The Sense of an Ending: Stories, Shapes, & Scenarios During COVID-19

Doesn’t it feel as if this pandemic might go on forever? Do you have any sense of whether we’re at the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the middle, or the beginning of the end?

Doesn’t it feel like everyone is yearning for something that gives these events shape, an arc, a trajectory, a sense that we will come eventually – by vaccine, or treatment, or policy, or simple resignation – to something that we can label as “the end of the COVID era”?

Even the phrase “the new normal” seems somehow plaintive, as if it only wished that we could settle on a final state of affairs which would mark the end of all this flux and uncertainty. Even if a single, solid “new normal” ever arrives, we’ll be paying the price for COVID for years to come.

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Interview with Betty Sue Flowers, Part 3: Libraries, Little Voices, and the Hidden Common Ground

This is the final instalment of a three-part interview with Betty Sue Flowers – you can find the first part here, and read the whole piece as a PDF download here.

Betty Sue Flowers, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and international business consultant, Emeritus Professor at the University of Texas, and former Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

She has been a consultant for NASA and the CIA, Visiting Advisor to the Secretary of the Navy, Public Director of the American Institute of Architects, and editor of scenarios for organisations including Shell International, the OECD, the University of Oxford, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

She has written scholarly works on Robert Browning, Adrienne Rich, and Christina Rossetti among others, as well as serving as a consultant to television series including PBS’s Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. You can see more of her work and her extensive publication history here.

In September 2020, I talked with Betty Sue about her career, her accomplishments, and her understanding of the diverse fields she’s worked in, from foresight and healthcare to poetry, literary studies, and library leadership.

Your work on a television tie-in book with Joseph Campbell led, indirectly to you working on scenarios at Shell. How did that come to pass?

After I’d written the Campbell tie-in, people were calling me all the time for help with their books, and I turned them all down except for one person, Joseph Jaworski.

He was writing a book on leadership, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, and though I’d never met him, I decided to say yes to his proposal.

I’ve always gone by this little voice inside that says “Yes”, and if it says “Yes”, I never go against it. It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble – good trouble. I didn’t have time, I was running the honours program at UT, I was a professor, I had a small child, and I wasn’t interested in his topic either – he wanted to write a book about the American Leadership Forum.

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Interview with Betty Sue Flowers, Part 2: From “Fire Alarm Time” to Generations of Love

This is part two of a three-part interview with Betty Sue Flowers – you can catch up on the first part here, and read the whole piece as a PDF download here.

Betty Sue Flowers, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and international business consultant, Emeritus Professor at the University of Texas, and former Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

She has been a consultant for NASA and the CIA, Visiting Advisor to the Secretary of the Navy, Public Director of the American Institute of Architects, and editor of scenarios for organisations including Shell International, the OECD, the University of Oxford, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

She has written scholarly works on Robert Browning, Adrienne Rich, and Christina Rossetti among others, as well as serving as a consultant to television series including PBS’s Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. You can see more of her work and her extensive publication history here.

In September 2020, I talked with Betty Sue about her career, her accomplishments, and her understanding of the diverse fields she’s worked in, from foresight and healthcare to poetry, literary studies, and library leadership.

Just thinking of your own writing for a moment, with your early poems, with your teenage plays, did you have an ideal audience, or a specific reader in mind?

I wrote plays for my cousins to perform at Christmas, but actually as a teenager, a play I wrote was performed on television in my home town of Waco, Texas. It was a satire on the Kennedy administration. It was put on TV, and I thought it was quite funny, and obviously it was a political play, intended to be of relevance to the world; they were going to rebroadcast it, and then the assassination happened, and that was the end of it.

That shocking, moving event changed my sense of where I was heading. But my first published poem, which I wrote as a Brownie scout, was about meeting a beggar selling pencils on the street in Abilene, Texas. I was in my uniform, and I thought the appropriate thing to do was to give him the Brownie salute: to stop and acknowledge his humanity. I did this, and he saluted me back, and that was an interaction I wrote about. The little girl and the beggar. The point of the poem was to establish a human connection which overcame the way people were treating him on the street. Insofar as my writing has had an implicit purpose, it was something about opening eyes.

Can you talk a bit more about your process when you’re writing your own poetry?

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Bringing a ladder to a Zoom call: Keynote to #ELGL20

I’m not a big fan of the phrase “new normal”, but if there is one, then for me it involves a lot of Zoom calls, which means mostly seeing people’s heads and shoulders in a cropped little screen.

For my ELGL20 keynote to local government professionals, I grabbed a stepladder to try and find a different perspective, even in a world constrained by the limits of the laptop lens.

My ladder was a prop to remind people why we do foresight work. Sometimes, we think we know what the future holds and we take action in the present, just as confident as someone stepping onto the first rung of a ladder.

But that ladder comprises all the assumptions we are relying on about what the future holds, and what part we’ll play in it.

As Peter Scoblic and Philip Tetlock put it in an article for Foreign Affairs,

Every policy is a prediction. Tax cuts will boost the economy. Sanctions will slow Iran’s nuclear program. Travel bans will limit the spread of COVID-19. These claims all posit a causal relationship between means and ends. Regardless of party, ideology, or motive, no policymaker wants his or her recommended course of action to produce unanticipated consequences. This makes every policymaker a forecaster.

Scoblic & Tetlock, “A Better Crystal Ball”, Foreign Affairs

We might start climbing that ladder and then realise we need to step left, or right. We might find that the next rung is missing. We might have set off on our ascent quite happily, only to find that circumstances at the top have changed and it is really difficult for us to climb back down. We may even find we have to awkwardly perch half-way up the ladder (I ended up using mine as a chair while I spoke to the ELGL crowd).

