Recently, the City Pages—an alternative weekly paper in Minneapolis-St. Paul—ran this story featuring a photo of my wife Molly and I at last summer’s River City Revue produced by Works Progress. Seeing that photo brought me back to an incredible moment. We were going to Finland so I could study Futures Studies at Turku School of Economics. The tremendous change that came with that decision was beginning to happen. The photo was taken a half mile from our house, and we are surrounded by people from our community of artists, thinkers, and doers. River City Revue tours St. Paul’s riverside featuring arts installations, talks, and music. Molly’s part that year involved participants in singing songs to the river. Moments before the picture was snapped, I had learned my residence permit had been approved—I was allowed to live and work as a student in Finland. Was this the craziest idea ever? Undoubtedly. Was it the right thing to do? Couldn’t be certain. Was it too late to change course, if I was wrong? Not totally, but there would be a lot of explaining to do.
We may look like your typical calm, loving couple enjoying a great event on a summer evening—but I distinctly recall feeling a wild tangle of hopes and fears that evening. After nearly a decade of great experiences and general stability working at Macalester College, I had decided it was time to change direction. The World Future 2013 conference in Chicago inspired me to become a futurist. Technically speaking, nothing was stopping me from “hanging a plaque on my door” that says “futurist” and suddenly be one—so many others have successfully followed that path in the past. For me, earning my master’s degree in futures studies is an important first step in pursing my goal. After years of interest in the futures field, Molly encouraged me to stop talking about it and take action. Applying for two of four top futures studies programs in the world was soul-searching and deepening work. I was accepted into both programs. While deliberating on which offer to accept, the idea of postponing the whole endeavor was quite tempting. However, I came to realize there really was no “later” for this project—it was now or never. We made a choice—we were moving to Finland.
We had begun telling the people closest to us about our plan. I told my closest co-workers and they asked good questions and provided support. I told my grandma and she said, “Finland is very close to Russia,” an astute observation I would only later appreciate. I told my uncle, a professional financial adviser, and he warned me it would be reckless with high chances for going broke, an important worry to keep in mind. I told my siblings to mixed response, but they all get what this means to me. One of my brothers and his life partner said, “Wicked! That’s so cool.” We owe them big time because of their help. My Dad went above and beyond to help Molly and I prepare our house for sale (or, as it turned out, rental). My mom was sad we were moving so far away—understandable, we are also sad to be so far away. We reassured her we will come home for holidays and we will one day return. As the news became public at work, the colleagues who knew me well would say, “Futures studies? Finland? This is so Nick. Perfect.” So many great people supported us in this journey.
We took that giant leap—far outside our orbit of tried and true patterns, far away from our networks of support. Now that I have an academic year behind me and one more to go, I can say it has been worth it. I feel rejuvenated. I get to spend most of my time thinking about futures studies. My classmates and faculty at Turku School of Economics all have one essential quality in common—deep passion for a better future. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t get to say, hear, or see something about a new (or old) futures research method, a new “futures of X” report, a weak signal, a new future image, or a new possibility on the horizon.
My classmates are brilliant and are of many nationalities, academic disciplines, ages, and career trajectories. We discuss megatrends, weak signals, black swans (unanticipated surprises), strategic foresight, causal layered analysis, scenarios, Delphi questionnaires, personal futures, the merits of quantitative vs. qualitative foresight, and ponder questions regarding what participatory, experimental and immersive futures research should do. Thanks to our colleague David Wray, we have frequent reason to discuss the implications of “cyborgization.” My classmates and I have had opportunities to hatch futuristic business plans together and visit cutting edge Finnish workplaces. Some of us have had experiences moderating groups in large participatory research project. Through my summer internship, I have interviewed a foresight expert from Finland prime minister’s office, a renewable energy professor about models for 100% renewable energy futures by 2050, and Jerome Glenn, leader of the Millennium Project “the global think tank working on behalf of humanity.” All of these experiences would not have happened if we had given into our fears and we reversed course.
Looking closely at the River City Revue photo, it is rich with detailed memory. Molly had just led a participatory singing performance by the river in connection with a large commissioned art project for which she was co-artist. One song they sang was Moon River. In the photo, we are enjoying our remaining time together and the other parts of the Riverside Revue tour. That tangle of hopes and fears roaring inside of us. How awesome will Finland be? What will I learn? How will we grow in seeing he world from a different vantage point? What will my career be like as a futurist? What if I fail? What if I earn my master’s degree in futures studies and nothing comes of it afterward? What if all of this ruins us without any reward?
At this time, the hopes are prevailing. Studying Futures Studies in Finland—a cradle of innovation, a country where grand philosophies, technologies, and ways of living continually mingle and transform, where systems are designed to value people first, and the foresight community is organized, vast, influential, and well-respected—is thoroughly inspiring. The moment of that picture was filled with giant, uncertain, and unknown futures. As these futures are emerging they are “silver swans”—bright and surprising.
Even though making this leap to pursue new opportunities has come with some difficulties for Molly and I, we are carried on by the new motto of our home. Who are we if we do not live for our dreams? It is a wish for everyone in the future. What will it take for all to thrive and pursue their dreams? Let’s live for the emergence of that world.