Learning, the Future, and Complexity. An Essay
on the Emergence of Futures Literacy
The claims made in this article start from six simple propositions:
The ﬁrst proposition is that the phenomena that make up the emergent
present can be divided into two very basic categories, those that display conti-
nuity and those that display discontinuity. Phenomena that repeat from one
moment to the next are characterised by continuity. Phenomena that are dif-
ferent display discontinuity or manifest a difference between a previous
moment and one later on.
The second proposition is that there are different kinds of discontinuity or
change, some that follow on from the past, like a child growing taller over
time, others that are inherently unknowable in advance, such as the invention
and implications of the atomic bomb, birth control pill or Internet.
The third proposition is that humans use sensing and sense-making capabil-
ities to identify and distinguish the continuity and discontinuity of phenom-
ena in the world around them.
The fourth proposition is that part of the human capacity to identify and give
meaning to continuity and discontinuity arises from the ability to use our
imaginations, in a variety of ways, to anticipate what does not yet exist. The
always imaginary future plays a key role in being able to distinguish and tell
stories about different kinds of continuity and discontinuity.
The ﬁfth proposition is that the anticipatory systems and processes that
enable humans to think about the imaginary future inﬂuence sensing and
sense-making in ways that can make it easier or harder to discern or invent
different kinds of discontinuity.
The sixth proposition is that the basic learning cycle starts from the appre-
hension of forms of discontinuity or something that is unfamiliar or inexplica-
ble, the realisation of not knowing.
All these propositions form the foundation for the claim in this article that a speciﬁc
change in the conditions of change, the diffusion of Futures Literacy, is one way of
improving the capacity of individuals and organisations to: a) detect and give mean-
ing to discontiniuty, and b) thereby become more capable of initiating learning
processes (undertaking research of all kinds, from the banal to the sublime).
Put negatively, today’s dominant anticipatory systems and processes impede the
identiﬁcation and invention of discontinuity (difference/change) and hence the ini-
tiation of learning. The lack of Futures Literacy (or the widespread state of Futures
Illiteracy) helps to explain why it is so difﬁcult to achieve a better balance between
learning that is shaped by the supposition that what needs to be learned is knowable
in advance, what I will label ‘push’ education, and ‘pull’ learning that starts from
the discovery of not knowing something, initiating the search for hypotheses,
experiments, and evidence that eventually lead to understanding. Lacking Futures
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European Journal of Education, Vol. 50, No. 4, 2015
Literacy, we are signiﬁcantly less able to expand our anticipatory activities beyond
preparation and planning. As a result, it is difﬁcult to ﬁnd the motivation and capa-
bility to undertake and organise learning that goes beyond ‘push’ education that
rests on the presumption that we can know the future or impose today’s idea of the
future on the future and therefore know now what people ‘need’ to know in order
to ﬁnd a ‘good job’, be ‘good citizens’, etc., in the future.
Using the Future: an anticipatory systems and processes perspective
The term ‘using the future’ is somewhat awkward in the English language and not
yet in common usage. Most people do not think of using the future as they might
use a hammer to sink a nail or use a car to take a trip. Furthermore, strictly speak-
ing, the future does not exist like a hammer or a car; it cannot take material form.
In this sense, it is more than rare, it is non-existent. Yet if we think of the future as
anticipatory systems, processes, and assumptions, then the non-existent later-than-
now is all around us. For instance, evolutionary processes have introduced non-
conscious anticipatory systems into trees. A tree cannot ‘know’ the future, but it is
an organism that, in functional terms, integrates anticipatory assumptions that
cause the shedding of leaves as winter approaches.
Human immune systems engage in a form of anticipation when the detection of
a potential threat, even one that turns out not to be a danger, provokes greater pro-
duction of white blood cells. Pedestrians deploy anticipatory systems and processes
when they cross the street. Indeed, calculating the trajectory of an oncoming bus in
order to decide when and at what speed to cross the street engages such familiar
anticipatory systems and processes that we do not even notice them. Similarly, no
one pays much attention to anticipatory systems when they plan to go to a movie,
easily thinking through when, with whom and how to get there on time. Again and
again, anticipatory systems and processes are largely taken for granted as we build
houses to protect ourselves from a range of potential threats or plant crops in the
hope of having food for next year.