Scenarios and other foresight techniques can help us examine the assumptions we are making about the future before we take that first step.

The ladder was also something of a gambit on my part. I hadn’t planned to include it as part of the keynote, but we were using a videoconferencing platform which made it difficult for the speaker to know how the audience were responding. Our host compared it to “speaking on a lit stage where you know the audience is out there, but it’s hard to see their faces”.

Around the halfway point of my session, I wasn’t confident that my message was getting across and I wanted to be sure to drive the point home. I dashed out of the study and fetched my stepladder from behind the kitchen door. Often the liveliest and most memorable parts of a workshop, or any human encounter, come when something doesn’t go according to plan. It’s important to remember that when events go astray, they can go better than we expected or intended, as well as worse – especially if we take advantage of the moment.

So that’s why I brought a ladder to a Zoom keynote. Even if you, too, are trapped by the boxes of the videoconference screen, what can you do to help yourself, and the people you speak with, find a fresh perspective on the futures which await?

Interview with Betty Sue Flowers, Part 1: From Rhythmic Systems to Scenarios as Theatre

Betty Sue Flowers, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and international business consultant, Emeritus Professor at the University of Texas, and former Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

Betty Sue Flowers

She has been a consultant for NASA and the CIA, Visiting Advisor to the Secretary of the Navy, Public Director of the American Institute of Architects, and editor of scenarios for organisations including Shell International, the OECD, the University of Oxford, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

She has written scholarly works on Robert Browning, Adrienne Rich, and Christina Rossetti among others, as well as serving as a consultant to television series including PBS’s Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. You can see more of her work and her extensive publication history here.

In September 2020, I talked with Betty Sue about her career, her accomplishments, and her understanding of the diverse fields she’s worked in, from foresight and healthcare to poetry, literary studies, and library leadership.

The interview will run in three parts on this blog, but you can also read the full transcript now as a PDF download.

You’ve had such a varied and accomplished career, it’s hard to know where to start. Then I saw one of the earliest and most curious entries on your CV: you were a lab assistant at something called the Rhythmic Systems Laboratory?

I started life off as a scientist. I put my way through college working in a zoology lab. I’m still in touch with my mentor, who went on to the University of Virginia. My love of poetry took me away from that path – I just kept following it in another direction.

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“Just Waiting for the Locusts, Really”: OECD Government After Shock Interviews with Innovation Norway & National Library of Australia

“Smoke, fire, hail, and pestilence…we’re just waiting for the locusts, really” – the wry and insightful Marie-Louise Ayres, who heads the National Library of Australia in Canberra, talked to me about guiding her unique federal institution through the many challenges faced by the Australian capital in 2020.

You can hear what Marie-Louise had to say on the OECD’s Government After Shock podcast.

I also spoke with Håkon Haugli, CEO of Innovation Norway, a state body which promotes sustainable growth and exports for Norwegian businesses through capital and expertise. Håkon talks about moving to a digital workplace, the struggle to preserve multilateralism, and embracing the messy nature of innovation. His episode of the podcast can be found here.

The Enemy They’re Searching For: Interview with John R. Parsons

Australian anthropologist John R. Parsons researches what he calls “the interplay between morality, narrative, violence, and human-nature relationships”. From 2017-2018 he spent eleven months conducting fieldwork with border militias in the Southern United States. “How,” he asks, “in an area where thousands have perished, did the volunteers enjoy what one described as ‘hunting humans?’”

I interviewed John about his research and the time he spent with border militias in the US, work covered by his article “Experience, Narrative, and the Moral Imperative to Act” for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. Trigger warning for mentions of violence and sexual violence in this discussion.

I began by asking John what drew him to anthropology.

I used to be involved in historical re-enactments for a long time, working with groups that were focussed on Scandinavian and English societies from around the 950s. I was curious about how people lived, how they experienced the world. Re-enactment involves learning about a culture through performing an idea of what that culture would be. You learn about the materials people used in the past, then try to figure out how they would have used them in real life.

Anthropology provided a space where it wasn’t a hobby, but a discipline with theory behind it and conversations around it; a more formalised version of the things I was already interested in.

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Post-Pandemic University, 21st October: Scenario Planning for Digitalised Education

How can we explore or shape the future of higher education when the times are so turbulent and uncertain?

The forthcoming “Digital Technology and the Post-Pandemic University” conference explores the new realities faced by higher education, and the part digital technology will play in those realities. I’ll be presenting a short paper on the use of scenario planning to explore future contexts for digitalised education.

You can read my paper – “Scenario Planning for Digitalised Education: Managing Uncertainties Through the Pandemic and Beyond” – at the Post-Pandemic University website. If you’d like to join us on Wednesday 21st October, 9am-6pm BST, you can register for the online conference here.

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Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Fandom & Information Literacy: Discussion with Ludi Price

Sometimes – often – the most interesting ideas comes from the margins. The status quo is best challenged from the borderlands and fringes, the shadows, anywhere that is overlooked.

In our digitalised world, new ways to create, manage, and share information are emerging all the time. The most innovative and rewarding approaches might not come from the institutions that are longest established, have the best trained staff, or the most substantial budget.

They might come from places where people are driven by passion to experiment with something new.

I recently sat down for a chat with Dr. Ludi Price, China & Inner Asia Librarian at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and an Honorary Visiting Fellow at City University’s School of Library & Information Science. Her research has focussed on fan information behaviour: the ways in which communities of people with a shared passion for pop culture have managed, organised, and distributed information relating to their fandom.

What can information professionals, the institutions and communities they serve, learn from the way that fans deal with the same challenges and opportunities faced by those who deal with information for a living? Ludi has some answers.