“You are swimming with the whole ocean”: Interview with Aída Ponce Del Castillo, European Trade Union Institute

Last month, Aída Ponce Del Castillo of the European Trade Union Insitute’s Foresight Unit joined me to talk about her journey from world-class swimmer to foresight professional, doing strategy and scenarios research for the labour movement.

We discussed different foresight methodologies, the particular challenges and opportunities in working on futures with trade unions, and, inevitably, COVID-19, but our conversation began with Aída’s sporting career, and the lessons it taught her about coping with turbulence and uncertainty.

What was your journey to becoming a foresight practitioner? You were a lawyer, and a competitive open-water swimmer – how did that lead you to work on foresight, and how did it prepare you for the role?

In many ways I saw myself as a swimmer first and everything else second! I studied and practiced law, completed a doctorate. As an open water swimmer I competed at international level, also racing in Open Water World Cups. Read more

Looking ahead: Circulating Ideas / Public Libraries News

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Steve Thomas of the American library podcast Circulating Ideas and Ian Anstice of the UK’s Public Libraries News. Both conversations were released online this week.

Ian asked me some questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries’ response to it, and what might be on the horizon for our societies and the institutions that serve them.

Like any good foresight practitioner, I sought to offer questions of my own, and provocations more than prophecy. We discussed resilience, anticipation, and both the dangers and opportunities that organisations face during a prolonged, indefinite season of turbulence and uncertainty. I think the points will be useful for people outside of the library and information sector. You can read our conversation at the Public Libraries News site.

Meanwhile, over at Circulating Ideas, Steve and I talked about what it would mean to bring scenario planning and other foresight methodologies into a public library setting, building on my recent presentation to America’s Engaging Local Government Leaders network and a previous academic article co-authored with Rafael Ramírez.

You can listen to my chat with Steve, and many other excellent episodes of Circulating Ideas, at the podcast’s website, and the episode is also available over at Apple Podcasts.

Planning for Uncertainty: Scenarios and Foresight for Local Government

Last week, I put together this one-hour video session for America’s Engaging Local Government Leaders network, ELGL.

It’s a straightforward foresight and strategy starter pack, no nonsense, no jargon, helping to answer the questions “Where are we going?” and “What should we do?”

The session is aimed at US local government leaders, but should work for a wide range of institutions, communities, and settings.

You can read more about the session and download a PDF “handout” with slides and further reading at the ELGL webpage, and I previously spoke with the ELGL team about leadership and foresight on their podcast last year.

Scenario planning in the Age of COVID-19: Mandarin Interview with Trudi Lang

My interview with Oxford University’s Trudi Lang for the Mandarin, published in late April 2020, can now be shared beyond their paywall. The full text of the piece appears below.

‘Never assume the future will be an extension of the past’ Scenario planning in the Age of COVID-19

Matt Finch sat down with Trudi Lang, a senior fellow in management practice at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Lang is a researcher and strategist with particular expertise in scenario planning, a foresight methodology that seeks not to predict the future but to usefully challenge our assumptions about what’s coming next.

“The key challenge of government is to prepare for a future in which we will be surprised time and again,” said Peter Ho, then Singapore’s top civil servant, in 2009.

Few people at the start of 2020 would have anticipated an enormous symmetric shock affecting the entire world, demanding drastic interventions from the state — yet experts had been warning of a pandemic for considerable time. Indeed, as the New York Times reported in March, the US federal government had rehearsed for a pandemic three times over the last four years.

Despite such rehearsals and the warnings of experts, many governments have been caught on the back foot by COVID-19. Countries that were considered to have an excellent capacity for pandemic response — the US and UK had been ranked highest among 195 countries’ ability to prevent and mitigate pandemics in 2019 — have found themselves floundering.

With the world plunged into uncertainty, how do we navigate the turmoil of the current pandemic and look beyond the crisis, into a future that is hard to picture clearly?

Living and learning foresight: From Western Australia to the World Economic Forum

For Trudi Lang, the current pandemic represents a profound and dramatic transformation of the contexts in which we operate: “Even if we foresaw the possibility of an outbreak of a contagious disease, the exponential nature of COVID-19’s growth has been remarkable. It’s certainly the first time in my lifetime that I’ve seen such a stark and global example of exponential (as compared to more linear) change.”

