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)
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Endlessly repeating days

It was Groundhog Day this week. Inevitably that became an excuse for media outlets to return to the 1993 movie, in which Bill Murray’s misanthropic weatherman becomes trapped in an endlessly looped February 2nd. It’s hard not to draw parallels to the rhythms and routines of COVID lockdown.

The New York Times had a feature on the top five time loop movies, saying that they might feel “a little too close to home this year.” Tor.com also reheated a Groundhog Day piece from three years ago, and at the tail end pointed towards two more recent examples, Palm Springs and Russian Doll.

The Times suggested this was a genre “you may not want to relive” under current circumstances, but there’s something to be learned about repetition and release from these oddball shows and pictures.

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“We’re Not Going To Go Back to Normal!” Insights from the #GovAfterShock Podcast

Alex Roberts, Deputy Director of the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation, has written an article about the interview series I worked on for the Observatory’s Government After Shock event in November 2020.

Over 33 episodes, we spoke with a range of professionals working within or alongside public sector institutions around the world, to get their perspective on the crises of 2020 and the futures which might await.

You can hear the complete Government After Shock podcast on Soundcloud, Spotify, or Google Podcasts – and read more of Alex’s overview at the Observatory for Public Sector Innovation’s website.

You can also hear Alex and I discussing the project on the eve of Government After Shock in the podcast’s final instalment below.

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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“Just Waiting for the Locusts, Really”: OECD Government After Shock Interviews with Innovation Norway & National Library of Australia

“Smoke, fire, hail, and pestilence…we’re just waiting for the locusts, really” – the wry and insightful Marie-Louise Ayres, who heads the National Library of Australia in Canberra, talked to me about guiding her unique federal institution through the many challenges faced by the Australian capital in 2020.

You can hear what Marie-Louise had to say on the OECD’s Government After Shock podcast.

I also spoke with Håkon Haugli, CEO of Innovation Norway, a state body which promotes sustainable growth and exports for Norwegian businesses through capital and expertise. Håkon talks about moving to a digital workplace, the struggle to preserve multilateralism, and embracing the messy nature of innovation. His episode of the podcast can be found here.

Post-Pandemic University, 21st October: Scenario Planning for Digitalised Education

How can we explore or shape the future of higher education when the times are so turbulent and uncertain?

The forthcoming “Digital Technology and the Post-Pandemic University” conference explores the new realities faced by higher education, and the part digital technology will play in those realities. I’ll be presenting a short paper on the use of scenario planning to explore future contexts for digitalised education.

You can read my paper – “Scenario Planning for Digitalised Education: Managing Uncertainties Through the Pandemic and Beyond” – at the Post-Pandemic University website. If you’d like to join us on Wednesday 21st October, 9am-6pm BST, you can register for the online conference here.

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Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

OECD Government After Shock Podcast with Robert Hoge, Queensland Health

As part of the OECD’s Government After Shock project, I’m working with a team from their Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, interviewing public sector leaders & practitioners for a podcast series exploring their perspective on the crises of 2020, and implications for the future of government worldwide.

First up, Robert Hoge of Queensland Health talks about strategic health communications in a time of pandemic, coping with misinformation & disinformation, and lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience in Australia’s Sunshine State.

Fight, Flight, and Futures Thinking: Getting Control of Organizational Panic

“The body’s reaction under critical incident stress has almost nothing to do with how you think rationally. Instead it has almost everything to do with ingrained responses, be they trained ones or instinctive ones. The amygdala will choose. It has the chemical authority to override your conscious thoughts and decisions. It also has the chemical authority to enforce its decision despite your conscious will.”

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Scuba divers by Flickr user Tim Snell CC BY-ND 2.0

In an article on “accounting for adrenalin” in situations of self-defence, US Air Marshal M. Guthrie describes the challenges of making swift and effective decisions under extreme stress. Often in such situations, our own instincts seem to act against us.

Guthrie gives the example of scuba divers who drown despite having full oxygen tanks; in a moment of crisis, the amygdala reacted by driving them to clear their airways, spitting out their breathing tube despite the diver being consciously aware that they were underwater.

“Deeply ingrained reactions are far more likely than conscious decisions,” Guthrie writes. “And don’t even get me started on how much training you have to do to override and replace your body’s instinctive responses with new ones. Regardless, you won’t be selecting an option from a menu of choices calmly and rationally like you do in the training hall. Your body is going to pick its own response in a maelstrom[.]”

Organizations aren’t precisely like organisms, and the way we think when we work collectively isn’t quite like the dramatic individual encounters which trigger our adrenal glands. Often an organizational crisis is measured in hours, days, or weeks, rather than seconds and minutes. It will involve discussion, policy, and procedure, with a pace and structure quite different from the amygdala prompting an unreasoned – and possibly counterproductive – survival response.

Still, organizations can go into a panic just as much as individuals can, and when they do so, they may start making harmful or counterproductive decisions. Significant among the situations which trigger such panic are “feral futures“. In these situations, we think we have tamed the environment we are operating in, but misunderstand what is going on, and our action based on false premises or data in fact makes things gravely worse. Read more

“Nexter” Webinar with Canadian information professionals, August 13th

I’ll be talking with Canada’s Rebecca Jones as part of the “Nexter” webinar series next month.

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We’ll be discussing questions of leadership for information professionals in these times of strategic uncertainty. How do we rethink community access to information, knowledge, and culture through the COVID era and beyond?