Dots that I haven’t joined yet

I’m momentarily at rest in my beloved Brisbane, with the sun blazing down in December and bushfires on the news and Leila Taylor’s book Darkly to read.

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Taylor’s book, subtitled Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, blends memoir and criticism to explore the places where African-American history, culture, and experience meet the Gothic – from The Castle of Otranto through Edgar Allan Poe to Marilyn Manson.

I’m back in Australia helping organisations to look at their future and imagine what might await them in years to come, using scenario planning. This is a method by which, instead of trying to predict what’s coming, we co-create plausible visions of the future which challenge our current assumptions. Successful scenarios are not judged by whether they come to pass, but whether they trouble, complicate, and enrich our thinking.

And the dots which I can’t quite join yet became visible when I read this, in Darkly: “Gothic narratives were (and still are) a means of working through the discomfort of a changing world through the safety of fiction.”

Which is so close to what scenarios do as to blur the edges of the two concepts. In scenario planning we talk about avoiding the “brutal audit” of a crisis by rehearsing for the things you can’t, or don’t want to, see coming through your current framing of the world.

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IMAJINE pilot workshops: the future of spatial justice

Our IMAJINE team working on scenario planning for the future of regional inequality and territorial cohesion in the European Union has held its first pilot workshops on the West Coast of Ireland.

Researchers and regional officials joined NUI Galway’s Marie Mahon and myself at the Teagasc Rural Economy Research Centre in Athenry. There, we trialled fast, practical foresight tools allowing participants to sketch roadmaps of the futures which may await them.

The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, which we’re using to structure these sessions, allows us to identify and develop plausible scenarios which serve to test assumptions and reframe the way participants look at the future. By imagining the most difficult or surprising circumstances a community might face, we seek to develop a playbook of strategies for emergent issues in territorial inequality and spatial justice.

The IMAJINE project continues through 2021 and incorporates Europe-wide foresight alongside deeply local engagement with policymakers and other stakeholders. Stay tuned for more updates.

The Digitalisation of Education: Foresight Work at the University of Oslo

On 28 October, the University of Oslo Media & Communications Department brought together researchers, educators, publishers, and representatives of the tech sector & not-for-profits to begin the work of building scenarios that test assumptions about the future of education in Norway.

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I facilitated an iterative process generating three visions of Norwegian society in years to come, exploring social, technological, cultural and economic change – always seeking to capture factors and possibilities which lay beyond the current framing of Norway’s educational future.

This workshop was only the beginning of an ambitious future-facing research programme at the Media & Communications Department, but I hope to be able to share materials with you in due course.

IMAJINE: The Future of Spatial Justice

I’m pleased to announce I’ll be joining the EU-funded IMAJINE project on spatial injustice and territorial inequality.

Part of Horizon 2020, the biggest EU research and innovation programme ever, I’ll be working with a team of international researchers to design and deliver a participatory scenario-building process across 2019 and 2020.

We’ll be helping interested parties from across Europe to develop and present a set of future scenarios which will challenge today’s assumptions. Our work will complement IMAJINE’s substantial portfolio of empirical research into the geographical inequalities which exist within Europe, building capacity for foresight and strategic action.

Wide-angle lens shot of the Atomium from near its base
Atomium in Brussels, by Wikipedia user Mcsdwarken – CC BY-SA 3.0

New South Wales Strategy & Leadership Workshops

“It was important to us that our participants would gain a greater understanding of how to think about the changes and needs in their own communities and would learn some tools or techniques that they could continue to apply and revisit… essentially building both an awareness of trend monitoring but also the capability to respond with creative local strategies. The feedback from participants throughout the workshops and afterwards has been really positive with many commenting on how they would be able to use what they’d learned straight away with their teams.”

The feedback has arrived from the two day-long strategy workshops which I ran for the State Library of New South Wales this month. The sessions were designed to equip attendees with practical foresight, planning, and advocacy tools; I delivered them together with Brendan Fitzgerald as observer/respondent to the day’s activities.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, although of course there’s still much to learn as we explore ways to put sophisticated foresight tools like scenario planning in the hands of information professionals at all ranks, from communities large and small.

“Great approach to strategy and the tools make sense – Worth it.”

“A totally engaging and thought provoking day. A fantastic opportunity to interact with colleagues across NSW libraries and even though we come from very different situations, large and small libraries, the challenges we face have common ground.”

“Great day – Matt a very charismatic presenter and Brendan really well grounded in the realities of Library services. Great to have the opportunity to work with other Libraries and some novel approaches to workshopping!”

“Not what I expected at all. I thought it was going to be a talkfest and I was wondering how I will stay alert after lunch!!But we had short breaks, started on time and were kept connected to our table group and sent around the room to interact with the other groups in the room.”

