Around the future in eighty worlds

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Alternative futures cone. Image of two cones connected in the middle by a circle that represents 'the present'. Left cone contains 'forgotten pasts, hidden pasts, contested pasts, and dominant pasts'. Right cone contains 'preposterous futures, possible futures, plausible futures, and projected futures'
Alternative Futures Cone created for the course “Imagining the Future for Transformation” (by Josie Chambers)

“The rites of passage of our [human] race seem always to alternate between history and clairvoyance… bound to the belief that the doors of the self open onto the past or that ivory gates gleam on the horizon. I have become convinced that these doors are smokescreen images. I want to speak of another entranceway that can just be made out ‘through a glass, darkly’.”
Julio Cortázar, 1967[1]

In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Argentine-French writer Julio Cortázar exposes the deep ironies of our so-called rational, linear narratives. These are not actually linear, he says, but rather “circular travels” around “a central absence” [1, p. 200]. He critiques how we tug at threads of particular histories and futures to reduce the making of our present. Yet, Cortázar is also an adventurer of contradictions. Instead of describing a single world, like Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, he paints a plurality of worlds. He explores how one “thinks and feels differently [for example] in world fourteen than in world nine or twenty-eight” [1. p. 146]. It is through this crossing of chasms from the most imaginative to most mundane realities that one feels invited to multiply the interstitial possibilities—to enter the gap in between two (or more) conflicting realities. This piece is about this other entranceway in between worlds “that can just be made out ‘through a glass, darkly’” [1, p. 184]. And how our very understanding of “the future” shapes what we may see.

— by Josie Chambers

When we imagine “the future”, what do we conjure up? Some may think five years ahead and struggle to imagine a world much different than today. Others may dream of a better world and wonder how it could be brought into being. Alas, these ideas focus on the content of the future. But what about the very shape of the future itself? Is it linear? Branching? Circular? Throughout history, people have tried to give shape to the future. This piece offers no comprehensive tour of this history. Yet it does share some glimpses of how we might see the future in different ways, or rather different worlds. Here we begin our journey around the future in eighty worlds, even if we visit just a few for now…

The Futures Cone

We begin our journey with the “Futures Cone” [2]—a way of visualizing the future that has travelled far and wide. The Futures Cone was popularized in the early 2000s by foresight analyst Joseph Voros. At its core, it depicts how the range of possible futures broadens out the farther one is from the present. It contains several nested classes of futures, which range from projected (innermost) to preposterous (outermost) [3]:

  • Projected futures are the business-as-usual, or extrapolated futures based on simply projecting past-present trends into the future.
  • Plausible futures are futures that we think could happen based on our present understanding.
  • Possible futures are futures that we think might happen, based on knowledge we do not yet have.
  • Preposterous futures are futures we judge to be impossible or think will never happen.

Bland and Westlake suggested turning this cone into a flashlight beam, to additionally heed the vast dark area beyond the cone that contains what we cannot even imagine [4]. For a complete overview of the cone’s historical evolution—from its origin as a foresight tool for the US military in 1993 [5] through to today, you can see Gall et al.’s How to visualize Futures Studies Concepts [6].

The Futures Cone, adapted from Voros 2003 & 2017 (Left) and common futuring approaches that arise from the Futures Cone (Right)
The Futures Cone, adapted from Voros 2003 & 2017 (Left) and common futuring approaches that arise from the Futures Cone (Right)

The Futures Cone acknowledges that our ideas about the future are subjective and change over time. A famous example Voros uses is the Apollo XI Moon landing [2]. Once (beyond) preposterous, the idea of landing on the moon slowly but surely etched its way towards becoming increasingly possible, plausible and ultimately a projected part of today’s future. This example calls forth another class of futures—preferable futures—which are (projected, plausible, possible, or preposterous) futures attached to normative value judgments. For example, while the dominant historical narrative of the 1960s tells of the American dream of landing on the moon as a preferable future, Civil Rights Activists were at the time critiquing the millions spent on the Apollo space program when many Americans at the time couldn’t even afford food or housing [7], as depicted through Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon.

The Futures Cone has become ubiquitous in Futures Studies. Yet, it is just one possible shape we can give to the future. It offers an entranceway towards better futures that is primarily rooted in the practice of envisioning alternative futures to inform strategic planning towards or away from those alternatives. A range of futuring approaches stems from this, such as scenario development, backcasting (i.e. developing steps towards ‘preferable’ futures) or risk analysis (i.e. mitigating potential pathways towards ‘unpreferable’ futures). What these approaches hold in common is a strong linear orientation between rationally constructed future scenarios and a presumed singular present moment. They reflect a desire to control the future towards a predetermined destination. This makes sense when one considers the history of this shape of the future—stemming from strategic military operations and corporate planning, such as the use of scenario planning by Royal Dutch Shell to navigate the 1973 oil crisis [5].

