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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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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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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Some things I know about Trump

Posted in politics by thenextwavefutures on 20 November, 2016
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Image of an abandoned factory in Cleveland, Ohio, by Theodore Ferringer

I’ve read too much on the American election and on Trump’s win, and I wanted to pull it together to make sense of it. Having read too much, I’ve now written too much, so my plan is to split this into a couple of posts on the blog and then put the whole thing together as one longer post on Medium. Trump’s win is the kind of surprise that will keep happening in a world where people are expected to be both enthusiastic consumers and low-paid but grateful workers. You can only fill that gap by loading people with debt, but that’s a one-time card that’s already been played.

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‘Found’ post on the US election

Posted in politics by thenextwavefutures on 12 November, 2016

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Written by Rosa Luxemburg from prison in 1916 to a friend, Mathilde Wurm.

Found in John Berger’s recent collection of essays, Confabulations.

Image by Andrew Curry, posted here under a Creative Commons licence.

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Oligarchs and executives

Posted in business, economics, long waves, politics by thenextwavefutures on 31 October, 2016

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I read a couple of things recently that are connected, but perhaps not in a way intended by all of the authors. The first is by Sally Goerner, on the rise of American oligarchy. The second is a paper from McKinsey on capitalism’s short-termism problem.
The Sally Goerner post takes a long view–around 250 years–and positions America’s current political crisis as the latest in a series of 70-90 year cycles in which oligarchy flares up. It follows a familiar pattern, says Goerner, like so:

  • Economic “Royalists” infiltrate critical institutions and rig political and economic systems to favor elites.
  • Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate.
  • The crisis reaches a breaking point; seemingly small events trigger popular frustration into a transformative change.
  • If the society enacts effective reforms, it enters a new stage of development. If it fails to enact reforms, crisis leads to regression and possibly collapse.
  • Over time, transformed societies forget why they implemented reforms; Economic Royalists creep back and the cycle starts a new.

I suspect we could map similar cycles in other countries.

The systemic model that sits behind it is this:

“Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. … In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends.”

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