Emerging Futures — patterning the third horizon

Cassie Robinson.
8 min readJan 9, 2022

The Emerging Futures Fund, that we set up at TNLCF in Spring 2020, in that first wave of the pandemic, is one of the programmes I get asked most about, so I thought I’d do a quick summary of things I learnt.

For those not familiar with the programme, it was set up to fund the following —

New Narratives, Perspectives and Storytellers which included exploring what or who needs to be centred differently in the narratives that emerge during the pandemic and narratives that encourage us to focus on what we now know is essential or that help sustain community togetherness beyond the crisis.

Community foresight and public imagination which included exploring ways to activate and strengthen social imagination in communities so that the voices and ideas of local communities can contribute to the renewal of civil society, to support communities to develop and use community foresight practices together and ensuring diverse voices were at the centre and in the lead in shaping where we go from here,

Investing in strong signals for transformation which included projects and ideas that showed potential in terms of where we go from here. Initiatives that offer practical hope about alternative ways of people and communities being in the lead, ideas whose ‘time has come’ and that need investing in now to become more of a reality.

If you want to read more about each of the 52 initiatives that we funded, they are all here.

Before I go on to share some learning points it feels important to mention what we paid attention to in the design and delivery of the fund.

We were very committed to asking who gets to shape the future and I was glad that out of the 52 grants, 17 were People of Colour led, 2 were Disabled Person led, 3 were LGBTQI led and 3 were Lived Experience led (intersectional LEX). This also felt important because so many people with ‘lived experience’ get platformed to talk only of that and rarely get asked about their dreams for the future.

There was a good spread of grants across the UK. We also managed to fund people that weren’t TNLCF ‘usual suspects’ with 26 of the grants going to people that TNLCF had never funded before.

The funding programme was conceived to be more than just a collection of individual grants and I’d hoped that we could grow an infrastructure around them. When we brought all the initiatives together for the first time I asked -

What if this was the start of seeding a listening, sensing and imagination infrastructure for communities across the UK?

(also see this piece on ‘imagination infrastructure’)

What I meant was that I hoped we could grow a culture, an ecosystem, a network of communities and places that were practiced in collective imagination, shared enquiring, and distributed experimentation. When communities were asked to co-design, shape, input into anything about their futures, they’d have strengthened that ‘muscle’ — and would be doing so in an ongoing way. Joined up, systemic, deeper, wiser, more imaginative “community engagement and participation.”

To seed that ambition we tried many things.

We brought in Catherine as a Policy Narrative person to start noticing the common threads and to start paying attention to (and preparing) the wider contexts in which we hoped ideas could land, take root, be oriented towards. We knew that linking the work into decision-making power would be vital.

We brought in George as an archivist to do the work of reflecting the ‘system’ back to itself — sharing the collective activity as it emerged, gathering what the initiatives were doing over time, and archiving it — taking care of the work as it grew. We brought Will in to actively weave the community together, to tend to the community, running monthly sessions for the cohort to share their work, running sessions with TNLCF local teams and also thematic sensemaking sessions covering land, work, young people etc.

We brought in Scott and Susan to share futures practices with those that wanted to bring a different rigour to the work of imagining and we wrote some heartfelt pieces sharing these ambitions.

Of course, even though we did all these things, the overall ambition hasn’t be realised (yet!).

One of the cohort Show + Tells, with Onion Collective

Some takeaways

Funding for enquiry and experimentation

Many of the grantees talked about how unusual it was to receive funding that was explicitly about experimentation. The OECD used it as an example of how to use funding to design policy, calling it “pro-active policy making”.

“How do we create ‘policy-designing environments’ which are vehicles for actively constructing policy within, in real-time, and with complete engagement and participation?” — Dan Hill, Slow Down Papers

When the funding programme was signed off by UK Funding Committee it had been on the basis that alongside resourcing communities to do the enquiring, we’d also listen. We’d been explicit about the value of it as a vehicle for generating strategy ideas, informed by communities across the UK. This was a key reason for doing the Emerging Futures Fund at that moment in time, because we knew that in light of the pandemic we’d need to rethink our funding strategy.

It was a way for communities to be proactive in shaping and creating preferred visions of the future and articulate what matters to them. We’d also been explicit in our commitment to growing the capabilities for experimentation in communities, partnering the grantees with practitioners that brought approaches and methods to do this work.

