Planning for 2021: Value-Creating Systems

Every year, around this time, I share a simple tool which might help people think ahead when making personal plans. In 2019 and 2018 I offered variants of the “Arrows of Time” diagram. The arrows provide a way to reflect on the things which may await us in the coming year, and those from the past which will still be with us on our journey into the future.

This year, I want to share a different tool. You still don’t need anything more than a pen and paper to use it.

This year, I want to think about relationships and values.

2020 has been a strange and difficult year for many of us, with more of our life than ever before spent online: in Zoom meetings and conference calls, online quizzes and get-togethers in new, sometimes awkward, digital settings. All of the emotions, frustrations, and opportunities of these spaces have been magnified by the pressures of COVID-19.

We increasingly expect, and are expected, to deal with constant streams of information from many sources. There’s more stimulation, but we might also be more distractible, less focussed, less aware of our environment, less able to process everything cognitively and emotionally. We might not be tending our relationships as well as we might.

So why not take a moment, map your relationships, and see what difference they’re currently making? It might guide you in the decisions you make as 2021 arrives.

As always, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, trying to bring together the work of a few different thinkers and writers in a simple tool. I’ll tell you more about the sources I’m drawing on at the end of this piece.

But before then, if you’re willing to join me, it’s time to get started.

We’re going to draw a map. Let’s begin by putting you at the centre.

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Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 3: Chemist and Conductor

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here and you can read the second part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the final part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about interdisciplinary thinking, new forms of leadership, and the next steps Paul will be taking as CEO.

What does it mean for Renew to get through this big transition, to negotiate the actual pivot point, especially when, as you said, your prior success was built on hackers and homeowners, and now you need to think about engaging tenants, landlords, a wider community?

It’s really hard! That’s a really live question for us right now, in this highly febrile moment of post-pandemic and looming recession. There are all these binary oppositions: the homeowner-hacker versus a different community in the future; a small, scrappy, financially precarious member organization versus some kind of super-slick consulting lobby group. Fast urgent change versus slow sustained change. And there are a multitude of other axes besides! For me it’s about a kind of dialectic: How does the value come from the tension between the two poles of each issue?

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Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 2: Bureaucratic Radicalism

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the second part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about systemic change, revolution and reform, and encouraging the choice to live sustainably.

Parliament House, Canberra, by Wikimedia user JJ Harrison – CC BY-SA 3.0

You’ve written on “bureaucratic radicalism“, which seems to speak to this issue of what happens when the green hackers of the 80s find themselves represented on federal committees and contributing to the building code.

Bureaucratic radicalism was my attempt to think through how you systematize good practice, and using existing power structures in order to do that. My first thought is to consider what we need to learn from First Nations peoples, from communities where environmental sustainability and good practice is part of what you learn from childhood.

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Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 1: What do you do when the revolution is over?

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat.

Renew, which evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. Paul, following a storied career in the Australian museums & galleries sector, joined Renew as CEO in March.

In our conversation, we talked about Paul’s journey across sectors, the nature of creativity, the challenges of a sustainability organisation’s evolving mission, and the opportunities which await.

Matt:

You joined Renew in March. What’s it like taking up a CEO role in the midst of a crisis like this?

Paul:

For me, the idea of being in charge of an organization while not being in lockdown feels strange! Because I knew nothing else, it became normal so quickly.  On the third or fourth day of my role, I had to shut the office and put in place rules and procedures for working from home.

We’ve been doing that for seven months, over two lockdowns. We’re only just starting to go back to the office now.

It’s much easier to apply the technical and functional requirements of management and leadership at a distance. What’s hard is putting the emotional aspect back in, especially when that’s a relationship of one to many. I’m very happy and open when it comes to one-to-one emotional relationships, but having to hold that relationship to an entire community – and on an unfamiliar medium too – was hard.

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Was there ever really one normal? Discussion with Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald

Today’s blog features a discussion between two colleagues, Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald.

Murray helps organisations and leaders in the use of scenario planning to explore the future and its impacts upon current strategy.  He works on understanding disruption, detecting early signals of the emerging future, and developing responses to the changing environment.  Alongside his consulting work, Murray also works in executive education, most recently at Saïd Business School, and has previously led large, complex transformation programmes.

