What’s Your Process? Getting Stuff Written

I love writing. It means everything to me. It’s excruciating. It kills me. I couldn’t do without it.

Not just big, epic, heartfelt things make me feel this way. It happens every time I try to string a sentence together.

Reports, articles, academic essays.

Emails to business contacts (How much warmth to offer without wasting their time? How short to make paragraphs so the points are kept clear? How to sign off?).

I’m still thinking too hard about a twelve-word message I once wrote on LinkedIn in response to a moderately enticing offer of work. Too casual? Too brusque? 

The other week I got a piece published in The Conversation, a website which helps academics and researchers get their work out to a wider audience. The article was about using public libraries to help communities think about the future, using a method called scenario planning.

The article has been well received and widely shared among library professionals. It only got a minor tweak from the editor before it was published, but the final draft took a fair bit of work and I needed help to get there. So I thought I’d share the process with you here on the blog.

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#Apollo50: Learning from Missions and Moonshots

It’s fifty years this month since the Apollo 11 crew made their journey to the moon.

Today, “moonshot” is an organizational buzzword for efforts to achieve bold and impactful objectives. Everyone seems to want to find their own moon and shoot for it.

Early US design mock-up of a lunar landing module
Early US design mock-up of a lunar landing module

Meanwhile, thinkers like Mariana Mazzucato explore the possibility of taking on Europe-wide social challenges with a new form of “mission-oriented innovation” (PDF download). Mazzucato writes that:

Societal challenges are complex. More complex than going to the moon, which was mainly a technical feat. To solve them requires attention to the ways in which socio-economic issues interact with politics and technology, to the need for smart regulation, and to the critical feedback processes that take place across the entire innovation chain.

With the new vogue for missions and moonshots, what could we learn from the original Apollo programme? I went to Stephen B. Johnson’s excellent 2002 book The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs to find out. Here are a few of the things I picked up. Read more

How Public Libraries Can Help Us Prepare For the Future – The Conversation

Could public libraries revolutionise politics and society by helping local communities to develop long-term foresight?

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State Library of Queensland by Wikipedia users Kgbo – CC BY-SA 4.0

My first piece for The Conversation, “How Public Libraries Can Help Us Prepare For the Future“, has just gone live.

It draws on research I conducted with the University of Southern Queensland’s Kate Davis and conversations with Rafael Ramírez of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

The article explores the possibility of using public libraries as hosts for deeply local scenario planning initiatives, putting foresight tools commonly used by policymakers, big business, and the military in the hands of grassroots communities.

You can read “How Public Libraries Can Help Us Prepare For the Future” over at The Conversation now.

Summer Reading, Summer Viewing: Film and Fiction

It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and that means holiday season for many of us.

I’m a pretty voracious reader at any time of year, but I squeeze in one or two extra books when the days run longer and vacations slow the pace of people’s work emails. And a trip to the movies takes you out of the heat and out of your head, with an air-conditioned spell in the world of someone else’s projected dream.

Inverted Manhattan skyline from the cover of Fleishman is in Trouble
The flipped city of New York, from the cover of Fleishman Is In Trouble

My summer recommendations are two very different works of art about New York, one old and one new, both offering prisms through which to look at how we live together today. Read more

#NotEnoughSciFi: Ray Bradbury and The Rebirth of Imagination

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

I stumbled on an essay by the late science fiction writer Ray Bradbury recently. It covers science fiction literature and the business of problem-solving, so of course it was right up my alley. You can find the 1980 piece, “Dusk in the Robot Museums”, collected in Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writingand there’s a copy of the text online right here.

Bradbury, writing in 1980, imagines a museum of the future, whose exhibits are all animatronic robots of historical figures. A boy sits with the robot analogues of Plato, Euripedes, and Socrates; they end up talking about how science fiction, a neglected genre, found favour among the teachers and librarians of the USA, “the country of Ideas on the March.”

Bradbury draws connections between science fiction and fantasy, practical problem-solving, and the history of ideas which are still useful to us in 2019. Let’s check them out together.

1: What’s in these books?

