Circulating Ideas: Scenario Planning With Reading Public Library

Bronwen Gamble, Executive Director of Pennsylvania’s Reading Public Library, appeared with me on the American library podcast Circulating Ideas to share our experiences of scenario planning during a pandemic.

Reading Public Library, PA – Image Courtesy of Berks County Public Libraries

You can listen to the show, or check out a transcript, over at the Circulating Ideas website.

Reimagining the future of urban-rural balance

How will Europe’s urban-rural balance shift in years to come? In times of uncertainty, when tomorrow may not look like today, how can researchers and decision-makers best explore future relationships and dynamics between regions? In addition, how can such speculations be related back to pressing questions in the here and now?

In the new issue of the Regional Studies Association’s online magazine, IMAJINE‘s Marie Mahon and I share our experiences using scenario planning to explore the future of regional development in Europe, and answer the question: why are serious researchers spending time dreaming of futures which may never happen?

Read more in our article, “Reimagining the future of urban-rural balance: using scenarios to explore territorial inequality”.

Tales of the times to come: the humanities and scenario planning

“What do the humanities have to offer strategists, policymakers, and decision-takers in the age of the algorithm? As machine intelligence and computational power increase, as we gather ever more data from ever more sources, do the humanities still offer a valuable perspective on times yet to come?”

Over at the website of the Irish Humanities Alliance, Marie Mahon and I have a piece on what our training in the humanities has brought to our work on the IMAJINE project for the future of European regional inequality.

Thinking with your non-dominant hand: ambidexterity and foresight

I wouldn’t say I have the best handwriting. It’s a bit of an unpretty scrawl, though people can mostly decipher it. I use my left hand to hold a pencil or pen, though I do everything else with my right; I can’t use left-handed scissors or can openers, and whenever it was I last played cricket or tennis, my right hand was dominant. I’m probably a natural righty who picked up the left-hand habit from copying a left-handed parent, back in those days when they first get you to clutch a crayon and make your mark.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

This week, I was helping a group of people learn to use scenario planning. There are a lot of ways to define what a scenario is, but in the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, scenarios are assessments of the future context, developed for a particular user and purpose, to contrast with the way that the future context is currently being framed. People engaged in scenario planning devise plausible futures in order to test assumptions, challenge existing framings, and enrich decision-making in the present.

Stretching your sense of the futures you may have to inhabit can feel like “thinking with your non-dominant hand”. We’re so used to trying to solve the problem in front of us, “get on with the job”, fix things, make them better, chart a course, steer the ship. The act of strategic reframing – creating plausible futures to stretch our understanding of a given context – can feel seriously counterintuitive.

Even clasping your hands or crossing your legs the opposite way round to usual can feel odd; using your non-dominant hand when playing sports, using scissors, or writing could feel even more so. So it’s not a surprise that scenario planning might feel strange when you first try it.

Yet releasing yourself from a dominant or habitual approach can bring all kinds of benefits. You may be forced to rethink processes from first principles, returning you to “beginner’s mind” and unpicking tightly woven assumptions. You may find that your engrained habits of thinking are patterns of comfort and convention, rather than the best way to address an issue. You may see things from a different angle when approaching from the left instead of the right, or vice versa.

In successful scenario planning engagements, people often feel a sudden moment of realisation – what the pioneering scenario planner Pierre Wack called an “a-ha” moment. “It does not simply leap at you,” Wack wrote in a 1985 issue of the Harvard Business Review. “It happens when your message reaches the microcosms of decision makers, obliges them to question their assumptions…and leads them to change and reorganise their inner models of reality.”

Once people have experienced this benefit of thinking from the “outside in” – starting with future contexts, then working back to an assessment of options and strategic possibilities, often in an iterative process which is enriched by multiple repetitions – they see the merits in going against the grain of habit.

The more they employ this approach, the better their “muscle memory” for scenario work. (A right-hander who tries playing the guitar left-handed just once might not get very far, but continued practice could yield competence and even virtuosity). Gradually it becomes possible to integrate “left-handed” and “right-handed” thinking into processes of assessment and decision-making, so that our perceptions, our judgment, and our capacity to act are enriched.

And in times of turbulence and uncertainty, when tomorrow will not be like yesterday or today, that could make all the difference.

