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?

800px-state_library_of_queensland_01
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.

#NotEnoughSciFi: Ray Bradbury and The Rebirth of Imagination

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

I stumbled on an essay by the late science fiction writer Ray Bradbury recently. It covers science fiction literature and the business of problem-solving, so of course it was right up my alley. You can find the 1980 piece, “Dusk in the Robot Museums”, collected in Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writingand there’s a copy of the text online right here.

Bradbury, writing in 1980, imagines a museum of the future, whose exhibits are all animatronic robots of historical figures. A boy sits with the robot analogues of Plato, Euripedes, and Socrates; they end up talking about how science fiction, a neglected genre, found favour among the teachers and librarians of the USA, “the country of Ideas on the March.”

Bradbury draws connections between science fiction and fantasy, practical problem-solving, and the history of ideas which are still useful to us in 2019. Let’s check them out together.

1: What’s in these books?

“Where have we been?” the librarians and the teachers asked each other […] “What’s in these books that makes them as irresistible as Cracker Jack?”

The History of Ideas.

Bradbury reminds us that “the first science-fiction writers were cavemen who were trying to figure out the first sciences — which were what? How to capture fire. What to do about that lout of a mammoth hanging around outside the cave. How to play dentist to the sabre-tooth tiger and turn him into a house-cat.”

Pondering those problems and possible sciences, the first cavemen and women drew science-fiction dreams on the cave walls. Scribbles in soot blueprinting possible strategies. Illustrations of mammoths, tigers, fires: how to solve? How to turn science fiction (problem solving) into science fact (problem solved).

My work also focuses on the business of plausible futures: the problems that may await us and the potential solutions we may figure out through play, storytelling, and discussion.

Canadian information professionals construct future scenarios

In Toronto last month, information professionals from across Ontario created and explored plausible future scenarios ten years from the present. These scenarios were characterised by extremes of scarcity and abundance, political strife from foreign or domestic sources, and technological changes. Imagined future settings allowed participants to examine their assumptions, explore their strategic blindspots, and stress-test their plans for the future.

In other events around the world, we’ve blended science fiction, strategy, and design thinking to explore the future of professions like occupational therapy, communities like the city of Ann Arbor, and technologies as taken-for-granted as the written word itself.

As Bradbury puts it,

Everywhere we look: problems. Everywhere we further deeply look: solutions. […] That Truth again: the History of Ideas, which is all that science fiction has ever been. Ideas birthing themselves into fact, dying, only to reinvent new dreams and ideas to be reborn in yet more fascinating shapes and forms, some of them permanent, all of them promising survival.

Though his essay is nigh-on forty years old, it, too, is worthy of revival and reinvention: a reminder that we must turn to the place where people dream wildly about a changed world, about futures they can only speculate about, in order to train our imaginations on the problems of our time.

Hence #NotEnoughSciFi: turning to the literature of the fantastic to think about asking the right strategic questions, free will and machines’ autonomy, or the self-awareness of artificial intelligence, feigned or otherwise.

2: A Note on Fake News

Bradbury’s essay also has a wise word for those of us concerned about the mix of propaganda, misinformation, and confused information-seeking which some label as “fake news”.

Bradbury writes:

Among librarians and teachers there was then, and there still somewhat dimly persists, an idea, a notion, a concept that only Fact should be eaten with your Wheaties. Fantasy? That’s for the Fire Birds. Fantasy, even when it takes science-fictional forms, which it often does, is dangerous. It is escapist. It is day-dreaming. It has nothing to do with the world and the world’s problems.

Today, once more, some people think that singular, solid facts will dispel the evil cloud which they perceive around popular understandings of political issues, from climate change to the anti-vaccination movement.

This is despite the suggestion that greater curiosity about evidence, rather than greater faith in “truthful” institutions, may be the necessary remedy.

Researchers like Australia’s Kate Davis are exploring the ways in which an empathetic, non-judgmental approach to people’s information experiences may be more useful to informed public decision making than an insistence on opposing the “true” and the “fake”.

The relationship between philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s notion of “bull” (a collapsed distinction between truth and lies) and more “nutritious” information experiences is also useful here.

Science fiction may not be factual or “true” in that sense, but it can still be nutritious: inspiring, provocative, encouraging of those who wish to solve problems and change the world for the better.

In the same way, we should not cleave too rigidly to belief in a single and authoritative Truth, but rather foster principles of critical thinking, diversity, and problem-solving. “Fake news” will not be dispelled by deeper faith in a singular truth, but by robust criticism and a refusal of political deceit.

