Overton Window

The Official Future Is Dead! Long Live the Official Future! by Nils Gilman

One way to try to understand the uncanniness of our political moment is by analogy to the Overton-Window, a policy concept developed by the late [[ Joseph Overton ]], a lawyer at the public choice economics-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. The Overton Window refers to the fact that for any given policy debate, there are usually limits on the range of “acceptable” possibilities, with ideas outside those boundaries dismissed as “fringe” or “radical” or “unthinkable.” Overton’s central point was that what’s considered “reasonable” can and does shift over time. Ideas that were once considered too radical for serious consideration can, as a result of sudden events or concerted public relations campaigns, come to seem acceptable; conversely, ideas that were once considered sensible can come to seem unconscionable. In other words, as political norms shift, the window of so-called reasonable policy positions can open and close.

The Overton-Window is a fascinating model to show how a change in society happens over time. We have started to use it in foresight work to pull conversations away from discussions around the future that are too focussed on technological progress.

An easy way to use the Overton-Window is to imagine different movements of it in every scenario. Its movement can be imagined with two aspects:

  1. In which direction?
  2. At which speed, caused by what triggers?

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