Yet, when we mould our very notion of the “future” to this cone shape and linear trajectories, what might we lose? Do we risk that the very shape by which we imagine becomes just one more way of colonizing the future? [8]. In their Un-manifesto [9], Howell and colleagues designed a series of alternative metaphors and exercises to conceptualize the future from a plurality of perspectives. One of these—the Uncertainties Cone Exercise—humorously instructs participants to look through the cone from both directions to see how it hinders a broader perspective, and then: “Go to a corner, turn your back away from the room, and wear the cone as a dunce cap” [9].

Alternative futures cones

If the Futures Cone limits how we can engage with the future, what are the alternatives? And how might these alternatives enable new ways of cultivating collective imagination? One major critique of the cone is how it orients only forwards from a single present moment, thereby reducing the plurality of the present and erasing the past [10]. Our expectations and dreams of possible futures are, after all, deeply intertwined with our memories of the past. These memories are not self-evident but actively (and passively) constructed.

In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Julio Cortázar describes memory as “a strange echo, which stores its replicas according to some other acoustic than consciousness or expectation… a future in reverse” (p. 41). He goes on to humble our own agency in this process of reconstruction: “Memory weaves and traps us at the same time according to a scheme in which we do not participate: we should never speak of our memory, for it is anything but ours; it works on its own terms, it assists us while deceiving us or perhaps deceives us to assist us.” (p. 43). For Cortázar, memory is not principally a matter of knowing but also feeling; we can know more and more about the past, yet in doing so, feel less and less [10]. This contradiction is perhaps one of the important trappings of our time.

A closer look reveals that some futures cones do also orient towards the past. Even Taylor’s original “Cone of Plausibility” in 1993 incorporated a “back-cone” into the past [5]. The future cones developed by Hines and Bishop in 2013 [12] and Draeger in 2017 [13] also included past-facing mini-cones, although they were underdeveloped in their meaning. Christophilopoulos more recently likened Voros’ 2017 “expanded” Futures Cone to a set of Matryoshka [Russian] dolls, which are all contained within the largest “Preposterous Future doll” [14]. His purpose was to show the restrictive way in which futures are described and to raise the question of whose perspective is situated at the apex of the cone. He proposes “The Cones of Everything” to include a plurality of subjective cones facing both past and future [14].

In the Transmedia Story Lab collaboration South Side Speculations, Jagoda similarly introduced a “double cone” to show how oral history methods can challenge how youth narrate their pasts and futures [15]:

“While speculative futures included scenarios of probable, plausible, possible, and preferable futures, speculative pasts incorporate mainstream monumental histories, untold or forgotten events, cultural histories, mythologies, historical fictions, and counterfactuals.” [15]

Patrick Jagoda

In another example, Holbert and colleagues developed a critical constructionist design practice with Black youth. The guiding visualization circularly connects past personal histories with experiences of present inequitable structures to inspire the creation of Afrofuturism-inspired ART(ifacts) rooted in their own personal experiences and values [16].

I was myself faced with the challenge of how to visualize the future when I designed a new course last year: Imagining the future for transformation. As I described in a previous post, Notes on the utopian classroom, we sought to embrace in the course how a plurality of perspectives on pasts and futures shape possibilities in the present. We wanted to enhance students’ critical capacity to question why particular futures are seen as (im)possible or (un)desirable, alongside their creative capacity to cultivate collective imagination. The visualization I developed to support this endeavour (below), therefore, shows a plurality of pasts, presents and futures while foregrounding the dynamics by which imagination is often flattened or, alternatively, may be expanded. The visualization seeks to offer a topography that can host a richer variety of futuring approaches—whether experimental, prefigurative, critical, counterfactual, decolonial, or even hauntological in nature. In contrast to the more linear futuring approaches associated with the Futures Cone, one can imagine more diverse trajectories, entangling pasts, presents and futures in non-linear ways.

Alternative futures cone (see header image) with added text. On the left, ‘How to expand recognition of past (in)justices and defuturing?’ and ‘How to reveal dynamics that narrow whose pasts have been told?’ On the right, ‘How to expand imagination of collectively desirable futures? How to reveal dynamics that narrow possible futures?’
Alternative Futures Cone created for the course “Imagining the Future for Transformation” at Utrecht University

Terry and colleagues have since published the “Entangled Time Tree[17], to further escape the linear logic of the cone. In their visualization, time is shown as a baobab tree. Its deep roots reference a multiplicity of pasts—whether erased, distorted, possible, known, forgotten, unknown, unrecorded, uncertain, ancestral, or mythic. These pasts inform “multiple branches of presents” from which futures may arise. The futures cone is just one of three ways they envision future spaces, alongside circular notions of time important to many indigenous peoples, and the Sankofa icon to show how navigating the future should always be grounded in the past. The authors explain that their alternative heuristic is “by no means intended to be finite, but an ongoing means to enfold a pluriverse of epistemologies and to give a greater chance to free imaginations constrained by Western dualistic thinking imposed through colonialism” [17, p. 3]. It pushes how we visualize the future further into the decolonial realm, grounding efforts in “a deep understanding of the multiple stories that led us to be here” [17, p. 5].

