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.

Interview with Peter Morville: Planning for Everything in Times of COVID-19

Peter Morville is one of the pioneers of information architecture and user experience, working with clients including AT&T, Cisco, Harvard, IBM, the Library of Congress, Macy’s, the National Cancer Institute, and Vodafone. His books include Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Intertwingled, Search Patterns, Ambient Findability and, most recently, Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals.

With a background like that – and more than a quarter of a century’s experience in helping people and organizations to plan – I was keen to talk with Peter about what he was learning from the turbulence of the COVID era. We spoke early in October 2020.

Peter Morville

A man writes a book called Planning for EverythingHow has this year affected your paths and goals?

2020 is a special year, in all sorts of terrifying ways, but I think that the trends towards unpredictability have been growing for us in recent years. It’s not just 2020, right?

In my book, Planning for Everything, one of the biggest encouragements is for people to be mindful of the balance that we strike between planning and improvisation. Even though it’s a book about planning, part of my message is that we should have humility when we think about the future, and our ability to predict or control it.

I remember several years back talking with a friend who was spending some time in Rwanda. She said that, when she was there, it was a country where it was harder to plan that it was in the United States. There were more unexpected things that happened, you couldn’t count on stability, even down to the level of deciding that next Wednesday was going to be a good day for your coffee date, because something might come up.

Stability has been unevenly distributed around the world, probably forever. In countries such as the UK and the United States, many of us have been fortunate to enjoy significant amounts of stability and predictability, where we can say, “I’m going to plan a vacation in three months, or a wedding in nine months.” Many of us have a lifetime of experiencing that the things we plan, happen! 

The last few years have really eroded our sense of confidence in our ability to plan for the future. I would say in the United States right now, I’ve never experienced a period where there’s so much uncertainty, whether that’s from COVID-19, climate change and wildfires, the upcoming presidential election, civil unrest…Planning a vacation three months from now seems a bit crazy!

Sometimes instability creates opportunity as well as jeopardy. Obviously one wouldn’t wish this pandemic on the world, but can you see opportunities arising from the current moment?

Read more

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.

New strategic plan for National & State Libraries Australia

National and State Libraries Australia (NSLA), the peak body for Australia’s national, state, and territory libraries, has just published its new strategic plan.

I was pleased to work with the NSLA team on diagnosing the challenges and opportunities they face, then devising a guiding policy and coordinated actions to lead NSLA and its members into the future.

You can watch NSLA Chair Marie-Louise Ayres and Deputy Chair Vicki McDonald introduce the new plan in this video, and download the new plan here.

“NSLA represents the national, state and territory libraries of Australia – we’ve been running as a collaboration since the 1970s, but it’s always a challenge to strategise for nine different institutions.

We approached Matt to help us shape up a new strategic plan just as the outbreak of COVID-19 was reaching its crescendo around the world. Matt already has a strong reputation and following among our libraries, with deep knowledge of the Australian landscape. With face to face workshops no longer an option, we decided that he was the right person to help us clarify our thinking at a distance, in a context that was changing as quickly as we could verbalise it.

Matt worked one-on-one via Zoom with the NSLA Executive Officer in Melbourne, and facilitated online workshops with the NSLA Chair and Deputy Chair in Canberra and Brisbane. Despite the unfriendly time zone for London, he cheerfully and skilfully shepherded us to find consensus on a series of priorities that could resonate with nine libraries around Australia – all the while asking us why, how, and what if. Matt’s approach was refreshingly accessible and jargon-free. We were reminded through this process that a strategy is much more than a collection of unconnected aspirations, and that the whole is only as strong as its parts.

Matt has been delightful to work with. In a relatively short time, he left us well placed with a strong draft plan to present to our full committee of nine library CEOs, as well as a series of resources and ideas for measuring impact in libraries – all managed from the opposite side of the globe.”

– Dr. Barbara Lemon, Executive Officer, NSLA

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

“Nexter” Webinar with Canadian information professionals, August 13th

I’ll be talking with Canada’s Rebecca Jones as part of the “Nexter” webinar series next month.

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We’ll be discussing questions of leadership for information professionals in these times of strategic uncertainty. How do we rethink community access to information, knowledge, and culture through the COVID era and beyond?
 

“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