For the “One Thing” library thought leadership series convened by my colleague Brendan Fitzgerald, I wrote a piece on how libraries & information institutions can use scenario planning to address conditions that are turbulent, ambiguous, novel, or unpredictably uncertain.
“Libraries are an institution with a long and storied global history, but their context is transforming too. Our societies’ relationships to fundamental notions of information and trust are subject to change. The social, economic, and political orders within which libraries have survived or thrived are not set in stone.
Library leaders seeking to make sound judgments need to be able to anticipate futures beyond those currently expected or predicted. By stretching our sense of what awaits, we can gain insights from the future before it arrives – rather than having to “learn the hard way” from the brutal audit of real crises and changes.”
Over the next two weeks, I’ll be presenting free lunchtime webinars for New York’s MNYLC, helping people through these turbulent times with a brief introduction to simple tools that help us address issues of uncertainty at an organizational and strategic level.
Over the two hour-long sessions, we’ll look at mapping the uncertainties within a given operating environment, identifying areas of opportunity or concern, and using structured questions to prioritise and develop actions that address those uncertainties. The sessions take place 1-2pm EST on 10th & 17th November.
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.
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 belooking 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.
I think one of the hard things about trying something new is figuring out how to work with people’s expectations. When you click that link, do you want to be told a good story? Do you want to be given a good puzzle, with the satisfaction of finding the “right” solution? How much effort should you be expected to put in? How much uncertainty should you experience?
I’ll be talking with Canada’s Rebecca Jones as part of the “Nexter” webinar series next month.
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?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been speaking and exchanging e-mails with the philosopher of science Jerome Ravetz, one of the originators of the notion of Post-Normal Science. This is an approach to science which addresses the wider social context in which scientists and their institutions operate, intended to serve in situations where high-stakes decisions must be made and the environment is characterised by deep uncertainty.
Given that definition, what could be more “post-normal” than our experience of 2020? Jerome and I had a long chat which covered the pandemic and our response to it, warring traditions of folk and elite science, philosophy, gender, science fiction, truth & reconciliation, and electoral politics.
Matt: So, what does an exponent of post-normal science make of the current pandemic?
For a while, the uncertainties and complexities diagnosed by the post-normal science approach have been coming in from the margins, until right now they’re almost in the mainstream of thought and discussion. Once that happens, it will open new possibilities – and new problems. Read more →
I find Ravetz’s approach thought-provoking, pragmatic, and deeply relevant to the present moment. It attends to questions of uncertainty and emphasises that science itself is situated within complex social, political, cultural, and economic contexts. Especially when we find ourselves being told that, for example, decisions on quarantine and lockdown measures are being “guided by the science” under contested circumstances, it’s worth getting your head around the idea of “post-normal science.”
Post-normal science is a way of rethinking science for situations – and eras – in which facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. It recognises that the social and political dimensions of science cannot be sidelined, isolated, or ignored.
The increasingly complex systems of today’s world are threatened by environmental catastrophe, pollution, and other incidents, like the COVID-19 outbreak, which are exacerbated by the technologies sustaining our way of life.
Science must therefore find new ways to cope with contradiction, uncertainty, and an ever-wider political conversation featuring a wide range of perspectives. It must now address the problems of a global system which itself was based on science.