The short session provides a practical nuts-and-bolts overview of some scenario techniques and approaches, designed to support organisations that are new to the process as they seek to make sense of future uncertainties and take wise long-term decisions.
This week, I caught up with Martin Kristoffer Bråthen. Martin’s head of innovation at Biblioteksentralen, the cooperative business which supplies libraries across Norway with collection materials, equipment, and services.
Martin was a participant in the recent scenarios for the future of Norwegian schools project, and previously talked about ‘the Future Sound of Libraries’ on this site in 2018.
This time, we got together to talk about physical versus digital library services; curation, content, and filter bubbles in the age of Netflix; and, inevitably, the pandemic.
In fact, that’s where we started. I asked him how things were over in Oslo. Read more
Today I spoke with leading US information professional R. David Lankes about foresight, strategy, and coping with uncertainty beyond immediate short-term crisis response.
David created one of the first 100 web sites ever, plus the first web presence for CNN, the Discovery Channel, and the U.S. Department of Education. We spoke about what he foresaw at the beginning of the Internet age, the surprises which emerged along the way, and how we might learn from the past when the future is uncertain and unlikely to repeat what went before.
The Library Island immersive training tool was released last year as a free PDF download and has since been taken up by organisations around the world.
Earlier this year, Paula Pfoeffer of the Community Connections team at Campbelltown City Council in Australia ran a modified version of Library Island with her colleagues.
Council workers visited a make-believe island nation to explore responses to uncertain and challenging situations – from climate change events to social unrest, government budget cuts, and the need to meet demands for recognition and justice for the whole community.
Below, Paula explains how the event was run, what the outcomes were, and how it has fed Campbelltown’s response to the Australian bushfire crisis and the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
It was just another day on Uluibau Island……
In the towns of Juschester, Becstone and Pfefferville, the collections were being maintained and programs and services were being offered to the community. Life was pretty good for the staff that worked at the combined library and child care centre facility.
Then a climate change event happened and there were increasing demands for recognition and justice from the island’s indigenous population. Then the desperate people speaking a language that no-one seemed to recognise migrated to the City. And then the Ministry began to make ominous noises about cutting library budgets……
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?
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.
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
for a purpose
with a pre-specified usable interface
- 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.
Or you could get in touch for a chat.
To help organisations, communities, and people working through the coronavirus pandemic, I’m going to be offering remote services, webinars, and videoconferenced sessions to support and coach you in dealing with key organisational issues.
Following previous successful long-distance engagements in Australia and the US, I’m offering clients the opportunity to address issues of strategy, foresight, and internal or external engagement remotely from my office in London.
This was something we were planning to roll out in May based on our successful pilot projects, but I’m announcing it early to help people, institutions, and communities who may find themselves increasingly working from home.
To find out more about working with me remotely, visit the Video Coaching & Facilitation page.
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.
Following a successful engagement last year at the State Library of New South Wales, I’ll be returning to Sydney with colleague Brendan Fitzgerald for two workshops in early May.
In our “Library Leaders Workshop Day” on May 4, Brendan & I will help senior library staff to explore a range of strategic tools and techniques. These will help teams think about changing wants and needs in their communities, building the capability to respond with creative local strategies.
Then, on May 5, we will explore ways of defining, measuring, and sharing the difference that public libraries make to their communities, in “Next-generation Measures and Metrics for Public Libraries“.
Join us for one or both of these sessions in May – we’re looking forward to seeing you.
In 2019, the University of Oslo contracted me for a short foresight project exploring the future of education in Norway, with a focus on digitalisation of learning.
We convened a small group of researchers, education professionals, and other stakeholders to create three scenarios: plausible visions of 2050 which challenge current assumptions about the futures which might await.
The scenarios explored questions of self-directed learning, hypersurveillance, financial and ecological collapse, as well as shifts in politics at all levels from the global to the local.
After the scenarios were produced, scholars from Norway and overseas provided responses, examining present-day issues which were highlighted by our visions of the future.
The aim of the scenarios was to enrich the futures thinking of two projects at the University, one exploring Screen Cultures, and the other investigating the Nordic Social Model.