More than a Game: Scenario Planning, Imagination, and the Public Library’s Future

For Public Libraries Quarterly, Bronwen Gamble and Melissa Adams of the Reading Public Library co-wrote an article with me on our scenario planning journey through a leadership transition in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than a Game: Scenario Planning, Imagination, and the Public Library’s Future” explores the use of frugal, online scenario planning methods during the pandemic and the benefits of a scenarios process in times of leadership transition.

It builds on Dale Leorke and Danielle Wyatt’s notion, expressed in their book The Library as Playground, of the library as “a space and institutional order innately imbued with playful qualities” to consider how libraries may be the perfect hosts for scenario processes which “play with expectations, hopes, fears, and desires, in a strategically consequential game of ‘What if?'”

Find out more about “frugal” scenario planning on the Oxford model from Rafael Ramirez and Trudi Lang at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford here.

Everyday resilience: Rural communities as agents of change

I’m very pleased to have played a small part in this work on the future of Irish peatlands: geographers Kate Flood, Marie Mahon, and John McDonagh of the University of Galway have published a new article on “Everyday resilience: Rural communities as agents of change in peatland social-ecological systems“.

Their project included “Bog Scenarios” developed frugally with local communities. These used the past, present, and future of the peatlands to explore change through time including past events at the site; how the bog is currently changing; and hopes for the future.

Read more in the Journal of Rural Studies.

Community map of Abbeyleix Bog reflecting local knowledge and experiences

Preservation for All: Whose Future?

“We need to meet this inflection point with a more expansive imagination of what conservation work could be…The tools of the conservator can remind us of the fundamental human need for creativity, most especially under difficult or dehumanising conditions.”

In this short video for America’s National Gallery of Art, Sanchita Balachandran of The Johns Hopkins University speaks about “preservation for all” and strategising under TUNA conditions of turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity.

PUSH SUMMIT Podcast with Rowan Drury, Malin Leth, Anders Mildner

Altitude Meetings’ PUSH Summit on climate and democracy is currently taking place in the Swedish city of Malmö and online.

I joined sustainability consultant Rowan Drury, Malin Leth from Håll Sverige Rent – the Keep Sweden Tidy organisation, and Altitude’s own Anders Mildner to discuss issues of system change, futures thinking, strategy, and sustainability.

You can listen to the half-hour podcast here and watch my short online presentation to PUSH SUMMIT here.

Ideas on Ghosts: Scenarios and the Spectral Metaphor

Did you just ghost me?

I just read Catie Disabato’s U Up?, a strange little mystery novel set in contemporary L.A.

Eve is a researcher for an app called LA By Foot which offers “definitive walking guides to the secret history, hidden paths, pedestrian staircases, and beautiful architecture of Los Angeles”. A historian at UCLA highlights notable locations in the city, then Eve visits them, photographs them, and writes the copy.

“I could do it all myself,” Eve explains, “research the history of Los Angeles by reading any or all of the many books James Danielson has published, but he has something I don’t have: the social power that comes from having a masculine name that starts with a J.”

So Eve walks the city, through hangovers and simmering California heat, all the while keeping another secret: on her iPhone, she texts her friend Miguel, who died by suicide a year before. And Miguel’s ghost texts back.

The novel follows the events around the first anniversary of Miguel’s death, when Ezra, who was Miguel’s friend and Eve’s, goes suddenly missing. As she tries to discover whether Ezra is merely avoiding her or something more sinister has happened, Eve is forced to confront what is going on within and between their circle of friends.

Disabato’s book addresses different kinds of spectrality with delicacy and deftness. In this world, there’s little difference between a supernatural revenant like Miguel’s ghost and a living friend who Eve is messaging, “trapped inside my useless idiotic lump of an iPhone.”

Read more

The collective hero?

In Uncanny magazine, Ada Palmer and Jo Walton write about “the protagonist problem“. In stories, who has “the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything?” Who possesses that quality which makes them the one to lead the action, to advance the plot?

“Think of the formula for an action team,” they write. “There might be five characters: the smart one, the strong one, the kid, the love-interest, and…the protagonist, whose distinguishing feature may be described as courage, or a pure heart, or determination, but really comes down to writing, that they’re the one who always lands the final blow.”

(One of the ways we know that Mad Max: Fury Road is the story of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is that she is the one to kill the principal villain. Max, imprisoned as the start of the film as a “blood bag” for his valuable universal donor’s Type O blood, serves the same purpose at the film’s end, when his transfusion prevents Furiosa’s hard-won victory from costing her life).

Palmer and Walton argue that it’s “harmful when people see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people see themselves as protagonists.”

If we feel that we are not protagonists in a world which has them, we may experience

imposter syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunting, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter.

This feeling also causes us, Palmer and Walton argue, to believe that mundane activities such as grassroots organising and even voting lack the power to truly change things, as they do not seem “heroic”. To believe real life has protagonists is to succumb to talk of heroes and villains, the conspiracy theorist’s belief that some secret plan underpins the state of the world, and the notion that acting like a character in a book, film, or videogame is the right way to address the world’s problems.

