One of the purposes of good futures work should be “to make the future strange,” to push people out of their assumption that what is normal now will go on being normal in the future. One of my favourite exercise for this is Douglas Coupland’s “Reverse Time Capsule“, published in Wired magazine in the 1990s, that listed things in the present that would have seemed unlikely, or worse, 20 years previously. One favourite example from his list: the Japanese luxury car.
When I run workshops, I sometimes get people to bring objects that would have seemed unlikely in the mid-1990s, while discouraging the obvious consumer-techno choices. Having re-read some of the early history of the AIDS epidemic recently, and the way in which it wasn’t taken that seriously at first because the main victims were gay men and drugs users, in 2016 gay marriage seems a strong candidate for the current reverse time capsule.
The past is strange
But it’s also useful to remind people that the past is also strange, and there were two good examples of this in Bill Bryson’s book on Shakespeare, which I cantered through recently, both on the colour black.
The first is that black clothes, as seen in this portrait (probably) of Shakespeare, were a sign of wealth and status. The reason for this was that black dyes were much more expensive than other dyes. This was at a time when–according to James Wallman’s book *Stuffocation*–it took two months’ work to make a shirt, which would cost the equivalent of arounf £2,000 ($3,000) at current prices.
The second is more surprising. Sugar arrived in Britain in the Elizabethan period, but again it was expensive, and therefore only the well-off could afford it. The result: they ended up with blackened teeth (dentistry didn’t catch up until a few hundred years later). So the less affluent would blacken their teeth to pretend that they too could afford sugar, and were therefore wealthier than they were.
The image of Shakespeare is from Wikimedia. It was painted sometime between 1600 and 1610, perhaps by John Taylor.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge marks its 200th anniversary this year, and has a small exhibition of prints connected by that date: some from Turner’s print series Liber Studiorum, of British and European landscapes, some from Goya’s bullfighting series La tauromaquia, and Peter Cornelius’ Faust series.
1816 was also “the year without a summer”, following the vast volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year. According to the curators’ notes for the exhibition, written by Elenor Ling and Amy Marquis,
swathes of volcanic gas were thrust 40km skywards into the stratosphere, far above any rainclouds that could have sped up their dispersal. These gases and particles circled the planet and played havoc with the world’s weather systems.
James Meek offered a different account of the Robin Hood story in his recent London Review of Books lecture at the British Museum. Essentially, he argued that the underlying idea of Robin Hood, the apparently progressive notion that “he takes from the rich to give to the poor,” had been captured by pro-austerity politicians and rewritten as a story about the evils of tax.
Meek’s text has now been published by the paper, along with a recording of the lecture. In this post I’ve improvised a little around his argument before adding some reflections of my own.
The release of The Big Short, which I saw last week, gives me a moment to connect it with another film that bookends the long financial crisis that started in the 1980s. I watched Trading Places again recently 30 years after it was released, and with the benefit of hindsight it seems like a harbinger for the “gilded age” and its less gilded aftermath.
The distinguished artist and illustrator David Gentleman gave this year’s Kelmscott’s Lecture last month, and he used the occasion to look back at his own career for points of contact with William Morris. I thought I knew his work quite well (when I was a television producer I worked briefly with him on a short film based on his book A Special Relationship) but the range of the work he shared during the lecture was, frankly, stunning. Everything from a huge number of stamps to the Penguin New Shakespeare covers to Charing Cross Station to political posters to his more conventional illustrated books.
Listening to his talk, I think I discerned three themes that Morris would have recognised.
I have a friend who was an historian before he became a health service manager, and he wrote a paper (which has never been put online, as far as I can see) which argued that the NHS had been trapped in its moment of birth. By that he meant that it never escaped the contradictions that had to be resolved to create it. We can see the same thing in the current Labour Party split over Syria.
The Futures Company has been collaborating with the Association of Finnish Work for more than eighteen months on the idea of “High Value Work”. We define this as work that is productive (it creates new value); that is durable (it creates value over time); and work that is inclusive (it spreads value beyond the business — or the C-suite. This combination, based on the emerging post-crisis literature, also creates work that is meaningful, for employees and customers.
In the first of our four reports on High Value Work, we identified four routes to it. These are service innovation, based on a full understanding of the customer and their needs; value in authenticity, based on on a full understanding of cultural context; resource innovation, based on a full understanding of material flows; and rich knowledge, based on a full understanding of the technical knowledge held inside the organisation and a method to capture and codify it.
High value businesses combine these; for example, mastery of resource innovation often creates new technical capabilities that lead to new forms of rich knowledge.
What striking about these routes is that they have human capabilities at their heart. Service innovation and value in authenticity are based on relationships, whether human or cultural, while resource innovation and rich knowledge are based on technical processes and technical understanding. People, in short, are at the heart of value.
In my role as editor of Compass, the newsletter of the Association of Professional Futurists, I’ve just put together an anthology on methods, based on the contributions to Compass from APF members and collaborators over the past few years. The result is now available to download on the APF’s website. Compass is normally a membership-only newsletter, but we’ve decided to make this edition available more widely. I think it’s a pretty good collection of some of the newer and emerging methods in the field. Each article (or interview) is by (or with) someone involved in the development of each method.
This is the introduction I wrote for the Anthology:
Where practice and theory meet, innovation often follows. Practitioners resolve difficulties in practice by re-imagining what they do, and developing new approaches. But invention on its own is not enough. To stick, it needs to be reconnected to theory. The why is as important as the what.
This is the story of many of the new and emerging methods collected in this special anthology of articles published first in the APF’s members’ newsletter, Compass. It brings together in one place material on methods published in Compass by APF members and their colleagues and collaborators.
It is a strong collection. Some of these articles are the first published accounts of methods that have real value to futures practice, such as the reframing of wildcards, VERGE, or the Mānoa scenarios method.
Some are accounts of methods that have been documented elsewhere, but in a more academic context.
But all—including the interviews—are intended to be used. These accounts are designed to inspire people to try these approaches for themselves.
Here’s the list of contents:
- Oliver Markley’s new taxonomy of wild card, revised and updated for this edition
- Richard Lum on VERGE
- Bill Sharpe on Three Horizons
- Tony Hodgson on the World Game
- Terry Grim interviewed on the Foresight Maturity Model
- Stuart Candy on The Thing From The Future – article expanded for this edition
- Wendy Schultz on the Manoa Scenarios method
- Dylan Hendricks interviewed on the Systems Methodology Toolkit.
It can be downloaded here.
The image at the top of the post is courtesy of Triarchy Press, and is used with thanks.
One of the striking things about much of the commentary on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership election campaign and victory was the short-term nature of the historical thinking. Mostly, it seems, political memories stop in the early 1980s, when current 60-somethings started work. And some of the political prognosis has bordered on hysteria.
There’s a longer view that might help people understand what is happening.
The political scientist David Runciman has observed that Britain has had political crises every 40 years, for more than a century now. There was one in the 1890s, one in the 1930s, one in the 1970s, and we’re certainly living through one now.