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IDEAS

How to be a good ancestor

A new political movement makes policymakers imagine themselves as members of future generations.

Citizens of Yahaba, Japan, wearing robes to signal they're visiting from 2060.
Citizens of Yahaba, Japan, wearing robes to signal they're visiting from 2060.Courtesy of Masaaki Takahashi and Ritsuji Yoshioka

In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington warned against “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” He was talking about public debt, but today his warning could be equally applied to the many burdens and risks being thrown upon tomorrow’s citizens, from climate change and the threats posed by artificial intelligence to institutional racism that gets replicated from one generation to the next.

Wittingly or not, Washington had identified a fundamental flaw in democracy: that the billions upon billions of people who will inhabit the future and will be impacted by our choices have no political voice. They are granted no rights or representation. Their interests can’t compete with the cut and thrust of a presidential election or the short-term cycles of 24/7 media. And since they’re not here, they can’t take direct action by leaping in front of the king’s horse like an English suffragette or staging a sit-in like a civil rights activist.

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But the future is getting a voice in ingenious new ways.

The Japanese town of Yahaba, population 27,000, is unremarkable except for the fact that it is home to one of the most pioneering and horizon-stretching experiments in the history of modern democracy.

Since 2015, the residents of Yahaba have taken part in Future Design, a unique model of political decision-making where they are invited to public meetings to discuss plans for their town’s future. They start as themselves, with the perspective of a current resident. But then — and this is where it gets interesting — they are given colorful ceremonial robes to wear and told to imagine themselves as residents of the town in 2060.

It turns out that when they’re acting as people from the future, they advocate far more transformative policies, from health care provision to climate change action. Using Future Design, Yahaba residents agreed to a 6 percent increase in their water rates to finance long-term investment in the town’s degraded water infrastructure, having realized how much this would benefit their children and grandchildren. The experiment has been so successful that in April 2019, Yahaba’s mayor set up a Future Strategy Office to ensure that Future Design is used in all major decision-making.

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Future Design is now spreading rapidly across Japan and is being used in major cities including Kyoto, Matsumoto, and Suita. Earlier this year, residents from the city of Uji, just south of Kyoto, created a Future Design citizens' assembly to lobby local officials. It has even been taken up by Japan’s Ministry of Finance as a tool for challenging the short-termism that dominates economic policymaking.

For a movement born in Japan, the origins of Future Design are surprising. “We are inspired by the Native American Iroquois practice of seventh generation decision-making,” explains the movement’s founder, Tatsuyoshi Saijo, an economics professor at the Research Institute for Future Design at Kochi University of Technology. He points out that although humans are obviously lured by short-term rewards and instant gratification, our brains are better at long-term planning and envisaging possible futures than we had previously recognized. “Imagining yourself in the future isn’t easy for our brains to digest,” he says, “but there is now a growing body of neuroscience research revealing the human capacity to make this kind of mental leap.”

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For Saijo, Future Design is urgently needed to tackle the growing ecological crisis. His ultimate ambition is to see it practiced at the heart of a new Japanese Ministry for the Future and used in international meetings like the G20, as well as its being adopted by towns and cities worldwide. “We must design social structures that activate the futurability within us,” he says. “If we don’t do this, our continued existence itself is at stake.”

Future Design is just one example of a growing global movement to overcome the short-termism that pervades politics. In Wales, there is a Future Generations Commissioner whose job is to scrutinize the impact of public policy on the well-being of citizens 30 years from today, and there is now an active campaign for the whole UK to have its own commissioner.

Meanwhile, the US public interest law firm Our Children’s Trust has filed a landmark case against the federal government on behalf of 21 young people campaigning for the legal right to a stable climate and healthy atmosphere for both present and future generations. The case has already inspired groundbreaking lawsuits worldwide, from Colombia and Pakistan to Uganda and the Netherlands.

There will always be a need for governments to focus on immediate issues like the COVID-19 crisis. But these pioneering initiatives show how it is possible to give voice to future generations through present-day design. They embody the wise words of Jonas Salk, responsible for developing the polio vaccine in 1955, who recognized the importance of taking the long view. He wrote, “The most important question we must ask ourselves is: Are we being good ancestors?”

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Roman Krznaric is the author of “The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking.”