Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

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“Whose futures matter?” Gender, identity, and strategic foresight

I was privileged to be Dr. Pani Farvid‘s guest at The New School’s SexTech Lab this week, talking about how researchers of gender, sexuality, and identity can work with the imagined future to understand the present and challenge its assumptions.

The discussion built on some previous tentative explorations of foresight and identity, which you can read on this site: “Foresight and Cruising Utopia” and “Dots that I haven’t joined yet“.

Another valuable reading is last year’s article “Whose futures matter?“, from a group of foresight practitioners including Joshua Polchar, Özge Aydogan, Pupul Bisht, Kwamou Eva Feukeu, Sandile Hlatshwayo, Alanna Markle, and Prateeksha Singh. I also recommend the OECD’s Alex Roberts‘ piece on “otherness and innovation” from 2017.

Taboo Futures, Fate, and Destiny – Conversation with Steffen Krueger

In 2019-2020, I worked with researchers from the University of Oslo on a set of scenarios for the future of Norwegian schools. You can see the full scenario set, “Schools and/or Screens”, here.

Niamh ni Broin and Steffen Kruger of the University of Oslo convened the project and recruited me to help a group of key stakeholders develop the scenarios. Today Steffen, a psychoanalytic researcher and senior lecturer in the university’s Department of Media and Communication, joins me to talk about the project, taboo futures, pop culture, and questions of fate and destiny in foresight work.

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2266 and All That: Chris Beckett, Two Tribes

As the British House of Commons is recalled to debate the new agreement with the European Union, it’s time to look at one last book in 2020: Chris Beckett’s Two Tribes, published just five months ago, during the summer of COVID lockdown.

In this novel, historians from far-future London find two archived diaries which chronicle a romance blossoming across the Brexit divide of 2016-17. Harry, a Remainer architect, is stranded in a rural Norfolk town when his car breaks down. He finds himself renting a spare room for the night from Michelle, a local hairdresser who voted to leave the EU. They forge a deep and unexpected connection which troubles and compels Harry, leaving him torn between Michelle and Letty, an arts administrator from his own North London milieu.

Harry and Michelle’s private journals are being examined in the year 2266 by Zoe, a researcher affiliated to the elite Guiding Body which now governs an impoverished, climate-ravaged, postdemocratic England, slowly emerging from a spell as a Chinese protectorate. Running water, motor cars, and twenty-four hour electricity are things of the past for Zoe’s world, as is the EU itself, and a vast shanty town has developed within the ruins left by a brutal civil war.

Two Tribes is a swift, compelling read. Efficiently drawn characters map out the polarisations of the Brexit debate, and Beckett deftly charts the unsteady progress of Harry and Michelle’s romance. The passages set in 2016-17, presented as fragments of a historical novel being written from the primary sources by Zoe, skirt and skewer Pygmalion fantasies of love across a class divide.

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“2050 was last year”: Times of COVID-19

Together with the University of Oslo’s Dr. Steffen Krüger, I’ve written a short piece on the Norwegian education scenarios, set thirty years hence, which we published at the start of this year – plus how the COVID-19 pandemic both confirmed some of our insights and challenged our perceptions.

Seeking an imagined future that would threaten a data-driven, corporatised health and care system, we created a world with distinct similarities to Norway’s coronavirus experience in 2020. In the essay, we talk about our scenarios, the cabin fever of homeschooled lockdown days, and how to bring the stuff of dystopian sci-fi into the realm of plausible policy discussion.

You can read “2050 was last year”, at the Times of COVID-19 blog.

An empathy for the future: Interview with Sara Gry Striegler and Oskar Stokholm Østergaard, Danish Design Centre

Today I’m joined by Sara Gry Striegler and Oskar Stokholm Østergaard of the Danish Design Centre to talk about their work developing design approaches which allow people, communities, companies, and organisations to better understand the futures which may await them.