For those who not only accept that there are real-life protagonists, but believe themselves to be cast in that role, the consequences can be even more troubling: “recklessness, power trips, and […] the expectation that breaking rules is okay so long as it’s you.” Palmer and Walton give the example of people who were not COVID deniers yet felt that their gathering wouldn’t be the one to cause a problem; the rules didn’t apply to them.

Read more

New Librarianship Symposium: Scenarios for the COVID-affected world?

On November 18th, I’ll be joining the fourth of the New Librarianship Symposia convened by leading information professionals to explore key issues and new agendas for the COVID-affected world.

The symposia mark ten years since the publication of R. David Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, and offer an opportunity to reinvigorate institutions’ approach to the ever-changing information environment.

In the panel on “Re-imagining the future”, I’ll be presenting a paper on “Mapping the future: scenario planning for the post-pandemic library” (PDF download), drawing on a case study of public library planning in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and America’s widening political rifts.

The paper explores both the use of scenarios, and the benefits of attending to value co-creation, in devising library strategy.

My contribution will be in dialogue with thought provoking papers from Seattle Pacific University’s Michael Paulus and a team at the OCLC library cooperative. We’ll consider what might await for information institutions and the communities they serve; how best to move forward in times characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, and ambiguity; and what it means to practice strategy at different levels, from the global to the deeply local.

Do join us for the fourth of the New Librarianship Symposia on November 18th, 2021.

“Laboratorios Ciudadanos Distribuidos” 2021 – Online Course for Community Innovators

The Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sport’s “Laboratorios Ciudadanos” (Citizen Labs) course returns this year, offering a series of online modules for Spanish speakers who would like to develop community-led innovation projects in their local area.

I’ll be joining the team to lead the module on strategic foresight, having previously contributed to last year’s session on questions of public value and impact measurement.

Si hablas castellano y te interesan las cuestiones de innovación liderada por la ciudadania, inscríbete antes del 29 de abril de 2021 para un viaje de aprendizaje y aventura. Sign up before 29th April 2021 to join us on a journey of learning & new adventures in citizen-led innovation.

Planning for 2021: Value-Creating Systems

Every year, around this time, I share a simple tool which might help people think ahead when making personal plans. In 2019 and 2018 I offered variants of the “Arrows of Time” diagram. The arrows provide a way to reflect on the things which may await us in the coming year, and those from the past which will still be with us on our journey into the future.

This year, I want to share a different tool. You still don’t need anything more than a pen and paper to use it.

This year, I want to think about relationships and values.

2020 has been a strange and difficult year for many of us, with more of our life than ever before spent online: in Zoom meetings and conference calls, online quizzes and get-togethers in new, sometimes awkward, digital settings. All of the emotions, frustrations, and opportunities of these spaces have been magnified by the pressures of COVID-19.

We increasingly expect, and are expected, to deal with constant streams of information from many sources. There’s more stimulation, but we might also be more distractible, less focussed, less aware of our environment, less able to process everything cognitively and emotionally. We might not be tending our relationships as well as we might.

So why not take a moment, map your relationships, and see what difference they’re currently making? It might guide you in the decisions you make as 2021 arrives.

As always, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, trying to bring together the work of a few different thinkers and writers in a simple tool. I’ll tell you more about the sources I’m drawing on at the end of this piece.

But before then, if you’re willing to join me, it’s time to get started.

We’re going to draw a map. Let’s begin by putting you at the centre.

Read more

Unscripted Futures: 2020 OsloMet Urban Research Conference

I’ll be co-presenting two projects at next week’s “Storbykonferansen” Urban Research Conference, hosted by Oslo Metropolitan University.

The conference’s “Unscripted Futures” session seeks to:

“explore how radically open futures can be constructed and how we can secure that future scenarios are not locked into the premises of today. The aim is not to simply celebrate the openness of the future, but to create a space for developing experiments, for proposing alternative possibilities and constructing new futures, and then studying and discussing their implications and consequences ‘on the ground’.”

Marie Mahon of NUI Galway and I will discuss “Unscripting Europe”: Using Future Scenarios to Rethink EU Territorial Inequalities, exploring the scenarios being developed by the Horizon 2020 IMAJINE project.

Inequality isn’t just a question of measuring the current distance between the haves and have-nots, then checking whether that distance increases or decreases. It’s also about changing forms of privilege and injustice, changing values, and a changing social context. How can plausible imagined futures help us to better understand the nature of inequality?

Then, David Robertson of Monash University and I will talk about Playing With The Futures You Didn’t See Coming: High-Agency Participatory Scenario Activities, On and Offline.

David & I will be looking at what it means to create truly playful activities and encounters where participants can surprise the facilitators, formats can be broken or rebuilt during use, and new ideas can arise. We’ll talk about the infamous Library Island game, as well as some of its successor experiments from the era of Zoom and COVID lockdown.

You can read all the abstracts from the session at the Storbykonferansen website (PDF download), and I hope you’ll join us online for what promises to be a lively set of discussions. Find out more, and register for the conference, here.