Doing vs not-doing: the rebirth of agency

Loes Damhof
4 min readJun 1, 2021

by Loes Damhof

“These times are urgent, let us slow down.”

I often start my presentations or talks on Futures Literacy with this powerful Nigerian proverb, as quoted by my dear friend Bayo Akomolafe. It is an invitation to take a minute and reflect on how and why we use the future, but is also a way to introduce a deeper point.

That how we respond to an urgent problem is often part of the problem. That our desire to act and react becomes the confirmation of an existing system that we are, in return, sustaining. Without slowing down and observing our responses or questioning our underlying assumptions and biases, we are forever stuck in a wheel of responses and adaptation.

We run faster in the need for productivity, to reach a destination. And then we do some more. We call it innovation: and yes, things might change, but do they really? These questions are often reflected in the work that I do and in the encounters that I have.

Since embarking on the journey of futures literacy 5 years ago, we have trained hundreds of students, faculty, and professionals and have taken even more on the voyage of Futures Literacy labs. And the most frequently asked question after having had a Futures Literacy experience is: what can I do with it? What can I DO with it?

Doing, because times are urgent. Or rather: because we perceive them as urgent. Times have always been urgent, uncertain and complex, yet we sense a need to move faster, act quicker, do more: we find ourselves lost in the linearity of time.

Futures Literacy advocates for a different sense of agency: balancing the not-doing versus the doing. Besides using futures for planning and preparation, as we are so accustomed to, there is another way, one that is underdeveloped: to use futures for emergence, for exploration, to see the world anew in the present (Riel Miller). Not as an excuse to be complacent, but to be alert for novelty, to sense the unknown. This seems alien to us, and often a bit unsettling. After all: don’t we have big problems to solve? Don’t we have to DO something? But what if the blueprint for a new sense of agency was already present at the very start of our existence: when we were conceived?

The moment of conception doesn’t come out of thin air, as I’ve learned from my good friend Nienke Stoop. It was in the making from our mothers’ birth. It is the perfect collusion of an egg that has been waiting for years, mostly decades. Waiting, not-doing. It is the largest cell in our body and from the start, she is open to receive, like a host who expects company but is in no rush. She cannot move by herself, as she needs the agency of millions of semen that crawl around her to push her into a mobile state. These millions of tiny cells have the strongest sense of agency: all they know is how to get to their destination as fast as they can. They arrive in big numbers as they know the power of the collective. This murmuration has no leader, they move as a whole. And when they are received, the human is conceived.

This wonder of life does not advocate for one way of doing or being above the other. Doing is not better than not-doing or vice versa. There is no judgment, no preference. This type of creation needs both: feminine and masculine energy, yin and yang, call it what you want.

How is it that we have lost this memory of our conception? That we have become so stuck in the patriarchal systems of productivity and destinations? Is this why we feel the need to act and have lost the art of receiving?

In order to restore this perfect symbiosis, we might need to understand that how we tend to approach futures from a perspective of acting, doing, is not how we were designed in the first place. We need to ‘unforget’: an activity that is not the same as remembering, as Dunbar-Ortiz points out. It is the opposite of sustaining a false narrative, it is deconstructing a story that was forgotten to uphold systems that advocate for the doers. We need to revisit and rethink the myths of our origins if we want to revisit different ways of doing and being.

We were meant to find a balance, to walk on two legs, to see with two eyes. So we can fully appreciate the newborn: a new sense of agency.



Loes Damhof

UNESCO Chair on Futures Literacy at Hanze University of Applied Sciences. Facilitates and designs spaces to use and imagine futures around the Globe.