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

Strategy and Impact Workshops for LIANZA Aotearoa New Zealand

Last week, I ran two workshops for New Zealand culture and information professionals with the support of Australia’s Brendan Fitzgerald.

The sessions, hosted at the National Library in Wellington by the Aotearoa New Zealand library association LIANZA, explored foresight, strategy, and next-generation measures of impact. We sought to give Kiwi culture & information professionals the tools to examine the future and make judicious strategic decisions, then investigate new ways to measure and demonstrate the difference their actions make in the world.

One participant said:

​​The tools from the strategic session were the most immediately useful to me – I liked how they broke a large process down into smaller steps from which concrete directions came organically and iteratively. I also liked the argument that while evidence-based research is good, there is no evidence from the future, and the stress on the fact that there is more than one possible future.

It was good to have people from outside your immediate context test your assumption, and to do the same for others… I made a coffee date with someone who is already a second-degree connection in my network who I have been meaning to connect more closely with (bonus: they’re from a different GLAM field to me, so that was a plus for LIANZA making it open to multiple sectors).

You can read more at the Libraries Aotearoa website.

#NotEnoughSciFi: Writing Futures with Jasper Fforde at the Brisbane Writers Festival

The British novelist Jasper Fforde joined attendees of the Brisbane Writers Festival in Queensland, Australia to explore the creation of plausible, intriguing imaginary worlds in a half-day workshop.

Fforde is known for eclectic genre-bending novels including the Thursday Next series, which follow the exploits of a woman who is able to cross the boundary between literature and her reality.

I was interested to see if Fforde’s work could be useful for strategists and foresight professionals trying to craft evocative visions of the futures we might inhabit. Although his stories tend to be set in wild and comic universes, his workshop had more than a few nuggets of wisdom for people trying to imagine futures they could strategically act on.

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This is Wack: Fun, wise, and practical strategic foresight

If you’ve been following my exploration of strategy and foresight tools, especially scenario planning and the Value-Creating Systems approach, you might have seen or heard me talking about Pierre Wack.

This French business executive brought a philosophical approach influenced by Sufi mysticism into the oil industry, and changed the way businesses look at the future by pioneering the use of scenarios at Royal Dutch Shell. As the Economist put it, “So successful was he that the Anglo-Dutch oil giant was able to anticipate not just one Arab-induced oil shock during [the 1970s], but two.

Following Wack’s retirement from industry, he taught at Harvard Business School and contributed to the development of South Africa’s post-apartheid future through scenario planning.

The Saïd Business School’s Oxford Futures Library includes Wack’s archive, and they’ve posted a video of one of his 1980s lectures online.

The video quality isn’t great, but the lecture is easy to follow and it remains an elegant, relevant, and compelling articulation of how scenarios benefit any organisation that wants to think about its future.

You can watch the full 55-minute video above or watch Wack’s lecture directly on Vimeo. I’ve included some bullet points and intepretation from my viewing below – to whet your appetite for the full lecture, or to offer you a summary. (Just remember, as Wack might say, there are no short cuts to wisdom).

  • “To create, rather than just preserve, value, a firm must discover the forces at work in its social, technological, and economic world and move to make those forces work for it rather than against it” – Wack citing Richard Rummelt
  • Most of the time, forecasts are quite good. This is what makes them so dangerous: forecasts fail you just when you need them most. Forecasts fail to anticipate major changes and major shifts in the context in which you operate.
  • Scenarios are devices for ordering one’s perceptions about alternative environments in which one’s decisions might be played out.
  • Strategies derive from our mental model of the world. We plan, not in order to create a document full of forecasts, but to change the mental map of decisionmakers and make us take responsibility for our worldview. A scenario doesn’t need to be “proven right” as a prediction, it needs to usefully change your mental model.
  • You only need scenario planning when the speed of change of the business environment is faster than your own speed of reaction.
  • The most dangerous forecasters are those who have just been proven right, because most probably they were right for the wrong reason.
  • Usually there will be a “surprise-free scenario” – the future which management expects. Scenario planners should include this in their offer so that their presentations do not seem threatening. It is usually easy to show how fragile the surprise-free scenario is, however.
  • Scenario planning is not crystal ball gazing, it is about working out the implications of events which have already happened and are still emerging. If heavy rain falls at the upper part of the Ganges basin, then you’ll see the consequences in two days time downstream at Rishikesh; in three or four days at Allahabad; and then at Benares two days after that. You are recognising the future implications of events which have already occurred – and your focus should be on understanding the forces which drive the system.
  • Understanding these factors is key. At Shell, articulating the scenarios – the future visions or stories themselves – was a small proportion of the time spent with executives. Once the scenarios had been presented to leaders, the rest of the time focussed on understanding and exploring the factors.
  • Compared to number crunching, scenario planning is fun. It forces planners to take account of a wider context and a richer vision of what awaits them than a mere line on a graph.
  • Scenarios should permit you to exercise your judgment: if this future were to transpire, what would you do about it? Scenarios are intended to inform action, not just generate intellectual interest. They are focussed, reducing complexity, allowing you to be creative with the relevant information.

Read more about Pierre Wack and scenario planning at the Oxford Futures Library.

 

Preparing for Worlds We Didn’t See Coming @ ASPAC 2019

Queensland Museum & Science Centre
Queensland Museum & Science Centre by Wikipedia user GordonMakryllos – CC BY-SA 4.0

“A long time ago, when I was a child, I went to a Science Centre. Back then, there was nothing like it – a truly hands-on space of adventure and learning, in an age when most museums kept their exhibits under glass.

“On most of the Science Centre exhibits, you turned a crank, hoped to see something awesome happen – then read the didactic to see what you were supposed to have learned.

“Pedagogy has moved on, but so has the world. What happens when you “turn the crank” of science and causality breaks down? What happens when social and natural systems collapse, public trust fractures, and old worldviews reveal their blind spots?

“What would the ‘Post-Normal Science Centre’ look like?”

Next month, I’ll be speaking as the opening keynote at this year’s Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centres Conference – ASPAC 2019.

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.