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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The Only Winning Move: Interview with Peter Scoblic, Part 1

Dr. Peter Scoblic is a co-founder and principal of the strategic foresight consultancy Event Horizon Strategies. A former executive editor at The New Republic and Foreign Policy who has written on foresight for publications including the New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, and Harvard Business Review, Peter is also a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America, and an instructor for the Professional Development Program at Harvard University. Previously, he was deputy staff director of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he worked on approval of the New START agreement and was the chief foreign policy speechwriter for Chairman John Kerry.

On the eve of a particularly fraught election and a turbulent moment in US political history, Peter joined me for a discussion about his career, ranging from post-Cold War nuclear arms policy to the relationship between policymaking and pop culture, plus the practical question of how and to what extent we can usefully predict the future. The interview will appear on this blog in three parts, but you can read it in its entirety as a PDF download here.

I began by asking Peter if he’d always been ambitious to work in foreign policy.

Foreign policy is something I’ve always been interested in, especially national security work, and particularly nuclear weapons work. There’s been a wonky streak running through me over the years, often focussed on these dark existential issues.

It goes back to being a child of the 80s; I believe the second movie I ever saw was War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, in which a teen hacks into the computers of NORAD, the aerospace defence command. I was probably too young to see it and the experience, combined with the actual headlines of that decade, planted a seed which I was able to explore as a student at Brown. 

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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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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?

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The Sense of an Ending: Stories, Shapes, & Scenarios During COVID-19

Doesn’t it feel as if this pandemic might go on forever? Do you have any sense of whether we’re at the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the middle, or the beginning of the end?

Doesn’t it feel like everyone is yearning for something that gives these events shape, an arc, a trajectory, a sense that we will come eventually – by vaccine, or treatment, or policy, or simple resignation – to something that we can label as “the end of the COVID era”?

Even the phrase “the new normal” seems somehow plaintive, as if it only wished that we could settle on a final state of affairs which would mark the end of all this flux and uncertainty. Even if a single, solid “new normal” ever arrives, we’ll be paying the price for COVID for years to come.

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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.