Trudi LangPrior to joining the Saïd Business School, Lang was Director and Head of Strategic Foresight for the World Economic Forum, and also worked as a foresight consultant for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But her first experiences of constructively engaging with the future came from life as a farm girl in Western Australia.

In agriculture, many factors are “extrinsic” or beyond an individual’s control — whether that’s the weather, the cost of fuelling machinery, or the price of a crop, which is dependent on the harvest in other parts of the world. For Lang’s family, the fortunes of their farm relied on them finding ways to cope with a degree of constant uncertainty.

Lang says, “I didn’t just grasp the idea of future uncertainty intellectually: I lived it. What growing up on the farm taught me is that, no matter what you do, the future is not always going to be a replication of the past. That’s a useful lesson to recall in the current pandemic. It’s an extreme

example, but it reflects what we learned on the farm: you can never assume that good years are going to last nor that the future will necessarily be an extension of the past.”

Today, Lang is a champion of foresight methods including the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, which is designed to help organisations cope with situations characterised by “TUNA conditions”: Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty, and Ambiguity.

TUNA fishing in the age of COVID-19

Lang explains that scenario planning “enables us to discuss and frame in different ways what we see around us, thereby helping make sense of the uncertainty in our midst and how things may play out.”

Unlike forecasting approaches, which seek to model and predict what awaits us, a foresight approach needn’t correctly anticipate the one future which will certainly come to pass. Instead, it will identify a wider range of future uncertainties, trends, and issues which may affect and inform strategic decisions.

In the immediate context of the current coronavirus outbreak, Lang says that such considerations include the breadth, depth, and duration of current uncertainties. Which of the changes we are currently seeing might prove to be permanent? Will COVID-19 outbreaks recur for a long time? How will the pandemic relate to other pressing global issues such as climate change and inequality? Will emergence from the crisis be characterised by spurts and starts, a continuous and orderly progression, or an ongoing mess?

Lang and her Saïd colleague Rafael Ramírez have published guidance for organisations seeking to use scenario planning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the key points is that, while strategic work often involves long-term considerations, pandemic scenario planning may require shorter time horizons.

Lang explains that with the approach used by her and her colleagues, “The focus is on the present, for example related to a strategic action to be taken or sense to be made of an emerging situation. The scenarios are about exploring the future context of that action or situation, thereby opening up new ways of seeing the options in the present.”

This means that instead of creating scenarios for a distant time, a project may focus on a closer date — a matter of weeks or months from now, if your question is around emergence from quarantine or lockdown. Lang cautions that thinking about the pandemic’s aftermath, and what that means for your organisation, might be better addressed from the vantage point of a scenario two- to five-years hence, or even further.

While timescales can be condensed in the era of COVID-19, it may be that plausibility needs to be stretched. Scenario planning describes future situations which provide both challenging and useful inputs to the decision-making process, even if they do not come to pass. The extreme nature of the current situation creates opportunities to explore even more challenging future contexts than would usually be contemplated.

Lang notes that “Contingency planning is about risk, which involves some judgements about probability and impact, and results in a contingency plan to cover the risk. Scenarios address deep uncertainty where probabilities can’t be judged. Scenarios may highlight or identify new risks, but they will also reframe a situation, indicating potential new opportunities and collaborations. By stretching plausibility, the scenarios can become more insightful and challenging, and thus far more useful as they help people learn more about what might be.”

Getting the basics right

Even if the pandemic accelerates or accentuates some aspects of scenario planning, it’s still important to get the basics right. Above all, that means attending carefully to who will use the scenarios, and for what purpose. This is what makes the difference between a project with useful outcomes, and one which is merely a speculative visioning project.

“Scenarios are a means to an end,” says Lang, “so being grounded in what people are trying to achieve is key. What is the purpose of your organisation? What makes people excited about their work? What makes them care? Scenarios are about future contexts people may have to inhabit, so connect these futures with what your organisation is fundamentally trying to achieve.”

