Ideas on Ghosts: Scenarios and the Spectral Metaphor

Did you just ghost me?

I just read Catie Disabato’s U Up?, a strange little mystery novel set in contemporary L.A.

Eve is a researcher for an app called LA By Foot which offers “definitive walking guides to the secret history, hidden paths, pedestrian staircases, and beautiful architecture of Los Angeles”. A historian at UCLA highlights notable locations in the city, then Eve visits them, photographs them, and writes the copy.

“I could do it all myself,” Eve explains, “research the history of Los Angeles by reading any or all of the many books James Danielson has published, but he has something I don’t have: the social power that comes from having a masculine name that starts with a J.”

So Eve walks the city, through hangovers and simmering California heat, all the while keeping another secret: on her iPhone, she texts her friend Miguel, who died by suicide a year before. And Miguel’s ghost texts back.

The novel follows the events around the first anniversary of Miguel’s death, when Ezra, who was Miguel’s friend and Eve’s, goes suddenly missing. As she tries to discover whether Ezra is merely avoiding her or something more sinister has happened, Eve is forced to confront what is going on within and between their circle of friends.

Disabato’s book addresses different kinds of spectrality with delicacy and deftness. In this world, there’s little difference between a supernatural revenant like Miguel’s ghost and a living friend who Eve is messaging, “trapped inside my useless idiotic lump of an iPhone.”

Read more

OER 22: Open to Uncertainty?

Together with the Open University’s Anne Gambles and Open Education Global’s Executive Director Paul Stacey, I presented an interactive session “Open to uncertainty? Foresight and strategy for turbulent times” at the Open Education Resources conference OER22, run by the Assocation for Learning Technology.

Our session invited participants to explore ways of strategic thinking which support the goals of the open education movement during “TUNA conditions” characterised by turbulence, uncertainty, novelty, or ambiguity.

How might the fundamentals of publishing and intellectual property change in the future? What impact will changing social, economic, and political values have on the open education ecosystem? What new domains of learning and research might it be possible to “open” in times to come? Will the very definition of what is “open” evolve? How might exploring the answers to such questions help us make better decisions today?

In 2021-2022, I worked with Anne’s team on the Islands in the Sky project exploring future ways of working at the OU, and with Paul’s organisation on their new strategic plan Open for Public Good, as well as further work on value co-creation in the open education movement. They shared insights from their projects during the session.

You can watch a recording of our joint session from OER 22 below, or on YouTube.

IMAJINE: The Future of Corruption

Corruption is on the rise across the world. It can be seen in old forms, such as bribery and nepotism, and newer ones, such as state capture and global flows of corrupt capital.

In the latest response to the IMAJINE scenarios, Professor Robert Barrington of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex offers an account of how corruption might appear in each of IMAJINE’s four future visions of Europe in 2048.

As Professor Barrington says, “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain can undermine any objectives at any time, and should be a constant consideration for the successful management of any political economy”.

In his timely response, which can be read at the IMAJINE website, he explores how plausible future scenarios can help us address the emerging challenges of corruption today.

IMAJINE: The Future of Food

What do IMAJINE‘s scenarios for the future of European regional inequality imply for how Europe feeds itself in times to come?

Regional dynamics affect, and are affected by, the agrifood sector and its vital supply chains. Questions of environmental sustainability, logistics, health, and lifestyle are all entwined.

In the IMAJINE project’s latest expert response, Singaporean futurist Luke Tay explores IMAJINE’s four scenarios for Europe in 2048 from a food futures perspective.

Foresight & The Environment of Democracy @ 2022 Council for European Studies Conference

I’m presenting twice at the online portion of the Council for European Studies’ conference in June.

First, National University of Ireland, Galway’s Marie Mahon, Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s David Robertson, and I will talk about “Reimagining Environmental Futures” based on the IMAJINE scenarios for the future of European regional inequality.

Then Malka Older of Arizona State University and I will present a paper on “Agency, Accountability, and Imagined Futures: Exploring Democracy and Environmental Stewardship Through Speculative Fiction and Foresight”.

Early bird registration continues until April 11th and the last day to register is May 10th. Find out more at the conference website.

IMAJINE: Digital Futures

Citizens gaming artificially intelligent policy mechanisms, a telepresence Luddite movement, ecological damage from cyberattacks, corporations supplanting governments, & rights for intelligent software agents – Caroline Baylon of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations explores potential implications for the digital world, cybersecurity, and AI in the IMAJINE scenarios.

You can read Caroline’s response to the scenarios at the IMAJINE website.

Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative

Marie Mahon of NUI Galway and I are in Vector with a new piece taking a literary approach to strategy, scenarios, and foresight.