Brendan, director of 641 DI, works to build capacity for the library, government, and not-for-profit sectors in Australia and New Zealand. Formerly Manager of Digital Inclusion at Infoxchange, his focus is digital & social inclusion, its ability to reduce social isolation and loneliness in community. Working with clients across Australia and New Zealand including Hitnet, Grow Hope Foundation, State Library of New South Wales, LIANZA, City of Newcastle Libraries, and the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, 641 DI delivers research and project evaluation services, digital inclusion planning and practice, as well as strategic consultation.

Last month, Murray & Brendan got together for a wide ranging discussion covering foresight, localism, their experiences in different sectors on opposite sides of the world, and even the nature of change itself.

Murray: 

Some topics we might discuss: How things are changing, how change itself has changed, and how we might use scenarios to attend to things we haven’t looked at before. There are never any facts in the future – but that’s more apparent than ever now, isn’t it?

Brendan:

I think it’s also important to look back; to consider those things in the past that you bring with you into the present – or leave behind. One of the things I know we’ve both been pondering: was there actually a “normal” in the first place?

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Learning from Acknowledgments of Country

“I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land that we’re on, and paying my respects to elders past, present, and emerging.”

That’s the form of words as I say them now; the current evolution. I learned to say them on the lands of the Turrbal and Jagera people in what is now Brisbane, and the lands of the Jarowair and Giabal people in what is now Toowoomba. “Custodians” has recently replaced “owners”, at the suggestion of Chris Lee; “emerging” replaced “future” a while back, although I’m not sure entirely why, I just noticed that some people I respected used that word rather than the other.

The saying, as a whole, is an Acknowledgement of Country; a form of recognition and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their relationship to the land which is often spoken at the beginning of a gathering in Australia. These days, I say it when hosting online meetings and workshops on Zoom or other platforms. Although I’m currently in London, and might be speaking with people anywhere in the world, I usually choose the Australian form of words if I’m working in a multinational space, because Australia was where I first became aware of the need to acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ custodianship of the land, and of a formalised protocol which could guide us in doing so.

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Unscripted Futures: 2020 OsloMet Urban Research Conference

I’ll be co-presenting two projects at next week’s “Storbykonferansen” Urban Research Conference, hosted by Oslo Metropolitan University.

The conference’s “Unscripted Futures” session seeks to:

“explore how radically open futures can be constructed and how we can secure that future scenarios are not locked into the premises of today. The aim is not to simply celebrate the openness of the future, but to create a space for developing experiments, for proposing alternative possibilities and constructing new futures, and then studying and discussing their implications and consequences ‘on the ground’.”

Marie Mahon of NUI Galway and I will discuss “Unscripting Europe”: Using Future Scenarios to Rethink EU Territorial Inequalities, exploring the scenarios being developed by the Horizon 2020 IMAJINE project.

Inequality isn’t just a question of measuring the current distance between the haves and have-nots, then checking whether that distance increases or decreases. It’s also about changing forms of privilege and injustice, changing values, and a changing social context. How can plausible imagined futures help us to better understand the nature of inequality?

Then, David Robertson of Monash University and I will talk about Playing With The Futures You Didn’t See Coming: High-Agency Participatory Scenario Activities, On and Offline.

David & I will be looking at what it means to create truly playful activities and encounters where participants can surprise the facilitators, formats can be broken or rebuilt during use, and new ideas can arise. We’ll talk about the infamous Library Island game, as well as some of its successor experiments from the era of Zoom and COVID lockdown.

You can read all the abstracts from the session at the Storbykonferansen website (PDF download), and I hope you’ll join us online for what promises to be a lively set of discussions. Find out more, and register for the conference, here.

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?

Laboratorios Ciudadanos Distribuidos: Questions of Public Value

Spanish speakers can now watch a short public video from my contribution to the Laboratorios Ciudadanos Distribuidos course developed by the Spanish Ministry of Culture & Sport and MediaLab Prado.

The recording offers a brief overview of new approaches to public value. It outlines a number of practical tools that allow you to map the value created by your organisation or team, then consider ways to transform the value and impact you offer to the community you serve.

Find out more about the full Laboratorios Ciudadadnos Distribuidos course here.

OECD Government After Shock Podcast with Saskia Van Uffelen

Following our recent two-part discussion on this blog, you can hear Saskia Van Uffelen, Belgium’s Digital Champion, speaking with me on the OECD’s Government After Shock podcast in this week’s discussion.

During our interview, Saskia explores communication, leadership, and adaptation beyond crisis. If we pull on the “elastic” of our society and its institutions too far, it will break. Are we ready to fashion a new, more resilient world as the crises of 2020 demonstrate the old one’s limitations?