Gillian Tett had a column (may need registration) in this weekend’s Financial Times in which she reflected on trying to find a bar in upstate New York to watch one of the Presidential debates. It turned out the bars weren’t keen, and not just because there was a big football game on at the same time. The barmen observed that showing the debate would cause unnecessar rancour between their customers.
She is a good reporter, and once she’d got over her surprise that others were less interested in the debate than she was, she reflected on the experience using her training as an anthropologist.
[O]ur biases are important. And that, in turn, suggests we could all benefit by looking at a concept that I first learnt about when I was studying anthropology: the “dirty lens” problem.
This “dirty lens” tag refers to the idea that when scientists peer at an object through a microscope, their view can be distorted by a clouded lens. In a laboratory, smudges and smears can usually be wiped away with a cloth. But in the social sciences, the “lens” is our mind, ears and eyes, and it is harder to spot and remove our mental smudges. There is no cloth.
There are, however, some exercises you can do to clean the lens.
In anthropology classes at university, we were urged to do four things. First, to take the obvious (but oft-forgotten) step of recognising that our lenses are dirty. Second, to consciously note our biases. Third, to attempt to offset these biases by trying to see the world from different perspectives; we must listen and look without preconception. Last but not least, to remember that our personal lens will never be perfectly clean, even if we take the first three steps. We must be humble and remember the limits of knowledge.
There are some obvious lessons here for futurists as well.
The first modern theorist of the city, Henri Lefebvre, said a couple of things about the city that seem relevant here. I found these in the anthology Restless Cities. First, that to understand the city one must “situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside of it.” And second, that to understand the rhythms of the street, “it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely; be it through illness or a technique.”
A technique, perhaps, like Remote London, an experiential artwork that journeys through the city, and which sets out to unpeel layers of the city by making the familiar strange. It is the latest of a number of “Remote X” events held in different cities in Europe.
The British Library has a brief pop-up exhibition running at the moment marking the 40th anniversary of the explosion of punk in the UK in 1976, and wandering around it made me realise how much punk was an expression of the political and economic crisis of the 1970s.
I was listening to the radio in 1975, and there was some expert blabbing on about how if things go on as they are there’ll be 800,000 people unemployed by 1979, while another guy was saying if that happened there’d be chaos, there’s be actual — anarchy in the streets. *That* was the root of punk.
In fact, unemployment reached a million by July 1977, at the height of the punk moment.
Obviously, there was something cultural going on as well. The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm Maclaren, had been running his King’s Road clothers shop with Vivienne Westwood for several years before the oil shock. Popular music was becoming both bloated and sclerotic. The Ramones’ first record also upped the speed of the music, as Tony James of the proto-punk band London SS recalls in in an interview in the exhibition. But it’s hard to believe that the music would have broken through, or perhaps broken out, without the crisis.
I posted a version of this a few days ago to the Medium page of The Futures Company (now renamed Kantar Futures as part of a corporate re-branding). I’m cross-posting here because I realise the audiences for the two sites aren’t the same.
A while ago the consultancy Sparknow, which uses stories and narrative techniques to help organizations to effect change, asked us to share our learning on how to make futures work stick inside organisations with a client of theirs. This is the note we wrote for Sparknow, shared here with their permission.
1. Embed it in your processes
When working in the Performance Innovation Unit and Cabinet Office in the early 2000s, Geoff Mulgan agreed five “big trends” that Departments needed to review as part of their planning processes. The five were: Ageing; Digital; Globalisation; Climate Change; and Security. If departments didn’t take the request seriously, it had an adverse effect on their budgets. Similarly, following a scenarios process, the Army put in place a trends monitoring process that informed its annual planning process. There’s no reason why commercial businesses shouldn’t do the same thing.
2. Understand how the outcomes will become inputs
It is an obvious point but often overlooked. If you commission and do a one-off piece of futures work to explore some issue for your organisation, you need to know how and where it will reconnect with the organisation afterwards. The risk is that a futures project gets the organisation to an idea about the future which it can’t land back inside, for reasons of resource, time, culture or process. Positive examples: Wales Tourist Board used scenarios to identify and agree a preferred strategy with stakeholders that they could take back to the Welsh Government; a rail project about “sustainable rail” that framed the requirements for a technology/innovation road map; a regulator that wind-tunnelled preferred policy options to stress test them.
3. Simpler is better
Futures work can involve complex methods that are hard to integrate into day-to-day organisational processes. The learning and cognitive effort required is too great for non-specialists. There is a particular danger: that the participants in the process have had a rich experience which has led to changes in the way they see their organisation and its future, but they find the *reasons* for this difficult to communicate to people who are just looking at the outputs. Practitioners talk about “scenarios as learning” for a reason. Generally, alignment is a greater virtue and produces better outcomes than complexity. A food company client, for example, removed its relatively complex trends programme and replaced it with three easy-to-remember (and uncontroversial) trends that could be used by staff and business units as guiding principles around innovation.
