The upside of inconvenience

As transport strikes over pension reform in France bring disruption to trains, planes, and the Paris Métro, I’m reminded of a piece of research conducted by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge a few years back.

Drawing on anonymised data from London’s Oyster travel card, researchers explored the impact of transport strikes on individual commuters’ Tube journeys.

Researchers discovered that a significant fraction of regular commuters who changed their route because of the strike, stuck to the new route afterwards.

Though the proportion was small (around one in 20), a cost-benefit analysis of the time saved by those who changed their daily commute revealed that the strike actually brought economic benefit: the amount of time saved in the long run outweighed the inconvenience of time lost during the strike.

“The London Tube map itself may have been a reason why many commuters did not find their optimal journey before the strike,” notes a writeup of the research from the University of Oxford. Because the actual distances between stops are distorted by the map, travellers sometimes make inefficient choices; the strike, by forcing them to choose differently, revealed more efficient ways for them to make their daily commute.

Something similar can happen with strategic conversations. It can feel like a fuss, an imposition, or a distraction – when there is plenty of work to be getting on with in the here and now. We talk of “analysis paralysis” and our bias is towards doing something, rather than reflecting on our identity, our journey, or what might await us if we ever get to the far horizon.

But sometimes the very friction generated by these discussions is the source of new insights. Sometimes the journey we have to travel during such a conversation reveals that our current map was not best suited to achieving our goals. Changing the texture of our interactions in a workshop or discussion can give our minds fresh purchase on the fundamental questions of what we do and with whom, how we do it, and why.

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Oxford Answers: Using scenarios to understand the changing face of Europe’s cities and regions

The landscape of our cities and regions today is characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity – the so-called ‘TUNA’ conditions. Forces that lie far beyond the places where we live and work influence choices close to home.

In our search for security and prosperity, where should we be looking when the future of our cities and regions is so uncertain?

For the Saïd Business School’s ‘Oxford Answers’ blog, Michael Woods, Marie Mahon, and I wrote about using the IMAJINE scenarios to explore the changing face of Europe’s cities and regions.

Planning for 2023: Black Box Organizations

A living organism can survive only by exchanging materials with its environment: by being an open system.

Vega Zagier Roberts

Every year, around this time, I like to share a tool which can help with your planning.

Though the shift from 2022 to 2023 is just a quirk of the calendar, the arrival of a new year tends to focus our attention on what’s coming. People make resolutions, use the holiday season to take stock and decide where they want to go next, or treat January 1st as a turning point for their lives at work or home.

This year, I want to share a tool which I created after reading Vega Zagier Roberts’ essay “The Organization of Work“. It explores organizations of all kinds – from projects to families, from teams to institutions – as “black boxes” with inputs and outputs.

It gets us to reflect on the pressures which are placed on us from within and without when we try to manage undertakings. It can form the basis for useful questions and reflections at the outset of a project, whether you carry out the task alone or with others. And it can also give insights into the state of a system which is already in place.

To start off, choose an organization, project, or undertaking which you want to reflect on. If you’re doing this task with others, you may each like to draw your boxes and follow the steps separately, or you can work together on, say, a shared whiteboard.

Draw a box like the one below, with an arrow going into it and an arrow coming out:

We can imagine that systems are boxes like these: something is put into them, they do their work, and as a result of this process, something emerges on the other side.

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More than a Game: Scenario Planning, Imagination, and the Public Library’s Future

For Public Libraries Quarterly, Bronwen Gamble and Melissa Adams of the Reading Public Library co-wrote an article with me on our scenario planning journey through a leadership transition in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than a Game: Scenario Planning, Imagination, and the Public Library’s Future” explores the use of frugal, online scenario planning methods during the pandemic and the benefits of a scenarios process in times of leadership transition.

It builds on Dale Leorke and Danielle Wyatt’s notion, expressed in their book The Library as Playground, of the library as “a space and institutional order innately imbued with playful qualities” to consider how libraries may be the perfect hosts for scenario processes which “play with expectations, hopes, fears, and desires, in a strategically consequential game of ‘What if?'”

Find out more about “frugal” scenario planning on the Oxford model from Rafael Ramirez and Trudi Lang at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford here.

Scenarios: Their Ends, Art, and Agency

Occasionally, I write a post in the spirit of “showing your working”: playing with one or more concepts, seeing how they fit together, what use can be made of them.

