Workshop – Cones, Grids, and Timelines: A Visual Approach to Scenario Planning

As part of the online Thinking Through Drawing 2020 symposium, October 16-18 2020, I’ll be presenting a 45-minute workshop “Cones, Grids, and Timelines”, exploring how future scenarios can be devised and represented visually. You can see a short video outline of the session below.

If you’d like to join me, and a vibrant community of researchers, artists, visual communicators, and educators, find out more at the TTD website.

Strategy & Foresight: Keynote at ELGL Oktoberfest, October 7th 2020

Next month, I’ll be joining the Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) Network’s 2020 Oktoberfest, a month-long online conference for the best and brightest minds from all levels of local government worldwide.

My keynote will launch the Okoberfest’s Strategy & Innovation summit with a two-hour session on Wednesday, October 7 at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time.

oktoberfest slide

The highly participatory session will help attendees to develop skills in strategic foresight and decision-making, suitable for the uncertainties of 2020 and beyond. Tried and tested practical tools will be accompanied by international examples and case studies, including the current IMAJINE project examining the future of the European Union at a regional level.

The conference’s wider offer will also enable attendees to explore issues including creative placemaking, equity & anti-racism, efficiency, and happiness in local government.

Check out the full schedule, and register for the ELGL Oktoberfest, here.

Masterclass for ASPAC Emerging Leaders

Early in August 2020, I ran two workshops as part of a three-day masterclass for emerging leaders at ASPAC, the Asia Pacific Network of Science and Technology Centres.

39 participants from across the Asia Pacific joined me for a day exploring the future environment for the region’s science and technology centres, and the use of design tools to create effective strategies.

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Working together across the timezones, we produced mini-scenarios to explore uncertainties which might prove challenging or opportune in the future, and explored ways to structure and test our thinking when it came to new initatives for ASPAC and its member institutions.

Maria Isabel Garcia, Executive Director, ASPAC:

“In August 2020, we asked Matt to conduct two workshops as part of a masterclass for 40 emerging leaders in our Asia-Pacific network of science centres. The two workshops were ‘reimagining the future of science engagement’ and ‘redesigning science centres’, respectively.

Matt laid out very clearly and very generously how the participants were going to reimagine and redesign. The workshop was supremely engaging and Matt’s approach strongly motivated the participants to follow the process. The breakouts which were prompted by Matt’s questions allowed for heightened collaboration!

The “tributes” from Masterclass participants showed that they overwhelmingly felt  Matt’s workshop made them push boundaries that they had not even previously acknowledged, or were afraid to cross. This was especially relevant during this pandemic and will be for a long, long time, if not forever. We have more courage now among our emerging leaders.”

You can read more about working online with me, as ASPAC did, here.

Who Are The Isley Brothers of Foresight?: Hidden Currents and George Lipsitz’s Footsteps in the Dark

In 1992, a consignment of around thirty thousand bath toys was lost from the Ever Laurel, a container ship bound from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. During a storm in the North Pacific Ocean, several containers were washed overboard, including one bearing “Friendly Floatees”. These Chinese-made toys took the form of red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles, and yellow ducks, and when the container holding them broke open, the Floatees were free to travel the oceans.

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Sitka, Alaska by Wikipedia user Christopher Michel – CC BY-SA 2.0

Ten months after the spill, most of these bath toys arrived on the beaches near Sitka, Alaska, but not all of them shared this fate. A number spent the winter of 1992-93 frozen in the ice of the Bering Sea. Some floated back into the North Pacific, and yet others made their way through the Arctic Ocean to the North Atlantic. Oceanographers eagerly studied their unexpected trajectories, which revealed previously unknown information about ocean currents.

footstepsIn his book Footsteps in the Dark, the American historian George Lipsitz uses this event to explore how cultural phenomena such as pop music also circulate via hidden currents, finding new life and new uses in different times and different places around the world.

He describes how KC and the Sunshine Band found their sound by combining influences from Pentecostal Christianity, doo-wop, Santería drumming and Bahamian “junkanoo” carnival music; how the infectious beat of Dion’s “The Wanderer” has its roots in the Italian tarantella; how a composition by George Clinton of Parliament owes its “operatic” quality to synagogue chanting which Clinton heard in childhood at a schoolfriend’s bar mitzvah.

