An invitation to lead from the emerging future

(From left to right) Andrew Chunilall, CEO – Community Foundations of Canada, Vinod Rajasekaran, Publisher & CEO – Future of Good, Ajmal Sataar, Founder & CEO – Small Economy Works

“When a crack opens up, stay with it.”

Since my time in London, England as a delegate on the recent Canada – UK Social Innovation Immersion tour, I’ve been holding a question: If you were given the magical opportunity to travel either back in time and live in pre-contact Canada or to travel forward into the future and live in the Canada of 2300, what would you pick?

Chances are you might pick pre-contact Canada; free from the exploitations of land and humans, free from climate breakdown, free from today’s capitalism, growth and markets, free from colonization, free from today’s affordability crisis, and so much more. I would pick the Canada of 2300. Not because I wouldn’t appreciate pre-contact Canada, but I have an insatiable curiosity of the future.

Here’s the thing: One of the greatest tensions humanity holds today is balancing our responsibilities to the past, present and emerging future. And it’s really the first time we’ve felt this way. The injustices of the past continue to come to the fore; they are forcing Canadian society to reckon with our histories, narratives, our negligence, ignorance, and our systemic omissions. 

There are the immense pressures of the present. The COVID-19 pandemic threw into light the sheer volume of complexities that today’s systems are unfit to handle. The bottom line: We have externality-unaware systems all around us, and the externalities have been compounding in front of our eyes. We are all those frogs in a slow boil, barely realizing what is happening. Nearly every system in our society – from policing to early childhood education to social services – is externality-unaware and crumbling under poor design that isn’t fit for today’s or tomorrow’s world. The pandemic exposed and amplified everything that was ignored or sidelined for generations — things like food insecurity, systemic racism, elder care, mental health and the digital divide. 

More than 52,000 people across the country died due to COVID. Since the onset of the pandemic, there have been an average of 20 opioid toxicity deaths a day, up from an average of 10 in 2019. More people in communities are reporting feelings of isolation, loneliness, and stress, and over the past few years, people are drinking more, smoking more, and doing more drugs — the cascading effects of which I believe are yet to come. Domestic violence calls almost doubled during the pandemic and continue to be higher than pre-pandemic because home hasn’t been safe for Canadians facing abuse. Hate crimes are way up across the country and show no signs of slowing down. Kids Help Phone mental health crisis calls continue to increase and saw a whopping 400% rise in the past few years. And we recovered more than 2,000 unmarked graves at former Indian Residential School grounds. On top of all this, the last few years opened people’s eyes to how unsustainably unaffordable life has become. With exponential rise in information comes the exponential rise in misinformation, and we witnessed the ugly underbelly of Canadian politeness. The last few years surfaced online hate, misogyny, white supremacy, and extremism. It surfaced new tensions and divisions in neighbourhoods and in families; no politics talk at the dinner table pre-pandemic turned into no vaccine talk at the dinner table. All of this of course captures nowhere near everything that society is presently experiencing. 

Photo: The Photo Team

In London, it became increasingly apparent to me that many of us seem to have a blind spot that prevents us from acting on the entire iceberg, especially reimagining the deep systemic structures below the waterline. Most of us don’t act on it not because we don’t want to; but because attention to it is de-prioritized, and that’s because it is excruciatingly uncomfortable and exhausting to spend time below the waterline. But if we ignore what’s below the waterline, we’re merely addressing symptoms. And addressing symptoms will keep us locked into reenacting the same old patterns and validating the same systems time and again. 

After being on this extraordinary Canada – UK immersion tour, I’m wondering how can Canada’s changemakers respond to the current waves of invitations to disruptive change from a deep place that connects us to the emerging future rather than only reacting against the patterns of the past, which usually means perpetuating them because our attention is focused on seeking better results from the existing system, and not building radically better future systems. 

In order to reimagine today’s externality-unaware systems and corrupt mental models that perpetuate business as usual, we need to start by updating the thinking that underlies it; we need to update the essence of the purpose of these systems for the emerging future. 

How can we lean into the future that wants to emerge through us? I now believe that the ability to shift from reacting against the past to leaning into an emerging future is probably the single most important leadership capacity today. I witnessed many examples of this leadership in London; from Immy Kaur at Civic Square to Jennie Winhall at ALT/Now to Derek Bardowell at Ten Years’ Time, Barbara Burton at Behind Bras to Stephen Miller at Power to Change. What’s one thing these changemakers have in common? They are future builders. They’ve shifted their attention; they shifted the quality of attention that they apply from present systems to future systems. They realized their responsibility to the emerging future, and so should we.

Just like Immy, Jennie, Derek and Barbara, what if we all saw the future as our collective responsibility?

