The Time of the Surprise: Strategy for the Wooden World

I spoke this week at the Inclusive 2040 event hosted in Plymouth, England, to explore the future of sustainable, equitable growth in that city.

Alongside speakers including Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute, Fiona Tuck of Metro Dynamics, Alexis Bowater OBE, and Tim Sydenham, I presented an interactive session on strategic foresight, drawing on an adapted version of the IMAJINE scenarios.

Britain’s so-called “Ocean City” has been a strategically important naval site for centuries, thanks to its shipyards and dockyards. In exploring the future for the city, we also wanted to acknowledge its long history. Who we have been in the past shapes who we are today, and the potential for who we might need to become tomorrow.

In Plymouth’s naval heyday, the time of the Napoleonic wars, each ship was its own “wooden world”, a microcosm moving through the ocean. The image of a man o’war sailing into battle evokes a particular notion of strategy: directing one’s own organization like a vessel through changing waters, assessing the conditions of the weather and the sea, weighing one’s limited resources, managing the morale of one’s crew, and making judicious choices in combat and competition with other, rival ships.

At times, leading an organization can feel like steering one of the ships pictured in Dominic Serres’ Return of a Fleet into Plymouth Harbour: even in a familiar setting, all is not certain. Some hazards are evident and well-charted; others may lie below the waterline; others still may vary with the conditions of the sea and the sky. Each figure in Serres’ painting, whether on the land or aboard a vessel large or small, will have a different perspective on the waters which the fleet is seeking to successfully navigate.

Such multiple perspectives can prove useful in helping us to understand the three elements which Geoffrey Vickers identified as fundamental to wise decision-making in his book The Art of Judgment:

What is going on? What does it mean for us? And what can we do about it?

Yet our world is different from that of centuries past. The connections and complexities which define it have evolved considerably, as has the speed and quality of communication. Strategizing today involves much more than guiding a single ship, squadron, or fleet in competition against hostile powers.

As Trudi Lang and Richard Whittington write in Harvard Business Review, we must adopt a broad view of strategy, rather than leaders’ traditional approach of “taking the long view and focusing on where they’re going”:

Thinking narrowly, in terms of traditional sectors, industries, or geographies, can limit or blindside an organization. A better approach is to think in terms of systems. Doing so sensitizes leaders to broad changes of context and allows them to bring actors together from many sectors, which in turn enables the creation of new value.

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All he’ll do is die: Deconstructing Comics with Emmet O’Cuana

After writing on scenarios and Gothic fiction recently, I was invited by Emmet O’Cuana of the Deconstructing Comics podcast to talk about the Immortal Hulk comic written by Al Ewing.

We talked about body horror, gender and sexuality, the way that our experiences linger within us, and who has the right to be angry.

It was a good talk. Something like My Dinner with André, but with added gamma radiation and psychodynamics.

You can hear our episode on The Immortal Hulk at the Deconstructing Comics website – and you can hear our previous chat on Marvel’s Iron Man (asking, among other things, “who gets to wear the techno-trousers of capitalism?”) at their site too.

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.

The collective hero?

In Uncanny magazine, Ada Palmer and Jo Walton write about “the protagonist problem“. In stories, who has “the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything?” Who possesses that quality which makes them the one to lead the action, to advance the plot?

“Think of the formula for an action team,” they write. “There might be five characters: the smart one, the strong one, the kid, the love-interest, and…the protagonist, whose distinguishing feature may be described as courage, or a pure heart, or determination, but really comes down to writing, that they’re the one who always lands the final blow.”

(One of the ways we know that Mad Max: Fury Road is the story of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is that she is the one to kill the principal villain. Max, imprisoned as the start of the film as a “blood bag” for his valuable universal donor’s Type O blood, serves the same purpose at the film’s end, when his transfusion prevents Furiosa’s hard-won victory from costing her life).

Palmer and Walton argue that it’s “harmful when people see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people see themselves as protagonists.”

If we feel that we are not protagonists in a world which has them, we may experience

imposter syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunting, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter.

This feeling also causes us, Palmer and Walton argue, to believe that mundane activities such as grassroots organising and even voting lack the power to truly change things, as they do not seem “heroic”. To believe real life has protagonists is to succumb to talk of heroes and villains, the conspiracy theorist’s belief that some secret plan underpins the state of the world, and the notion that acting like a character in a book, film, or videogame is the right way to address the world’s problems.

For those who not only accept that there are real-life protagonists, but believe themselves to be cast in that role, the consequences can be even more troubling: “recklessness, power trips, and […] the expectation that breaking rules is okay so long as it’s you.” Palmer and Walton give the example of people who were not COVID deniers yet felt that their gathering wouldn’t be the one to cause a problem; the rules didn’t apply to them.

