Dots that I haven’t joined yet

I’m momentarily at rest in my beloved Brisbane, with the sun blazing down in December and bushfires on the news and Leila Taylor’s book Darkly to read.

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Taylor’s book, subtitled Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, blends memoir and criticism to explore the places where African-American history, culture, and experience meet the Gothic – from The Castle of Otranto through Edgar Allan Poe to Marilyn Manson.

I’m back in Australia helping organisations to look at their future and imagine what might await them in years to come, using scenario planning. This is a method by which, instead of trying to predict what’s coming, we co-create plausible visions of the future which challenge our current assumptions. Successful scenarios are not judged by whether they come to pass, but whether they trouble, complicate, and enrich our thinking.

And the dots which I can’t quite join yet became visible when I read this, in Darkly: “Gothic narratives were (and still are) a means of working through the discomfort of a changing world through the safety of fiction.”

Which is so close to what scenarios do as to blur the edges of the two concepts. In scenario planning we talk about avoiding the “brutal audit” of a crisis by rehearsing for the things you can’t, or don’t want to, see coming through your current framing of the world.

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IMAJINE pilot workshops: the future of spatial justice

Our IMAJINE team working on scenario planning for the future of regional inequality and territorial cohesion in the European Union has held its first pilot workshops on the West Coast of Ireland.

Researchers and regional officials joined NUI Galway’s Marie Mahon and myself at the Teagasc Rural Economy Research Centre in Athenry. There, we trialled fast, practical foresight tools allowing participants to sketch roadmaps of the futures which may await them.

The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, which we’re using to structure these sessions, allows us to identify and develop plausible scenarios which serve to test assumptions and reframe the way participants look at the future. By imagining the most difficult or surprising circumstances a community might face, we seek to develop a playbook of strategies for emergent issues in territorial inequality and spatial justice.

The IMAJINE project continues through 2021 and incorporates Europe-wide foresight alongside deeply local engagement with policymakers and other stakeholders. Stay tuned for more updates.

The Digitalisation of Education: Foresight Work at the University of Oslo

On 28 October, the University of Oslo Media & Communications Department brought together researchers, educators, publishers, and representatives of the tech sector & not-for-profits to begin the work of building scenarios that test assumptions about the future of education in Norway.

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I facilitated an iterative process generating three visions of Norwegian society in years to come, exploring social, technological, cultural and economic change – always seeking to capture factors and possibilities which lay beyond the current framing of Norway’s educational future.

This workshop was only the beginning of an ambitious future-facing research programme at the Media & Communications Department, but I hope to be able to share materials with you in due course.

IMAJINE: The Future of Spatial Justice

I’m pleased to announce I’ll be joining the EU-funded IMAJINE project on spatial injustice and territorial inequality.

Part of Horizon 2020, the biggest EU research and innovation programme ever, I’ll be working with a team of international researchers to design and deliver a participatory scenario-building process across 2019 and 2020.

We’ll be helping interested parties from across Europe to develop and present a set of future scenarios which will challenge today’s assumptions. Our work will complement IMAJINE’s substantial portfolio of empirical research into the geographical inequalities which exist within Europe, building capacity for foresight and strategic action.

Wide-angle lens shot of the Atomium from near its base
Atomium in Brussels, by Wikipedia user Mcsdwarken – CC BY-SA 3.0

#NotEnoughSciFi: Writing Futures with Jasper Fforde at the Brisbane Writers Festival

The British novelist Jasper Fforde joined attendees of the Brisbane Writers Festival in Queensland, Australia to explore the creation of plausible, intriguing imaginary worlds in a half-day workshop.

Fforde is known for eclectic genre-bending novels including the Thursday Next series, which follow the exploits of a woman who is able to cross the boundary between literature and her reality.

I was interested to see if Fforde’s work could be useful for strategists and foresight professionals trying to craft evocative visions of the futures we might inhabit. Although his stories tend to be set in wild and comic universes, his workshop had more than a few nuggets of wisdom for people trying to imagine futures they could strategically act on.

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This is Wack: Fun, wise, and practical strategic foresight

If you’ve been following my exploration of strategy and foresight tools, especially scenario planning and the Value-Creating Systems approach, you might have seen or heard me talking about Pierre Wack.

This French business executive brought a philosophical approach influenced by Sufi mysticism into the oil industry, and changed the way businesses look at the future by pioneering the use of scenarios at Royal Dutch Shell. As the Economist put it, “So successful was he that the Anglo-Dutch oil giant was able to anticipate not just one Arab-induced oil shock during [the 1970s], but two.

Following Wack’s retirement from industry, he taught at Harvard Business School and contributed to the development of South Africa’s post-apartheid future through scenario planning.

The Saïd Business School’s Oxford Futures Library includes Wack’s archive, and they’ve posted a video of one of his 1980s lectures online.

The video quality isn’t great, but the lecture is easy to follow and it remains an elegant, relevant, and compelling articulation of how scenarios benefit any organisation that wants to think about its future.

You can watch the full 55-minute video above or watch Wack’s lecture directly on Vimeo. I’ve included some bullet points and intepretation from my viewing below – to whet your appetite for the full lecture, or to offer you a summary. (Just remember, as Wack might say, there are no short cuts to wisdom).

  • “To create, rather than just preserve, value, a firm must discover the forces at work in its social, technological, and economic world and move to make those forces work for it rather than against it” – Wack citing Richard Rummelt
  • Most of the time, forecasts are quite good. This is what makes them so dangerous: forecasts fail you just when you need them most. Forecasts fail to anticipate major changes and major shifts in the context in which you operate.
  • Scenarios are devices for ordering one’s perceptions about alternative environments in which one’s decisions might be played out.
  • Strategies derive from our mental model of the world. We plan, not in order to create a document full of forecasts, but to change the mental map of decisionmakers and make us take responsibility for our worldview. A scenario doesn’t need to be “proven right” as a prediction, it needs to usefully change your mental model.
  • You only need scenario planning when the speed of change of the business environment is faster than your own speed of reaction.
  • The most dangerous forecasters are those who have just been proven right, because most probably they were right for the wrong reason.
  • Usually there will be a “surprise-free scenario” – the future which management expects. Scenario planners should include this in their offer so that their presentations do not seem threatening. It is usually easy to show how fragile the surprise-free scenario is, however.
  • Scenario planning is not crystal ball gazing, it is about working out the implications of events which have already happened and are still emerging. If heavy rain falls at the upper part of the Ganges basin, then you’ll see the consequences in two days time downstream at Rishikesh; in three or four days at Allahabad; and then at Benares two days after that. You are recognising the future implications of events which have already occurred – and your focus should be on understanding the forces which drive the system.
  • Understanding these factors is key. At Shell, articulating the scenarios – the future visions or stories themselves – was a small proportion of the time spent with executives. Once the scenarios had been presented to leaders, the rest of the time focussed on understanding and exploring the factors.
  • Compared to number crunching, scenario planning is fun. It forces planners to take account of a wider context and a richer vision of what awaits them than a mere line on a graph.
  • Scenarios should permit you to exercise your judgment: if this future were to transpire, what would you do about it? Scenarios are intended to inform action, not just generate intellectual interest. They are focussed, reducing complexity, allowing you to be creative with the relevant information.

Read more about Pierre Wack and scenario planning at the Oxford Futures Library.

 

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?

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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.”

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.