Imagine if the next generation could have their voices heard in today’s political and civil society debates. If there was a way to represent their interests and ensure that their futures were not trampled on by the short-termism that rules today’s political, corporate and civil society institutions through all of us. Imagine if we had legal mechanisms to guarantee the rights and well-being of future generations. While in London, my curiosity led me down multiple rabbit holes and while this isn’t covered by mainstream media, it turns out, there is a quiet revolution for intergenerational equity and solidarity that is gaining momentum. From what I can tell, it doesn’t quite have a name and appears to be fragmented, but nevertheless is picking up steam in the UK and around the world. 

To start, there is a whole academic peer-reviewed journal on this nascent field called Intergenerational Justice Review. It publishes research on critical intergenerational topics such as the housing crisis, wealth transfers, and ways to legally implement intergenerational justice. And in case you’re wondering which countries can justifiably claim to be acting with regard to future generations, there is the Intergenerational Solidarity Index, created by the interdisciplinary scientist Jamie McQuilkin. It offers a comprehensive set of indicators that are coherent and methodologically rigorous.

Where does Canada stand in the most recent index? We’re not in the top 10. Not even in the top 20 or 30 or 40. We’re ranked 55th. Yikes.

Countries like Jamaica, Peru, Malaysia and Albania are ahead of us. The UK is ahead of us. France is in the top 10. And Nepal is ranked 3rd. Clearly, being a country with decent GDP growth and job creation has little to do with scoring high on intergenerational equity and solidarity. It’s things like wealth equality, annual forest cover change, and teacher-to-pupil ratios that are part of this indicator set. In conversations with the RSA, I also learned that the UK has a Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, a role that was established under the Well-Being for Future Generations Act in 2015. Does Canada have such an Act? No.

All of this sounds promising, but how do Canada’s social purpose organizations and funders fare when it comes to centring intergenerational equity and reimagining systems so future generations flourish? For all the talk and work on building legacies, and taking care of people and the planet, I perhaps have the most hope in civil society institutions to act on this, but don’t get excited as the extraordinary is few and far between. 

The paradox is that the ways of governing, delivering programs, fundraising, and operating in so many civil society organizations could be harming future generations — with the low-hanging fruit, pilot projects, band-aid solutions, scarcity pathologies, staying above the waterline, one-year funding programs, five-year strategic plans, and absence of future-building. Although there is endless good intention in the social impact world, there are uncomfortable truths. One of them, I learned during the tour of Coin Street, is called ‘vetocracy’, a term coined by author Francis Fukuyuma to describe the system of entrenched interests that make it very hard to get anything radical built or done. 

Image by The Photo Team

Endowments and legacy do not necessarily mean being accountable to the interests of the long-term. And that’s a problem. The social impact world has outdated institutional and governance designs, little capacity to take the long view, the power of vested interests, all eyes on addressing immediate needs, and an insufficient understanding of the cascading effects of our actions. Few civil society organizations have the mindset, methods and the practice to centre intergenerational equity and future-building in their governance, strategic plans, programs and services, fundraising, and grantmaking. And currently, there are no easy ways to assess the intergenerational effects of an organization’s work. But that shouldn’t deter us from pooling our collective imagination and embarking on future-building projects that build better systems. There is ample evidence of our dysfunctions to show how irresponsible our current path truly is. 

Sadly, this is a fragile time. Society is fragile. Progress is fragile. And the future is fragile.

We’re experiencing a critical clash of ideas and thought. For the most part, it feels like one dogma-based system is fighting another one: Left versus right; localization versus globalization; intellectual property versus open source; linear economy versus circular economy, present needs versus future needs, and so on. The world needs viewpoint diversity. And there is an enormous opportunity to take a more nuanced look at the ideas—ideas that are not primarily Left or Right, that are not wrapped around the primacy of this group or that one or this ideology or that one. What I’ve realized is that our present day systems, no matter how DEI-centred they may become, will be unable to provide useful responses to tomorrow’s biggest challenges, and that society will enter a rough, exhausting and uncomfortable transitional period in which existing logic and systems are updated. In many ways, humanity has already begun entering this period and ‘trust’ is a good barometer. Humanity’s trust in a range of institutions—democratic institutions, media, NGOs, and business are sharply declining, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. 

Image by The Photo Team

So, then, what does the future require of us? What do we need to do? Following the immersion tour, I have greater clarity. We need to build collective leadership capacity to innovate at the scale of whole systems. That means a deep and nuanced awareness of both intentional good and unintentional bad, a deep awareness of both present and future humans and non-humans, a deep awareness that a portfolio of viewpoints and approaches are imperative both above and below the waterline. That means Canada needs collective infrastructures for co-sensing, co-exploring, co-initiating, and co-hospicing systems and mental models that are no longer fit for purpose. That means we balance our learning from and reacting to the past with learning from and building the future. 

It’s been a couple of weeks since that landmark trip to London with a group of some of the sharpest and kindest people creating change. So, who’s up for actualizing the emerging futures?

Vinod Rajasekaran, Publisher & CEO, Future of Good


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