In “Facing the Strategic Sublime: Scenario Planning as Gothic Narrative“, we investigate how constructing plausible future scenarios can help people to test their assumptions, suspend preconceptions, and engage with issues and information that they had previously framed out of consideration.

In doing this, we argue, scenarios are akin to Gothic literature, offering what Leila Taylor calls “a means of working through the discomfort of a changing world through the safety of fiction”.

Treating scenarios in this way “restores both our humility with regard to external forces that may seem almost unbearable to face, & the troubling sense that our own desires may not be pure or uncomplicated…”

See more at the Vector website.

Library Journal: COVID-era scenarios for Reading, Pennsylvania

“It was clear we should not wait out COVID-19. We needed a vision for where our services were headed, even if we couldn’t fully see what lay in store.”

In Library Journal, Bronwen Gamble of the Reading Public Library in Pennyslvania writes with me about our experience developing COVID-era scenarios to inform strategy for one of the United States’ oldest public libraries.

You can read our piece “Change the Scene” at the Library Journal website.

IMAJINE Workshop: Territorial Inequalities, Cohesion Policy, and Spatial Justice

On 23rd March in Brussels, the IMAJINE project hosts a hybrid event bringing together researchers & policy experts to discuss territorial inequalities within Europe.

IMAJINE explores key questions of territorial inequality, cohesion, and spatial justice: do Europeans have equal rights and opportunities regardless of where they live? Is your ability to realise your rights compromised by where you live?

You can’t simply “run the numbers” when it comes to the future of justice, because it is defined narratively and socially. Questions of what is fair and just are framed, debated, discussed, and negotiated over time.

As well as gathering and analysing fresh data about European inequalities today, IMAJINE explores the theories and concepts by which those inequalities are understood. It also investigates the mechanisms which institutions and communities use to intervene in inequalities. The IMAJINE team have developed future scenarios to help people explore how these issues might play out and be understood in times to come.

You can see IMAJINE’s four scenarios for the future of European regional inequality in 2048 here (PDF download).

On 23rd March, as part of the one-day IMAJINE event, a panel will discuss the IMAJINE scenarios and what they might help us to learn – or unlearn – about regional inequalities in the present. Find out more, and sign up for the event, here.

IMAJINE: “Levelling up” and the future of media

The British government has announced its “levelling up” plan to address regional inequalities across the UK.

The IMAJINE project, delivered by a consortium of 16 institutions across 13 countries, investigates questions of inequality and injustice within and between Europe’s nations and regions.

To give us a unique vantage point on what “fair treatment” means for different parts of Europe, the team worked with stakeholders to develop four scenarios for Europe in 2048 (PDF download): SILVER CITADEL, GREEN GUARDIAN, SILICON SCAFFOLD, and PATCHWORK RAINBOW. The scenario set includes responses from experts at the OECD, European Trade Union Institute, Capgemini, UK Space Agency, and many other institutions, exploring the implications for a range of sectors.

One key insight of this process was that it’s never sufficient to merely “run the numbers” when it comes to questions of what is fair or just between regions. We define justice through the stories we tell about what matters to us. Addressing regional inequality is not merely a case of measuring the difference between today’s “haves” and “have-nots”, then seeking to narrow the gap according to today’s metrics. It’s also about understanding what, where, and who we will value, now and in times to come.

The scenarios provide one way of reflecting on those questions of value, and how things are changing compared to the past. SILVER CITADEL sees regional policymakers lobbying centralised bodies for their fair share of an economic “pie” carved up by artificial intelligence. GREEN GUARDIAN explores a climate-ravaged future where Europeans have given up on consumer values and choose to live by new measures of sustainability and wellbeing. In SILICON SCAFFOLD, tech corporations dominate and the nation-state is on the wane, in a world where almost all of our daily life has migrated to privatised virtual spaces. And in PATCHWORK RAINBOW, Europe fragments into a jigsaw of regions with wildly different cultural and social values.

Since the scenarios’ publication in October 2021, we’ve received additional expert commentary from Madeleine Gabriel at Nesta on sustainability implications, the Danish Design Center’s Oskar Stokholm Østergaard on the future of design, and Belgium’s EU Digital Champion Saskia Van Uffelen on how “digital society” might develop in each scenario. And there’s more to come.

The latest expert response, published today, is from Cardiff University’s Caitriona Noonan, and explores what the IMAJINE scenarios mean for the future of media production in Europe. Who will make the content that appears on our screens? How will it be distributed? Caitriona notes that we are at a critical moment for the future of Europe’s film and television sector. IMAJINE’s scenarios offer a unique viewpoint into how that moment is going to play out.

Find out more about IMAJINE at www.imajine-project.eu.