If you fail to carefully identify and secure the intended use and user of your scenarios, the project may, unsurprisingly, prove useless and its insights will not be acted upon. The US government’s multiple rehearsals for a pandemic over recent years may prove instructive in this regard.

Lang notes that pandemics have been included in scenarios before, but this inclusion hasn’t always led to preparatory action: “Scenarios are a means to an end, not the end in itself. If a pandemic arises in foresight work, but we remain ill-prepared, a factor to consider is whether the work had a clear user and use.”

Scenario planning has been welcomed into some governments and public bodies, alongside its uptake in the corporate world, but distinctive approaches may be required to suit the public sector’s unique features and the complexity of its stakeholder relationships.

Lang suggests that one approach is for public bodies to consider scenario planning as a conversation to be hosted. Project organisers are bringing together stakeholders to jointly inquire into a future strategic context and explore new options: “Learning through the conversation builds a shared language and a shared understanding among people, with the result that valuable new collaborations can be enabled that mobilise resources and open up new opportunities.”

Building social capital and enriching strategic thinking

Lang’s academic research has indicated that building new social capital can be a key reason for undertaking scenario planning. Scenario projects, being highly collaborative, can create new and stronger ties between participants, increasing the richness and extent of the network through which new strategic ideas and opportunities are identified and taken forward. Departments, teams, and stakeholders used to working from different perspectives can develop a shared language and find common ground in their collective discussion of the future.

Singapore Central Business District, by Wikimedia user Basile Moran CC BY-SA 4.0

Lang points to Singapore as one example of a country which is constantly considering what might change in its future, and how that change might be harnessed to beneficial ends. Given its lack of natural resources, its size, and its location, Singapore cannot afford strategic complacency and has a strong public sector scenario planning tradition. Singaporean civil servants use the technique, Lang explains, “to frame and reframe their understanding of what is evolving to generate new opportunities and identify emerging risks.”

While Singapore has been all too aware of the uncertainties in its future, is it possible that Australia’s resource wealth, and the era of the mining boom, have insulated it from such sensitivity to strategic challenges? Beyond its direct health impacts, the pandemic has bought into stark relief issues that Australians had taken for granted.

“For example,” Lang points out, “there was no real disadvantage in shifting manufacturing offshore because keeping the costs of production down was perhaps the key decision criteria. One of the effects of this decision has been to trade a form of resilience for efficiency; how will the relationship between these two develop post-pandemic?”

Exploring such questions is where foresight comes into play. For people who wish to embark on scenario planning, Lang advises them to speak with someone who already has experience of the approach: “If scenarios work is new to your organisation, bear in mind that this may be about introducing a new way of working that may be unfamiliar; every organisation will have its own ways of thinking about the future and informing strategic decision making. Consider starting in a small way, giving people the opportunity to become involved and familiar with the practice to adapt it to the needs of the organisation.”

Some people within a given organisation may be particularly keen to engage with the future using new methods, and excited about embracing a new challenge.

Lang notes: “Usually these creative and imaginative people are also good strategic thinkers, seeing rich interconnections in the issues they uncover. But remember to also bring in new, less familiar perspectives by interviewing people outside your organisation or inviting them into your scenarios conversations.”

“When you help people to realise that they are already working with a set of expectations and assumptions about the future, they get curious about unpacking those assumptions, questioning them, and opening up, getting more imaginative. Once you realise what your assumptions are, you can start to look beyond them, and locate your blind spots.”

You can read the latest from Trudi and Rafael Ramírez on frugally innovative scenario responses to COVID-19 at the Saïd’s Oxford Answers page.

#LocalGovCamp Lockdown – Charting & Strategising for Ongoing Uncertainties

I’ll be presenting a short introductory workshop, “The Pandemic and Beyond: Charting & Strategising for Ongoing Uncertainties“, at next week’s #LocalGovCamp session looking at COVID-19, the lockdown, and what lies beyond.

File:Tsunami by hokusai 19th century.jpg
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai

It’s the first ever virtual #LocalGovCamp, and in my workshop, we’ll consider the distinction between risk and uncertainty, explore straightforward ways to identify our strategic blindspots, and try out a range of tools intended to help an organisation and its stakeholders have richer, smarter conversations about their future decisions, on or offline.

