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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
There are several reasons to watch President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people shot in the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June.
The first is that it is, simply, an outstanding piece of political oratory, one of the best you might hear, beautifully constructed and masterfully delivered, full of light and shade, with changes in tone and timbre, in which the pauses are often as important as the words. Yet it doesn’t seem, at least not obviously, to draw on many of the familiar tropes of political speech, such as the “rule of three“. So it’s also distinctive.
The website Five Books has a simple proposition: it asks people to nominate five books on a subject and then it interviews them about their choices. Anyway, I was privileged to talk to Bea Wilford of Five Books about futures and futures books recently, and the interview has now appeared on the site.
The books I chose are in the picture:
- Arie de Geus, The Living Company
- Bill Sharpe, Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope
- Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital
- Richard Normann, Reframing Business
- Donella Meadows et al, Limits To Growth: The Thirty Year Update