Sara is Programme Director at the Centre, leading their Future Welfare work, and Oskar is Project Manager for a range of ventures including the new Living Futures scenario toolkit.

Matt: The Design Centre has had an evolving role and remit since it was founded in 1978. What’s it been like, coming to the point where the Centre is using design as a futures-oriented tool?

Oskar: We’re currently in the process of finalising our own new strategy, with a focus on being mission-oriented and finding ways to not only create growth through design practices, methods, and mindsets, but also help in solving systemic issues at a wider level. We are becoming more systems-oriented in that sense, and the futures work helps us to tackle those big issues, pulling back from a narrow focus on using design to solve particular issues in isolation, one at a time. 

Futures thinking flips that focus on its head; we try to take in the broader lines first, and then consider where we want to go – or where we want to avoid going! – in the future.

Image courtesy of Danish Design Centre
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The Only Winning Move: Interview with Peter Scoblic, Part 1

Dr. Peter Scoblic is a co-founder and principal of the strategic foresight consultancy Event Horizon Strategies. A former executive editor at The New Republic and Foreign Policy who has written on foresight for publications including the New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, and Harvard Business Review, Peter is also a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and an instructor for the Professional Development Program at Harvard University. Previously, he was deputy staff director of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he worked on approval of the New START agreement and was the chief foreign policy speechwriter for Chairman John Kerry.

On the eve of a particularly fraught election and a turbulent moment in US political history, Peter joined me for a discussion about his career, ranging from post-Cold War nuclear arms policy to the relationship between policymaking and pop culture, plus the practical question of how and to what extent we can usefully predict the future. The interview will appear on this blog in three parts, but you can read it in its entirety as a PDF download here.

I began by asking Peter if he’d always been ambitious to work in foreign policy.

Foreign policy is something I’ve always been interested in, especially national security work, and particularly nuclear weapons work. There’s been a wonky streak running through me over the years, often focussed on these dark existential issues.

It goes back to being a child of the 80s; I believe the second movie I ever saw was War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, in which a teen hacks into the computers of NORAD, the aerospace defence command. I was probably too young to see it and the experience, combined with the actual headlines of that decade, planted a seed which I was able to explore as a student at Brown. 

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The Important Thing Is Elsewhere

The Family Tree

Before all this, I went to my grandfather’s house in Spain. I’d never really liked it. It wasn’t the house he’d lived in as I grew up, which was just down the road from the new place. That had been the house of memories, the place where my grandmother had died before I was born.

He bought the new place when it was time to find a smaller, more manageable property, as he entered his eighties and I my twenties. I worked with him on both houses, helping him to do up the old one and improve the new. I painted walls white and coated tiles with red rubber sealant; mixed cement and ferried endless wheelbarrows of it to wherever he was working that day. He chided me for my cement mixing technique, for the way I handled a paintbrush or a pickaxe, the way I clambered up and down ladders and scaffolding, fetching tools and materials. It was the happiest time.

He died, digging over the garden of the new property with a rotorvator, when I was 23. He’d have been glad to go that way; he’d always talked of “falling off his perch” rather than a dreaded slow decline, and even when we were working together on the new place, he’d still pull stunts like climbing into the tree he was pruning, clinging to the branch above him while standing on the one below, which he was sawing off, jumping up and down to speed the process.

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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.

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Neill Cameron: Panels to Draw and Worlds to Build, Part 1

In this interview, I’m joined by the British comics creator Neill Cameron, whose books for young readers include Pirates of Pangea, Tamsin of the Deep, Mo-Bot High, How To Make Awesome Comics, and three volumes of the acclaimed Mega Robo Bros – as well as an ongoing daily webcomic for older readers, X365, which has been appearing throughout 2020.

We talked about creating convincing future and fantasy worlds, getting to know imagined places by drawing them, and the contrasts between the vision of 2020 we were promised as children – and the turbulent realities of the year as we’re experiencing it.

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