Reimagining the future of urban-rural balance

How will Europe’s urban-rural balance shift in years to come? In times of uncertainty, when tomorrow may not look like today, how can researchers and decision-makers best explore future relationships and dynamics between regions? In addition, how can such speculations be related back to pressing questions in the here and now?

In the new issue of the Regional Studies Association’s online magazine, IMAJINE‘s Marie Mahon and I share our experiences using scenario planning to explore the future of regional development in Europe, and answer the question: why are serious researchers spending time dreaming of futures which may never happen?

Read more in our article, “Reimagining the future of urban-rural balance: using scenarios to explore territorial inequality”.

Learning from futures you didn’t see coming? Scenario planning, education and the (post)pandemic world at CO:RE

It was my privilege to join the University of Oslo’s Niamh Ní Broin and Steffen Krueger at the website of CO:RE, the Children Online: Research and Evidence project funded by the European Commission, to write about last year’s scenarios for the future of Norwegian schools.

These explored different contexts for the digitalisation of education in Norway, considering how the relationship between learners, digital devices, and educational institutions might shift in times to come.

You can read our piece, “Learning from futures you didn’t see coming? Scenario planning, education and the (post)pandemic world”, here.

Tales of the times to come: the humanities and scenario planning

“What do the humanities have to offer strategists, policymakers, and decision-takers in the age of the algorithm? As machine intelligence and computational power increase, as we gather ever more data from ever more sources, do the humanities still offer a valuable perspective on times yet to come?”

Over at the website of the Irish Humanities Alliance, Marie Mahon and I have a piece on what our training in the humanities has brought to our work on the IMAJINE project for the future of European regional inequality.

Thinking with your non-dominant hand: ambidexterity and foresight

I wouldn’t say I have the best handwriting. It’s a bit of an unpretty scrawl, though people can mostly decipher it. I use my left hand to hold a pencil or pen, though I do everything else with my right; I can’t use left-handed scissors or can openers, and whenever it was I last played cricket or tennis, my right hand was dominant. I’m probably a natural righty who picked up the left-hand habit from copying a left-handed parent, back in those days when they first get you to clutch a crayon and make your mark.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

This week, I was helping a group of people learn to use scenario planning. There are a lot of ways to define what a scenario is, but in the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, scenarios are assessments of the future context, developed for a particular user and purpose, to contrast with the way that the future context is currently being framed. People engaged in scenario planning devise plausible futures in order to test assumptions, challenge existing framings, and enrich decision-making in the present.

Stretching your sense of the futures you may have to inhabit can feel like “thinking with your non-dominant hand”. We’re so used to trying to solve the problem in front of us, “get on with the job”, fix things, make them better, chart a course, steer the ship. The act of strategic reframing – creating plausible futures to stretch our understanding of a given context – can feel seriously counterintuitive.

Even clasping your hands or crossing your legs the opposite way round to usual can feel odd; using your non-dominant hand when playing sports, using scissors, or writing could feel even more so. So it’s not a surprise that scenario planning might feel strange when you first try it.

Yet releasing yourself from a dominant or habitual approach can bring all kinds of benefits. You may be forced to rethink processes from first principles, returning you to “beginner’s mind” and unpicking tightly woven assumptions. You may find that your engrained habits of thinking are patterns of comfort and convention, rather than the best way to address an issue. You may see things from a different angle when approaching from the left instead of the right, or vice versa.

In successful scenario planning engagements, people often feel a sudden moment of realisation – what the pioneering scenario planner Pierre Wack called an “a-ha” moment. “It does not simply leap at you,” Wack wrote in a 1985 issue of the Harvard Business Review. “It happens when your message reaches the microcosms of decision makers, obliges them to question their assumptions…and leads them to change and reorganise their inner models of reality.”

Once people have experienced this benefit of thinking from the “outside in” – starting with future contexts, then working back to an assessment of options and strategic possibilities, often in an iterative process which is enriched by multiple repetitions – they see the merits in going against the grain of habit.

The more they employ this approach, the better their “muscle memory” for scenario work. (A right-hander who tries playing the guitar left-handed just once might not get very far, but continued practice could yield competence and even virtuosity). Gradually it becomes possible to integrate “left-handed” and “right-handed” thinking into processes of assessment and decision-making, so that our perceptions, our judgment, and our capacity to act are enriched.

And in times of turbulence and uncertainty, when tomorrow will not be like yesterday or today, that could make all the difference.

Islands in the Sky: Scenario Planning for Information Architects

My colleague Monika Flakowska and I are presenting Islands in the Sky – An Introduction to Scenario Planning at the Information Architecture Conference this week.

Information architects design, organize, and label digital artefacts and services like websites, intranets, and software to help people find and use the information they want and need. Recently, Peter Morville, one of the “founding fathers” of IA, proposed a new definition: “the design of language and classification systems to change the world”. (You can read my interview with Peter here). In uncertain times, information architects need tools to think about the futures which their work may have to inhabit. That’s where scenario planning comes in.

Our interactive conference session invites attendees to try their hand at the basics of scenario planning, in a playful and thought-provoking online setting. It’s a successor of sorts to the in-person Library Island game which was so well-received in pre-COVID times.

We’ll report back from our experiments at the IA Conference and keep you updated as the Islands evolve.

“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.

A new role

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been made an Associate Fellow of the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

In addition to continuing my work as a facilitator with the award-winnning Oxford Scenarios Programme, I’m teaching scenario planning on the Saïd’s MBA and Executive MBA programmes.

'Dreaming Spires', by Flickr User JJBullock - Copyright JJ Bullock 2010
‘Dreaming Spires’, by Flickr User JJBullock – Copyright JJ Bullock 2010

It’s great to be working alongside such a brilliant, collegial team and I’m looking forward to the next step in the adventure.

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.

Read more