4. Use scenarios strategically
Scenario-building is a distinctive futures process and is probably over-used. To use it well, you need a question of sufficient complexity that it needs structured thinking about a range of possible futures, people who understand the benefits and limits of scenarios, and good processes to link it to business questions. As a tool it is also a better fit for quastions about longer-run change (say, over a generation or more) or where there are good reasons to believe that a market is facing deep and unpredictable disruption. For example, the Environment Agency’s Water Division used a set of scenarios over a sustained period to identify the likely range (or “envelope”) of water demand out to 2050, and why.
5. Find ways to maintain the knowledge
Futures is typically a marginal practice in organisations. This means that knowledge about it tends to decay unless it is actively maintained. For example, the Army process mentioned above survived four years, given the two-year career rotations in the Army, before the organisational memory of why they had originally implemented it was lost.
“Most people think of the future as the means and the present as the ends, whereas, in fact, the present is the ends and the future is the means.”
Fritz Roethslisberger, quoted in Richard Pascale, Surfing the Edge of Chaos.
The image at the top of the post is Moholy Nagy’s ‘la grande macchina delle emozioni’ (1920). It is licensed by Wikimedia Commons uncer a Creative Commns licence.
The EU’s ruling on Apple’s Irish tax affairs is a sign of two different sets of change: the ending of the ICT boom, and the decline of globalisation
Silicon Valley seems surprised, and not for the first time, by the fact that the European Union has a different view of its business practices than it does. Apple is perplexed (even maddened) by the decision of the EU’s Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, that it should pay the same rate of corporation tax as other companies doing business in Ireland–and that it therefore owed €13 billion, perhaps more, in back taxes. Bloomberg explains the issue well.
Google, similarly, has been perplexed by the three separate anti-trust suits that the EU has filed against it. One relates to its advertising business; a second to its shopping service; the third is about whether Google has been giving preferential treatment to both Search and Chrome in its Android operating system.
So what’s going on here? Two separate things: first, it’s about the coming end of the ICT boom that has dominated innovation and culture since the mid-1970s; second, it’s about the limits of corporate power and influence as economic globalisation declines.
The regenerative city applies ecological principles to urban redevelopment to make the city environmentally viable. It should make the city socially viable as well.
The great urbanist Herbert Girardet introduced the idea of the ecological footprint of the city more than 20 years ago. In the current edition of Resurgence he has an article about “the regenerative city”, based on his most recent book, ahead of the next UN city summit, Habitat III, in October this year in Quito, Ecuador.
As the planet has urbanised, so the ecological footprints of the city have also grown. As Girardet notes:
Urban populations use the bulk of the world’s resources, and they are prime contributors to pollution. environmental damage, biodiversity loss, and climate change.
Urban resource demands and outputs define human impacts on our home planet more than any other factor.
Buried in this observation is a deeper observation about the history of the city: that their ability to manage the flows caused by density defines both their size and their impact. By flows, I mean flows of food and water and power (or energy), of sanitation and waste, and of people and goods.
And so, looking back at 19th century London, Bazalgette’s vast sewer project followed the “Great Stink“, caused when raw sewage from a growing city had overloaded the Thames. London’s repeated cholera outbreaks in the 19th century followed the city’s expansion, pre-Bazalgette, to a point where the night-soil men could no longer cart (literally) the sewage away overnight.
The 19th century solution to these problems of flows was to build new networks, or grids, which engineered scale and speed into the system. The sewage project is only the most spectacular example of this; rail and roads, electricity grids, and reservoir-based water systems did the same thing for other flows, moving from municipal to regional and national scale.
‘We move more stuff’
In case you’re thinking that digital and ICT changes this, think again. It might, but not any time soon. As John Thackara reminds us memorably in a fine passage about the Barcelona-Marseille motorway in In The Bubble,
The traffic is a solid line of sixteen-wheeled trucks, nose to tail, a couple of meters apart. In front of me is a Croatian truck: ‘‘Engine parts from Zagreb.’’ Behind me is a Spanish truck full of tomatoes. The lines of trucks stretch as far ahead, and as far behind, as the eye can see. From the crest of a hill, I can see hundreds of trucks flowing in each direction… That torrent of trucks was a reminder that thanks to all the design we do, man-made flows of matter and energy all around us are growing in volume. We buy more hardware than ever. We print more paper. We package more goods. We move more stuff, and ourselves, around at ever-increasing rates.
