As the Smithsonian’s first major exploration of the future, the “FUTURES” exhibition at the historic Arts and Industries Building (AIB) offered a groundbreaking look at many possible futures.

Now, a new analysis of nearly 1 million insights from the exhibition’s more than 650,000 visitors offers a potential roadmap for inspiring hope around the future, with overwhelming data pointing to the fact that positive emotions result in greater action around big issues facing humanity.

Credit: Smithsonian Institution

This broad survey could mark one of the most comprehensive glimpses into how people are thinking and feeling about the future during the seismic shifts of the past few years—and possibly one of the largest data collections of its kind.

From November 2021 through July 2022, “FUTURES” temporarily reopened the Smithsonian’s oldest museum for the first time in nearly two decades. The exhibition and part-festival brought together more than 150 historical objects, ideas, cutting-edge prototypes, and installations that spanned art, technology design, and history to help visitors imagine many possible futures on the horizon with a sense of flexibility and optimism. It was also designed to listen, with more than six different types of interactives that invited visitors to share their visions of the future—from what actions they would take to make a better world to whether they could be friends with a robot. Almost all visitors (97%) reported a shift in mindset or emotion about the future after visiting.

In a first-of-its-kind partnership for a cultural institution, AIB shares what it learned publicly and with the Institute for the Future (IFTF), leading research and educational organization devoted to future studies. This will inform the next phase of IFTF’s field-leading work, supported by analysis from global cultural audience research firm Morris Hargreaves McIntyre and exhibition technologists the LAB at Rockwell Group.

“We learned so much from talking to over a half-million people about the future and are excited to share that knowledge with the field,” said Rachel Goslins, former director of AIB. “This research is a fitting capstone to our groundbreaking exhibit. It is an antidote to those that peddle in fear and an urgently needed tool for those interested in inspiring hope and action about the future.” 

Highlights include: 

  • Hope drives action. Seventy-seven percent of visitors reported feeling more hopeful about the future after seeing “FUTURES.” A similar 80% reported being inspired to act to shape their desired future, plus a sense of increased responsibility to do so. Despite the common wisdom that scaring people inspires action, FUTURES’ optimistic approach seemed to make huge challenges, like climate change, seem less overwhelming and spark a greater sense of hope and direct agency.  
  • There is a “hopefulness gap,”—but shifting this could be a key to shaping the future people most want. People have more faith in innovation and technology than in human cooperation. Formative research showed that while people want peaceful and equitable futures the most, they believe these are the least likely outcomes. This disparity created a sense of despair and hopelessness. “FUTURES” data agreed, showing that people are much less optimistic about potential solutions to large-scale crises that are peaceful, empathetic, or require large-scale human cooperation. They are more likely to have hope in future solutions that rely on technology, personal action, or leaps of innovation. Much of “FUTURES” centered on the latter. By focusing on the former—stories of human collaboration from communities large and small—there is an incredibly effective opportunity to create wide-scale hope for the future. 
  • “Mental time travel” through specificity training can help create hope for the future. The concept of “specificity training” was foundational to the “FUTURES” exhibition, based on research from IFTF and others. The idea is that the more concretely one can envision the details of a possible future, the more capable one feels of taking action to make that future a reality. AIB curators worked to incorporate the “real world” each object could live in, showcasing actual solutions being tackled by real people and inviting visitors to speculate on how those ideas could play out over time. As a result of this “mental time travel,” 83% of visitors reported being able to imagine a better possible world. It made change seem more realistic and hopeful and made the future feel closer.
  • Looking 30 years out can give people the most productive mindset. When asked to predict when major social and technological shifts might happen (e.g., the first 3D-printed organ, all-electric gas stations, recyclable buildings), most visitors chose “30 years.” Early research from IFTF and others shows that people struggle to conceptualize more than 15 years in the future, which can often lead to devastating or paralyzing short-term thinking. Focusing on that “30-year” window can help create tangible and ambitious solutions. 
  • Including younger generations in the conversation can drive change and impact the most. “FUTURES” allowed young people to place themselves in an important larger conversation about the future. Seventy percent of visitors were 40 or younger, much younger than the average Smithsonian audience. The youngest groups reported getting the most out of the exhibition by being able to talk to friends and family about the future, seeing solutions, and seeing themselves reflected in it. 

Hundreds of additional data points range from the entertaining (the future superpower people would most want? Teleportation!) to deeply profound (almost everyone would like to be buried in a pod to grow into a tree), as well as overarching trends (most people anticipate living longer in the future, but not with fewer worries) that reveal how visitors are thinking about the world to come. 

By sharing these insights widely, AIB hopes to offer an example of how museums and cultural organizations can work closely with think tanks, designers, and other research entities to create a measurable impact far beyond an individual exhibition.  

“The large-scale data and unprecedented insights about the futures that people want that has been generated by ‘FUTURES’ is invaluable,” said Jane McGonigal, future forecaster, and director of Game Research and Development at IFTF. “We know that most young people today feel anxious about their futures and the fate of humanity. We urgently need to revitalize our social imagination to create believable images of positive futures collectively. We need powerful new images, stories, and possible paths forward that represent a world we want to live in, futures we would be empowered by, excited by, and healed by. These ‘FUTURES’ insights can help community leaders and future-focused organizations like the Institute for the Future understand what visions of the future are most likely to cultivate a sense of realistic hope and the agency to act today to make a better world.” 

Data was sourced from questions visitors answered at the exhibition’s “FUTURES Beacons” digital kiosks designed by LAB at Rockwell Group with a script from IFTF, responses to the interactive central sculpture “me+you” by artist and architect Suchi Reddy, in-person visitor surveys and interviews, and handwritten “action cards” visitors filled out at the exit.

Additional support was provided by SoftBank Group Corp. and AWS.

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