“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.

Read more

“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.

Image
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.”

29569296885_fdc992d3df_c
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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?
 

Thinking Seriously About How Things Change

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.

IMG_9659

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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
of something
for someone
for a purpose
with a pre-specified usable interface
and used.

This means:

  • 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.

You could read some of the serious scenario planning literature or read an interview with an accomplished scenario practitioner.

Or you could get in touch for a chat.