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Imagining the Future of Sport and Recreation

Imagining the Future of Sport and Recreation

Sohail Inayatullah

Political Scientist, UNESCO Chair in Future Studies


Anything is possible!!!!

Boston Celtics’ NBA forward Kevin Garnett screaming those words as the tickertape rained down to confirm the storied franchise had captured its 17th NBA crown with victory over the LA Lakers in 2008 is one of the most iconic moments in sports.

The story of how Garnett shaped his future from growing up in a single parent family in Greenville, South Carolina to become an NBA champion is now the subject of an acclaimed feature length documentary.

Anything is Possible is a wonderfully uplifting, romantic sentiment - it’s just not technically true.

“I am very clear there are things I can change - but I am never going to be able to dunk,” says professor Sohail Inayatullah, a Pakistani-Australian political scientist and prominent futurist who delivered a keynote address to delegates at Sport New Zealand’s Connections 2022 Conference in Christchurch.

“I am 5 foot 8. In this physical body I will never dunk. When big guys dunk on me I make a decision to move out of the way. ‘Anything is Possible’. That is nonsense. Anything is not possible.”

When it comes to shaping the future there are, indeed, limits.

Inayatullah operates in the positive space where people and organisations can and do impact their futures, a challenge he is keen to see New Zealand’s sporting leaders take on.

“But I’m not stupid. I know very much there are deep structures. If I am in Ukraine right now or if I am in Tehran right now as an 18-year-old girl there is a lot I can do - but there is deep structures. There are deep patterns. The good futurist understands history. The idiotic futurist is like ‘well no, AI will solve all of our problems’. That’s the world of The Jetsons. They don’t include nature, community, ethnicity, spirit and history as part of it. I bring it in, so it is wiser.

Sohail described futurists as “weirdos” whose thinking came into vogue post the global financial crisis of 2007 - when organisations suddenly became deeply interested in possessing strategic foresight.

“As the world changes you have to shift to your focus,” he said.

The biggest challenge for leaders trying to envisage the future was that human brains were “wired for the past” and people tended to get “stuck in the present”.

The danger of that was ultimately becoming “Kodak’d” – a reference to the global film giant that was wiped out by the digitisation of photography.

Given the future tends to be somewhat unimaginable, imagining
it is, by definition, a challenge.

But it is not a task we should shy away from, insists professor Inayatullah.

If the future can be successfully imagined, then it can be positively impacted.

Futurism has three key phases, he says.

“Phase 1 is forecasting - tell us the future. Phase 2 - given the rate of change and uncertainty - scenarios. Phase 3 is we are in the future. This is not something we do to others, we’re creating, co-designing, we are part of the story. So how do I change my story?

“If sports is about identity, our identities are changing so I need to have a better story. If sports is about health, then what about my health going to 80, 90 or 100. If I am dying at 60 who cares? But if I am going to live to 80 or 90 like people in New Zealand are then I want to have a life sports vision, a lifetime health vision.”

Technology will clearly play a massive part in the future of sport and recreation – but what shape will it take?

It was easy enough to imagine humans playing sports with holograms - “the hidden part is who gets to design the holograms, who designs the algorithms?

“This becomes the core mission of the organisation - how do you play a role in the design part? So I am part of the design team versus someone far away is doing it.”

While government departments and sports bodies weren’t necessarily designed for nimbleness, they still needed to be futures-oriented, professor Inayatullah said.

They needed to ask themselves: “What is changing and how do we play a role in that change? Because the change is going to happen - whether I am an actor or a dinosaur. So who am I going to be in that? The dinosaur model is usually not fun.”

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