Nesta interview: Using scenarios to reimagine our strategic decisions

Earlier this year, I took part in the ‘Scenarios and the Future of Work’ project, hosted by the Danish Design Centre in conjunction with the innovation foundation Nesta.

Rain on the Mountain

Nesta’s Juan Casasbuenas interviewed me about the experience, and the benefits of scenario planning, for their blog.

“Scenarios should stretch your thinking and challenge you to reimagine where you’re headed strategically, but they’re always grounded in the here and now: looking at the weather on the mountain to understand what might happen in the valley below.”

We also talked about technology, fear, and the surprising history of photographic manipulation which lies behind deepfakes.

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You can read “Using scenarios to reimagine our strategic decisions” here.

“You are swimming with the whole ocean”: Interview with Aída Ponce Del Castillo, European Trade Union Institute

Last month, Aída Ponce Del Castillo of the European Trade Union Insitute’s Foresight Unit joined me to talk about her journey from world-class swimmer to foresight professional, doing strategy and scenarios research for the labour movement.

We discussed different foresight methodologies, the particular challenges and opportunities in working on futures with trade unions, and, inevitably, COVID-19, but our conversation began with Aída’s sporting career, and the lessons it taught her about coping with turbulence and uncertainty.

Matt:
What was your journey to becoming a foresight practitioner? You were a lawyer, and a competitive open-water swimmer – how did that lead you to work on foresight, and how did it prepare you for the role?

Aída:
In many ways I saw myself as a swimmer first and everything else second! I studied and practiced law, completed a doctorate. As an open water swimmer I competed at international level, also racing in Open Water World Cups. Read more

Looking ahead: Circulating Ideas / Public Libraries News

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Steve Thomas of the American library podcast Circulating Ideas and Ian Anstice of the UK’s Public Libraries News. Both conversations were released online this week.

Ian asked me some questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries’ response to it, and what might be on the horizon for our societies and the institutions that serve them.

Like any good foresight practitioner, I sought to offer questions of my own, and provocations more than prophecy. We discussed resilience, anticipation, and both the dangers and opportunities that organisations face during a prolonged, indefinite season of turbulence and uncertainty. I think the points will be useful for people outside of the library and information sector. You can read our conversation at the Public Libraries News site.

Meanwhile, over at Circulating Ideas, Steve and I talked about what it would mean to bring scenario planning and other foresight methodologies into a public library setting, building on my recent presentation to America’s Engaging Local Government Leaders network and a previous academic article co-authored with Rafael Ramírez.

You can listen to my chat with Steve, and many other excellent episodes of Circulating Ideas, at the podcast’s website, and the episode is also available over at Apple Podcasts.

Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming

Over the last few weeks, on and offline, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about “preparing for the future you didn’t see coming”.

The foresight approaches which I favour tend to avoid predicting the future. Instead, I work with clients to highlight the futures you didn’t anticipate, either because you had a strategic blindspot or because you chose to ignore them.

Man with protective mask
Man with protective mask by Wikipedia user Tadeáš Bednarz – CC BY-SA 4.0

Was the pandemic one of the futures we couldn’t see coming, or one which we chose not to? And since its arrival, have our responses been based on what is really unfolding, or on mental models which we had previously constructed? Read more

Real Time – Webinar with R. David Lankes

Today I spoke with leading US information professional R. David Lankes about foresight, strategy, and coping with uncertainty beyond immediate short-term crisis response.

David created one of the first 100 web sites ever, plus the first web presence for CNN, the Discovery Channel, and the U.S. Department of Education. We spoke about what he foresaw at the beginning of the Internet age, the surprises which emerged along the way, and how we might learn from the past when the future is uncertain and unlikely to repeat what went before.

You can watch the YouTube video below, or read more at the Librarians.Support website.

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.

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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.

 

Future health: Oslo and the ‘a-ha’ moment

Our University of Oslo scenarios for the future of schools, out this week, surfaced health, and perceptions of health, as a battleground between parents and institutions in the education sector of 2050.

This was an “a-ha” moment for university researchers seeking new issues to explore around the digitalisation of education.

In scenario planning, we don’t aim to predict the future, but rather to generate plausible visions which can usefully inform present-day decision-making.

The future stories we create together are intended to highlight issues and drivers which exist in the present; the future scenario can then be set aside in order to focus on the issue at hand.

For the Oslo education researchers, a world in which parents and institutions warred over children’s health in a heavily-surveilled society – bickering with ‘the algorithm’ even over when to wipe your child’s nose – highlighted the extent to which their research should explore questions of health and wellbeing.

Today, in the Norwegian news, we see a parent-led Facebook group urging the city to close schools while the municipal authorities maintain that there is no reason yet to do so.

The campaigners argue that if businesses are sending staff home, then young children – who are less able to follow guidelines on infection control, like coughing into your elbow – should certainly go back to their families too.

Questions of distance learning, and education via screens and digital devices, may be sharpened by the current pandemic – even for the youngest children.

How will coronavirus affect the way we teach and learn, in the short and long term? Could it impact even the youngest children, irrespective of whether they contract the disease?

Good foresight work can help communities, institutions, and individuals navigate such turbulent and uncertain situations. You can read more about the Oslo education scenarios project here.

Scenarios for the Australian Energy Sector: Futures of Heat, Light, and Power

The scenarios I created for Energy Consumers Australia’s 2020 Foresighting Forum, Futures of Heat, Light, and Power – are now publicly available.

In four visions of Australia in 2050, we presented future contexts that challenge current assumptions about how the energy sector works and where it’s headed, with a focus on the experience of the Australian consumer.

In each scenario, we join Josie and her daughter Hannah at their breakfast table, to explore how they live their lives – and how Josie’s role as an energy worker changes – from one future to the next.

You can download the full scenario report (PDF) via the Energy Consumers Australia site, or watch a series of videos based on the scenarios as a YouTube playlist.

Imperial College London’s Dr. Jeff Hardy led a panel discussion unpacking the implications of the scenarios at the Forum, which you can also see on YouTube.

At a critical moment in Australia’s energy future, these scenarios help us to think differently about the world which might await us thirty years from now, and explore both the challenges and opportunities which may exist.

See more from the Energy Consumers Australia 2020 Foresighting Forum at their site.