Even less remarked is that these everyday uses of the imagined future, central
for our survival and viscerally connected to our emotional status (hope, fear, etc.),
generally engage only two out of three basic kinds of conscious human anticipation.
For the most part, humans’ conscious anticipatory systems and processes, including
everything from horoscopes and weather forecasts to bookmaker’s odds and the dis-
count rates used by an economist to estimate current value, belong to only two out
of three basic categories of conscious anticipation (please note that, unless other-
wise stated, the remainder of the article uses the term anticipation to refer to con-
scious human anticipation, which remains just a sub-category of all the different
kinds of anticipatory systems and processes).
The ﬁrst two are preparation and planning, or what might be considered efforts
to: a) be ready for identiﬁable or known contingent events or risks
, and b) discern
a target and the optimal path to the target so as to impose today’s vision of tomor-
row on tomorrow (colonize the future). Both these kinds of anticipation are closed
in the sense that it is impossible to prepare for something if it is not knowable
planning requires making assumptions or ﬁxing the goals, means and rules that will
be used to construct the plan. There is, however, a third general category of antici-
patory systems and processes that targets the discovery or invention of the unknow-
able. Such anticipation is pertinent for novel phenomena or what might be called
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discontinuity. These anticipatory systems and processes enhance the capacity to
make sense of change (difference) in the emergent present.
This third category of anticipatory systems and process offers humans an avenue
to use their consciousness to sense (invent, discover) and make sense (explain, tell a
story) of differences such as discontinuity in the present. New phenomena happen all
the time, at many different levels, from inventions that are generalisable such as the
printing press, electricity, penicillin and urbanisation to the unique or locally meaning-
ful realisation that something is new here and now. Initially, such changes are often
invisible, even unnamed. Discontinuity, the emergence of unknown unknowns is often
rendered invisible or unimaginable because past futures – the imaginary futures gener-
ated in the past – that we use in the present do not include these new phenomena and
therefore we do not try to understand or even name what was unknowable moments
before. By becoming more adept at expanding the futures we imagine beyond the con-
straints of both probabilistic thinking and agency as preparation/planning we can use
our ability to detect and invent, sense and make-sense of the ‘new’ in ways that enable
a greater appreciation of the constant differences that emerge in our creative universe.
Futures Literacy (FL) is a capability built on an understanding of the nature and
attributes of anticipatory systems and processes. A Futures Literate person has the
ability to select and deploy different anticipatory systems and processes, depending
on aims and context. This skill can assist in overcoming some of the confusion and
ignorance that arise when the future is reduced to a discoverable target for the pur-
poses of preparation and /or planning. FL exposes the anticipatory assumptions and
conceptions of the relationship of action to consequences, human agency, that shape
the imaginary futures that human consciousness is able to conjure. As a result, it
brings greater clarity and depth to sensing and sense-making in the present. FL is
not to be conﬂated with decision-making, since the futures we imagine ﬁrst play a
role in what we see and only once we have searched or identiﬁed the menu can we
move on to making choices. Because FL helps to make sense of emergent change in
the present it is a critical pre-condition, in terms of both content and conﬁdence, for
taking both a more improvisational and spontaneous approach to learning, it is a
way of enhancing our capacity to be free.
FL provides an ability to take into account all three categories of anticipatory
systems and processes. One of the implications is an enhanced capacity to seek and
design learning systems that go beyond education ‘push’, as per most of the formal
educational curricula that aim to prepare young people for what is expected to hap-
pen and plan the future to learning provoked by the pull of more easily and continu-
ously discovering or inventing difference (not knowing) that is the impulse for
seeking to know. Through a better grasp of the role of anticipatory systems and
processes in the search for difference FL enhances our ability to appreciate the
unknowable as it emerges
. From this perspective, it can help to establish a better
balance between push and pull because it enables a more diversiﬁed view of human
agency, one that enlarges what it means to exercise our capacity to be free. The
next challenge, posed in a way that parallels the largely solved problem of how to
acquire the ability to read and write, is how to become futures literate?