Investing in the *how* communities are able to enquire feels as important as funders encouraging and resourcing experimentation.

I’d love to see more funders using grants to prototype their funding strategies, rather than consultation, and realising the value of how this iterative activity can enable communities themselves to interrogate the desirability of different futures. One participant in the Emerging Futures Fund described it as being a way for their community to do “ethnography on the potential of the future in our local place.”

Of course, using grants in this way is only meaningful and powerful if you’re going to listen and use the insights that come out of the work, in the design of your strategy!

Putting assets to use

This was a really good example of where we failed as a funder to bring all our assets to bear on a funding programme, beyond the grants.

What could have made a difference includes —

If you are funding experiments and enquiries then one of the outputs is likely to be a lot of content. Stories, films, manifestos, toolkits, community action plans, scenarios — we had so much content from the 52 grantholders, but we didn’t do anywhere near enough to share this more widely. Whilst we set up the Emerging Futures Fund website, created an archive of all the content, and got some pieces published, the narratives from this work could have travelled much further, and with much greater impact, had we put all of our platforms to use.

In particular, there is a role and responsibility for funders (especially public ones) with work like this, to do the systemic narrative work. What this means is doing the skilled work of going beyond just telling stories of individual grants and telling a story of the sum of the parts. This is how funders can put their positionality to better use.

Whilst we ran some events with local funding teams connecting the Emerging Futures initiatives with other local projects, we could have used our convening power much more purposefully to weave these initiatives together in place. I believe this would have helped them take root and spread.

Again, we could have used our convening power, networks and influence to connect what communities were saying they wanted for their futures into local and national decision-making. We did support some places to do this, and some of the initiatives did a great job of doing this on their own, but we failed them by not doing more.

Language as a strange attractor

We intentionally used language in this programme to paint a picture of how the world could be different. In the application form and in information about the fund we saw the potential of language to ask something different of grantees. Some people complained that it was exclusionary, some people said that it made them stop and think in a way no other funding programme ever had. It stretched their thinking, and imaginations, about what was possible.

This is my big bug bear about user-centred design and user-testing being applied across grantmaking. It’s a useful approach if you want your funding applications to be as simple as it is to apply for getting a new driving license. It’s also quite likely to encourage the same kinds of work to be done into perpetuity – let’s just keep making existing systems better and hope for the best, whilst the wider context changes, at pace, around us.

We need more grantmaking to operate further upstream, in what might be known as the “Discovery” phase, to explicitly not engage or negotiate with the current system, and language itself can be used as a discovery and sensemaking tool within this.

As Dark Matter Labs writes:

“… we see the world working differently, and being able to select language that describes this with precision. This means that we may reach for language and terms that are loaded as a way to stretch and build upon ideas and even define new topics where language is far from established. Simplification can become challenging in this context when it then takes context or meaning away from the ideas we want to express. At times, over-simplification as a default may actually take colour away from the painting rather than adding to its clarity. Indeed, this simplification of complexity into small bite sized slogans and digestible summaries is at the heart of some of the challenges that we find ourselves when it comes to democracy and the quality of our social discourse.“

In some ways the funding programme was ahead of its time. TNLCF are talking about 2022 as the year of renewal in communities. I just hope that they also look at the communities who back in 2020 were already being resourced to ask these questions.

Many of them are the guiding stars in a constellation orienting us towards better futures and I hope everyone listens not just to the questions they are asking, but to how they are asking them too.

An example of some of the initiatives seeded during the Emerging Futures Fund.

Radicle Civics — new civic infrastructures needed across the UK

An equitable Imagination Observatory

A UK-wide Department of Dreams

Attachment Economics — new economic pioneers in communities

Climate Youth Collective — imagining hopeful futures for the hotter world of tomorrow

New narratives for land in England

The Virtual and Spacial Imagination — reimagining new environments that serve and nurture communities

A Doorstep Revolution in Wales — a hyper-local street-by-street project

Community land ownership in Scotland

Towards Equitable Futures — a cultural institution understand its governance, design, and decision-making processes and how they perpetuate power structures.

The future of market towns

The People’s Podium — travelling the UK to hear from communities

Makings of an Alternative System — how could the future be different?

Talk of the Town — a Northern Irish town shapes its future

Shifting the Social Paradigm — the new relationship required between the state and our communities



Cassie Robinson.

Working with Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, P4NE, Arising Quo & Stewarding Loss - www.cassierobinson.work