Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

Marie Mahon of NUI Galway and I are in Vector with a new piece taking a literary approach to strategy, scenarios, and foresight.

In “Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative“, we investigate how constructing plausible future scenarios can help people to test their assumptions, suspend preconceptions, and engage with issues and information that they had previously framed out of consideration.

In doing this, we argue, scenarios are akin to Gothic literature, offering what Leila Taylor calls “a means of working through the discomfort of a changing world through the safety of fiction”.

Treating scenarios in this way “restores both our humility with regard to external forces that may seem almost unbearable to face, & the troubling sense that our own desires may not be pure or uncomplicated…”

See more at the Vector website.

Library Journal: COVID-era scenarios for Reading, Pennsylvania

“It was clear we should not wait out COVID-19. We needed a vision for where our services were headed, even if we couldn’t fully see what lay in store.”

In Library Journal, Bronwen Gamble of the Reading Public Library in Pennyslvania writes with me about our experience developing COVID-era scenarios to inform strategy for one of the United States’ oldest public libraries.

You can read our piece “Change the Scene” at the Library Journal website.

IMAJINE Workshop: Territorial Inequalities, Cohesion Policy, and Spatial Justice

On 23rd March in Brussels, the IMAJINE project hosts a hybrid event bringing together researchers & policy experts to discuss territorial inequalities within Europe.

IMAJINE explores key questions of territorial inequality, cohesion, and spatial justice: do Europeans have equal rights and opportunities regardless of where they live? Is your ability to realise your rights compromised by where you live?

You can’t simply “run the numbers” when it comes to the future of justice, because it is defined narratively and socially. Questions of what is fair and just are framed, debated, discussed, and negotiated over time.

As well as gathering and analysing fresh data about European inequalities today, IMAJINE explores the theories and concepts by which those inequalities are understood. It also investigates the mechanisms which institutions and communities use to intervene in inequalities. The IMAJINE team have developed future scenarios to help people explore how these issues might play out and be understood in times to come.

You can see IMAJINE’s four scenarios for the future of European regional inequality in 2048 here (PDF download).

On 23rd March, as part of the one-day IMAJINE event, a panel will discuss the IMAJINE scenarios and what they might help us to learn – or unlearn – about regional inequalities in the present. Find out more, and sign up for the event, here.

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

Islands in the Sky at RLUK22

Last year, I worked with a team at the UK’s Open University to develop Islands in the Sky, a planning tool to help the university’s Learner & Discovery Services team navigate the challenges of the pandemic and design their future hybrid working environment.

At this year’s RLUK22 conference, “Mapping the New Open for Research Libraries”, the Open University’s Anne Gambles and the Bodleian Libraries’ Ruth Mallalieu will run an “Islands in the Sky” session to support participants in navigating these turbulent times.

Find out more at the RLUK22 website, and there’s more on Islands in the Sky from my original presentation of it with Monika Flakowska at the IA21 Information Architecture conference, here.

“Que sera, sera?” — anticipating change in a time of uncertainty

For the “One Thing” library thought leadership series convened by my colleague Brendan Fitzgerald, I wrote a piece on how libraries & information institutions can use scenario planning to address conditions that are turbulent, ambiguous, novel, or unpredictably uncertain.

Albert Bierstadt, A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie

“Libraries are an institution with a long and storied global history, but their context is transforming too. Our societies’ relationships to fundamental notions of information and trust are subject to change. The social, economic, and political orders within which libraries have survived or thrived are not set in stone.

Library leaders seeking to make sound judgments need to be able to anticipate futures beyond those currently expected or predicted. By stretching our sense of what awaits, we can gain insights from the future before it arrives – rather than having to “learn the hard way” from the brutal audit of real crises and changes.”

Read more from my piece here.

Sustainability, Scenarios, and Spatial Justice: IMAJINE at Resilience.org

Over at Resilience.org, the blog of the Post-Carbon Institute, Marie Mahon of the National University of Ireland Galway, David Robertson of Monash Sustainable Development Institute, and I discuss the sustainability implications of the IMAJINE scenarios for the future of European regional inequality.

I especially valued David’s comments on the Metaverse-like SILICON SCAFFOLD scenario, where “Near-infinite virtual geographies undermine the notion of ‘limits’ or ‘planetary boundaries’[…and t]he resources we use as we navigate digital worlds are hidden from us.” Will notions of sustainability be fundamentally recast and reframed by the generations which succeed us? How will future circumstances cause those frames and the values which define them to change?

The mission of Resilience is to “envision a world of resilient communities and re-localized economies that thrive within ecological bounds.”

Read more about IMAJINE’s contribution to that discussion here.

New strategic plan for Reading Public Library, Pennsylvania

The new strategic plan for Reading Public Library, Pennsylvania has just been published.

I supported the Reading team through the early months of this year to devise a set of scenarios for the library’s future operating context, and use these scenarios to inform a new strategy. You can read about the process in my paper for the New Librarianship Symposium, “Mapping the Future: Scenario Planning for the Post-Pandemic Library“.

Reading is a fascinating library service which has a proud tradition of negotiating complex strategic circumstances; there’s a reason why the 1971 chronicle of its existence is called The Library That Would Not Die: The Turbulent History of the Reading Public Library. The challenges of COVID-19 and Pennsylvania’s hotly contested politics were only the latest to be faced in its 250-year history. It was my privilege to support the current team in planning for the next four years.

Reading Public Library’s Executive Director, Bronwen Gamble, writes:

“Creating a new strategic plan for RPL was overdue. Our 2013-2018 plan was modified for two years but the process for creating a new one met several obstacles. Enter the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual meetings. I attended the Pennsylvania Bureau of Library Development’s series of workshops facilitated by Matt Finch and was introduced to his Scenario & Foresight Planning process. Our Board of Trustees and library staff feel very fortunate we were able to engage Matt to lead us through our own library’s scenario and foresight planning with Matt in London and the library team in Reading, PA.

Using a mural app, and Zoom sessions, Matt facilitated our conversations around the collaborations, services, and transactions, which shape our work at every level. Matt acted as a guide, making suggestions and providing alternatives rather than telling us what to do or how to proceed. Our team members were enthusiastic and active participants. Imagination was encouraged and everyone had buy-in. Matt’s scenario & foresight planning process is much different than the usual SWOT analysis, and number crunching. We had fun and lively sessions!

Looking back, I believe it is a good thing our old strategic plan was allowed to languish.  The changes brought about by the pandemic would have made a strategic plan created in 2019 obsolete in 2020.  Our team has ownership of the Reading Public Library’s Scenario & Foresight Planning to Strategic Plan 2021-2025. We looked into the future, found three plausible outcomes, and crafted a plan that works for today and is flexible to accommodate whatever happens in the next five years. Thank you, Matt, for giving us the tools to move forward with confidence!”

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.