 

3: Zen and the Feral Future

The collection which includes Bradbury’s essay is called Zen in the Art of Writing: it emphasises the joy and zest which Bradbury experienced by understanding, and acting on, his own essential nature as a writer.

Zen also makes an appearance in the academic literature of scenario planning: in 2011’s “Feral futures: Zen and aesthetics“, Rafael Ramirez and Jerome Ravetz explore the ways in which an informal understanding of the Zen approach may benefit strategic thinkers.

The authors focus on “feral” situations, in which ill-informed attempts to address a situation exacerbate its problems. Futures which were once thought to be predictable then prove otherwise, as human actions weaken or undermine underlying systems; Ramirez and Ravetz give the Deepwater Horizon blowout and the Sub-Prime Crisis as examples.

When attempts to predict and control the future by conventional means fail, scenario planners offer an approach akin to Zen practice: mindful attention to the present situation, surrender of habitual thinking and assumptions, challenges to received wisdom and the taken-for-granted.

Ramirez and Ravetz write that “forcing people to work through a scenario that […] experienced managers consider implausible or threatening, does indeed challenge their common sense”, but in doing so “scenarios could help people bypass the defences whereby early warnings are rejected or even kept out of consciousness.”

Bradbury’s science-fiction-as-problem-solving offers a similar approach to the future, which is, after all, unknowable and impossible to gather data or evidence from.

In place of extrapolating on the basis of our assumptions, it dares us to dream more wildly.

Instead of looking at our situation through habitual lenses, it encourages us to reframe our perception of the world to come.

It encourages us to meditate on our essential nature – who are we? what do we do? what difference are we trying to make in the world? – and then challenge our responses by posing new premises on which to act in the future.

4: A good idea should worry us like a dog

In the concluding section of his essay, Ray Bradbury reminds us that intellectual labour must include an element of fun, so that it remains lively and does not become drudgery:

I hope we will not get too serious here, for seriousness is the Red Death if we let it move too freely amongst us. Its freedom is our prison and our defeat and death. A good idea should worry us like a dog. We should not, in turn, worry it into the grave, smother it with intellect, pontificate it into snoozing, kill it with the death of a thousand analytical slices.

Let us remain childlike and not childish in our 20-20 vision, borrowing such telescopes, rockets, or magic carpets as may be needed to hurry us along to miracles of physics as well as dream.

This kind of problem-solving approach jumps with agility from science fiction to strategy, from philosophy to pragmatic decision-making, always with a focus on the plausibility of the future scenarios and their usefulness as a challenge to our deepest held assumptions. It is lively, provocative, discursive, engaging: it is fun.

Bradbury’s final injunction applies to good strategists and good leaders as much as it does to readers of science fiction, to students, or to the boy he imagines in the halls of a Museum of Robots:

[L]et Plato have the last word from the midst of his electro-machine-computerized Republic:

“Go, children. Run and read. Read and run. Show and tell. Spin another pyramid on its nose. Turn another world upside-down. Knock the soot off my brain. Repaint the Sistine Chapel inside my skull. Laugh and think. Dream and learn and build.”

“Run, boys! Run, girls! Run!”

And with such good advice, the kids will run.

And the Republic will be saved.”

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.

Questioning the future of the written word

Something this weekend reminded me of the time I was too lazy to transcribe the builder’s order for materials and just scanned the plank he’d been writing on, so I could email it to the merchants.

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Later, I was talking to my friend David, who teaches at a university. These days, student papers are submitted and marked electronically. That won’t surprise you, I’m sure, but what impressed me was that David delivers his marks and feedback as audio files which the students can then listen to when they get their grades.

The students have responded positively to the audio feedback, and David finds it more efficient, too. He reads the paper once, then goes back through it dictating into his phone. Not only does he get the work done in less time, but it helps him to highlight the reading experience to his students: “By the time I get to this point in the essay, I’m lost, because you haven’t established your argument on the preceding pages.”

Another friend who works in a senior academic role refuses to give book reports in written form; instead, he will mark out two hours of his time and take editors and publishers through his comments orally, over the phone. It saves time, means he can work from his notes, and enables them to question him or seek clarification as they go.

Attendees working on tasks for Matt's workshop at the Royal Dutch Library

Earlier this month, I was leading an event for the Royal Dutch Library of the Netherlands exploring the future of our relationship to the written word. We pondered how new technologies and their social impact might affect this relationship, including developments in machine recognition of text and speech.

“If voice recognition and machine transcription were perfect,” we asked, “what would we gain? What would we lose?”

One of the first responses was immediate and positive. “No one would ever have to take minutes in a meeting again.”

