The Only Winning Move: Interview with Peter Scoblic, Part 1

Dr. Peter Scoblic is a co-founder and principal of the strategic foresight consultancy Event Horizon Strategies. A former executive editor at The New Republic and Foreign Policy who has written on foresight for publications including the New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, and Harvard Business Review, Peter is also a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and an instructor for the Professional Development Program at Harvard University. Previously, he was deputy staff director of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he worked on approval of the New START agreement and was the chief foreign policy speechwriter for Chairman John Kerry.

On the eve of a particularly fraught election and a turbulent moment in US political history, Peter joined me for a discussion about his career, ranging from post-Cold War nuclear arms policy to the relationship between policymaking and pop culture, plus the practical question of how and to what extent we can usefully predict the future. The interview will appear on this blog in three parts, but you can read it in its entirety as a PDF download here.

I began by asking Peter if he’d always been ambitious to work in foreign policy.

Foreign policy is something I’ve always been interested in, especially national security work, and particularly nuclear weapons work. There’s been a wonky streak running through me over the years, often focussed on these dark existential issues.

It goes back to being a child of the 80s; I believe the second movie I ever saw was War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, in which a teen hacks into the computers of NORAD, the aerospace defence command. I was probably too young to see it and the experience, combined with the actual headlines of that decade, planted a seed which I was able to explore as a student at Brown. 

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The Important Thing Is Elsewhere

The Family Tree

Before all this, I went to my grandfather’s house in Spain. I’d never really liked it. It wasn’t the house he’d lived in as I grew up, which was just down the road from the new place. That had been the house of memories, the place where my grandmother had died before I was born.

He bought the new place when it was time to find a smaller, more manageable property, as he entered his eighties and I my twenties. I worked with him on both houses, helping him to do up the old one and improve the new. I painted walls white and coated tiles with red rubber sealant; mixed cement and ferried endless wheelbarrows of it to wherever he was working that day. He chided me for my cement mixing technique, for the way I handled a paintbrush or a pickaxe, the way I clambered up and down ladders and scaffolding, fetching tools and materials. It was the happiest time.

He died, digging over the garden of the new property with a rotorvator, when I was 23. He’d have been glad to go that way; he’d always talked of “falling off his perch” rather than a dreaded slow decline, and even when we were working together on the new place, he’d still pull stunts like climbing into the tree he was pruning, clinging to the branch above him while standing on the one below, which he was sawing off, jumping up and down to speed the process.

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Neill Cameron: Panels to Draw and Worlds to Build, Part 2

In this two-part interview, I’m joined by the British comics creator Neill Cameron, whose comics for children include Pirates of Pangea, Tamsin of the Deep, Mo-Bot High, How To Make Awesome Comics, and three volumes of Mega Robo Bros – as well as an ongoing daily webcomic for older readers, X365, which has been appearing throughout 2020.

In the first instalment, we talked about Neill’s acclaimed Mega Robo Bros, and how he went about building their future London. Now we turn our attention to his panel-a-day comic for 2020, X365.

This comic features “A cyborg detective in a dark futuristic city. A stressed-out freelancer coping with COVID-19, deadlines and a new baby. A lone swordswoman in a ruined, monster-filled world”, each living parallel lives, yet mysteriously connected. But the pandemic pulled the comic off course from Neill’s original intent.

Insofar as I had an idea for X365 before starting it, it came from the idea that 2020 had been a fictional year that loomed large in my childhood imaginary universe. I thought it would be fun to honour that, or mark the occasion, by making a story built on the contrasts between the 2020 we were not promised, but strongly led to believe would arrive in our childhood reading — and the one that arrived.

I was a 2000AD kid and also a fan of other things like Marvel UK’s output, Sleeze Brothers, and Death’s Head, and at least some of these comics were set in the year 2020. There was a general late-80s, early-90s cyberpunky future which permeated our consciousness through anime and comics, and yet 2020 didn’t seem that far away. You were thinking, are we really all going to have cyborg eyes by this point?

Given where we are, it felt like an opportunity to reflect on the future we’d been shown, and where we’ve ended up.

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Neill Cameron: Panels to Draw and Worlds to Build, Part 1

In this interview, I’m joined by the British comics creator Neill Cameron, whose books for young readers include Pirates of Pangea, Tamsin of the Deep, Mo-Bot High, How To Make Awesome Comics, and three volumes of the acclaimed Mega Robo Bros – as well as an ongoing daily webcomic for older readers, X365, which has been appearing throughout 2020.

We talked about creating convincing future and fantasy worlds, getting to know imagined places by drawing them, and the contrasts between the vision of 2020 we were promised as children – and the turbulent realities of the year as we’re experiencing it.

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Thinking Through Drawing 2020: Drawing Changes

I was pleased to join the Thinking Through Drawing (TTD) community for their 2020 symposium, Drawing Changes, last week, and present some work on visual methods for scenario planning.

The TTD community explore links between drawing and cognition, and it was great to bring their perspective to bear on the question of how we might usefully draw the future to inform our decisions in the present.

The session was well received – here are some comments from attendees:

I was surprised by my choices and solutions.”
“It’s like drawing [scenarios] aids the process of giving permission to do the decision you really want to give attention to…”
“And drawing give us the physical cues as we draw – tension, chills, etc. Important info.”
“And you can examine the “players” as fictional characters, allowing for new insights.”
“For me the diagram is a process functional tool, this is illuminating in thinking of it in relation to decision making not just areas of charting or organising existing knowledge.”
“I allowed myself to think ‘worst case scenario’ in every area. Made me realise I would carry on even in black dog days.”
“The visual metaphors in a Gantt chart force your thinking, whereas this coaxes.”
“It made me reflect on a decision I thought was made, but I am actually still wavering on.”
“The process got me to think bigger. What started as a creative project became wanting to change a bad situation. I think the creative project is still important but imagining what I want to change is crucial.”

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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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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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Interview with The Writing Platform

I think one of the hard things about trying something new is figuring out how to work with people’s expectations. When you click that link, do you want to be told a good story? Do you want to be given a good puzzle, with the satisfaction of finding the “right” solution? How much effort should you be expected to put in? How much uncertainty should you experience?

I spoke with Simon Groth of The Writing Platform about my most recent interactive text, The Library of Last Resort.

Windblade toy on the planning wall at State Library of Queensland

We talked about strategy and foresight, audience and agency, libraries and information (inevitably), and also learning from the wonder, freedom, and richness of children’s play.

It was a good chat. Check it out over at the Writing Platform website.