It’s not about tomorrow, 2: Samuel Delany

In the Winter 2020 issue of The Yale Review, Samuel R. Delany gives twelve short responses to the question “Why I Write”.

Delany is a critic, teacher, and author of fiction both popular and transgressive, most famous for his science fiction writing.

The ninth of his twelve answers speaks to his love of the genre, and also the wider question of why imagining wild futures might make us wiser in the present.

Delany writes, of his preference for science fiction over stories of the everyday:

“I think what happens with mundane or naturalist fiction is that these characters succeed or fail in what they try to do, but they succeed or fail against the background of the real world so that their successes are always some form of adjusting to the real world. Their failures are always a matter of being defeated by the real world.”

For those of us who help people make better decisions by telling stories of the future, this “real world” is like the perspective of a decisionmaker who thinks themselves utterly pragmatic and realistic.

Their assumptions are those commonly held in their time and context; their decisions are based on the seemingly firm ground of evidence and data; they see the world through a frame which is widely held by their peers to be “right” for the present moment. They see their successes and failures as being a matter of how well or poorly they adjust to meet this reality.

Yet it cannot be the whole story. If everyone in your peer group is looking through the same frame, they will all have the same blind spot. If you rely on numbers – the reduction of complexity to countable simplicity – you will lose valuable information; quantitative indicators are, after all, not objective facts, but tools designed for specific functions, with all the benefits and limitations that implies. The practices which make you feel comfortable in your decisionmaking will also bind and limit you, both in terms of what you can see might happen and what you might choose to do.

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It’s not about tomorrow, 1: Ursula Le Guin

In the introduction to her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes that “Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. ‘If this goes on, this is what will happen.'”

“A prediction is made”, she continues:

“Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.”

Le Guin writes that “it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.”

The same might be said for those of us whose work includes scenario planning. It’s not about knowing what will happen tomorrow, or even having a sense of what’s probable. What you’re really doing is imagining different tomorrows in order to change your perspective on today: informing decisions in the here and now.

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“2050 was last year”: Times of COVID-19

Together with the University of Oslo’s Dr. Steffen Krüger, I’ve written a short piece on the Norwegian education scenarios, set thirty years hence, which we published at the start of this year – plus how the COVID-19 pandemic both confirmed some of our insights and challenged our perceptions.

Seeking an imagined future that would threaten a data-driven, corporatised health and care system, we created a world with distinct similarities to Norway’s coronavirus experience in 2020. In the essay, we talk about our scenarios, the cabin fever of homeschooled lockdown days, and how to bring the stuff of dystopian sci-fi into the realm of plausible policy discussion.

You can read “2050 was last year”, at the Times of COVID-19 blog.

Was there ever really one normal? Discussion with Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald

Today’s blog features a discussion between two colleagues, Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald.

Murray helps organisations and leaders in the use of scenario planning to explore the future and its impacts upon current strategy.  He works on understanding disruption, detecting early signals of the emerging future, and developing responses to the changing environment.  Alongside his consulting work, Murray also works in executive education, most recently at Saïd Business School, and has previously led large, complex transformation programmes.

Brendan, director of 641 DI, works to build capacity for the library, government, and not-for-profit sectors in Australia and New Zealand. Formerly Manager of Digital Inclusion at Infoxchange, his focus is digital & social inclusion, its ability to reduce social isolation and loneliness in community. Working with clients across Australia and New Zealand including Hitnet, Grow Hope Foundation, State Library of New South Wales, LIANZA, City of Newcastle Libraries, and the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, 641 DI delivers research and project evaluation services, digital inclusion planning and practice, as well as strategic consultation.

Last month, Murray & Brendan got together for a wide ranging discussion covering foresight, localism, their experiences in different sectors on opposite sides of the world, and even the nature of change itself.

Murray: 

Some topics we might discuss: How things are changing, how change itself has changed, and how we might use scenarios to attend to things we haven’t looked at before. There are never any facts in the future – but that’s more apparent than ever now, isn’t it?

Brendan:

I think it’s also important to look back; to consider those things in the past that you bring with you into the present – or leave behind. One of the things I know we’ve both been pondering: was there actually a “normal” in the first place?

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An empathy for the future: Interview with Sara Gry Striegler and Oskar Stokholm Østergaard, Danish Design Centre

Today I’m joined by Sara Gry Striegler and Oskar Stokholm Østergaard of the Danish Design Centre to talk about their work developing design approaches which allow people, communities, companies, and organisations to better understand the futures which may await them.

Sara is Programme Director at the Centre, leading their Future Welfare work, and Oskar is Project Manager for a range of ventures including the new Living Futures scenario toolkit.

Matt: The Design Centre has had an evolving role and remit since it was founded in 1978. What’s it been like, coming to the point where the Centre is using design as a futures-oriented tool?

Oskar: We’re currently in the process of finalising our own new strategy, with a focus on being mission-oriented and finding ways to not only create growth through design practices, methods, and mindsets, but also help in solving systemic issues at a wider level. We are becoming more systems-oriented in that sense, and the futures work helps us to tackle those big issues, pulling back from a narrow focus on using design to solve particular issues in isolation, one at a time. 

Futures thinking flips that focus on its head; we try to take in the broader lines first, and then consider where we want to go – or where we want to avoid going! – in the future.

Image courtesy of Danish Design Centre
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The IMAJINE Project: Scenario Discussions on the Conversation & Ireland’s Moncrieff Show

Last week, I guested on Sean Moncrieff’s show, broadcast by Ireland’s Newstalk Radio, talking about the IMAJINE project’s scenarios for the future of European regional inequality.

What will the difference between the haves and have-nots of the EU look like a generation from now? IMAJINE’s scenarios present four different, plausible, provocative answers to that question.

