Planning for 2023: Black Box Organizations

A living organism can survive only by exchanging materials with its environment: by being an open system.

Vega Zagier Roberts

Every year, around this time, I like to share a tool which can help with your planning.

Though the shift from 2022 to 2023 is just a quirk of the calendar, the arrival of a new year tends to focus our attention on what’s coming. People make resolutions, use the holiday season to take stock and decide where they want to go next, or treat January 1st as a turning point for their lives at work or home.

This year, I want to share a tool which I created after reading Vega Zagier Roberts’ essay “The Organization of Work“. It explores organizations of all kinds – from projects to families, from teams to institutions – as “black boxes” with inputs and outputs.

It gets us to reflect on the pressures which are placed on us from within and without when we try to manage undertakings. It can form the basis for useful questions and reflections at the outset of a project, whether you carry out the task alone or with others. And it can also give insights into the state of a system which is already in place.

To start off, choose an organization, project, or undertaking which you want to reflect on. If you’re doing this task with others, you may each like to draw your boxes and follow the steps separately, or you can work together on, say, a shared whiteboard.

Draw a box like the one below, with an arrow going into it and an arrow coming out:

We can imagine that systems are boxes like these: something is put into them, they do their work, and as a result of this process, something emerges on the other side.

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The Ghosts We See from the Mountains: IMAJINE at the Territorial Bodies Conference

I’m pleased to say I’ll be presenting at the Territorial Bodies Conference held at the University of Warwick in February 2023.

My paper, “The ghosts we see from the mountains: Scenario planning and the territorial body in time”, will explore the intersection between bodies and territories via the questions of spatial justice explored by the IMAJINE scenarios for the future of European territorial inequality, and consider how scenario planning can give insights into the ways we understand the relationship between bodies and territories over time.

Find out more at the University of Warwick conference website or via the Territorial Bodies account on Twitter.

“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.

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.


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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