Futures Literacy and the Microscope of the 21
Let us start with two thought experiments and a very brief true story. The ﬁrst
thought experiment runs as follows. One day you meet an old friend in the street.
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After exchanging the usual ‘how are you?’ and ‘nice to see you’, she starts to whis-
per, acting as if she was telling you a valuable secret. But what she is telling you
seems pretty incredible, even a bit crazy. She claims that there are immense resour-
ces all around us, but that we cannot see them. Furthermore, she asserts that there
is an easy way to see these resources and put them to good use. You exchange a few
more pleasantries and then you walk away scratching your head. Muttering under
your breath, ‘What the heck?? What is this treasure I’ve been missing? How come I
don’t know how to see it?’ Then you just conclude that she has lost it and that it is
best to forget all about her strange ideas.
For the second thought experiment, imagine that you are illiterate – unable to
read. All around you are amazing resources in the form of written texts. Someone
might tell you that it is not all that hard to learn to read and that if you did know
how to read there would be amazing resources at your disposal, resources that
would help you to navigate in everyday life, ﬁnd new opportunities and share
what you know with others. In a society of illiterates, with few books and few
people able to read, you might come to the same conclusion as the thought
experiment above – what is this crazy notion that there are hidden resources, easy
to acquire, all around us. Nonsense. But if you are illiterate in a literate society,
with the written word all around, the opposite conclusion makes the most sense:
I must learn to read.
Now, a very brief history of the microscope. When the microscope was ﬁrst
invented around 1670 it offered an amazing surprise. Hidden in a drop of water,
invisible to the naked eye, were all sorts of creatures. People exclaimed: how
amusing, how strange! Some 200 years later, after many breakthroughs in how to
conduct research and many demonstrations of the vast power of research to alter
people’s lives, the connection was made between the creatures seen in the drop of
water and the infections killing patients in hospitals. Doctors started to wash their
hands. Terriﬁc, but it had taken 200 years to make sense of the invisible things
the microscope made visible. Today, a new microscope is being invented,
deployed, and tested. Like the microscope of old, it renders the invisible visible,
and like many scientiﬁc tools before, it takes time to fully grasp its utility. In this
case, the tool is collective intelligence knowledge creation processes. What I call
KnowLabs for short (see Box). KnowLabs take many and varied forms and are
being designed and implemented in many parts of the world by a wide range of
pioneers and practitioners. All these processes share a common operational goal:
to tap into the knowledge of a speciﬁc group of people at a speciﬁc time and
place in order to sense and make sense of phenomena of all kinds (see list of
topics in the box). The mechanism used to tap into this collective intelligence is
conversation and the catalyst or fuel that turns the heuristic is the challenge of
sensing and making sense of some aspect of the world around us. People bring
tacit and unarticulated thoughts together with the capacity to invent and negotiate
variables and meaning.
There are similarities with ‘crowd sourcing’ mechanisms, such as stock markets,
polling and Delphi techniques that collect and give meaning to diverse views. But
the difference is that the granularity or localism of KnowLabs points to a different
purpose and hence a different way of working. KnowLabs are about time-space
speciﬁcity, the uniqueness of every moment and place – the amazing richness of the
ephemeral. Here, collective intelligence is yoked to the elucidation of the here and
now, what is gone and no more soon after. This may seem futile and the opposite
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Futures Literacy KnowLab
FL KnowLabs are a speciﬁc example of the more general tool for harness-
ing collective intelligence to generate descriptions of reality. The FL
KnowLab uses anticipatory systems and processes as ways to structure
and direct a conversation about a topic (Miller, 2006, 2007, 2011).
Experimentation over the last decade aimed at testing designs and out-
comes of Futures Literacy Knowledge Laboratories (FL KnowLabs) has
demonstrated the effectiveness of collective intelligence knowledge crea-
tion processes designed with an understanding of anticipatory systems in
generating new questions (making sense of difference). This is not the
place to present the design principles and speciﬁc operational rules that
shape the customisation of the FL KnowLabs (UNESCO, 2011), however
the point of departure is indicative: The fundamental source of data in
intentional human anticipation is the descriptive model and vocabulary,
the assumptions and variables that enable us to consciously imagine some-
thing that does not yet exist – the future. Thus, the easiest way to map
and make sense of human anticipatory systems and processes is to ask
people to describe the future. To do so, they have no choice but to reveal
the assumptions and variables that allow them to generate an imaginary
later than now. Their ways of using the future are made explicit. This is
the ﬁrst step to becoming Futures Literate.