Trucks, motorways, trains, power lines: these engineering solutions, and the mental models that sit behind them, are why the ecological footprint of cities is so large. (London’s is larger than the whole of the UK). They mean that cities can export the costs of scale–usually ecological costs–to other locations. Indeed, if you look at the geography of the Thames Estuary, whole chunks of the Essex coast are there to process London’s waste, downstream both literally and metaphorically.
The urban metabolism
I’m writing about London because I know it, but most cities are built on the same intensive, ecologically expensive principles. As Girardet put it:
The urban metabolism currently operates as an inefficient and wasteful linear input-output system. It needs to be transformed into a resource-efficient circular system instead. The only way to overcome notions of ever-greater scarcity is for cities to continually regeherate the living systems on which they rely for their sustenance.
That’s where the idea of the regenerative city comes in. It is the reconnection of the city to ecology. Girardet quotes Barry Commoner’s “four laws” of ecology, summarised like this:
- Everything is connected to everything else
- Everything must go somewhere
- Nature knows best
- There is no such thing as a free lunch
Cities and nature
To make the regenerative city, therefore, it’s necessary to reimagine these flows of production and consumption, of transport and construction, through an ecological lens, and then to re-engineer them. This involves remaking the links that once existed between cities and nature (think of the orchards and market gardens that once ringed London), between urban systems and ecosystems.
The regenerative city is more than just being “sustainable.” Ecological debt has already degraded the soils, forests and watercourses that cities depend on. “Sustaining” implies no improvement on this degraded state, just as “carbon neutral” makes no inroads into our carbon debt.
Regenerative and regeneration
One of the questions that all of this raises is the relationship between regenerative and regeneration. I’m not a fan of much urban regeneration: it’s often based on an economic model that depends on creating clusters of work, leisure and retail that usually also enriches developers, privatises public space, and prices out local communities. It often increases flows.
It seems clear that the regenerative city should be an attractive place to live. If cities are “magnets and glue“, to use Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s resonant phrase, there’s quite a lot of quality of life “glue” in there.
It feels, for example, more like a “happy city” than a “smart city,” for example, drawing on some of the thinking of Lancaster’s Institute of Social Futures. This is probably worth a post in its own right another time, but the discourse around the happy city emphasises the small scale and the local, whereas the smart city emphasises connection, “always-on”, and notions of global connectness and competitiveness.
A paper by the late John Urry for the ISF, which I can’t find online, noted some of the features of the “happy city.”
- “Happy cities thus involve a smaller scale system of neighbourhoods, indeed with cities fragmented into more self-sufficient neighbourhoods without rigid zoning.”
- “Collective ownership would also be key. Car-[and bike-] sharing schemes are an example of a new ‘access’ economy incorporating wider systems of mobility.”
- “A liveable city would involve much less energy use through enabling social practices on a smaller scale.”
- “Happy cities involve re-designing places to foster higher density living and shifting towards practices that are just much smaller in scale….There should be a systemic reduction in distances travelled by people, objects, goods and money.”
- Finally, and this is an important point: “Such a city would be one with reasonable levels of wellbeing although in terms of normal economic measures most people would be ‘poorer’.”
Of course, most of the examples of such urban innovation are from the richer world–Copenhagen always gets a namecheck here–although the largest bike-sharing scheme in the world is in China and there has been significant public transport innovation in Latin America. Girardet expresses the hope that in emerging markets cities can be “smart from the start”, and there’s some evidence elsewhere that in places like Vietnam the energy model is more likely to be based on the distributed production of renewables.
Being smart from the start requires more than just being persuaded of the industrial, social, and ecological logic of the regenerative city. It also requires that this model of the future city is seen by politicians and policy makers as a desirable vision of the future. As Sohail Inayatullah reminds us, the last time Asian cities made a choice about the future, in the ’60s and the ’70s, they opted for the “used future” of cars and highways. That model is discredited now. But getting to the future, especially to a large-scale complex urban future that involves long-term planning and investment decisions, still requires making choices.
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Resurgence is available now from the publishers. There’s a good short introduction online to the regenerative city in the shape of a report (opens pdf) written by Herbert Girardet for the World Future Council. I have written before about Girardet’s work, here and here.
The International Futures Forum, based in Scotland, has been at the forefront of developing the Three Horizons model as a framework for futures practice. They have an article published in the current issue of Ecology and Society, called “Three Horizons: a pathways practice for transformation”, that is worth discussion. The full article can also be downloaded from the Ecology & Society site.
