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One of the major challenges for Public Administration is to anticipate the futures and to include this knowledge and capacity in policies and governance. Public Administration research and teaching runs too much behind the facts; however it should also be in front of the facts, it should not just push realities but also pull realities.
According to this logic it is important to bring not just scenario’s, but also ´utopias´ back to social sciences. ´Utopia´ is in this sense one method to develop ‘possible futures’. For Elias ‘utopia’ becomes part of a social science research toolkit, just like critique of sources, statistics, studies of trajectories, reconstructing networks, content analysis, reception studies, comparison, etc. (Elias, 2009). Utopia as a social science technique allows one to look at potentials for realization, a gap analysis, and possible futures. Utopias also put more emphasis on teleological rationality, rather than causality, of change patterns. They put path dependency, bifurcations, and constraints in the perspective of reverse logics, backward mapping, effect/cause or objective/means logics much more central. For Elias this helps to re-evaluate the role of imagination in social sciences and opposes the fatalism of incrementalism and pragmatism in research and policies.
The purpose is to keep an eye on the future: How can we learn trusting utopias and distrusting dystopias, learning to think beyond short-term problems and solutions, but trying to be as realistic as possible.
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 need to keep an eye on the future, learn to think beyond short-term problems and solutions, asking how we can learn to trust utopias and to distrust 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 created more questions than answers, but at least very salient and productive questions. Summing up the many 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 'lessons learned' can be highlighted as a very short summary:
The overall challenge is how to organize and institutionalize teaching and research in the future, taking ‘futures’ into account.