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.

RCOT 2021: Scenarios, foresight, and occupational therapy

Next week, Griffith University’s Professor Matthew Molineux and I present on scenario planning for the 2021 conference of the Royal College of Occupational Therapists.

In advance of the conference, we got together for an informal chat covering five years of work pushing the boundaries of occupational therapy education, exploring what futures & foresight work can do for occupational therapists, and how learning from the futures which challenge our assumptions can complement the practical experience which comes from student placements.

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.

Angels on the beach

Walter Benjamin wrote a few famous lines about Paul Klee’s artwork Angelus Novus. You may know them:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

-Walter Benjamin, “On The Concept of History”

Imagine the plight of Benjamin’s angel today. The winds are more turbulent than ever. The ground on which the angel walks has become, perhaps, more unstable. Each step, however small, is taken in extreme uncertainty.

Perhaps the angel has come to realise that they are no longer alone. Other angels, with other perspectives and other understandings of what has gone before or where they are headed, also stagger against the storm. However much they wish to stay with the past that has gone before them, they are constantly driven onwards.

Read more

“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.