Ketaki Chowkhani and Kushal Sohal
Futures Literacy is a capability that builds on the innate human capacity to imagine. It is a skill that enables us to understand how we anticipate, helps us to identify the sources of our hopes and fears, and encourages us to reframe our assumptions. Through codesigned workshops, we can invite playful exploration of futures, those we deem probable, desirable, and alternative scenarios. Not only do such activities help us plan, prepare and adapt as changes occur, but they also support efforts to identify novelty, navigate complexity, feel empowered to transform the present, and to ultimately have fun with others. As opposed to rote-learning and textbook classroom activities, this interactive learn-by-doing approach sparks energy and ideas in learning spaces and can be used by academics as an ethnographic form of action-research around a chosen topic.
Ketaki Chowkhani, who teaches sociology at the Manipal Centre for Humanities, incorporated an assignment to imagine gender utopias within her undergraduate course on gender. The students were tasked to imagine a utopia vis-à-vis gender and sexuality, building upon the readings that discussed feminisms, gender inequalities and discrimination, dissonances within the family, sexual and gendered violence, and reproduction. The aim was to be able to imagine a better world, neither an immediate future which temporarily resolves the problems on hand, nor to suggest ‘politically correct solutions’ to contemporary issues. The students were asked to envisage a radical shift in the world vis-à-vis gender, to let their imagination run wild, and to be as creative as possible by incorporating different genres of writing: poetry, plays, cartoons, newsletters, and correspondences. The idea was to support the students to shift their thinking and instead engage with their imagination, to be creative and think beyond the immediate.
A similar exercise had been conducted with a different batch previously. Then, the students had not been able to let their imaginations run wild. The present batch too was initially sceptical. They seemed to be unable to imagine a utopia, or weren’t sure if it was grand or wild enough. However, after repeated discussions in the class addressing their doubts and queries including resistance to the very idea of utopia itself, they were able to deliver the essays.
On reflecting upon their resistance to this creative process, we realized that the education system in India seldom encourages its students to imagine or be creative and focuses on textbook based learning. When the students were presented the opportunity to be creative, it felt very alien to them. Yet, they bravely took up the challenge, and after a prolonged ‘labour’, came out with their utopias. Ten of the assignments were then presented as part of a Futures Literacy workshop facilitated by Kushal Sohal, enabling the students to share with each other their images of a utopian future and reflect on the assumptions they had challenged.
As we listened to the 10 students present their imaginings of abstract and alternative futures that play with conceptions of gender, sexuality and their intersectionalities, we found ourselves awe-struck by their creativity. Students reframed phenomena such as reproduction, sex, pleasure, categorization, space, body, consent, care, love, and astrology.
Dekyong played with the idea of reproductive animals whose sex is not fixed and thus society is organized around equality of each to choose whether or not they want to make and hold an offspring within their body. Oishee took us into the realms of a multiverse, where personalities and appearances were shaped by elements and zodiac signs. With no gender specificity and fluid sexual orientations, we learnt about a society organized around principles of compassion and passion to love without the need for relationships to be labelled. Consent and accountability were central to the way in which the society operated. Chetana moved us into a post-apocalyptic world, with alternative housing societies and community bubbles. While the bubbles could be infused and their ethical boundaries redrawn, the idea would be to promote personal space and transparency as a route towards peaceful coexistence. Amshula reinterpreted the Shakespearean drama Macbeth, imagining the witches’ prophecies celebrating gender fluidity being in conflict with a clueless, prejudiced man trapped in a world he does not understand. He must learn to rid himself of ‘toxicity’ and reckon with his behaviour. Sagarika’s tale celebrated the world of Lady Labia – a goddess of pleasure. Complete with chromosome transformations, centring female self-sufficiency as opposed to male control, it understood pleasure as not only sexual but a sensation found in diversity and the flowers of nature. Taking inspiration from TV and film, Agnes shared a story of a technological world where one would need a permit to have a baby and children would choose their own body parts, including genitalia. Vidisha’s science fiction presented a scenario where bodies cease to exist, a virtual reality simulation where there are no hierarchies in character traits and identities, but only a desire to feel stimulated. Akanksha’s narrative story was shared in the form of a song. Beings would have no sexual reproductive organs, instead there would be phoenix-inspired regeneration. The soul and body meet without shame, intimacy is cherished and sex understood as not simply penetrative. There would be no pain of labour, only the pleasures of leisure. Siri spoke of a world that transcends time and materiality, where humans have become gods with immense dynamism and infinite choice, a world that celebrates the language of agency and fluidity. Centring love, Joseph spoke of a completely harmonious world of new beings, where the physical body is elevated to a higher state of consciousness and gender is a fluid river – forever shape-shifting in a physical and spiritual sense.
Reflecting on their images of the future, we worked with students to identify the assumptions they had reframed. Students had demonstrated that playing with imagination revealed the manner in which systems enabled and disabled agency, the controlling nature of governance and power, the difference between reproductive and regenerative; fluidity vis-à-vis rigidity, the way we see the body as the subject of categorization; and the spiritual as beyond definition. They had shown us the capacity to imagine societies driven by curiosity, ease in plurality, a balance between self-sufficiency and interdependence. Central to students’ imaginings was an interplay between thought and feeling, they had spoken of worlds without shame, and championed love, intimacy, and pleasure in all their liberated, joyful, passionate forms.
The exercise showed us that Futures Literacy activities such as designing utopias enhances creative-thinking and imagination in learning spaces, enabling curious students to engage more innovatively with their areas of study. We need more such spaces within the classroom where students can imagine, play, be creative; envisaging utopias might be just a start.
Ketaki Chowkhani, PhD, is Assistant Professor at Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kushal Sohal is a London-based Next Generation Foresight Practitioner with the School of International Futures and a Consultant with the Futures Literacy and Foresight team at UNESCO HQ. He can be reached at email@example.com and/or twitter at @KushalSohal.