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20-21 October 2016: European Perspectives for Public Administration: Futures Seminar, KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium)
On the occasion of the Leuven city festival '500 YEARS UTOPIA' dedicated to Thomas More´s "Utopia" published in 1516 in Leuven
The aim of the EPPA Futures Seminar - which took place at KU Leuven on the occasion of the Leuven city festival ‘500 YEARS UTOPIA’ dedicated to Thomas More´s ‘Utopia’ published in 1516 in Leuven - was to bring ´utopias´ as one method to develop ‘possible futures’ back to social sciences and especially to Public Administration. We also need to keep an eye on the future, learning to think beyond short-term problems and solutions, asking how we can learn trusting utopias and distrusting dystopias, but trying to be as realistic as possible. In five sessions on “General futures and innovations”, “Futures cities, utopian architecture”, “Future citizens and diversity”, “(Big) Data & IoT” and “Ecotopia” the participants discussed approaches to envision possible futures and future challenges for the public sector as well as for Public Administration as an academic field of study.
In the end, the seminar may have created more questions than answers, but at least very productive questions. As an outcome of the inputs and intense debates during these sessions and as a starting point to follow-up on the discussion about the future of the European Public Administration, the following seven aspects can be highlighted as a very short summary:
Problems with utopias? PA scholars are not used to think about and with utopias, because utopias have a strong normative connotation. In general, this way of thinking is hard to combine with traditional social sciences, but we need to find more relaxed ways to cope with utopias. 'This is utopian' should not be the end of a debate, but a beginning.
Utopia by whom and for whom? Where do utopias come from: technocrats; visionary entrepreneurs; civil society? We have to be aware that there are many sources of utopias, and none of them is without its problems. We should trust and distrust them all, but we should be especially aware of experts telling us how things will be.
PA is not a trendsetter? In its own view PA is too often running behind the trends, reacting towards what is happening around it. But why should that be the case? If we want to shape the future agenda we have to do more. Engage more with the future, not less.
Different rationalities? As always there are different ways to understand not only the past, but also the future. So we should be aware of utopias concerning how a legal, efficient, effective and legitimate public sector could look like. But perhaps there are even other rationalities?
Scale and scope? Should utopias be more local or more global? Should they be long term or should they be about our immediate future? Who knows? We should be open to different provocations.
Utopias for some, dystopias for others? Yes, we will not agree on utopias, and when some may strive for a totally transparent and open society, for others this may be the road to serfdom. We have to live with deep and unresolvable contradictions.
Dangers of utopias? Yes, trying to realize utopias may create severe problems. We have ample experience of that in the last century. But it would be a strange lesson, that we therefore should stop thinking about possible utopias.