Chessboard Interrobang / Burden of Dreams

At a recent event, I was allowed just one slide to present an approach to strategic foresight.

Here it is:

On the left is a chessboard, the setting for a game where all the moves are knowable in advance, and the winning and losing conditions clearly defined. It’s just a matter of which piece goes where and when within the constraints of the rules. (Not that it makes chess easy!).

On the right is an interrobang, an unusual punctuation mark which is intended for use at the end of an exclamatory rhetorical question: Are you out of your mind!? Is this for real!?

To me, the point of manufacturing plausible futures when doing strategy work is more about the right hand side of the image than the left.

It’s not about identifying all the contingencies, or modelling all the ways you think the action could play out according to today’s rules.

It’s about showing you something which usefully pushes the bounds of what you believe is plausible; which uncovers issues previously unseen from your standpoint in the present, and makes you question yourself.

In that way, it’s like psychodynamic approaches to human relations, which explore what is going on “under the surface”, within and between us.

In psychodynamic work, we may speak of “draining the water” in a situation to reveal the submerged landscape which lies beneath surface emotions and behaviours. (Why don’t these two get on? Why does this kind of interaction make me feel this way?).

It’s not that a singular or final truth is revealed – “what is really going on” – because whatever we do, our perceptions are necessarily limited. (We’re not omniscient!).

But the new vantage point reveals something we couldn’t see through the old frame of reference.

Something similar happens with scenario planning. Each future gives us a new perspective on today – a vantage point set in times which haven’t happened yet. Those fresh perspectives, without being a definitive answer to “what is really going on”, show us something we couldn’t see from our place in the here and now.

We’re not dealing with an approach that promises to show us a better tomorrow. Sure, it’s nice to have a desired future state ahead of you like a carrot on a stick – like wishing for a sunny day on the weekend, and planning a beach trip if the clouds would only part – but the need is not really for better tomorrows, it is for wiser todays.

You might still imagine the future conditions you wish you were going to inhabit, and ponder how they might come about, or how you might make them come about. You could even include such desired futures in a scenario set, precisely to test their plausibility and contrast with other futures that might await.

But the use of those scenarios is to get a better perspective on the here and now, in all its uncertainty.

The word scenario comes to strategy from cinema via Leo Rosten, a screenwriter and humourist who worked with the RAND Corporation. Rosten suggested “scenario”, an already slightly outmoded term meaning the outline for a proposed film, as a way of making RAND’s future projections seem less intimidating.

The cinematic metaphor remains powerful for scenario planners today. When Rafael Ramírez and Angela Wilkinson write in their book Strategic Reframing about co-creation and scenario planning as a process, not just a product, they refer to Les Blank’s picture Burden of Dreams.

Burden is a documentary about the chaotic production of Werner Herzog’s movie Fitzcarraldo. Ramírez and Wilkinson reflect on the two films and ask: to what extent we should share “the movie of the movie” – the process as well as the product – when we plan the outputs of scenario work.

The cinematic metaphor has more to give us still. At Lincoln Center earlier this year, the film directors Claire Denis and Jim Jarmusch spoke about their long careers in moviemaking. You can hear their conversation on the Film at Lincoln Center podcast. At one point, Denis says:

I have a problem with films that are describing social cases like society is able to regenerate. […] Films are not repairing. Films are offering the best they can, not to hurt, but to be with.

I think the same is true for good scenarios work. They are not visions of panacea. They are, in Donna Haraway’s words, a way of “staying with the trouble”. There is care but also clear-eyed vision, and multiple fresh perspectives on what is going on; “empathy without capture”. What is revealed to us may provide the impetus for compassionate action, but the vision itself need not be comforting or reparative.

Such was the basis of the IMAJINE scenarios for the future of European territorial inequality, on which I worked: no scenario was utopian, but each presented a notion of what was just and fair which challenged current assumptions. As Amartya Sen has argued, it may not be wise to presuppose a notion of a perfectly just situation against which reality is to be measured; instead, justice is a question of our capabilities and liberties within a given context. By manufacturing plausible future contexts in which territorial inequality is construed differently, the scenarios help us to understand contemporary issues of injustice and unfairness more deeply.

The problem is not that people are incapable of dreaming of or articulating better tomorrows. The future is unwritten, no one has privileged access to events which haven’t happened yet, and we all have the capacity to dream and desire, plot and plan.

The problem is injustice, exclusion, lack of access and power, right here and right now.

I would love to see more people and more communities being equipped with tools, or given the opportunity to develop tools, which help them to stretch their sense of what lies ahead – including in ways which they find uncomfortable – precisely so that their understanding of the present is enriched and expanded, supporting them in making wiser decisions, however tough those decisions might be.

That’s nothing to do with better tomorrows – except in the sense that any good which awaits us will come from making the wisest possible decision today.

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