“Where have we been?” the librarians and the teachers asked each other […] “What’s in these books that makes them as irresistible as Cracker Jack?”

The History of Ideas.

Bradbury reminds us that “the first science-fiction writers were cavemen who were trying to figure out the first sciences — which were what? How to capture fire. What to do about that lout of a mammoth hanging around outside the cave. How to play dentist to the sabre-tooth tiger and turn him into a house-cat.”

Pondering those problems and possible sciences, the first cavemen and women drew science-fiction dreams on the cave walls. Scribbles in soot blueprinting possible strategies. Illustrations of mammoths, tigers, fires: how to solve? How to turn science fiction (problem solving) into science fact (problem solved).

My work also focuses on the business of plausible futures: the problems that may await us and the potential solutions we may figure out through play, storytelling, and discussion.

Canadian information professionals construct future scenarios

In Toronto last month, information professionals from across Ontario created and explored plausible future scenarios ten years from the present. These scenarios were characterised by extremes of scarcity and abundance, political strife from foreign or domestic sources, and technological changes. Imagined future settings allowed participants to examine their assumptions, explore their strategic blindspots, and stress-test their plans for the future.

In other events around the world, we’ve blended science fiction, strategy, and design thinking to explore the future of professions like occupational therapy, communities like the city of Ann Arbor, and technologies as taken-for-granted as the written word itself.

As Bradbury puts it,

Everywhere we look: problems. Everywhere we further deeply look: solutions. […] That Truth again: the History of Ideas, which is all that science fiction has ever been. Ideas birthing themselves into fact, dying, only to reinvent new dreams and ideas to be reborn in yet more fascinating shapes and forms, some of them permanent, all of them promising survival.

Though his essay is nigh-on forty years old, it, too, is worthy of revival and reinvention: a reminder that we must turn to the place where people dream wildly about a changed world, about futures they can only speculate about, in order to train our imaginations on the problems of our time.

Hence #NotEnoughSciFi: turning to the literature of the fantastic to think about asking the right strategic questions, free will and machines’ autonomy, or the self-awareness of artificial intelligence, feigned or otherwise.

2: A Note on Fake News

Bradbury’s essay also has a wise word for those of us concerned about the mix of propaganda, misinformation, and confused information-seeking which some label as “fake news”.

Bradbury writes:

Among librarians and teachers there was then, and there still somewhat dimly persists, an idea, a notion, a concept that only Fact should be eaten with your Wheaties. Fantasy? That’s for the Fire Birds. Fantasy, even when it takes science-fictional forms, which it often does, is dangerous. It is escapist. It is day-dreaming. It has nothing to do with the world and the world’s problems.

Today, once more, some people think that singular, solid facts will dispel the evil cloud which they perceive around popular understandings of political issues, from climate change to the anti-vaccination movement.

This is despite the suggestion that greater curiosity about evidence, rather than greater faith in “truthful” institutions, may be the necessary remedy.

Researchers like Australia’s Kate Davis are exploring the ways in which an empathetic, non-judgmental approach to people’s information experiences may be more useful to informed public decision making than an insistence on opposing the “true” and the “fake”.

The relationship between philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s notion of “bull” (a collapsed distinction between truth and lies) and more “nutritious” information experiences is also useful here.

Science fiction may not be factual or “true” in that sense, but it can still be nutritious: inspiring, provocative, encouraging of those who wish to solve problems and change the world for the better.

In the same way, we should not cleave too rigidly to belief in a single and authoritative Truth, but rather foster principles of critical thinking, diversity, and problem-solving. “Fake news” will not be dispelled by deeper faith in a singular truth, but by robust criticism and a refusal of political deceit.

 

3: Zen and the Feral Future

The collection which includes Bradbury’s essay is called Zen in the Art of Writing: it emphasises the joy and zest which Bradbury experienced by understanding, and acting on, his own essential nature as a writer.

Zen also makes an appearance in the academic literature of scenario planning: in 2011’s “Feral futures: Zen and aesthetics“, Rafael Ramirez and Jerome Ravetz explore the ways in which an informal understanding of the Zen approach may benefit strategic thinkers.

