Indigenous Futures: defuturing and futuring – an analytical framework for policy development?


There appears to be consensus – by omission – that the concept of indigenous futures should be accepted at face value. So I scavenged the internet to see if I could locate an academic descriptor or a framework around how we think about it as a concept, and whether it could help in the design of policy fit for the future.

Initially, I was locked into temporality – viewing future in opposition to past. A useful approach emerged in an article by Schultz (2018) that creates a distinction between futuring and defuturing (p.80). The former referring to extending human existence and the latter destroying it (Schultz, 2018 p.80).  That approach helped to reframe how I had been thinking about the concept of futures. Here I was able to draw a connection to Gordon’s (2013) discussion of temporality on indigenous identity, contemplating indigenous futures analogously to western arguments about indigenous authenticity. Specifically, the way in which identity is often confined to the past by virtue of its authenticity being determined in modernity.

Perhaps, Gordon’s (2013) criticism of modernity imposing conceptions of authenticity on Indigenous Peoples could then be viewed as indigenous defuturing, whereas his argument that Indigenous Peoples are “connected to ancestral forms of knowledge and cultural formation but are also the transformation of those norms in the human activity of cultural formation” could be viewed as indigenous futuring. Arguably, indigenous futures then is not about when in time but how in time.

To explain further, in a policy context, indigenous futures could refer to how policies extend the survival of Indigenous Peoples in contrast, to indigenous defuturing where policies – intentionally or not –  promote the ongoing colonisation of indigenous knowledges, geographies and cultures, in effect threatening their survival. Such examples could include regeneration of tribal economies as an indigenous futuring compared with deforestation as an indigenous defuturing.

In a practical sense,I was able to apply this thinking at the inaugural Auckland Trade and Economic Policy School event concerned with the future of trade. A key insight was the emphasis on the increasing servicification of trade combined with advancing technology, the digitisation of data and the impact that this new wave of globalisation will have on future generations. However, absent in the discussion overall, was the demographic shift that will occur in Aotearoa over the next 50 years as the Māori population grows while the birth rates of Pākehā decline. In my view, the forecasts of most speakers fell into the trap of what Cicero refers to as the “tyranny of the present” as discussed in Wade’s (2012) scenario planning field guide based on the assumption that “the future will be a variation on a theme, and that theme is today” (p.9).

Two themes I was particularly interested to draw connections between were firstly, the idea of future factories being “people” in a services economy and secondly, the concept of reshoring, which refers to revitalising local manufacturing and bringing back other types of jobs to a country (where in the past it made sense for them to be offshored).

From an indigenous futuring perspective, there is a risk that silence on the demographic shift will lead to the development of ineffective trade and domestic policy to address the needs of the future Māori workforce. Moreover, when Māori futures are generally discussed, it is usually restricted to the risk of automation of their jobs because Māori disproportionately fill low waged labour roles, that robots will be able to do in future.

Despite recognition of services as the future of global economies, there was no contemplation of the role of Māori as a growing proportion of the national workforce, in advancing New Zealand’s trade in services value proposition. More importantly, there was a missed opportunity to explore the equality dividend that could arise with a demographic shift in lifting wellbeing outcomes for Māori as leaders in the new economy. Effectively, Māori futures are still conceived in deficit terms, despite the significant role Māori will play (and already play) in trade in services in the future.

The other aspect is in the context of reshoring. A current trend domestically is to create jobs in, or shift jobs to the regions. While some manufacturers are taking their factories to the regions, this kind of job creation is short term. The types of roles in these factories are the very kind that will likely be automated in future, creating rust buckets in our regions. Whereas in the past Māori were subjects of urban drift, there is a huge risk that Māori will be tempted to the regions for short term employment relief and forced out of cities where innovation in services will mostly take place, perpetuating the colonisation of Māori well into the future. This regionalisation is potentially a defuturing policy for Māori and should be approached with caution. While technology is making regional relocation and remote working a greater possibility, our policy settings will need to be careful not to commit Māori to low skilled regional jobs, while upskilling white folk in the cities for the future of services in the regions.

Indicatively then, trade policy has potential to play both a futuring and defuturing role for Māori.  Developing an analytical framework to help policy makers understand the impact of trade policy and measures on Māori futures and the risk of defuturing will be critical for indigenous futures in New Zealand.

[Note: This post is adapted from a reflection written for other purposes on 9 September 2019]


Gordon, L.R. (2013). On the temporality of indigenous identity. UTSePress: Australia.

Schultz, T. (2018). Mapping Indigenous Futures: Decolonising Techno-Colonising Designs. Strategic Design Research Journal, 11(2): 79-91. doi: 10.4013/sdrj.2018.112.04

Wade, W. (2012) Scenario Planning: A Field Guide to the Future. John Wiley & Sons Incorporated. –