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Aesop’s Animals: Truth, Science, and Fable with Jo Wimpenny

What scientific truths lie behind the millennia-old collection of moral tales we know as Aesop’s Fables? Do the stories tell us something about real-life animal behaviour? How do our myths and metaphors match up to the realities of the natural world?

Zoologist Dr. Jo Wimpenny‘s new book Aesop’s Animals explores all of these questions, linking ancient stories to the latest research into animal behaviour, and challenging our assumptions about the animal kingdom.

Jo and I spoke on the eve of the book’s launch.

We might think we know what Aesop’s Fables are, but was there even really a historical Aesop? What do we mean when we talk about “Aesop’s Fables”?

An exact answer isn’t possible: Aesop’s Fables stretch back to something like two thousand five hundred years ago, which we know because certain ancient scholars of the time mentioned the fables in their writing. Those scholars certainly thought there was an Aesop, though it’s a disputed point; a lot of modern historians point to inaccuracies in descriptions of him, which suggest there may not have been a single author who bore that name. Today there are hundreds of fables attributed to Aesop, but some of these may have been created later, building on the existing tales.

The standard view is that Aesop was a slave, who might have been Greek, Turkish or Ethiopian, who created little moral fables, moral messages. They weren’t about animal behaviour, and they weren’t based on science, because science as we know it didn’t exist at that point. They used animal and mythological characters to communicate moral teachings.

The story goes that Aesop won his freedom by being a master storyteller – that he used his wit and intelligence to entertain and educate people, impressing those in power into granting him his freedom.

The basis for my book is less about whether Aesop was a real person, and more about this very real collection of stories which verifiably does date back to the ancient world.

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“Why would you write it if you’ve already solved it?”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 3

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

You can read the first part and second part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about loss, change, her goals as a writer, and the histories of secret writing in her own family.

M: The book is so steeped in grief, and it’s a theme we see elsewhere in your writing; the play Phantasmagoria has this question, for example, “Do the dead truly leave us?”

How did grief come to the forefront in this particular novel?

C: Don’t you think that ageing is a kind of grief? We betray our younger selves, our ideas of who we were or what we wanted, as we move on in time. I’ve lost some dear people who are close to me, people who died suddenly and young, so I have a little more of that shock of grief than some — but I think that in any kind of long-term relationship, what people don’t tell you about marriage is that there is a slow betrayal of whoever you were on your wedding day. I think that if there’s not, you’re doing it wrong! 

You need to become another person when you make this commitment, and you’re very lucky if you can change alongside your partner in a way that you get to rediscover one another. I don’t really know how we manage to promise anyone else anything, except to be clear, and true, and kind.

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“Leap, and the net will appear”: Interview with Chana Porter, Part 2

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

You can read the first part of our interview here, or check out the complete text now as a PDF download. In this instalment, Chana talks about her practice as a writer and its connection to her experience as a person who stutters, and reflects on questions of point-of-view, identity, and appropriation raised by The Seep.

M: I was reading about your play Leap and the Net Will Appear. You talk about the play coming to you after a silent retreat. I wondered about what the balance between writing-as-inspiration and writing-as-carpentry was for you?

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“A wonderful way to tell yourself a story” – Interview with Chana Porter, Part 1

Playwright, novelist, and education activist Chana Porter joined me to talk about her new novel The Seep

In the book, Porter imagines an alien invasion of an unusual kind. The Seep find their way into the Earth’s ecosystem and cause every living being on the planet to become connected. “Capitalism falls, hierarchies and barriers are broken down; if something can be imagined, it is possible.”

Trina Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, is the book’s protagonist. An artist who retrains as a doctor after the invasion, she cherishes “the casual overthrow of everything that had felt codified but broken for so long“ — until her partner Deeba decides to use the Seep’s power to be reborn as a baby, moving on to a new life. The book follows Trina along her spiral of grief as she begins a strange quest in a transformed world.

Our conversation touched not just on the novel, but also Porter’s plays and her work as an education activist. She is a founder of the Octavia Project which brings together young women and trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary teens to create speculative fictions offering “new futures and greater possibilities for our world”, blending creative writing, art, science, and technology.

Part 1 of the interview is below, or you can read the whole thing right now as a PDF transcript.

I began by asking Chana about her first glimpse of the idea that became The Seep.

C: There’s a secret book that probably no-one will ever see, written from the point of view of a teenager in my hometown. 

I was really intrigued by this concept of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers style alien takeover, without it being a cut-and-dried thing of “This is good, this is bad.” This is also the feeling I have when I watch the 1978 Body Snatchers movie; it feels so brutal because we don’t really understand what these beings are feeling or what they care about, but the more that we understand as a scientific community about how trees communicate with each other, and protist communications, the more we question: what is alive? What is a life? What is social? What is a community?

When you use the lens of a horror film to reflect on these issues, when you consider the destruction we have wrought on the planet, it prompts you to ask: what if it’s not bad? 

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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.

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