In 2013 and 2014, as part of UNESCO’s role in advancing knowledge
creation, FL KnowLabs were conducted around the world (UNESCO,
2014). The aim of this project was to reveal anticipatory systems and
processes in different contexts and work on testing and reﬁning the FL
KnowLab design so that it could be used easily and effectively to build
FL capabilities and better understand the emergent attributes of local
20-21 June 2013, Paris: Knowlab Design Test Session “Scoping the
Know-Lab: Tomorrow’s Knowledge Creation Microscope” A Primer
June, 2013, Baku: Scoping Global Anticipatory Capacities
11-12 July 2013, Brasilia: The Future of Science
15 July 2013, Sao Paolo: Changing the Way Universities Use the
19 July 2013, Chicago: The Future of Futurists
21-22 October 2013, Oslo: Innovation as Learning, Knowing as Learn-
ing, Knowing as Science: Imagining a Universal Innovation Society in
25-26 November 2013, Bogota: Using the future to think about local
28-29 November 2013, Rio de Janeiro: Imagining the Future of Science
13-14 January 2014, Paris: Imagining the Future of the Transition from
“Youth” to “Adult”
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of what is considered the purpose of knowledge creation and the tools we apply to
creating knowledge. But it is the critical 180 degree ﬂip needed to hone our capacity
to appreciate novelty through a tool that makes it easier to make sense of speciﬁcity
– the difference and repetition of every moment. This is the microscope of the 21
century and, even as we deploy it, we hardly know what it is good for.
Convergence: bringing together anticipatory systems and processes with
Collective Intelligence Knowledge Creation
Two convergent innovations are occurring ‘in the wild’, meaning developments are
emerging from the actions of daily life without being embedded in pre-existing
rationalities or institutions/norms. People are inventing and exploring both anticipa-
tory systems-processes and collective intelligence knowledge creation processes (the
tool for rendering the invisible visible) which makes the speciﬁc, rather than the
general, more discoverable, meaningful. Taken together, these two breakthroughs
can transform humanity’s relationship to reality, rebalancing our attention, long
dominated by the search for norms, standards, scale and common denominators. It
is not that statistics, averages, samples and mass-products are ‘bad’, they are just
incomplete and, if too dominant, become a source of poverty in our appreciation of
the richness of the now because difference is harder to discern or invent. Brought
together Futures Literacy and the microscope of the 21
century can facilitate the
discovery or imagining of the meaning of novelty – the spontaneously invented steps
or notes that enable the inspiration of the steps and notes of improvisational dance
20-21 January 2014, Freetown: Youth & Rites of Passage in Sierra
5-6 February 2014, Munich: Imagining the Future of Sports in Society
27-28 March 2014, Paris: Inhabiting Planet Earth 2100: Beyond Cities?
26 April – 1 May 2014, Calceta, Bahia de Caraquez, Monta: A Series
of Future Literacy Knowledge Labs in Ecuador
2-3 May 2014, Rangoon: Addressing the future of education in
21-24 May 2014, Laoag City: Resilient Cities, Brighter Futures -A
Forum-Workshop on Anticipatory Thinking and Strategic Foresight
Methods for Sustainable City Futures
26-28 May 2014, Johannesburg – All Africa Future Forum
4-5 June 2014, Ottawa: The Future of Innovation Ecosystems in the
FL KnowLabs as action-research experiments generated: a) signiﬁcant
amounts of data on anticipatory networks and systems, providing impor-
tant evidence regarding the theory and practice of the emerging Discipline
of Anticipation; b) valuable insights on how to best design and adapt the
generic FL KnowLab architecture – as a research-action method – to local
settings, and c) capacity at the local level and amongst participants in the
UNESCO global foresight network on how to be more effective at using
the future for decision making.
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At present, this hypothesis may seem far-fetched and perhaps incomprehensible.