A metaphorical reversal?

While it may be convenient to settle on a single visualization seemingly capable of encompassing plurality, Julio Cortázar once more challenges our desire to reach some sort of final destination. In his short piece Towards a Speleology of the Domicile [1, p. 184], we return to this other “entranceway that can just be made out through a glass, darkly”:

“We only have to open it (“Never open that door,” says Bluebeard), and this is how: we have to learn to wake within the dream, to impose our will on this oneiric reality of which until now we have only passively been creator, actor, and spectator…. Or more beautifully, learning to sleep in the heart of the first dream to gain entrance into a second one, and to go on: to manage to wake again within the second dream, and so open another door, and to continue to sleep and wake within a third dream, and to continue to sleep and dream, like stacking Russian dolls.” [1, p. 185].

Julio Cortázar

This portrayal of the future is a clear reversal of the Futures Cone, with the “Projected Future Doll” now claiming the outward position. This metaphorical reversal points to a different kind of growth, a deepening one, inwards, ever-cracking through the façade of hollow dreams that have been built around us as cages to ensnare our deepest shared dreams. As Cortázar muses, “when you’re standing up you look as if you’re growing, but inwardly, toward a dream. Nobody ever notices that kind of growth.”

I’m left unsure how to visualize the future, but one thing is certain—the shape of the future is anything but certain. And crucially so. We must replace the journey around the world in eighty futures in favour of the journey around the future in eighty worlds… or two-hundred, or eight-billion-and-three.

Graphic of 10 dotted lined matruska figures. From the outer to the inner matruska figures, they're titled '1st dream to 10th dream'
Learning to sleep within our shell-like dreams to gain entrance to deeper collective ones

[1] Julio Cortázar (1967), La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos [Around the day in eighty worlds] (Siglo XXI Editores). Translated from Spanish to English in 1989 by North Point Pr.

[2] Joseph Voros (2003), A generic foresight process framework, Foresight, 5(3) (

[3] Joseph Voros (2017), Big History and anticipation: Using Big History as a framework for global foresight, In: Handbook of anticipation: Theoretical and applied aspects of the use of future in decision making, Springer international (

[4] Jessica Bland and Stian Westlake (2013), Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: A modest defence of futurology, Nesta.

[5] Charles Taylor (1993), Alternative World Scenarios for a new Order of Nations, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College.

[6] Tjark Gall et al. (2022), How to visualize Futures Studies Concepts: A Revision of the Futures Cone, Futures, 143 (

[7] Eric Niller (2021), Why Civil Rights Activists Protested the Moon Landing, History. (

[8] Ziauddin Sardar (1993), Colonizing the future: the ‘other’ dimension of futures studies, Futures, 25(2). (

[9] Noura Howell et al. (2021), Calling for a Plurality of Perspectives on Design Futuring: An Un-Manifesto, CHI 2021 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. (

[10] Riel Miller (2011), Being without existing: the futures community at a turning point? A comment on Jay Ogilvy's “Facing the fold”, Foresight, 13(4) (

[11] Julio Cortázar (1963), Rayuela [Hopscotch] (Pantheon). Translated from Spanish to English in 1966 by Pantheon.

[12] Andy Hines and Peter Bishop (2013), Framework foresight: Exploring futures the Houston way, Futures, 51 (

[13] Dennis Draeger (2017), Scenarios for Disaster Preparedness. (

[14] Epaminondas Christophilopoulos (2021). Special Relativity Theory Expands the Futures Cone’s Conceptualisation of the Futures and The Pasts, Journal of Futures Studies, 26(1). (

[15] Patrick Jagoda (2022), Chapter 5. Speculative Design: South Side Speculations. In: Transmedia Stories: Narrative Methods for Public Health and Social Justice (Standford University Press). (

[16] Nathan Holbert et al. (2020), Afrofuturism as critical constructionist design: building futures from the past and present, Learning, Media and Technology, 45(4) (

[17] Naomi Terry et al. (2024), Inviting a decolonial praxis for future imaginaries of nature: Introducing the Entangled Time Tree, Environmental Science and Policy, 151 (