thenextwave

Grenfell Tower, predictable surprises and slow violence

Posted in future, politics by thenextwavefutures on 19 June, 2017

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A predictable surprise has six characteristics, according to Bazerman and Watkins, who wrote a book on the subject.[1]

  1. Leaders knew that a problem existed and that it would not solve itself.
  2. Predictable surprises can be expected when organisational members (and/or stakeholders) recognise that a problem is getting worse over time.
  3. Fixing the problem would incur significant costs in the present, while the benefits of action would be delayed.
  4. Related to (3), measures to avoid predictable surprises require costs that constituencies will notice, but leaders are not rewarded or recognised for the disasters they helped to avert.
  5. Decision makers fail to prepare for predictable surprises because of a desire to maintain the status quo.
  6. A small and vocal minority benefits from inaction and is motivated to subvert the actions of leaders for their own private benefit.

The Postnormal Futures Institute has a similar concept, originally formulated by Vinay Gupta. The black elephant is a cross between a ‘black swan‘ and an elephant in the room, or, in Gupta’s words, “an event which is extremely likely and widely predicted by experts, but people attempt to pass it off as a black swan when it finally happens.[2]

The Grenfell Tower tragedy seems to match all of these conditions. The Observer journalist Jamie Doward has written an exhaustive piece this weekend outlining the multiple ways in which Grenfell Tower was a disaster waiting to happen. (The article is headlined ‘Chronicle of a tragedy foretold’, which you can read both as a nod towards Gabriel Garcia Marquez and also a suggestion that a big fire at a social housing block, somewhere in the UK, was ‘overdetermined‘.) It is a grim litany, and I am not going to diminish it by summarising it here. It is worth noting that he traces the first warnings on cladding to the 1990s; by the end of the decade the risks were widely flagged to local authorities by a House of Commons select committee.

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Some things I learned from GE2017 [1 of 2]

Posted in politics by thenextwavefutures on 12 June, 2017

Obviously the dust is still swirling around the election, since it has thrown up more questions than answers. And we’re still waiting for some of the actual election data about turnout and so on. But there are some initial conclusions that can be drawn. This is the first of two posts, since I tried to write it as one post and it got far too long.
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The new politics of place

Posted in economics, politics by thenextwavefutures on 20 April, 2017

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I’m delighted to say that I have the lead article in the latest issue of the Journal of Futures Studies, which published at the weekend.

It’s called “The City, the Country and the New Politics of Place.” It connects the rise of populist politics with the development of a smaller group of high value or core urban/metropolitan labour markets as a result of the rise of the tech-led services and knowledge economy foreshadowed by Alvin Toffler and Daniel Bell. I plan to write more on this, but for the moment here’s the abstract.

Much of the current discussion of the present populist moment in politics has explored issues of social values and economic inequality. In their different ways, these are relevant, but I argue here that they are symptoms of a wider set of changes in society. The prevailing political divisions identified in the Brexit referendum in the UK, the US 2016 Presidential election, and the Austrian 2016 presidential election, suggest a sharper divide between core cities and the rest than previously, which is creating a new politics of place. The roots of this lie in the economic transformations that have occurred as a result of the so-called ‘third wave’ of industrialisation, and the transition to economies based on services and knowledge.

However, these are transformations that are incomplete. The changing nature of work, reward, and consumption that the third wave has engendered is opening up new arguments about the purpose of work. Some of these arguments would have been regarded as utopian a generation ago, but are now entering mainstream discourse. The article also proposes a schematic to understand the political changes this is creating, following the work of Ian Christie, and identifies some implications for the short-term.

The article started life as a contribution to a Symposium on post-Trump politics, but got too long for that section. The Symposium is included in the same issue of the JFS, and includes articles from some distinguished futurists.  The contents list is here.

“The Country, the City and the New Politics of Place” can be downloaded from here.

Image from Death to Stock Photo.

Article 50 and after

Posted in politics by thenextwavefutures on 2 April, 2017

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The triggering of Article 50 marks the end of the political stand-off that has been the dominant feature of British politics since the Brexit referendum last June: a stand-off between our elected representatives on the one hand and “the will of the people,” as expressed in the referendum vote, on the other. Between the end of June and the end of March, any party with something to lose has had to go along with a show of respecting the referendum result, whatever they thought of it. Scotland too, although this has a different tint there. (The obvious exception is Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats, but in 2016-17 they have nothing left to lose.)

So politics can start up again now, with differences on the terms of Brexit, and we saw this as early as last Sunday, when Labour’s Keir Starmer popped up on the Andrew Marr show to make a robust defence of “soft Brexit”, and on Wednesday when by all accounts Andrew Neil gave May the toughest interview of her Prime Ministerial career.

It’s also the last point at which May has any control of her Premiership, and there must be a question about how many of her senior civil servants have pointed this out to her and her ministers over the last few months.

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Hans Rosling, 1948-2017

Posted in data, Uncategorized by thenextwavefutures on 9 February, 2017

Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician who transformed the way we think about development and data, died this week of pancreatic cancer, at the relatively young age of 68. I haven’t got the time to do a proper tribute to him, but Gap Minder, the research group to which he devoted the last ten years of his life, has assembled a formidable collection of resources which show how wealth and life expectancy have been transformed over the short and the long run.

The youtube video at the top of this post, filmed by the BBC, shows Rosling in action, with his 200 year history of the world, which is worth five minutes of anyone’s time.

