Hopper/Vermeer: Things that never quite were

New York’s Whitney Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on Edward Hopper’s New York, which I visited on a recent trip.

As the exhibition blurb puts it, for Hopper “New York was a city that existed in the mind as well as on the map, a place that took shape through lived experience, memory, and the collective imagination.”

The show is especially satisfying for its use of newly acquired archives, showing how Hopper and his wife Josephine Nivison Hopper collaborated in a lifetime of artistic production.

Works like New York Movie are exhibited alongside preparatory studies and sketches as well as photographs from some of the real-life locations the artists visited as part of their creative process.

We see just how fictive Hopper’s New York was: scenes created from amalgamation of multiple locations, with imaginary additions or even omissions, creating a city-that-never-was which is nonetheless powerfully evocative of New York specifically and a certain quality of mid-twentieth-century American life more generally.

I’m always seduced by sketches; I love it when people show their working. You can see the traces of their choices, the possibilities they pursued and then abandoned, especially when the artist is “thinking through drawing”.

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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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“Que sera, sera?” — anticipating change in a time of uncertainty

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.

Albert Bierstadt, A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie

“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.”

Read more from my piece here.

“Where Do We Go From Here?”: Fundamentals of Design for Uncertainty at MNYLC

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.

You can find out more about the webinars at the MNYLC website.

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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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 The Writing Platform

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 spoke with Simon Groth of The Writing Platform about my most recent interactive text, The Library of Last Resort.

Windblade toy on the planning wall at State Library of Queensland

We talked about strategy and foresight, audience and agency, libraries and information (inevitably), and also learning from the wonder, freedom, and richness of children’s play.

It was a good chat. Check it out over at the Writing Platform website.

“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?
 

Post-normal science in the time of COVID-19: Discussion with Jerome Ravetz

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.

JerryRavetz
Jerry Ravetz, by Wikipedia user Saltean – CC BY-SA 4.0

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.

You can read the full transcript of our chat as a PDF download here, but some extended highlights appear below.

Matt:
So, what does an exponent of post-normal science make of the current pandemic?

Jerry:
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

Getting Your Head Around Post-Normal Science

Something of a long read on the blog today. I first came across Jerome Ravetz’s work in his 2011 piece on feral futures co-written with Rafael Ramírez in the journal Futures. In that piece, the authors argue that complex, uncertain issues such as environmental disasters can be made worse by conventional risk-based thinking. I think through some of the ways in which this is important for us to consider in 2020 in this blog, “Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming.

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.”

Today, I want to go through some of the key points articulated in Ravetz’s 2006 No-Nonsense Guide to Science and the updated 2020 version of his landmark 1993 essay with Silvio O. Funtowicz, “Science for the Post-Normal Age“. Check those texts out, if you want to go deeper.

Defenders of the Truth
Climate Marchers, by Wikipedia user Mark Dixon CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

Why “post-normal”?
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