Signals of change are new ideas or innovations that could change the game for sustainability in the future. Use the Futures Centre as your space to keep track of what's new to find opportunities for a sustainable future.
1) Madhu, tell us a bit about who you are.
I like seeking knowledge and enjoy telling stories. The first thing I tell anyone about myself is that I am deeply passionate about dinosaurs and prehistoric life because they bring me to a world that is so wondrous and delightfully different from the world we currently live in. Imagine a humid world without flowers (they hadn’t evolved yet) in the Jurassic period, with dinosaurs like stegosaurus herding and massive sauropods chomping down ferns in lush jungles!
Incidentally, that is what got me into sustainability and futures - to imagine and help build a world that is decidedly different and better than the one we live in now.
2) How did you first start spotting signals?
When I started out as futures researcher at Forum for the Future, it was part of my job to spot signals of change, and it turned out to be a great break-time activity. For the first time in my life, I moved from passively reading the news to filtering out stories and innovations that I thought could lead to big change and/or solve various sustainability challenges. Over time, what started out as a fun, intellectual exercise has truly become an embodied practice for me.
I recently was part of a drama performance in Singapore called ‘The Lesson’, where the audience was presented with a scenario whereby the city had made plans for the development of an old housing estate and an existing facility in the area had to be demolished to make way for it. As one of the 15 audience members selected to be ‘housing estate representatives’, I had to go on stage and deliberate which of the seven spaces in our estate (a marsh, wet market, columbarium, cinema mainly for foreign workers, halfway house, flea market and rental flats) we wanted to give up. It was a difficult deliberation process and for many of us in the audience, the first time we got the agency to consider and debate the worth of these social and environmental spaces that we were personally invested in. This has never happened in Singapore, where all the land is owned and all the land use changes are planned by the government, usually without public consultation. Here I was, part of a signal of change unfolding before my eyes - to me, this was a sign of tides shifting in my country, that perhaps it is time for us citizens to take greater ownership of the places we need to protect.
But spotting is not enough. We need the imagination to explore what happens when a signal moves from the margins to the mainstream. What would it look like if citizens co-designed all public spaces? What are potential unintended consequences: might this reinforce existing inequalities? What might be the ideal scenario here?
After spotting and imagining comes the crucial changes that need to happen, taking action! When we connect our day-to-day experiences to broader trends and to the future we want to build, we start to see ourselves as nodes in a beautiful and complex system and begin to understand our agency. We each have to ask ourselves, where are we best placed to create the conditions for a better, more sustainable world? For me, I am increasingly developing my voice in raising public awareness on social and environmental issues.
3) Do you scan for a specific area?
No, I try to scan as broadly as possible, but my own interest is in signals around social change, such as in the informal economy, urban planning, and human rights. Societal inequality is widening within and across countries even as the global middle class is growing - it feels like such an intractable problem that I would like to see where the solution spaces are emerging. If we can’t even get distributing resources equitably to our own species right, how are we going to do it with our environment?
I also like spotting weird and extremely unlikely signals wherever possible - one of the earliest signals I shared was “Humans digest rotten food in hyena-inspired scenario”, which you can go check out.
I have found that it is very important not to focus on one topic and not be encumbered by the limits of historical precedence.
I was listening to a podcast several years ago where neuroscientist Anthony Zador recalled how despite various incremental innovations in the field, a major revolution in basic neuroscience happened in the last 10-15 years, from a field called optogenetics (which has provided the ability to control neural activity with light). This was made possible by research on mechanisms by which some kinds of algae detect light. When they did the research, they did not know what the practical applications might be, if any at all. I think it is the same for signal spotting: if we restrict ourselves to the areas where we are already seeing dynamism and lots of incremental change, we foreclose opportunities to amplify more transformative change in the long run. Not that I want to truly envision a world of humans digesting rotten foods in order to reduce food waste (ew!).
4) Why did you feel that “'Guerilla' bike lanes demonstrate the power of citizen experimentation” was a signal of change?
With the rise of good bike sharing apps in Singapore, I cycled on Singaporean roads for the first time (I’ve only ever cycled in parks before) and found it to be a frustrating experience. Cycling on the pavements made me feel like a public nuisance to pedestrians while cycling on roads felt a little dangerous - both invited judgmental looks from onlookers. I’ve also observed bike lanes in Bristol that disappeared in the middle of the road!
With this signal, I love how activists turned such gripes into constructive action. When local cyclists started using the bike lanes, it became a proof of concept rather than a bullet point in a proposal document.
I also love the cheeky tenacity of the Riga cyclist-activists. Three years ago, they installed car-sized structures on their bicycles and rode them on streets to demonstrate how much more space they would have taken up, had they chosen to drive cars instead.
Three years on, they have moved from making a point to engaging the people and getting the government’s attention. That kind of humour is especially necessary in the world of sustainability, where we see depressing statistics and face all sorts of pushback. In Trump’s America, we are seeing the rising importance of political comedians. In the Philippines, local youths created a humorous video that went viral, shifting public sentiment on the proposed Ludo coal power plant, resulting in widespread protests and public consultations over the project in Cebu city. We need more of that.
5) What are your hopes for the future?
A growing respect and admiration for the wonders already present in the world and greater consolidation of efforts to protect them.
In practice, this to me means:
Elimination of global food and energy poverty
Inclusive community and economic development that gives voice to the most marginalised and disempowered people and environmental ecosystems
Conscious technological advances that are developed with empathy and mitigate potential negative consequence
Thriving ecosystems through regenerative practices
Thank you, Madhu!
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