Islands in the Sky: Scenario Planning for Information Architects

My colleague Monika Flakowska and I are presenting Islands in the Sky – An Introduction to Scenario Planning at the Information Architecture Conference this week.

Information architects design, organize, and label digital artefacts and services like websites, intranets, and software to help people find and use the information they want and need. Recently, Peter Morville, one of the “founding fathers” of IA, proposed a new definition: “the design of language and classification systems to change the world”. (You can read my interview with Peter here). In uncertain times, information architects need tools to think about the futures which their work may have to inhabit. That’s where scenario planning comes in.

Our interactive conference session invites attendees to try their hand at the basics of scenario planning, in a playful and thought-provoking online setting. It’s a successor of sorts to the in-person Library Island game which was so well-received in pre-COVID times.

We’ll report back from our experiments at the IA Conference and keep you updated as the Islands evolve.

New Strategic Plan for Open Education Global

The new strategic plan for Open Education Global (OEG), “Open for Public Good“, has just been released.

OEG is a member-based, global non-profit supporting the development and use of open education around the world. Over a six month period, I supported their leadership team in devising and delivering a planning process designed to engage stakeholders, elicit insights, and develop key areas of focus as part of a long-term strategy for the organisation.

Matt Finch played a tremendously helpful role in the development of Open Education Global’s 2021-2030 strategic plan – Open for Public Good.

Matt provided input and recommendations on what the overall process for developing a strategic plan should entail. He provided guidance on how to design hands-on interactive activities participants could do virtually during a pandemic to provide their input and recommendations. He introduced me to new concepts of value co-creation that ended up being one of our three areas of strategic focus. And he served as a member of a working group charged with synthesizing all the inputs into a draft strategic plan.

Throughout this entire process Matt was caring, helpful, and provocative, making sure we considered unexpected and novel perspectives. The resulting plan has been shared widely and is being received with excitement and support. I’m a Matt Finch fan and plan to do more work with him going forward.

Paul Stacey, Executive Director, Open Education Global

Find out more about Open Education Global at their website.

Islands of Memory: Layers, Growth, and Future Paths

Last month, I spoke with Travis Egedy, who makes electronic dance music as Pictureplane. His most famous track is “Goth Star”, a 2009 cut built from a Fleetwood Mac song, “Seven Wonders”, which he broke down and stripped for parts.

“Goth Star” is all but unique in the Pictureplane repertoire: Egedy doesn’t play any instrument or sing, but chops and layers the 1980s track until it’s all but unrecognisable. (The video depicts a séance whose participants are visited by the ghost of Stevie Nicks, her vocals transformed into yelps and word-fragments that taunt us with the possibility of deciphering them). Every single element of the song comes from Fleetwood Mac’s original.

“Goth Star” has its own origins in Egedy’s Santa Fe high school years, when, as an aspiring hip-hop musician, he’d raid the CD collections of his friends’ parents for anything that might yield a good beat.

Read more

Dancing through the pain

I turned my ankle walking in the park the other day, which is good going for someone who used to hike at every opportunity and now, in lockdown, barely gets more than a block from his house.

It hurt a little, but the more notable thing is that it revived some memories.

Ten years ago, I broke my leg quite badly. It required surgery, and they screwed the bone back together with bits of metal.

It never really gives me problems these days, but any injury to the same leg gets me wondering and even worrying: Have I done something to the screws? Am I going to have to go through all of that again?

I dealt with my park injury as I usually would, but the real problem was the sensation of “having done something to my leg”. Every bit of sensory information coming from that part of my body now goes through the lens of history, memory, and emotion. Does it feel weird? Does it feel different? Is there a problem there? I have to try and separate out my historic feelings from the present experience – not rejecting them, but recognising them for what they are.

Pain is a great source of information, if only you know how to process it.

The great choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that:

“The dancer learns early to take pain for granted and that there is great freedom in choosing how to respond to its appearance. The thing NOT to do is deny pain. It must be acknowledged. Sometimes the right way of moving forward will be to push through pain. Your choices determine who you will be, who the world will see[.]”

Ultima Vez / Wim Vandekeybus + Mauro Pawlowski: “What’s the Prediction?” (ImPulsTanz Vienna 2010)
Read more