Why and how to involve the public in thinking about our future?

Reema Patel
5 min readMay 3, 2023


Government policy impacts the publics’ lives in wide-ranging ways, immediately and over years to come. However, thinking about this future impact requires time, space, and access to relevant information. It requires a leap from the now into the range of possible futures, it requires policymakers to look at evidence, unpack assumptions and trade-offs, and make choices based on this. In short, these are the perfect requirements for the process of running deliberative public dialogue. This blog draws from my experience in running two participatory futures dialogues. It makes a brief argument for why we should include the public in thinking about our future, and how to do it, with some examples.

Reason 1: ‘The future is already here… ‘(W. Gibson)

We shape our future by shaping the present. It is the choices made in the here and now — such as what technologies to invest in and develop, or which pathways towards net zero are most tenable, that shape the future. Engaging members of the public in the future matters because it will be those members of the public most directly impacted. In deliberating the future, participants intuitively came to consider the ‘here and now’ when invited to consider the future, and inevitably drew comparisons — what they liked and disliked, and what they dreamed of, hoped for, and wanted.

Reason 2: ‘…it’s just not evenly distributed yet’ ‘(W. Gibson)

Both dialogues we ran about the future revealed equity was a key priority. Participants challenged policymakers to recognise that choices about the future may require more from some people in terms of time, effort and cost. Dialogue helped policymakers and research funders understand how different people would have different experiences of possible futures, and supported them to consider how best to narrow the gap.

Some examples of our approach

Figure 1: Who might experience the future differently?

Image: Materials used in public dialogue created by The Liminal Space, with input from Ipsos, Sciencewise and UKRI

The creative possibilities for participatory futures dialogues:

Given the range of possible futures to explore, we can be creative; we are not constrained to presenting the world just as it is — we can present the world as it could be. Offering some deliberately provocative stimulus materials, we can ask participants to suspend their disbelief and engage with the possibilities, and we can test the boundaries of acceptability and unacceptability. This invites people to take an imaginative leap towards articulating their desired future.

Through the Future Flight public dialogue, we supported participants to imagine how a range of future flight technologies such as air taxis, drones and eVTOL (electrical vertical take off and landing) may affect them and the UK.We worked with creative design agency The Liminal Space to develop innovative stimulus materials that included a Skyway Code game with Wildcards, and a Futures in a Box package that included films, flyers, letters and newspaper clippings::

Figure 2: Futures in a Box

Image: Materials used in public dialogue created by The Liminal Space, with input from Ipsos, Sciencewise and UKRI

In engaging participants on net zero scenarios for 2050, Ipsos developed rich picture illustrations informed by modelling undertaken by the Government Office for Science. The dialogue was designed to ensure these images offered an entry point into four ‘net zero possible worlds’. The ‘possible worlds’ served as a provocation for public dialogue about the world envisaged in 2050, which were produced using established futures thinking methodologies.

Figure 3: Rich Picture Illustrations of Two Net Zero Possible Worlds

Figure 4: Digital ‘Provotypes’ — Reimagining Civic Life

Some learning; four (additional) design principles for involving the public in futures

We leave you with these four design principles informed by our practice. They aim to complement existing Sciencewise guidance on public dialogue quality:

  1. Present the future as open so it can be shaped — not as determined It is essential to ensure people can feel they have the ability to shape the future when deliberating about it, and crucially, that they feel empowered to articulate what they like and dislike about potentialities — as well as why. It is also crucial to encourage participants to consider their own opportunities for agency, empowerment and control in these futures
  2. Join the dots between individual and social choices now and in the future It is helpful to explore the choices, tensions and trade-offs required to realise certain futures. In doing so, the futures feel much more connected to the present, which enables participants and policymakers to understand and recognise their own role in creating ‘pathways’ towards different futures.
  3. Immerse participants in different potentialities, using creative provocations Supporting participants to make the ‘imaginative leap’ into a possible world requires good creative design or what design thinkers describe as ‘provotypes’ . By visualising, and narrating the world as it could be — how do people live, travel, work and play? What kind of homes and households do they live in? What food is grown and produced and how do they eat? We can support participants to imagine this, and articulate their vision for the future.
  4. Let people fill in the gaps Defining these possible futures to the ‘n’th degree is neither possible nor desirable. Participants will fill in the gaps and will make inferences, and will treat these as they are — provotypes, and that’s okay. Invite participants to explore why they make the inferences that they make, question their own assumptions and explore why they think certain inferred features of the world are important.

This blog was written by Reema Patel, Head of Deliberative Engagement at Ipsos.Ipsos were the contractors on the Sciencewise supported public dialogues on Future Flight (commissioned by the Future Flight Challenge team/Innovate) and Net Zero Scenarios (commissioned by the Government Office for Science)

Net Zero Scenarios Public Dialogue (full dialogue report due soon)

Thinking of a public dialogue about a futures based issues?Contact us oninfo@sciencewise.org.uk to find out more.

Originally published at https://sciencewise.org.uk on May 3, 2023.



Reema Patel

Participation/deliberative democracy/futures/emerging tech specialist. Researcher at Ipsos and at ESRC Digital Good Network.