when people see the full systemic horrors of the ‘Grande Problematique‘ – the big drivers of change that are shaping the planet – from population growth to food shortage to energy pressures to climate change, the result can be paralysis.

Narrative layers

Image Removed

Source: Sarah Woods

The explanation for the chart goes as follows, in a mixture of my paraphrase and her note in the model.

The first column shows the different levels of narrative, the second the dominant experience at each level. The third shows how story features in each, the fourth the effect of these elements on the ‘spect-actors’ (Boal’s term for the active and engaged audience), and the final column is about the values associated with each level. The point, though, is that the interaction between the levels creates the space for new meanings to emerge.

In her words:

When Personal Narratives are shared openly with others and focussed engagement made, we can build a Communal Narrative with room for a diverse range of views, but focussed on our commonalities rather than our differences.

Participants can then move towards a project for change – a Grand Narrative, a way of moving forward into a shared future. The engagement and energy of that process means they have the strength to face the ‘Super Narrative’ of our time.

This model enables a ‘re-framing’ of the modern paradigm and its assumptions.

Before she interviewed me, Sarah Woods sent me a list of questions about the future – and which, I realise now, were informed by this model – that were thought-provoking, and with her permission I’m sharing these here.


1. What must we take with us to the future?

2. What should we leave behind?

3. What will be our core organising principle?

4. Having moved on from the American Dream, what will be at the heart of our new dream?

We will tell you two stories – one about someone who had high hopes for the future that didn’t materialise, and one who had high hopes for the future that have become reality.

1. How important is it to imagine the future you want, and to tell stories of it?

2. If we can imagine the future we want, what makes it more likely to happen?

3. People we’re interviewing often talk of future life being lived in different paradigm. If we want to live in a different paradigm, how do we get there?

4. What do you feel, in your experience, are the dominant future stories that you come across?

They are planning to tour The Roadless Trip in the UK and thereabouts in 2013, and would like to visit a range of locations – schools, workplaces, village halls and so on – as well as theatres. If you’re interested in hosting a production, you can contact Sarah Woods on sarah[at] In due course BBC Space is also due to post a recording online. I’ll update this post with the link when that happens.

Tags: culture, future, Society