We’ll refer to some practical case studies, and have time for questions and discussion of what it means to plan your way through the current pandemic and beyond.

Join us on Tuesday 12 May, 11.15am – 12 noon British Summer Time.

Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming

Over the last few weeks, on and offline, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about “preparing for the future you didn’t see coming”.

The foresight approaches which I favour tend to avoid predicting the future. Instead, I work with clients to highlight the futures you didn’t anticipate, either because you had a strategic blindspot or because you chose to ignore them.

Man with protective mask
Man with protective mask by Wikipedia user Tadeáš Bednarz – CC BY-SA 4.0

Was the pandemic one of the futures we couldn’t see coming, or one which we chose not to? And since its arrival, have our responses been based on what is really unfolding, or on mental models which we had previously constructed? Read more

Which of your future selves are you going to help out?


Do you ready the pot for tomorrow’s coffee before you go to bed at night?
Do you go to a yoga class so that you’ll stay fit, strong, and flexible over time?
Do you put money aside to cover your next tax bill?

Foresight is a complex business. At the organisational level, a lot of thought and work goes into finding tools and techniques which help people prepare for times which haven’t arrived yet.

Yet, like all the most important topics, foresight is also terribly simple. It’s about finding answers to the questions “What’s coming next?” and “What should I do about it?”

Sometimes that’s as simple as prudently taking actions which will benefit your future self – like prepping that coffee pot before you go to bed.

When you do this, it’s like your present self is helping out your future self.

When you arrive in the future, you’ll be able to look back and feel glad that your past self made an effort on your behalf.

No-one knows for sure what the future holds, so we’re always taking bets, more or less informed, on what will await us. (Chances are high you’ll need coffee in the morning, and the kettle will still be there to let you make it).

When we address more complex future issues, individually or as an organisation, we have to take more complex bets about the future circumstances which await.

We have to decide which of our potential future selves most needs our help, or which will stand to reap the greatest rewards from our actions today.

This one might get sick. This one might lose her job. This one might win the lottery. This one could write a Nobel Prize-winning novel, if only she could find the time to do so. This one might develop a sudden passion for topiary, and want to retrain as a professional gardener.

Any one of those future selves could benefit from the decisions we take in the present – but we can’t help all of our future selves. What’s more, whatever decisions we do take will have consequences in whichever future does eventually emerge.

We have to make decisions about which of our future selves will most benefit from our help, which ones will be able to cope for themselves, and which ones we just don’t think are likely to ever arrive. (The latter category might include future selves who have been more fortunate or successful than we dare to imagine; sometimes the future we neglect is the one that seemed “too bright to hope for”).

When you start to think about what comes next and where you want to head, it’s worth imagining the variety of future selves which might await, and the future worlds they might live in. (There are ways of doing that work methodically, even at a small scale).

When you picture those future selves:

What do they need from you?
What can they do without?
Which of them will benefit most from your intervention?
How will they judge the choices that you are making today?

Thinking Seriously About How Things Change

In a situation like the one we find ourselves currently in, there’s bound to be a lot of speculation.

Whether you’re now quarantined at home or still going in to your workplace, the chances are that you’re scrolling your digital device for the latest updates and information.


Among all the other information you’ll have to sift, there will be articles, columns, and features asking whether the pandemic will permanently transform our way of life. Slate suggests that “thanks to the coronavirus, the future may arrive earlier than expected“; the Guardian warns that “life may never be ‘normal’ again“; New York magazine is already certain that “we can’t go back to the way things used to be“.

On Twitter today, I watched a thread of futurists roll by, “brainstorming about medium-long term scenarios” of COVID-19, offering what boiled down to a series of “what-if” questions.

But this is where I think we have to be more disciplined about how we approach the future.

One of the joys of looking at what comes next is that no-one knows for sure. The best efforts of the human race across history have failed to give us either crystal balls or time machines. Evidence, by definition, cannot be gathered from events which haven’t happened yet, so any predictive model involves a degree of faith that the future will be like the past in certain respects.

