“The first, the fast, and the least reluctant to change will succeed”: Interview with Saskia Van Uffelen, Digital Champion for Belgium, Part 2

Saskia Van Uffelen is the Digital Champion for Belgium, tasked with promoting the benefits of digital society as part of the European Commission’s efforts to ensure every European citizen acquires the digital skills they need to remain productive, employable and enfranchised. After a career encompassing roles at Xerox, Compaq, HP, Arinso, Bull, and Ericsson, she is currently Corporate Vice President for the French group GFI, supervising developments in the Benelux countries. Saskia is also the author of Dare For Tomorrow: Leading, Working, Learning, and Living in a Digital World. You can read the first part of our interview here.

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As Digital Champion, you have an interest in the future of the public library, an institution which is also very dear to my heart. The social changes you’re describing will have an impact on our civic information institutions, and the context they operate in.

You’ve said elsewhere that, “If anything has remained the same in your organisation (culture, processes, eco-systems), it will simply not work anymore. You need to adapt your company and your culture. Adapt or die.”

Are libraries too prone to thinking about what used to work, instead of looking strategically to the future and to forces outside their sector?

Read more

“The Futures You Didn’t See Coming” at CIL & IL Connect Conference, 23rd September

On September 23rd, at 09:30 AM Eastern Time, I’ll be joining Erik Boekesteijn at the online CIL & IL Connect 2020 conference for a quick chat about foresight and futures for information professionals, their institutions, and the communities they serve. Erik is running a daily interview strand with a range of information professionals and their allies as part of the event.

You can see more about the session, “The Futures You Didn’t See Coming”, at the CIL & IL webpage, and find out more about the whole conference in the video below:

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

José Esteban Muñoz: Foresight and Cruising Utopia

“Queerness is primarily about futurity and hope. That is to say that queerness is always in the horizon.” – José Esteban Muñoz

1: Future blindspots in gender, identity, and sexuality

I’ve been spending most of my time on foresight and strategy for several years now. It’s challenging, lively work, helping people and organisations to look at the future and seek out their blindspots to support better decisionmaking. Often we construct scenarios, imagined future contexts, to inform that work, creating plausible futures which challenge current assumptions and provide a unique vantage point on the present.

Late last year, I wrote about the whiteness of foresight and the ways in which this kind of work, and its practitioners, might be blinkered by lack of diversity.  But those aren’t the only kind of blinkers we encounter when we turn our gaze towards the future.

Before lockdown, I attended a scenarios workshop constructing big global futures, intended to explore fundamental questions about the ways our societies will be organised in decades to come.

The project generated a number of visions of the world in 2050, with huge changes not only to how we live and work together, but even the ways in which technology might be integrated into our own bodies. Yet despite all this radical transformation, people shied away from reimagining the personal relationships which underpinned this world. In the finished scenarios, featuring a number of personas from each imagined future, there was little sense of the ways in which family life and its related intimacies might have changed or been changed by the forces at work in each version of 2050.

Looking around the room at the workshop participants – largely white, European, degree-educated, mostly presenting as straight – I wondered what questions we had refused to ask ourselves, or address, as a result of our own identities and points of view, the life experiences and perspectives we had brought to the workshop by mere virtue of who we were. Read more

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.