Lipsitz also attends to the social uses of such music. Analysing the Isley Brothers number which gives his book its title, he considers it an account of 1970s Black American experiences which were neglected by journalists and historians:

“As far as we know, the Isley Brothers did not intend to be historians of these changes or even to create a historical record of them with their music. They never chose to present an empirical accounting of events organized in chronological order, nor did their songs speak directly about politics, laws, or leaders. The Isley Brothers did not do research in traditional archives filled with government documents, personal records, or diaries of famous people. Yet they displayed extraordinary familiarity with and knowledge of what we might call the alternative archives of history, the shared memories, experiences, and aspirations of ordinary people, whose perspectives rarely appear in formal historical archival collections.”

Lipsitz gives us the tools to look not only at the past, but also the future, through lenses we might have previously neglected: sifting pop culture for overlooked clues to social change, examining cultural movements to understand the hidden currents which drive them, and making meaning from the “Friendly Floatees” which have drifted away from the course prescribed by the dominant social, political, and economic order.

“My hope,” he writes, “is that reading popular music as history and interpreting history through popular music will help us to hear the footsteps in the dark, to see how history happens and why music matters.” I believe that Lipsitz’s book also has much to teach us about the way we look at the future. Read more

Fight, Flight, and Futures Thinking: Getting Control of Organizational Panic

“The body’s reaction under critical incident stress has almost nothing to do with how you think rationally. Instead it has almost everything to do with ingrained responses, be they trained ones or instinctive ones. The amygdala will choose. It has the chemical authority to override your conscious thoughts and decisions. It also has the chemical authority to enforce its decision despite your conscious will.”

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Scuba divers by Flickr user Tim Snell CC BY-ND 2.0

In an article on “accounting for adrenalin” in situations of self-defence, US Air Marshal M. Guthrie describes the challenges of making swift and effective decisions under extreme stress. Often in such situations, our own instincts seem to act against us.

Guthrie gives the example of scuba divers who drown despite having full oxygen tanks; in a moment of crisis, the amygdala reacted by driving them to clear their airways, spitting out their breathing tube despite the diver being consciously aware that they were underwater.

“Deeply ingrained reactions are far more likely than conscious decisions,” Guthrie writes. “And don’t even get me started on how much training you have to do to override and replace your body’s instinctive responses with new ones. Regardless, you won’t be selecting an option from a menu of choices calmly and rationally like you do in the training hall. Your body is going to pick its own response in a maelstrom[.]”

Organizations aren’t precisely like organisms, and the way we think when we work collectively isn’t quite like the dramatic individual encounters which trigger our adrenal glands. Often an organizational crisis is measured in hours, days, or weeks, rather than seconds and minutes. It will involve discussion, policy, and procedure, with a pace and structure quite different from the amygdala prompting an unreasoned – and possibly counterproductive – survival response.

Still, organizations can go into a panic just as much as individuals can, and when they do so, they may start making harmful or counterproductive decisions. Significant among the situations which trigger such panic are “feral futures“. In these situations, we think we have tamed the environment we are operating in, but misunderstand what is going on, and our action based on false premises or data in fact makes things gravely worse. Read more

José Esteban Muñoz: Foresight and Cruising Utopia

“Queerness is primarily about futurity and hope. That is to say that queerness is always in the horizon.” – José Esteban Muñoz

1: Future blindspots in gender, identity, and sexuality

I’ve been spending most of my time on foresight and strategy for several years now. It’s challenging, lively work, helping people and organisations to look at the future and seek out their blindspots to support better decisionmaking. Often we construct scenarios, imagined future contexts, to inform that work, creating plausible futures which challenge current assumptions and provide a unique vantage point on the present.

Late last year, I wrote about the whiteness of foresight and the ways in which this kind of work, and its practitioners, might be blinkered by lack of diversity.  But those aren’t the only kind of blinkers we encounter when we turn our gaze towards the future.

Before lockdown, I attended a scenarios workshop constructing big global futures, intended to explore fundamental questions about the ways our societies will be organised in decades to come.