Lacking the ability to read, to be Futures Literate, we are like an illiterate in an illit-
erate society who is told about the treasures of being able to read, but we cannot
even understand the promise. There ﬁrst needs to be a change in the conditions of
change, a chicken and egg problem, how to convince the illiterate of the utility of lit-
eracy before the society as a whole becomes literate? As for the microscope of the
century, we are still stuck with an old way of seeing the utility of collective intel-
ligence knowledge creation processes – the search for the common denominators of
mass society. Lacking these two ‘breakthroughs’, we keep treating uncertainty as an
enemy and complexity as a curse. The improvisational leg of a two-legged approach
to reality fails us and we hop along on the deterministic thinking of preparation and
Five Observations by Way of Conclusion
The claim made in this article that Futures Literacy combined with the microscope
of the 21
century enable more learning may be easier to understand by taking into
account ﬁve observations.
Beyond Statistics: The ﬁrst observation is that we are currently pre-occupied with
generality, scale and statistics based on variables that have common denominators.
As a result, there is relatively little interest in speciﬁcity and information that do not
easily ﬁnd a common denominator that enables statistical collection, aggregation
and comparison. However, much of complex emergent reality, generated by the
fact that the information around us is always time-place speciﬁc, does not ﬁt into
the powerful but mostly reductionist point-of-view of statistical descriptions of real-
ity. Consequently, processes for observing and describing time-place speciﬁc infor-
mation seem like bad statistical approaches, with poor samples and no common
denominator; useless for generalisation, bench-marking or scaling up for mass solu-
tions. Nevertheless, as noted in the next observation, alternatives are emerging.
Epistemology of the Unique (or how to sense and make-sense of different kinds of dis-
continuity): The second observation is that we are witnessing a proliferation, world-
wide, of experimentation with collective intelligence knowledge creation processes
(CIKC) (Scharmer,2007, Inayatullah, 2004, 2008, Hassan, (2014)) that are effec-
tive in revealing ephemeral speciﬁcity – time/place unique sensing and sense-
making. This is occurring in the face of the still dominant belief (noted above) that
the best and most important way to describe reality from the pointofview of deci-
sion making is by using models and variables that provide common denominators
that can be aggregated and compared across space and time. Evidence is mounting
that CIKC processes, despite often being poorly designed and misused due to a ﬁx-
ation with seeking and describing generalities, do generate, detect and give meaning
to conjunctural emergence of both continuity and discontinuity. The power of this
‘microscope of the 21
Century, is that it gives practical expression to the desire to
grasp and make use of speciﬁcity, time-space uniqueness and context – rooted in an
interest and need to respect the locally or contextually distinctive past and present.
Enlarging Agency: The third observation is that the dominant view of agency
today is typically constrained to the search for cause-effect interventions – where
what is done now has consequences later on. Today’s ‘make-a-difference’ obses-
sion, rooted in the immodest heroic model of leadership and revolution (humans
are like gods, they engineer the future), depends on the anticipatory systems and
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processes for determining targets in the future and mapping the best way to get
there. This preoccupation with causal or instrumentalist approaches to creating or
imposing today’s idea of the future on tomorrow largely crowds-out non-causal per-
spectives (or what has been called, long ago, ‘not-doing’). In effect, this results in a
lack of interest in spontaneity and improvisation; as well as a bias towards actions
that promise, through path dependency or sunk cost constraints, the ‘colonisation’
of the future. Choices that are ‘uncertainty proof’ have the attributes of pyramids
and monuments that last thousands of years, demonstrating that today’s ideas can
be imposed on tomorrow. To this kind of physical proof of the power of planning it
is worth adding the dominant form of narrative about the past, the story of the her-
oes who knew what they were doing and won the day. Again, this reduces interest
in mechanisms for sensing and making-sense of unknown unknowns as such phe-
nomena emerge. Focused on inventing or implementing the genius plan that will
impose today’s idea of tomorrow on tomorrow there is less interest in developing
the skills that underpin the capacity for spontaneity needed to take advantage of the
richness of difference: speciﬁcity and novelty (unknown unknowns) in the present.