We then started to explore issues around archiving and preservation, disability and accessibility, and division between technological ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

Such explorations formed the basis of our event’s opening activity, which encouraged participants to challenge their thinking about the future, rather than resting on the assumptions of the past. It’s part of an ongoing project at the library to develop a space which explores the Netherlands’ relationship to the written word.

The 1954 "Groene Boekje" guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.
The 1954 “Groene Boekje” guide to the Dutch language. Image by Wikipedia, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

This is particularly interesting in a Dutch context, because the Dutch language is regulated by an international treaty which seeks to maintain consistency between use in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Suriname.

The Dutch Language Union puts out a regular publication, the “Green Book”, which includes official spellings for all Dutch words. However, another publication – the “White Book” – suggests alternative rules which some Dutch publishers and firms have preferred to follow. (The official spelling reform of 2015 was particularly controversial).

 

 

 

All of this dispute, debate, and linguistic politics provided rich pickings for a group of Dutch culture and information professionals trying to imagine a library space devoted to the future of the written word in the heart of Den Haag.

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From speech recognition to linguistic treaties, graffiti and doodles, hate speech and ‘fake news’, the value of fan fiction, battles over privacy, piracy, and copyright, and the political power of the written word, there’s so much to be discussed when we imagine the future of reading and writing.

If you’d like to contemplate some of the questions we asked ourselves, you can read them in this PDF download.

Toronto iSchool, 6-7 June: Learning to Plan on Library Island

We can’t predict the future, yet we do it all the time. We have to: there are objectives to be set and met, projects to be devised and delivered, holidays to be booked, birthdays to celebrate, mouths to be fed, children to raise, dreams to be fulfilled.

Sometimes people and organisations anticipate the future based on what has gone before – but then we risk being blindsided by social and sectoral changes, financial crises, political upsets, natural disasters, and complex systemic challenges.

So, how do we prepare for futures characterised by turbulence and uncertainty?

What methods help information professionals to develop foresight, insight, and awareness that will support decisions made for their communities, teams, and institutions?

Welcome to Library Island.

This June, visit the University of Toronto’s iSchool – “Learning to Plan on Library Island” – to develop skills and awareness which will help you to deal effectively with potential threats, opportunities, and challenges.

This two-day event will feature speakers including Peter Morville, author of Planning for Everything; Stephen Abram of Lighthouse Consulting; and Rebecca Jones & Jane Dysart of Dysart & Jones. I’ll also be there to offer insights gathered from information professionals working with institutions, communities, and businesses around the world.

Experienced consultants and leaders in the information profession will share planning tips, tricks, and methodologies. Participants will explore and experiment with new ways to develop their strategy, vision, and mission, including sessions of the Library Island play-based activity.

It’ll be provocative, inspiring, practical, challenging, and fun. Visit http://www.thefutureoflibraries.org to see more about this June’s University of Toronto iSchool – we’d love to see you there.

#NotEnoughSciFi : Strategy, Scenarios, and “Annihilation”

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies, and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come.

This week’s entry focusses on Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy”, the first book of which was adapted into the Netflix movie Annihilation last yearSee previous entries from #NotEnoughSciFi here.

The most common source of management mistakes is not the failure to find the right answers. It is the failure to ask the right questions. Nothing is more dangerous in business than the right answer to the wrong question.

– Peter Drucker

After a mysterious event, an unknown force takes over a backwater of the southeastern US coast. Warded from the outside world by a barrier that defies physicists’ understanding, the so-called “Area X” begins to distort the environment in ways which are difficult to study, record, or comprehend.

Still from the Netflix movie

Over a period of years, a government agency tasked with understanding and controlling the zone sends in countless expeditions, to little avail. The latest group, composed entirely of women, also succumbs to the zone’s weird dangers. The sole returning survivor, a taciturn biologist, is compromised by her encounter with Area X – but what has happened to her? And what does it mean for the affected zone – or for life as we know it on Earth?

This is the world of Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy” –  Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – the first instalment of which was filmed by Netflix, with Natalie Portman in the lead role, last year.

Netflix’s Annihilation is a visually sumptuous adventure which challenges sci-fi’s traditional gender imbalances by following an all-women team of explorers into the mysterious zone. But there are even richer pickings to be found in Vandermeer’s trilogy.

The “Southern Reach” books offer a complex exploration of institutional and personal encounters with unknown or uncontrollable phenomena. Their refusal to offer easy answers, their dissection of office politics and power relations, and their critique of the structures by which we seek to make sense of and control the world, all make them valuable fodder for a special edition of #NotEnoughScifi.
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