How AAI's Center for Public Partnerships & Research Draws On "Futures Thinking" in their Work
When you prepare for the future, how far ahead do you look? Is it five years? 10? What about 20 or 50 or even 100? It might seem impossible to plan for a time so far away, but that’s exactly what the Center for Public Partnerships & Research (CPPR) does.
Housed under KU’s Achievement and Assessment Institute, CPPR imagines and builds toward healthy futures for children and families, going far beyond the short-term. CPPR staff includes people from a broad number of different fields, from researchers and social workers to scientists and psychologists. Their work focuses on the ever-changing needs of families and communities and adapting as new trends and challenges arise through forward thinking and strategic foresight.
“We think about what is needed today, but also 10, 20 years in the future. When we talk about looking at trends, we're not talking just about linear projections. We're really talking about what are all the other driving forces that are affecting life as we know it?” said CPPR Director Jackie Counts. “What are the technological forces? What are the economic, social, political, and cultural issues that affect our communities?”
Because the future is unpredictable, planning so far into the future requires a sharp eye towards trends. What small issues could become widespread and what big issues will become obsolete 20 years from now? Keeping track of different signals in the community and planning for them requires juggling multiple different paths and solutions at the same time.
“If you see a signal you think is worth watching, how do you know when it's becoming mainstream? A lot of things that are on the fringe end up fizzling out and don't necessarily become something,” Counts said. “Someone asked me how you know which ones are the right signals. You don't! You have to grab as many signals as you can and let the ones that don't end up becoming something fall from your grasp.”
An example of a signal worth watching and planning for is climate change. As we see the severity of the effects of global warming increase, what will Kansas look like in 20 years? How will Kansas agriculture be impacted by rising temperatures? How will our state be impacted by climate migration? These types of widespread and urgent issues require planning today so that we can be better prepared for the future and secure a better world for our children.
“When we're talking about making policy decisions right now, if we're not bringing the voices of the future generation into those conversations, that's probably not good policy. We have to be able to ask ourselves what the trade-offs and sacrifices we might have to make today are so that our kids have thriving and healthy futures,” Counts said.
CPPR takes inspiration from other futures organizations like the Institute For The Future, the world's oldest continuously running futures research and educational organization. The IFTF was one of the first organizations to come up with the idea of anticipating futures based off the trends, values, and behaviors found within communities and channeling that into action. Since its founding in 1968, more and more organizations have applied forward thinking and strategic foresight in their work. Counts said she hopes that CPPR can replicate some of what the IFTF and other organizations have been doing in other countries here in Kansas.
CPPR partners with organizations, the government, and community members to help them find out what the needs are and how people can best address the challenges in their own communities, even if the solutions aren’t what is traditionally expected. CPPR wants people to dream big and come up with their own ideas for what they want the future to look like.
“We help set up the conversation and then invite people to form their own paths forward, which is the best way for a community to really reach their solutions, rather than an outside person coming in and telling them everything they need to fix,” said Janine Hron, associate director of CPPR. “We bring different stakeholders together and ask ‘How do we pull these things together? What's our vision together?’ And it's that kind of leadership that that partners expect and really look to us for.”
One of the ways CPPR helps plant the seed of future thinking is through the Kansas Future Fellows program, a nine-month fellowship that brings together leaders from the public and private sectors across Kansas to develop new skills and share insights that promote community connections for a better future. The program includes Kansans from a broad range of specialties, from non-profit directors and college presidents to medical doctors and government employees.
“The Future Fellows program is giving people the tools to be able to hold that space to think about the future and teaching them how to open that up that conversation,” Counts said. “It's not some master program that you just implement. It's a way of being and a way of living.”
Jennifer Keomany and Jonathan Sublet were members of the inaugural 2021-22 Future Fellows cohort. Keomany is the Department Manager in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Wichita. Her area of research and interest is women’s prenatal care in rural Kansas and how their needs are different than their urban counterparts. She said she decided to apply for the Future Fellows because the program’s mission aligned with her interest in long-term support for families.
“What really resonated with me is to be invested in the future that I'm not a part of,” Keomany said. “I want to see our children thrive. I'm not going be here one day, but I want the world to be better.”
Keomany said that innovative future thinking is critical for the future of healthcare, especially during a time when the system is already under so much stress. Without proper preparation, the stress on medical providers will worsen as senior healthcare workers retire and take lifetimes of knowledge with them. Keomany said that the Future Fellows program taught her how to recognize these possibilities so she and her department can better prepare through training and recruiting.
“As an administrator, I don't really get to do a lot of on-the-ground work, so what I'm doing instead is planting the seed in a lot of influential people that will continue this thought in their work,” Keomany said.
Sublet is the founder and lead pastor of Fellowship Hi-Crest Church and the founder and chairman of the community development non-profit SENT Inc. in Highland Crest, Topeka, one of the most under-resourced neighborhoods in Kansas according to Sublet. Both Hi-Crest and SENT Inc. provide resources and development to the community through educational workshops, rent and utility assistance, early childhood education and childcare, community food assistance, mental health services, scholarships, and more.
Providing all these services means having to predict and be ready for future challenges as the communities change and grow, which is why Sublet emphasizes forward thinking and planning.
“The world is constantly changing, and I think that especially in the nonprofit and education sectors, we've been too reactive rather than proactive. It’s more effective and more efficient to make a change in the front end rather than later,” Sublet said. “I want to do the most good I can for the greatest amount of people, and that means trying to understand what people are walking into and how to design a system that allows me to walk beside them.”
Sublet said one of the best parts of the program was learning about other communities across Kansas and connecting with other likeminded leaders who are also looking for future-based solutions.
“The more we get our innovative thinkers engaged and developing solutions for every person Kansas, the stronger we're going to be together as a State, and that's what defines our future,” Sublet said.
Keomany, Sublet, and all members of the 2021-22 Future Fellows cohort were able to present their visions of the future to policymakers, private organizations, and others at the 2022 Futures Forum. The 2022-23 Future Fellows cohort will also have their chance to share at the 2023 Futures Forum in the fall.
“The idea behind the Kansas Future Fellows is ‘how do we help our state?’” Hron said. “We're planting the seeds and watching them grow.”