The chart he’s using there is on the Gap Minder site, and lets you explore the trajectories of different countries or groups of countries. There’s a host of valuable resources on the site, such as the ethnographic work of Dollar Street, going into the homes of people across the world to see what different incomes mean in different places in terms of everyday living standards.

I’ll also miss Rosling’s Twitter contributions, which often were a reminder of how fast fertility rates were falling across the middle-income and lower-income nations of the world. Typically this is far faster than the comparable rate of change at a similar stage in most European countries, and his tweets were a reminder that the rate of global population growth was slowing down rapidly.

 

Revisiting the Ik

Posted in research by thenextwavefutures on 8 February, 2017

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The book club I’m a member of has just read the 1970s anthropology book The Mountain People, by Colin Turnbull. At the time it was a cause célèbre: my wife went to a theatre production at London’s Roundhouse based on it. Since then it’s become more controversial.

The Ik (pronounced Eek) are a group who live in Uganda, close to the Kenyan border. They had, at least by Turnbull’s (contested) account, been a nomadic people, but they had been excluded from most of their lands and had become farmers. They weren’t Turnbull’s first research choice, but he had some funds to spend and permission fell through for the first two locations.

Actually, the Ik weren’t even his first choice once he got to Uganda, and he knew precious little about them even when he arrived. At the start he’s accompanied by two young men from the area who have agreed to act as translators, but they take his money and mislead him, as far as one can tell from the text. The local leader offers to build him a house as a gift, or so he believes, and in no time at all, Turnbull finds he’s paying for a large team of builders to put it up.

Although much of the book is about how farming has reduced the Ik to a desperate plight, and he’s there during a terrible period of famine, he seems both incurious and unobservant. Some customs he observes is great detail (the divorce ritual, for example) while asking few questions beyond it.

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Spending time with Donald

Posted in politics by thenextwavefutures on 19 January, 2017

  
The New Yorker reporter Mark Singer probably qualifies for the adjective “veteran” by now, having joined the magazine in 1974. He wrote a fine book, Funny Money, on the collapse of Penn State Oil in the 1980s. One effect of this long-service is that he’s written several profiles of Donald Trump along the way, which he’s drawn on for Trump & Me, a short book/long read based on the time he’s spent with The Donald. Here’s some notes and extracts:

[T]here is no “new” Trump, just as there was never a “new” Nixon. Rather, all along, there have been several Trumps: the hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit; the knowledgeable builder whose associates awe at his attention to detail; the narcissist whose self-absorption doesn’t account for his dead-on ability to exploit other people’s weaknesses; the perpetual seventeen-year-old who lives in a zero-sum world of winners and “total losers,” loyal friends and “complete scumbags”; the insatiable publicity hound who courts the press on a daily basis and, when he doesn’t like what he reads, attacks the messengers as “human garbage”; the chairman and largest stockholder of a billion-dollar public corporation who seems unable to resist heralding overly optimistic earnings projections, which then fail to materialize, thereby eroding the value of his investment.

Or, in one line,

both slippery and naive, artfully calculating and recklessly heedless of consequences.

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Seven futures from New Scientist 

Posted in future, science by thenextwavefutures on 16 January, 2017


I’ve got round to reading the New Scientist‘s 60th anniversary issue, published in November, which tries to look forward in the general direction of 2076. There are 14 short “What If…” essays, on everything from “What if we engineer new life forms?” (we’ll need a ‘kill’ switch)  to “What if we found a theory of everything?” (it’s a very slow train coming) to “What if we discover room temperature super conductivity?” (it would utterly transform our energy systems).

In this post I’m going to review some of the essays on themes that futurists spend more time on, and pull out some of the ideas.

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Remembering Mark Fisher

Posted in culture, music, politics by thenextwavefutures on 15 January, 2017

markThe theorist Mark Fisher, whose death was announced at the weekend, was one of our most original thinkers about how we experienced late 20th century and early 21st century capitalism. He also wrote honestly about his depression, and sometimes one felt that the two were related: that seeing so clearly the confines that late capitalism imposed on its subjects was too much weight for one person to stand. (Guy Debord suffered in a similar way.)

People have been queuing up today to pay tribute to Fisher and his work, and rightly so: Capitalist Realism is one of the essential texts of the last 10 years: so good, in fact, that I realised recently that I’d bought two copies. His style was also singular in its skill in combining the cultural and the political, a reminder that actually the two can never be separated out, as he demonstrated in his more recent book Ghosts of my Life, which I wrote about here.

In an obituary, the music writer Simon Reynolds, a friend of Fisher’s, described his writing like this:

The exciting thing about Mark’s writing – CCRU era, K-punk era, in magazines like FACT and The Wire, the books – was the feeling that he was on a journey: the ideas were going somewhere,  a gigantic edifice of thought was in the process of construction. That Mark was thinking big, building a system, always aiming for the largest scale. And finally that this work, rigorous and deeply informed as it was, was not academic, in the sense of being done purely for its own sake: its urgency came from his faith that words really could change things. Reading Mark’s writing made everything feel more meaningful, supercharged with significance. It was a rush. An addiction.

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Some more things I know about Trump

Posted in politics by thenextwavefutures on 28 November, 2016
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Photo by Jamelle Bouie/flickr

This is the second of two posts pulling together the strands of what I think I understand about Trump’s win in the US Presidential Election. (The first post is here). The first four things I think I know are:

  • Neo-liberalism just died
  • The long-run theories are best
  • Crises are invisible before they erupt
  • Class matters

Here’s another six thoughts.

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