The project generated a number of visions of the world in 2050, with huge changes not only to how we live and work together, but even the ways in which technology might be integrated into our own bodies. Yet despite all this radical transformation, people shied away from reimagining the personal relationships which underpinned this world. In the finished scenarios, featuring a number of personas from each imagined future, there was little sense of the ways in which family life and its related intimacies might have changed or been changed by the forces at work in each version of 2050.

Looking around the room at the workshop participants – largely white, European, degree-educated, mostly presenting as straight – I wondered what questions we had refused to ask ourselves, or address, as a result of our own identities and points of view, the life experiences and perspectives we had brought to the workshop by mere virtue of who we were. Read more

Nesta interview: Using scenarios to reimagine our strategic decisions

Earlier this year, I took part in the ‘Scenarios and the Future of Work’ project, hosted by the Danish Design Centre in conjunction with the innovation foundation Nesta.

Rain on the Mountain

Nesta’s Juan Casasbuenas interviewed me about the experience, and the benefits of scenario planning, for their blog.

“Scenarios should stretch your thinking and challenge you to reimagine where you’re headed strategically, but they’re always grounded in the here and now: looking at the weather on the mountain to understand what might happen in the valley below.”

We also talked about technology, fear, and the surprising history of photographic manipulation which lies behind deepfakes.

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You can read “Using scenarios to reimagine our strategic decisions” here.

“You are swimming with the whole ocean”: Interview with Aída Ponce Del Castillo, European Trade Union Institute

Last month, Aída Ponce Del Castillo of the European Trade Union Insitute’s Foresight Unit joined me to talk about her journey from world-class swimmer to foresight professional, doing strategy and scenarios research for the labour movement.

We discussed different foresight methodologies, the particular challenges and opportunities in working on futures with trade unions, and, inevitably, COVID-19, but our conversation began with Aída’s sporting career, and the lessons it taught her about coping with turbulence and uncertainty.

Matt:
What was your journey to becoming a foresight practitioner? You were a lawyer, and a competitive open-water swimmer – how did that lead you to work on foresight, and how did it prepare you for the role?

Aída:
In many ways I saw myself as a swimmer first and everything else second! I studied and practiced law, completed a doctorate. As an open water swimmer I competed at international level, also racing in Open Water World Cups. Read more

Planning for Uncertainty: Scenarios and Foresight for Local Government

Last week, I put together this one-hour video session for America’s Engaging Local Government Leaders network, ELGL.

It’s a straightforward foresight and strategy starter pack, no nonsense, no jargon, helping to answer the questions “Where are we going?” and “What should we do?”

The session is aimed at US local government leaders, but should work for a wide range of institutions, communities, and settings.

You can read more about the session and download a PDF “handout” with slides and further reading at the ELGL webpage, and I previously spoke with the ELGL team about leadership and foresight on their podcast last year.

Scenario planning in the Age of COVID-19: Mandarin Interview with Trudi Lang

My interview with Oxford University’s Trudi Lang for the Mandarin, published in late April 2020, can now be shared beyond their paywall. The full text of the piece appears below.

‘Never assume the future will be an extension of the past’ Scenario planning in the Age of COVID-19

Matt Finch sat down with Trudi Lang, a senior fellow in management practice at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Lang is a researcher and strategist with particular expertise in scenario planning, a foresight methodology that seeks not to predict the future but to usefully challenge our assumptions about what’s coming next.

“The key challenge of government is to prepare for a future in which we will be surprised time and again,” said Peter Ho, then Singapore’s top civil servant, in 2009.

Few people at the start of 2020 would have anticipated an enormous symmetric shock affecting the entire world, demanding drastic interventions from the state — yet experts had been warning of a pandemic for considerable time. Indeed, as the New York Times reported in March, the US federal government had rehearsed for a pandemic three times over the last four years.

Despite such rehearsals and the warnings of experts, many governments have been caught on the back foot by COVID-19. Countries that were considered to have an excellent capacity for pandemic response — the US and UK had been ranked highest among 195 countries’ ability to prevent and mitigate pandemics in 2019 — have found themselves floundering.

With the world plunged into uncertainty, how do we navigate the turmoil of the current pandemic and look beyond the crisis, into a future that is hard to picture clearly? Read more