In today’s long read, I’m looking at the work of Alfred Gell, an anthropologist whose book Art and Agency explored the social efficacy of art: the way that artworks and the process of making them influences the thoughts and deeds of others.

If we take scenarios and other strategic artefacts as art-objects, what can Gell tell us about their making, their use, and impact?

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Everyday resilience: Rural communities as agents of change

I’m very pleased to have played a small part in this work on the future of Irish peatlands: geographers Kate Flood, Marie Mahon, and John McDonagh of the University of Galway have published a new article on “Everyday resilience: Rural communities as agents of change in peatland social-ecological systems“.

Their project included “Bog Scenarios” developed frugally with local communities. These used the past, present, and future of the peatlands to explore change through time including past events at the site; how the bog is currently changing; and hopes for the future.

Read more in the Journal of Rural Studies.

Community map of Abbeyleix Bog reflecting local knowledge and experiences

Hopper/Vermeer: Things that never quite were

New York’s Whitney Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on Edward Hopper’s New York, which I visited on a recent trip.

As the exhibition blurb puts it, for Hopper “New York was a city that existed in the mind as well as on the map, a place that took shape through lived experience, memory, and the collective imagination.”

The show is especially satisfying for its use of newly acquired archives, showing how Hopper and his wife Josephine Nivison Hopper collaborated in a lifetime of artistic production.

Works like New York Movie are exhibited alongside preparatory studies and sketches as well as photographs from some of the real-life locations the artists visited as part of their creative process.

We see just how fictive Hopper’s New York was: scenes created from amalgamation of multiple locations, with imaginary additions or even omissions, creating a city-that-never-was which is nonetheless powerfully evocative of New York specifically and a certain quality of mid-twentieth-century American life more generally.

I’m always seduced by sketches; I love it when people show their working. You can see the traces of their choices, the possibilities they pursued and then abandoned, especially when the artist is “thinking through drawing”.

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Life after trends

In the memorable phrase of Ged Davis, a trend is a trend until it bends…or breaks.

For many of us, the pandemic era has been a reminder of this, as the course of events has not always followed the trajectory we were expecting.

Today, we sometimes hear talk of “megatrends”, too; Stefan Hajkowicz of Australia’s Data61 told me you could compare these to the powerful rip currents which pull swimmers out to sea.

Sometimes such currents are hard to spot, and researchers put dye in the seawater to make them visible. Savvy surfers can use rips to swiftly travel out from the shore to the point where they can catch a wave.

Perhaps thinking in terms of trends can work this way, too: using foresight to make a previously unseen tendency visible, using strategy to take advantage of it.

But what happens when the perceived tendency, mega or otherwise, bends or breaks? Our expectations are thwarted and we are reminded that a trend is a projection from the past into times yet to come. The ghost of yesterday’s future haunts our thinking in the here and now.

It’s not that tendencies don’t ever endure – sometimes they do. But it doesn’t always tell us much about what is coming next. After all, we can’t gather one shred of evidence or data from events which haven’t happened yet.

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IMAJINE: Visions of the Rural in a Globalised World

In the latest response to the IMAJINE scenarios for the future of European inequality, Professor Esther Peeren of the University of Amsterdam explores the representation of the rural in each scenario, relating these visions back to concerns and challenges in the present day.

Drawing on Donna Haraway’s work, she reminds us that, “Rather than seeking to predict the future or escape from the present, these are ways of ‘staying with the trouble’ in the present, for the future.”

Esther highlights “the dangers inherent to the fantasy of the rural idyll as an isolated paradise shaped by a homogenous community, as well as underlining that such isolated worlds are not exclusive to the rural but may also exist in urban areas and online”; and she reminds us that even when the urban-rural divide seems to be overcome, its inequalities can be displaced “to the global and even interplanetary scale”.

Find Esther Peeren’s response to the IMAJINE scenarios here.

The full IMAJINE scenario set can be found here.

The RURALIMAGINATIONS project “Imagining the Rural in a Globalised World”, which Esther heads, can be found here.

X365: The Graphic Novel, by Neill Cameron

In early 2020, acclaimed comic creator Neill Cameron began to write and draw the one-panel-a-day comic X365: “No plan going in, no preparation. I’d just make a story up and see where it took me.”

When the pandemic hit, it reshaped the tale Neill was telling, of parallel worlds entwined.

The full story is now being produced in a collected edition on Kickstarter, including an interview I conducted with Neill about the project as it reached its conclusion.

See more at the Kickstarter project page for X365: The Graphic Novel.