Futures Literacy or How to Live With Complexity and Love It: The fourth observation
is that we can take advantage of the fact that we live in an anticipatory universe, which
is chock-a-block with anticipatory systems and processes, in order to become Futures
Literate. This is a learning-by-doing strategy that invites people to think about the
future in structured ways that help reveal the nature and functioning of anticipation.
Using the future to understand how we use the future. Certainly there are other ways
to learn about a subject, but since anticipation enters into so much of what we do and
is so central to both psychological and physical well-being, it helps to take a rather
practical, solution oriented approach. Furthermore, this strategy dovetails nicely with
the need for a pragmatic, user oriented response to the ﬁrst three observations regard-
ing: the dominance of statistics in the way we describe the world, the lack of familiarity
with tools for grasping the unique, and the tunnel vision of action hero agency.
Not-doing: The ﬁfth observations is that an old ‘solution’ now seems very perti-
nent. Lao Tsu (1972) offered insights into the meaning and power of ‘not-doing’ in
the Tao Te Ching some 2500 years ago. Now, in 2015, not-doing takes on new sig-
niﬁcance because it offers a practical way to understand and act on some of the key
discoveries of the 20
century. What I am referring to is a long and somewhat
familiar list of scientiﬁc advances that help us to better appreciate the richness of
reality, ranging from quantum physics and mathematical category-theory to theo-
ries of complexity, reﬂexivity and Senian freedom as a capability (Sen, 1999, 2009).
In effect, after a long period during which much of humanity sought various forms
of certainty, including ‘scientiﬁc certainty’, there is a new problem – how to inte-
grate the open creativity of the universe into our thinking. Close to 30 years ago,
Edgar Morin put the challenge this way: ‘We are still blind to the challenge of com-
plexity...This blindness is part of our barbarism. It makes us realize that we are still
in the era of barbaric thought. We remain in the pre-history of the human spirit.
Only the capacity to embrace complexity will allow us to civilize our thinking.’
Finally, more as an invitation to further reﬂection than as a conclusion, I want
to point out that a ‘push’ approach to learning, rooted in the planning and prepara-
tion roles attributed to education, may bias human decision making towards
choices that generate excessive path dependency and undermine a more robust
resilience strategy – diversiﬁcation. To be very speculative, this could ultimately
reduce the survival chances of the species. Or to condense down the hypothesis –
520 European Journal of Education
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education, as it is practiced today, dominated by aspirations to prepare and plan for
the future inhibit the development and acquisition of Futures Literacy and may
therefore be inimical to humanity’s capacity to understand complexity in all its rich-
ness, undermining diversiﬁcation and diversiﬁcation strategies for continued
Riel Miller: email@example.com
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in a private capacity
and do not in any way represent the positions of UNESCO or any other organisa-
tion or institution.
1. Such contingent events are usually characterised as being from low to high
probability, low to high impact and can be incorporated into probabilistic
anticipatory systems by making a series of assumptions that close the model.
Yet, strictly speaking, even a trend as probable as the sun rising tomorrow is
only an assumption and our ability to know what will happen under the sun
remains non-existent, unless it turns out that time machines can be built.
2. The exception, of course, is the topic of this article: preparation that enhances
our capacity to make sense of the unknowable when it happens. This distinc-
tion is sometimes referred to as the difference between risk and uncertainty
(North) and it is one of the primary contentions of this article that preparing
for the unknowable involves signiﬁcantly different anticipatory systems and
processes than closed system risk estimation.
3. Novelty can be entirely ‘local’ in the sense of being a new or ‘ah ha’ moment
for anyone, anywhere. This idea of novelty starts from where consciousness is
at, the couplet of realisation that ‘I do not know, so I seek to know’.
4. UNESCO will publish a book on the subject: Transforming the Future: Anticipa-
tion in the 21
Century, in 2016.
5. ‘Nous sommes encore aveugles au proble
`me de la complexit
e. (...) Cet aveu-
glement fait partie de notre barbarie. Il nous fait comprendre que nous
sommes toujours dans l’e
`re barbare des id
ees. Nous sommes toujours dans la
ehistoire de l’esprit humain. Seule la pens
ee complexe nous permettrait de
civiliser notre connaissance’. Edgar Morin 2005, p.24.
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