“It was a wonderful day with practical hands-on information heard and learnt through application. I was very pleased I was able to participate in this. Thank you for hosting this event and bringing someone with Matt’s resume to Sydney for us to all learn from and be inspired.”

“This seminar was one of the most engaging, informative and stimulating professional development activities I have attended. I would have willingly attended the 2nd session.”

“The most valuable and thought-provoking professional development opportunity I have ever attended.”

The Complete Yoga for Futurists

We might be excellent at making plans, but what future will those plans have to inhabit?

How do we take into account the roles and relationships which define our world, when we try to imagine that world’s future?

How can we cultivate flexibility and mindfulness when it comes to thinking about the futures which may await us?

If you’d like to reflect on these questions, the final “Yoga for Futurists” is here.

Yoga for Futurists 3” is a standalone instalment of my video series offering “rough and ready” ways to swiftly improve the conversations you’re having about the future and your place in it.

You can watch the complete 3-part “Yoga for Futurists” playlist on YouTube.

How Public Libraries Can Help Us Prepare For the Future – The Conversation

Could public libraries revolutionise politics and society by helping local communities to develop long-term foresight?

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State Library of Queensland by Wikipedia users Kgbo – CC BY-SA 4.0

My first piece for The Conversation, “How Public Libraries Can Help Us Prepare For the Future“, has just gone live.

It draws on research I conducted with the University of Southern Queensland’s Kate Davis and conversations with Rafael Ramírez of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

The article explores the possibility of using public libraries as hosts for deeply local scenario planning initiatives, putting foresight tools commonly used by policymakers, big business, and the military in the hands of grassroots communities.

You can read “How Public Libraries Can Help Us Prepare For the Future” over at The Conversation now.

Yoga for Futurists, Part 1

Got a pen, paper, and fifteen minutes to think about the future?

This short video, “Yoga for Futurists“, will help you build strength and flexibility in the ways you or your organization looks at the future.

You can also read more about one of the activities featured in this video, “Arrows of Time“, on this blog.

So if you feel like stretching your sense of the world to come, and the ways by which you might choose your future, grab something to write with and press play on the video above.

The World When We’re Gone

I was in a room with more than a hundred smart and lively library leaders from across the state of California and I asked them:

What do California and the future have in common?

My favourite answer was: “They’re both getting hotter.”

As always with these things, participants come up with wittier and more perceptive answers than you ever did when you thought of the question.

That is, of course, the point: if you have 100+ people in the room, is the best way to find bright ideas & useful answers for one person to talk, and one hundred to listen – or should you get all the minds in the room at work on the problem?

So I asked my hundred guests what California and the future have in common, but I did also have an answer of my own in mind:

They’re both socially constructed — we talk them into existence.

This is true for the future because it exists only in terms of our hopes, fears, plans, predictions, strategies, expectations, anticipations, and the blind spots which we are currently failing to detect or anticipate. In the strategic planning work I’ve done with Rafael Ramirez and the team at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, the scenario approach emphasises this, constructing plausible futures – not predictions – in order to challenge the assumptions of the present.

It’s also true to say that we talk California into existence, because any human-made identity must be labelled, demarcated, defined in opposition to what it is not, talked about until it sticks and perhaps even takes on a life of its own – or at least a life bigger than any one of us. California exists as a geographical territory and history, a legal code and legislature, a perceived “state of mind”, but also as a blurry and porous concept, susceptible to reinterpretation and change. The Mexican province of Baja California, for example, reminds us that even the name of California predates US statehood and speaks to a previous colonial history.

One way to think about ourselves differently – to step outside the necessities of the day-to-day and the usual frameworks by which we seek to understand and control the future – is to imagine the world after we’re gone.

It’s not the full, rigorous construction of plausible futures which we conduct in scenario planning, but it is a useful way of testing our assumptions – and as Rafael Ramirez puts it, even “back-of-the-napkin” futures work can help us prepare for the world to come.

So here are two questions I sometimes offer to organisations that I work with:

Imagine a hundred years from now, your work has been a huge success and changed the face of society for the better. The head of state comes to the commemoration and gives a speech celebrating your organisation’s work. What do they talk about?

Imagine that five years from now, after a catastrophe, society has collapsed and your organisation has ceased to exist. How do people feel about that? What do they miss about your work? What structures or arrangements did they have to construct to replace the role you served in society? 

Think about these questions. Answer them for yourself, but also share them with your colleagues and clients and other stakeholders, to see how their responses compare with yours. You might be surprised by what you find – or reassured by the common ground which exists. Either way, you’ll only find out if you choose to step back from the day-to-day and dare to imagine a world after you’re gone.

And if you want to give it a California spin, well: here’s Los Angeles’ L7.