A new role

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been made an Associate Fellow of the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

In addition to continuing my work as a facilitator with the award-winnning Oxford Scenarios Programme, I’m teaching scenario planning on the Saïd’s MBA and Executive MBA programmes.

'Dreaming Spires', by Flickr User JJBullock - Copyright JJ Bullock 2010
‘Dreaming Spires’, by Flickr User JJBullock – Copyright JJ Bullock 2010

It’s great to be working alongside such a brilliant, collegial team and I’m looking forward to the next step in the adventure.

Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 2: “Theft, but wet” and other people’s toys

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets, is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe.

In the first part of our conversation, Nate and I talked about world-building, map-making, gateways to fantasy, and the political choices woven through genre fiction. In today’s instalment, we talk about piracy, capitalism, empire, and what it’s like to “play with other people’s toys” in franchises such as Warhammer 40k.

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The Only Winning Move: Interview with Peter Scoblic, Part 3

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.

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 – you can read the first part here and the second here – but you can also read the interview in its entirety as a PDF download.

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Sometimes, Peter, I wonder if scenarios are about the future at all. Josh Polchar at the OECD compares them to instructional fables; Pierre Wack said you spend only a little time talking about the future once you’ve built the scenarios, and you then focus on the implications of the present. 

Scenarios use the future as a convenient fictional setting in which to craft stories that will shine light on our strategic blindspots, but in some ways they might as well be set in parallel worlds.

Scenarios are essentially the crafting of fake analogies, what Herman Kahn called “ersatz experience”, so that when we encounter the novel or unexpected, we have something to compare it to, instead of flailing about in the moment.

Fiction needn’t be set in the future to convey experiences and situations that we haven’t had – or cannot have. Some fiction challenges us to consider: how would we respond in the situation faced by these characters? What if I found myself in this story?

Scenarios aren’t simply their own bubble universe, belonging only to specialist practitioners. We’re all engaged in scenario-making at various points in our lives. 

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The Only Winning Move: Interview with Peter Scoblic, Part 2

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, and you can read the first part here – but you can also read the interview in its entirety as a PDF download.

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Your doctoral research has led to a number of outputs, including a great research paper on strategic foresight as a dynamic capability in uncertain situations, and case study work on the US Coast Guard’s scenarios programme which can be explored in both an article and podcast for the Harvard Business Review.

Is there anything you uncovered in your doctoral research which hasn’t come up in coverage of your work?

Scenario planning can be used to challenge assumptions and the mental models people have of the world, but it also has its own models and assumptions baked into it: how time works, how the future relates to the present and past. 

One of the things I found interesting was that, among the Coast Guard for example, scenario participants found that the process didn’t just change their mental model of how the organization went about its mission and operations; it also changed the way they thought about time. 

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Interview with Peter Morville: Planning for Everything in Times of COVID-19

Peter Morville is one of the pioneers of information architecture and user experience, working with clients including AT&T, Cisco, Harvard, IBM, the Library of Congress, Macy’s, the National Cancer Institute, and Vodafone. His books include Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Intertwingled, Search Patterns, Ambient Findability and, most recently, Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals.

With a background like that – and more than a quarter of a century’s experience in helping people and organizations to plan – I was keen to talk with Peter about what he was learning from the turbulence of the COVID era. We spoke early in October 2020.

Peter Morville

A man writes a book called Planning for EverythingHow has this year affected your paths and goals?

2020 is a special year, in all sorts of terrifying ways, but I think that the trends towards unpredictability have been growing for us in recent years. It’s not just 2020, right?

In my book, Planning for Everything, one of the biggest encouragements is for people to be mindful of the balance that we strike between planning and improvisation. Even though it’s a book about planning, part of my message is that we should have humility when we think about the future, and our ability to predict or control it.

I remember several years back talking with a friend who was spending some time in Rwanda. She said that, when she was there, it was a country where it was harder to plan that it was in the United States. There were more unexpected things that happened, you couldn’t count on stability, even down to the level of deciding that next Wednesday was going to be a good day for your coffee date, because something might come up.

Stability has been unevenly distributed around the world, probably forever. In countries such as the UK and the United States, many of us have been fortunate to enjoy significant amounts of stability and predictability, where we can say, “I’m going to plan a vacation in three months, or a wedding in nine months.” Many of us have a lifetime of experiencing that the things we plan, happen! 

The last few years have really eroded our sense of confidence in our ability to plan for the future. I would say in the United States right now, I’ve never experienced a period where there’s so much uncertainty, whether that’s from COVID-19, climate change and wildfires, the upcoming presidential election, civil unrest…Planning a vacation three months from now seems a bit crazy!

Sometimes instability creates opportunity as well as jeopardy. Obviously one wouldn’t wish this pandemic on the world, but can you see opportunities arising from the current moment?

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The Enemy They’re Searching For: Interview with John R. Parsons

Australian anthropologist John R. Parsons researches what he calls “the interplay between morality, narrative, violence, and human-nature relationships”. From 2017-2018 he spent eleven months conducting fieldwork with border militias in the Southern United States. “How,” he asks, “in an area where thousands have perished, did the volunteers enjoy what one described as ‘hunting humans?’”

I interviewed John about his research and the time he spent with border militias in the US, work covered by his article “Experience, Narrative, and the Moral Imperative to Act” for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. Trigger warning for mentions of violence and sexual violence in this discussion.

I began by asking John what drew him to anthropology.

I used to be involved in historical re-enactments for a long time, working with groups that were focussed on Scandinavian and English societies from around the 950s. I was curious about how people lived, how they experienced the world. Re-enactment involves learning about a culture through performing an idea of what that culture would be. You learn about the materials people used in the past, then try to figure out how they would have used them in real life.