The authors focus on “feral” situations, in which ill-informed attempts to address a situation exacerbate its problems. Futures which were once thought to be predictable then prove otherwise, as human actions weaken or undermine underlying systems; Ramirez and Ravetz give the Deepwater Horizon blowout and the Sub-Prime Crisis as examples.

When attempts to predict and control the future by conventional means fail, scenario planners offer an approach akin to Zen practice: mindful attention to the present situation, surrender of habitual thinking and assumptions, challenges to received wisdom and the taken-for-granted.

Ramirez and Ravetz write that “forcing people to work through a scenario that […] experienced managers consider implausible or threatening, does indeed challenge their common sense”, but in doing so “scenarios could help people bypass the defences whereby early warnings are rejected or even kept out of consciousness.”

Bradbury’s science-fiction-as-problem-solving offers a similar approach to the future, which is, after all, unknowable and impossible to gather data or evidence from.

In place of extrapolating on the basis of our assumptions, it dares us to dream more wildly.

Instead of looking at our situation through habitual lenses, it encourages us to reframe our perception of the world to come.

It encourages us to meditate on our essential nature – who are we? what do we do? what difference are we trying to make in the world? – and then challenge our responses by posing new premises on which to act in the future.

4: A good idea should worry us like a dog

In the concluding section of his essay, Ray Bradbury reminds us that intellectual labour must include an element of fun, so that it remains lively and does not become drudgery:

I hope we will not get too serious here, for seriousness is the Red Death if we let it move too freely amongst us. Its freedom is our prison and our defeat and death. A good idea should worry us like a dog. We should not, in turn, worry it into the grave, smother it with intellect, pontificate it into snoozing, kill it with the death of a thousand analytical slices.

Let us remain childlike and not childish in our 20-20 vision, borrowing such telescopes, rockets, or magic carpets as may be needed to hurry us along to miracles of physics as well as dream.

This kind of problem-solving approach jumps with agility from science fiction to strategy, from philosophy to pragmatic decision-making, always with a focus on the plausibility of the future scenarios and their usefulness as a challenge to our deepest held assumptions. It is lively, provocative, discursive, engaging: it is fun.

Bradbury’s final injunction applies to good strategists and good leaders as much as it does to readers of science fiction, to students, or to the boy he imagines in the halls of a Museum of Robots:

[L]et Plato have the last word from the midst of his electro-machine-computerized Republic:

“Go, children. Run and read. Read and run. Show and tell. Spin another pyramid on its nose. Turn another world upside-down. Knock the soot off my brain. Repaint the Sistine Chapel inside my skull. Laugh and think. Dream and learn and build.”

“Run, boys! Run, girls! Run!”

And with such good advice, the kids will run.

And the Republic will be saved.”

Public Libraries News: Mission to Library Island

Investigating potential futures as they emerge elsewhere in the world, avoiding “copy and paste” innovation, playing games to figure out the choices our organisations should make next: I talk Library Island & scenario planning with Ian Anstice over at the UK’s Public Libraries News website.

Comics and Hidden Feelings: Petrichor and Alpha Flight Podcast

“There are two people in every mirror. The one you can see. And the other one, the one you don’t want to.”

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Cover of Petrichor, by Gareth Hopkins

I joined Gareth Hopkins, the creator of the abstract comic Petrichor, over on his podcast Alpha Pod Flight.

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Gareth’s show follows his obsession with the Canadian super heroes Alpha Flight, so we talked about their appearance in the current horror-themed series Immortal Hulk, and tried to draw some links between Marvel’s favourite big green repressed rage monster and Gareth’s new book, an idiosyncratic autobiographical comic about grief.

 

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Our talk took place at the Lakeside Gardens of the Barbican Centre in London, a strange place which feels like somewhere the ruling class would reside in a 1970s dystopia.

 

While we spoke, a woman walked to the edge of the artificial lake, dropped photographs into it, and then stood over them making a gesture like flowing water.

Then a bird attacked her.

Listen to our instalment of Alpha Pod Flight, in which we maintain our composure despite it all, here.