As a result, there’s a danger that we mistake the future for either a projected dot on a graph, or an intuition shaped by our hopes and fears. In fact, it’s a place we’re going to have to live, as rich and complex and contradictory as the present, and it’s totally inaccessible to us, right up until it arrives.

The word “scenarios” gets bandied around a lot in these circumstances, by people who really mean either “contingencies” or “speculations”. But scenarios aren’t daydreams, dystopias, projected data points, or simple “what ifs”.

Scenarios are methodically constructed by a group of stakeholders to locate the futures which lie outside of current assumptions. They’re not predictions and don’t expect to successfully locate the one future which will actually come to pass. A good scenario can be wild and unlikely, as long as it helps you to notice something you had previously ignored about what lies ahead.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Scenarios have to be plausible – meaning that they challenge assumptions but are useful to inform decision-making. That means that, while they may incorporate some wild or unexpected circumstances, you’re not likely to spend much time scenario planning for the rise of Atlantis or the arrival of flying saucers from the great beyond.

Scenarios, as used on the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach at the Saïd Business School, actually have a pretty tight definition:

A small set
of manufactured possible future contexts
of something
for someone
for a purpose
with a pre-specified usable interface
and used.

This means:

  • we construct possible futures for a specific context, user, and purpose;
  • we only construct enough futures to usefully inform decision-making;
  • we attend, in advance, to how the user will receive and incorporate the scenarios into their work;
  • and the scenario engagement is only truly successful if the scenarios are used – that is to say, if they inform the decision which needs to be made.

This is why a lot of a scenario planner’s work happens in advance of the event at which possible future contexts will be created and discussed – because it is vitally important to define and understand the decision which the scenarios are meant to inform, and the context in which this decision will be made.

It is also why scenario planners must work hard in the latter stages of the process, once the future contexts have been created: the future stories and visions must inform the present-day decision which needs to be made.

As the great scenario planner Pierre Wack noted, in his work, articulating the scenarios – the future visions or stories themselves – was a small proportion of the time spent with executives. Once the scenarios had been presented to leaders, the rest of the time focussed on understanding and exploring the factors. The stories of the future themselves can be discarded once they have opened users’ eyes to the issues which lay outside of their previous framing.

So, as the pandemic sweeps the globe and you start to ponder what happens next – for you, your community, your organisation, your nation, the whole global order – don’t get too caught up in speculation and punditry; and certainly don’t mistake them for useful scenarios.

If you find yourself in quarantine, eager to think about what comes next, you could take pen and paper and begin to think about your strategic blindspots through a “back of the napkin” activity like Arrows of Time.

You could read some of the serious scenario planning literature or read an interview with an accomplished scenario practitioner.

Or you could get in touch for a chat.


Future health: Oslo and the ‘a-ha’ moment

Our University of Oslo scenarios for the future of schools, out this week, surfaced health, and perceptions of health, as a battleground between parents and institutions in the education sector of 2050.

This was an “a-ha” moment for university researchers seeking new issues to explore around the digitalisation of education.

In scenario planning, we don’t aim to predict the future, but rather to generate plausible visions which can usefully inform present-day decision-making.

The future stories we create together are intended to highlight issues and drivers which exist in the present; the future scenario can then be set aside in order to focus on the issue at hand.

For the Oslo education researchers, a world in which parents and institutions warred over children’s health in a heavily-surveilled society – bickering with ‘the algorithm’ even over when to wipe your child’s nose – highlighted the extent to which their research should explore questions of health and wellbeing.

Today, in the Norwegian news, we see a parent-led Facebook group urging the city to close schools while the municipal authorities maintain that there is no reason yet to do so.

The campaigners argue that if businesses are sending staff home, then young children – who are less able to follow guidelines on infection control, like coughing into your elbow – should certainly go back to their families too.

Questions of distance learning, and education via screens and digital devices, may be sharpened by the current pandemic – even for the youngest children.

How will coronavirus affect the way we teach and learn, in the short and long term? Could it impact even the youngest children, irrespective of whether they contract the disease?

Good foresight work can help communities, institutions, and individuals navigate such turbulent and uncertain situations. You can read more about the Oslo education scenarios project here.