Anthropology provided a space where it wasn’t a hobby, but a discipline with theory behind it and conversations around it; a more formalised version of the things I was already interested in.

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Strategy & Foresight for Information Professionals – ‘Nexter’ Chat with Rebecca Jones

Canada’s Rebecca Jones and Jane Dysart invited me to talk about strategy in times of uncertainty, and what 2020 might mean for information and heritage professionals, as part of their “Nexter” webinar series.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/96/Flag-of-canada-flying.jpg/662px-Flag-of-canada-flying.jpg
Canadian flag from Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

We got together online with an audience from across the timezones for a lively discussion.

 

Visit the Dysart & Jones website for more from the “Nexter” series.

You’ll Need To Get Away

We’ve been holed up in the apartment for a few weeks now, and work has been quite busy. (Institutions become keen on planning for uncertainty when they suddenly realise they’re smack in the middle of an uncertainty they hadn’t anticipated or prepared for).

Every week or so I’ve posted something on this site to help guide people in their pandemic decision-making: short pieces on thinking rigorously about the future and being kind to your future selves, scenario planning webinars, conversations with people trying to find a way through the current crisis.

That’s great and good, but work isn’t all we’re on this Earth for. I’m grateful that friends and relatives remain in good health, and that our household seems able to cope with lockdown conditions without people driving one another up the wall – and mindful that for many, things will already be much harder.

Still, however comfortable your quarantine, you’ll need to get away somehow. Options for escape and retreat can become quite limited under current circumstances. Normally I’d be out hiking the cliffs and forests if I needed to get away from a stressful situation, but with that option denied, instead I’m reading even more than usual.

And if you need an escape, if you’re stuck within your own four walls and spending hours of your day at the desk of an improvised home office: here’s the getaway you were looking for.

Rogue Male | AM Heath Literary Agents

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IMAJINE pilot workshops: the future of spatial justice

Our IMAJINE team working on scenario planning for the future of regional inequality and territorial cohesion in the European Union has held its first pilot workshops on the West Coast of Ireland.

Researchers and regional officials joined NUI Galway’s Marie Mahon and myself at the Teagasc Rural Economy Research Centre in Athenry. There, we trialled fast, practical foresight tools allowing participants to sketch roadmaps of the futures which may await them.

The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, which we’re using to structure these sessions, allows us to identify and develop plausible scenarios which serve to test assumptions and reframe the way participants look at the future. By imagining the most difficult or surprising circumstances a community might face, we seek to develop a playbook of strategies for emergent issues in territorial inequality and spatial justice.

The IMAJINE project continues through 2021 and incorporates Europe-wide foresight alongside deeply local engagement with policymakers and other stakeholders. Stay tuned for more updates.

Can you dig through spaghetti to save a ribbon? @UTSLibrary

A library needs your help — and by helping them, you’ll be helping the world.

A few years ago, the librarians at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia awarded a creative residency to Chris Gaul, a designer and artist who used sound and visuals to find new ways to bring the collection to life.

One of Chris’ most impressive works from this period was the Library Spectogram, which visualised the library’s collection, organised by the Dewey Decimal system, as a colour spectrum.

 

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Chris’ artwork visualised the collection by representing the number of books under each Dewey subject heading as a colour, with different shades of each colour representing the subdivisions within each class.

What made this truly brilliant was what UTS Library did next: turning Chris’ artwork into a practical tool, an interactive web interface to explore the library collection.

On the UTS library catalogue, the library spectogram exists as a band of colour – “the ribbon” – which you can click to expand the colours of each subject into the subdivisions which they’re shaded by.

 

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The spectrum makes understanding and browsing the Library’s collections more intuitive and engaging. It’s a simple tool which could be used by almost any library with an online catalogue, large or small, in any sector.

In a world where everyone is trying to wow you with the latest digital innovation, it’s a simple, humble, effective tool which offers a transformative experience in collection exploration: the online version of serendipitous browsing among the shelves.

So what’s the problem?

UTS Library is going through massive changes right now: moving to a new building on their Ultimo campus and starting to rethink their discovery services, which could mean moving to a new online home too. The long-awaited project to share the ribbon’s code openly has been deferred by several years.

Plans to release it in early 2018 were delayed until the start of this year, and as 2019 comes to a close, more than seven years after Chris’ original residency, the ribbon is still not out in the world. With the planned overhaul of discovery services, it’s even possible that the UTS ribbon might be lost entirely.

What’s needed now is to find a way for the code which creates the ribbon to be liberated from the UTS online catalogue and shared openly. That’s where you, or someone you know, comes in.

UTS’ Dr Belinda Tiffen has kindly given permission for interested parties to work with the Library to make this happen. This could involve a group of interested students taking it on as a project; it could become the focus of a hackathon; or it could be volunteer work by public-spirited souls who want to give something back to libraries worldwide.

The code uses the functionality of the UTS search engine Endeca to group search results, so there could be a bit of a technical challenge digging through “spaghetti code” to make this happen – but once the ribbon’s code is exposed and shared with the world, any library with an online catalogue could consider making use of Chris Gaul’s gift to UTS.

In an age when university libraries are striving to be open, it would be an act of generosity, sharing digital discovery tools just as freely as libraries wish to share their content.

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At a time when we recognise the need to preserve digital as well as physical heritage, it would ensure that the Library Spectogram doesn’t just become “a nice thing one library had once”, yet another great innovation which is celebrated on social media and shown off at conferences, but ends up on the scrapheap when steps aren’t taken to nurture and sustain it.

If you think you could help UTS Library to share the Library Spectogram code with the world, contact UTS Library’s Resources & Discovery chief, Sharlene Scobie to offer your services and learn more.