I’ve written about Three Horizons before on this blog and in the Journal of Futures Studies, and have used it as a futures tool in my own practice. I’ve found it valuable as a method to help groups focus on the challenges of “acting on the future.” In brief, it is a systems framework that has a model of change embedded within it.
Horizon 1 is the current dominant model in any given system; Horizon 3 is the range of emerging practices in the system, often associated with visionary models of change; and Horizon 2 is the adaptive resonses by Horizon 1 actors to Horizon 3 ideas and practices.
The “pathways practice” described in the article involves five steps, and in this article I am going to reflect on these.
- Step 1: Examining current concerns
- Step 2: Exploring future aspirations
- Step 3: Exploring inspirational practice in the present
- Step 4: Innovation in play
- Step 5: Essential features to maintain.
Although futurists aren’t supposed to make predictions, the notion that our energy system is switching much more quickly than expected from fossil fuels to renewables, and that solar energy will be at the front of that change, suddenly doesn’t seem so controversial. Of course, the speed of the change still matters, certainly in terms of global warming outcomes.
And yet until recently the notion that solar energy would be the leading energy source was a possible future that was, broadly, regarded as impossible.
The International Energy Agency didn’t think that solar power would ever be affordable at any great scale, and didn’t include it in its projections. In 2013, George Monbiot wrote that “solar power is unlikely to make a large contribution to electricity supply in the UK.” Goodall himself admits that he didn’t think it had much to offer until very recently.
Or, as Bloomberg put it:
The best minds in energy keep underestimating what solar and wind can do. Since 2000, the International Energy Agency has raised its long-term solar forecast 14 times and its wind forecast five times.
So what’s happened? The answer, in headline form, is in the chart at the top of this post.
I co-wrote a post with my Futures Company colleague Joe Ballantyne after the Brexit vote that was published on The Futures Company’s Medium site. In the article we argue that the referendum revealed a deep “fear of the future” among many Britons, and that this could have significant implications for brands. Referencing it here for completeness’ sake: here’s an extract.
“The values split
We’ve written before about the deep values split across Europe and north America between an emerging generation of “post-materialists” and the existing “traditionals” and “moderns.” The “post-materialists” are close to becoming a majority, which is always when conflict becomes most intense. The social markers of “post-materialists” are that they are younger, better educated, and more urban, but the values differences are more important. “Post-materialists” are more likely to value diversity; “traditionals” and “moderns” hierarchy. There’s a revealing chart in polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft on the day of the vote.
The values gap on the Brexit vote
Four times as many Leavers think Multiculturalism is a force for bad as do Remainers; three times as many Leavers think social liberalism is a force for bad. More than twice as many Leavers think globalisation is a force for bad, and a slightly higher proportion of Leavers think the internet is a force for bad. The gap on cultural differences around multiculturalism, feminism and the environment is wide, and these values differences speak to profound differences in worldview. These are not unique to the US and the UK. We can see the same differences, with different forms of political and party expression, right across Europe and the United States.
“The disappointing future
And these speak to a deep disappointment in an idea of the future, and of progress, which propelled post-war politics from the mid-1940s to the 1990s. In the UK, the 1997 election was the last in which the winning party had campaigned on an optimistic platform. “Things”, went the song, “can only get better.”
Since then, and even before, globalisation promised prosperity for everyone, but instead, while having profound effects on living standards in Asia, at home it has concentrated wealth even more sharply in the hands of the few. The internet was to be a tool of liberation, but our experience of it is as likely to be of intrusion, a loss of privacy, and a loss of control. The result is that people seek to pull up the drawbridges.
“Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.”
The notion of “solastalgia,” is relevant here, a word used by environmentalists for “the loss of a sense of belonging to a particular place and a sense of desolation about its disappearance,” even though the place is still physically there. In their enthusiasm for change, brands pursue the leading edge, but they need to be more alert to what it feels like on desolation row.
For the list of values in the Ashcroft research represents a direct challenge to the idea of innovation. Think of it for a moment: for most brands innovation is about novelty, about progress, often about technology. It is clear that the values represented by leavers aren’t those that welcome continual change in the name of improvement.
*The whole article is here.*
Since we are suddenly in the worst moment of racism in Britain since the 1970s, I thought it was worth a reminder that defending migrants is not new in British culture. Shakespeare lodged for several years in a house in Silver Street owned by a Huguenot, and was in London when the apprentices threatened to kill foreigners they saw on the streets.
Perhaps as a result of this, one of his contributions to the probably unperformed play Sir Thomas More is one of the great appeals to humanity.
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas, say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
The history: the original play, according to the British Library, was written by Anthony Munday in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, but the censor, the Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney, refused permission for it to be staged. He may have been “worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest on the streets of London.”