Heathrow as cargo cult

Posted in aviation, transport by thenextwavefutures on 27 October, 2016
Empty promise

Empty promise

A long time ago, in an article I can no longer find, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole developed the idea of “cargo cults” as the objects of politics. Heathrow and its expansion has long been such a cargo cult in British politics. To save non-anthropologist readers among you from having to google it, a cargo cult refers originally to the belief among Melanesian islanders that material wealth can be achieved through the ritual worship of an object. Pleasingly, some of the Melanesian cargo cults involved building models of runways and planes. You couldn’t make this stuff up.


World Factory

Posted in business, trade by thenextwavefutures on 24 October, 2016
Before the show

Before the show

World Factory is an extraordinary theatre project that sets out to explore the impact of globalised production (and by extension, globalised trade) by creating an experiential space for its audience. I saw it in Cambridge last week; it has dates scheduled in Brighton and Manchester between now and Christmas, and may return for another run at Cambridge Junction.

For the show, the audience is seated at tables around the space, each a team charged with running a Chinese textiles factory. Once the experiential part of the production starts, the group has to handle a series of problems and dilemma, starting with whether we should handle a cashflow crisis by cutting wages across the board or firing half the staff.

The four cast members double as ‘dealers,’ issuing the cards, keeping track of the money, and exhorting us to work faster or harder. They also delivered the ‘samples’ of the different types of clothing we were ‘making’ in our factory.


Checking a shirt for ‘anomalies’

Our decisions were recorded by scanning a barcode on the cards, which also meant that the decisions of each table are recorded in real time.

As you play, at speed (my team lost a lot of money early on by failing to make a decison quickly enough) you’re faced with questions about what goods you’re willing or able to make, about your workers, about dealing with local officials, about compliance and standards, about outsourcing production to other parts of China, about demands for labour rights. And so on.

The experiential part of the game is bookended by sequences that animate the recent history of globalisation and the impact of the global trade system–for example, we were told at the end the amount of water and oil consumed in producing the goods we had ‘made’ collectively during the show.

The play is supported by as vast database of research. At the end of the show we were given a print-out, on a till-roll, of all our decisions as factory owners, with a URL linking to the research that sits behind the question that was on each card. For example, one of the decisions we had to make was whether or not to move from regular wages to piecerates. Here’s the research on this decison.


The print-out of the game

World Factory is also more than a play in that the group behind it, notably the co-directors Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw, actually went into the business of making a shirt in a Chinese factory as part of the research. A barcode above the pocket reveals the history of its production. It might seem paradoxical that a show that is about over-consumption and over-production should, in effect, have its own merchandising, but perhaps it is a mark of the play’s effectiveness that there seemed to be no-one trying to buy one as we left the theatre.

The project also has an open research process, Digital Quilt, that collects relevant information and data. There’s also an education resource pack.

I’ve read quite a lot about the global production system over the years, and plenty about Chinese factories, though more about the electronics sector than the textile sector. I’ve also sat on the Board of a retailing business, making business decisions in conditions of uncertainty. For me, the surprise of the game (although I shouldn’t have been surprised by this) was the way in which the pace and the relentlessness of it, together with the ambiguity about the possible consequences of many of the decisions, forced you constantly to make choices at speed that reflected the imperative to keep the factory working. Capital has its own logic, as Marx says somewhere, and once in role it is hard to refuse it.

The logic of capital

The logic of capital


The factory at Table J

One of the video interviews shown on the screens that surrounded the auditorium was with the owner of the factory that made the World Factory shirt. She had been in debt up to her eyes after her first business folded, to the tune of several hundred thousand RNB. She took a job in a clothes factory that paid 2,000RNB a month, described in the rules of the game as low but enough to live on, so would never have managed to repay her debts, so started another clothes business. As she said, once you have the business, you have to keep going.

The show is also good on the politics, or more accurately the political economy, of the global textile industry. Who knew, for example, that Chinese factories outsource novelty Christmas jumpers to British factories? The quality is low, the margins are thin, and making them close to the end-consumer, with minimal delivery times, allows enough flexibility to respond to fluctuations in demand. They also spelled out the impact of cheap disposal clothes on the countries unlucky enough to get our recycled hand-offs. We think we’re doing people a favour by recycling through charity shops; actually we’re killing off indigenous textiles business in poor countries.

The actor who was also our dealer said that working on the play had changed her attitude towards recycling clothing, from thinking it a good thing to finding it uncomfortable.

One tip if you’re lucky enough to be able to go to see World Factory: decide on your table before you start whether your strategy is going to be about maximising profits or looking after your workers, and then stick to it.


The World Factory Shirt

The images are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Dirty lenses

Posted in future, research, Uncategorized by thenextwavefutures on 18 October, 2016


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.

Unpeeling the city

Posted in cities, culture, digital by thenextwavefutures on 3 October, 2016

Starting out

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.


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Punk as scapegoat, culture as crisis

Posted in music, politics by thenextwavefutures on 26 September, 2016


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.

Greil Marcus quotes Bernard Rhodes, one of punk’s animateurs, in his book Lipstick Traces, a utopian history of music inspired by the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK“:

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.


Making futures work stick

Posted in future, methods by thenextwavefutures on 15 September, 2016


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.

Apple’s Irish problem and the end of the tech boom

Posted in economics, innovation, long waves, technology by thenextwavefutures on 5 September, 2016

Source: European Commission

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.


Making the regenerative city

Posted in cities, design, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 30 August, 2016
Screenshot 2016-08-29 00.24.17

Visualising the regenerative city. Source, Herbert Girardet, “Towards the regenerative city”, World Future Council, 2013.

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.

And more:

Urban resource demands and outputs define human impacts on our home planet more than any other factor.

Managing flows

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.


Three Horizons and future transformation

Posted in future, methods by thenextwavefutures on 22 August, 2016

Screenshot 2016-08-20 16.42.59

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.

Pathways practice

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.


The solar transition

Posted in energy, trends, Uncategorized by thenextwavefutures on 12 August, 2016


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.

As Jeremy Williams notes in a recent review of Chris Goodall’s new book, The Switch, at his blog Make Wealth History:

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.


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