Connecting Past, Present and Future

Rebecca Wright, Colin Pooley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

1 Citation (Scopus)
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We cannot escape the past. It is always with us in our memories, in the physical landscape and environment that endures, and in the legacy of past policies and planning decisions at both local and global scales. At a personal level we are constantly learning from past actions and experiences, trying hard not to repeat previous mistakes, but in terms of policy formulation all too often the decisions that are taken today – and which shape the future – seem to ignore the lessons of the past. In this essay we argue that planning and policy making would benefit from a greater appreciation of the role of the past in shaping the present, and through recognition of the potential benefits of some ways of living that have slipped from view. This may help to avoid the sorts of unintended negative consequences that have sometimes arisen from past decisions. Clearly how the past is viewed in relation to the present and future will depend on the policy goals that exist at the time. These will differ as governments (both local and national) change and as external events beyond the control of individual governments shape national policies. In this essay we mainly draw examples from the United Kingdom and the USA, and make the assumption that two key policy goals of any administration must be to create a society that is more equitable and one where resource conservation and environmental protection are central objectives. Clearly such aims will interact with other goals – most obviously those of economic growth and full employment – but we assume that they are not incompatible and, indeed, that in many ways they are dependent on each other. We suggest that by paying closer attention to some aspects of past societies it may be easier to combine the goals of greater societal equality, protection of the environment and economic prosperity.

The principles advanced in this essay could be applied to many aspects of society, economy and culture, but we limit ourselves to drawing examples (based on our own research) from two arenas – transport and energy. They have been ever present, raise important issues of social equity and environmental protection, and are likely to become increasingly important as the twenty-first century progresses. We use selected examples drawn from nineteenth and twentieth-century history to show that in the connected arenas of transport and energy use some of the structures and systems that were common in the past could usefully be replicated today and in the future, not least because individuals and families tend to use new technologies to maintain existing life styles. We first review some of the existing connections between historical research and visions of the future, second we assess the sources that may be used and some of their limitations and, third, we examine selected past predictions of future technologies. In conclusion we return to the practical advantages of focusing policy on aspects of the everyday in the past, present and future.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-41
Number of pages4
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017


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