You can hear our quarter-hour discussion in its own standalone episode of the Moncrieff podcast, at the Newstalk website, on Spotify, or Apple Podcasts.

NUI Galway’s Marie Mahon and I have also written a short article on the initial IMAJINE scenario sketches, which is up at The Conversation: you can check out “Climate-protected citadels, virtual worlds only for the privileged: is this the future of inequality?” there.

The Important Thing Is Elsewhere

The Family Tree

Before all this, I went to my grandfather’s house in Spain. I’d never really liked it. It wasn’t the house he’d lived in as I grew up, which was just down the road from the new place. That had been the house of memories, the place where my grandmother had died before I was born.

He bought the new place when it was time to find a smaller, more manageable property, as he entered his eighties and I my twenties. I worked with him on both houses, helping him to do up the old one and improve the new. I painted walls white and coated tiles with red rubber sealant; mixed cement and ferried endless wheelbarrows of it to wherever he was working that day. He chided me for my cement mixing technique, for the way I handled a paintbrush or a pickaxe, the way I clambered up and down ladders and scaffolding, fetching tools and materials. It was the happiest time.

He died, digging over the garden of the new property with a rotorvator, when I was 23. He’d have been glad to go that way; he’d always talked of “falling off his perch” rather than a dreaded slow decline, and even when we were working together on the new place, he’d still pull stunts like climbing into the tree he was pruning, clinging to the branch above him while standing on the one below, which he was sawing off, jumping up and down to speed the process.

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Life After Missions: Hindsight for the Next Big Thing

Societal challenges are complex. More complex than going to the moon, which was mainly a technical feat. To solve them requires attention to the ways in which socio-economic issues interact with politics and technology, to the need for smart regulation, and to the critical feedback processes that take place across the entire innovation chain.

Mariana Mazzucato, Mission-Oriented Research & Innovation In The European Union

Every strategy, every approach, every angle of attack that we take in life – whether individually or as a collective – has its moment. Insurgents become incumbents, if they succeed; and the most novel or surprising innovations will, in time, become yesterday’s news.

The UK’s Wellcome Trust has just launched a new strategy built around three global challenges.

Wellcome is far from the only organization taking this approach. Using challenges to structure strategy echoes the new trend towards “mission-led innovation”, where systemic public policies draw on grassroots and frontline knowledge to attain specific goals. Whether it’s clean air in congested cities, continued independence in a healthy old age, or the challenges of cancer, climate change, and digital exclusion, missions are intended to help us apply big thinking to big problems – setting a clear direction for innovation while still enabling bottom-up solutions.

I think the mission-led approach is really promising, and I’ve been pleased to collaborate with organisations like Business Finland and Nesta as they explore what mission-setting might look like for them. But I’m also realistic about the limits of any one approach to ever serve as a panacea for the ills of our time. Inevitably, even the best strategies will have gaps and blindspots; no human endeavour escapes the need for tradeoffs, and omniscience is still an attribute which eludes us.

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Thinking Through Drawing 2020: Drawing Changes

I was pleased to join the Thinking Through Drawing (TTD) community for their 2020 symposium, Drawing Changes, last week, and present some work on visual methods for scenario planning.

The TTD community explore links between drawing and cognition, and it was great to bring their perspective to bear on the question of how we might usefully draw the future to inform our decisions in the present.

The session was well received – here are some comments from attendees:

I was surprised by my choices and solutions.”
“It’s like drawing [scenarios] aids the process of giving permission to do the decision you really want to give attention to…”
“And drawing give us the physical cues as we draw – tension, chills, etc. Important info.”
“And you can examine the “players” as fictional characters, allowing for new insights.”
“For me the diagram is a process functional tool, this is illuminating in thinking of it in relation to decision making not just areas of charting or organising existing knowledge.”
“I allowed myself to think ‘worst case scenario’ in every area. Made me realise I would carry on even in black dog days.”
“The visual metaphors in a Gantt chart force your thinking, whereas this coaxes.”
“It made me reflect on a decision I thought was made, but I am actually still wavering on.”
“The process got me to think bigger. What started as a creative project became wanting to change a bad situation. I think the creative project is still important but imagining what I want to change is crucial.”

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Unscripted Futures: 2020 OsloMet Urban Research Conference

I’ll be co-presenting two projects at next week’s “Storbykonferansen” Urban Research Conference, hosted by Oslo Metropolitan University.

The conference’s “Unscripted Futures” session seeks to:

“explore how radically open futures can be constructed and how we can secure that future scenarios are not locked into the premises of today. The aim is not to simply celebrate the openness of the future, but to create a space for developing experiments, for proposing alternative possibilities and constructing new futures, and then studying and discussing their implications and consequences ‘on the ground’.”

Marie Mahon of NUI Galway and I will discuss “Unscripting Europe”: Using Future Scenarios to Rethink EU Territorial Inequalities, exploring the scenarios being developed by the Horizon 2020 IMAJINE project.

Inequality isn’t just a question of measuring the current distance between the haves and have-nots, then checking whether that distance increases or decreases. It’s also about changing forms of privilege and injustice, changing values, and a changing social context. How can plausible imagined futures help us to better understand the nature of inequality?

Then, David Robertson of Monash University and I will talk about Playing With The Futures You Didn’t See Coming: High-Agency Participatory Scenario Activities, On and Offline.

David & I will be looking at what it means to create truly playful activities and encounters where participants can surprise the facilitators, formats can be broken or rebuilt during use, and new ideas can arise. We’ll talk about the infamous Library Island game, as well as some of its successor experiments from the era of Zoom and COVID lockdown.

You can read all the abstracts from the session at the Storbykonferansen website (PDF download), and I hope you’ll join us online for what promises to be a lively set of discussions. Find out more, and register for the conference, here.