whats the future Fiona McKenzie Ralph Ashton

Dr Fiona McKenzie took the interests and insights she developed working across academia, government, civil society and corporate Australia to co-found the Australian Futures Project with Ralph Ashton in 2012. She says many organisations are in agreement on the “what” in terms of a what’s needed to solve complex challenges to create a sustainable, innovative Australian future. The work required now is around the “how”.

“A lot of the big challenges we face, there’s no right answer and they’re beyond the ability of any single organisation or any single sector to solve,” McKenzie says. “Our theory of change is that you have to bring the system together to change it. If you think of a system as an iceberg, we often only focus on what we can see: the symptoms. We’re encouraging to dig deeper to cause and effect, to help people change the boundaries of how they see the world and understand the system to find intervention points.

“So much of true innovation and transformation lies in relationships and new social connections and processes. We’ve learned to pay really close attention to that human aspect — collaboration, co-design, even power — and how they create pathways or barriers to change.”

What’s the Future?

Among recent Futures Project ventures was #WTF? — What’s the Future — a national conversation that engaged 15 million Australians in discussion and action on big ideas to help improve the country’s future.

The 10-month Futures Project social innovation lab on agriculture, with funding from Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and others, generated social enterprises such as Visit My Farm and Grow Love. “These are looking at how to create networks across rural and urban Australia to change perceptions and deal with some of the mindset challenges around agriculture. We opened it up to public applications and had over 80 applicants respond, CEOs, directors, professors, investors, all sorts of people who had energy and excitement to work on it.”

McKenzie knows the popular support is there and that ordinary Australians care about their future. “You could look at Australia and say we have a problem with short-termism, but when you talk to people it’s amazing how much passion and commitment there is towards creating a better future. The will is there... it’s often more about frustration that the traditional way of doing things is not delivering results.”

Board contribution

McKenzie and Ashton report to a board, which is now easier to endure than it was in the past. “I used to see board meetings as a test I’d have to pass,” McKenzie says, “but over the years they’ve become a crucial source of insight and guidance and I enjoy how they push me to aim higher and go further.

We update board members regularly and call on them for ad hoc advice on certain projects. I’ve found that means during quarterly meetings we actually spend less time updating and more time strategising. Crucially, they go above and beyond, help with fundraising, introduce us to their networks and support us by inviting us to be involved in their work as well. Our board isn’t just a nice thing to have, it’s a key ingredient in our success.”