Category: Actionable Foresight


There have been a couple of very interesting articles recently about the relationship between sustainability and resilience. The term sustainability suggests that we are trying to keep the system at a certain level. It flags the existence of an optimal operating point for the (earth) system that we need to moderate/change our behaviour to meet.

the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.”

Sustainability also has connotations of efficiency – the ‘best’ way to do something using the least amount of resources. Continue reading

I went and saw Richard Slaughter speak at the launch of his new book ‘To See with Fresh Eyes‘ last week. It is always a pleasure to hear Richard speak and this was no exception. The audience included many ex and current students of the Master of Strategic Foresight at Swinburne, the course that Richard founded in 1999 whilst working at the now defunct Australian Foresight Institute, which was also the home of the AFI Monograph series. Richard very kindly mentioned my editorship of the monograph series, thanks Richard!

The main points from his speech that resonated for me were that we are currently in an emergency, this situation isn’t something that will go away or resolve itself. This bears repeating because if all you consume is popular media, you would be hard pressed to know there was anything much going on. The interaction of resource restriction and climate change is a species altering event. Richard believes that this is time in history during which the decisions we make will be judged by future generations, so he urges us to make wise and foresightful decisions.  We can do this through seeing the construction of reality and understanding our symbolic capacity to change it. We each need to develop the language and depth understanding to perceive what is happening and what might change and how we might do things differently. This development also has to happen in the structure and institutions of society which Richard has written about in previous work.

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I really like this cartoon from Zen Pencils based on a quote from Helen Keller. I think we often are focussed on the things that are ending rather than what could be beginning. There are many people who face the end of their current job due to the economic times we are living in, and for many of us the work that we do is our defining characteristic. Some people in this situation have an ability to pick themselves up and re-focus their efforts into other avenues. Others, like the man in the cartoon, ignore all the opportunities around them and close their eyes to what could be possible because they are unable to conceive of new futures for them, they literally can’t see them. Hope theory would say that people with high hope are able to re-goal and move on to other things and this is one reason why I use it in my work. It is an explanatory framework for why some people take a closed door as a challenge to move into new areas, while others stop and bemoan what has passed. This isn’t to say that those who move on don’t mourn the change – Kubler-Ross’ grief model is another useful explanatory framework.

So what has this got to do with the future? One of the things that can happen when doing foresight work with a group is that people can see closing doors in the future. Being represented is one requirement of becoming engaged in an image of the future – Can I see myself in that future? Do the things I value appear in that future? Many rejections of futures images are a reaction to not being represented. People can’t believe in the image because they do not align to it. Futures images, at their core, are representations of our aspirational values. It might be that the future direction doesn’t suit their values, or they are getting to the end of their career, or they may be feeling like the future being created just doesn’t include them. The reactions to this type of activity can range from disengagement to more active forms of undermining. When a person is resisting a future it is always a good idea to check in with them, sometimes best done in a light-hearted way, whether they are represented in that future.

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I have been thinking about the individual and the collective over the past few days. The individual is in the ascendant at the moment in many Western countries, and becoming more so in some collectivist cultures. The political discourse in Australia and the US, in particular, focuses on the rights of the individual and the responsibilities we have to bootstrap ourselves in the world. Mitt Romney is quoted saying he can’t and won’t help those who refuse to help themselves, here is Oz, Tony Abbott runs a similar line. The ideas of ‘entitlement‘, ‘making it’, ‘doing for themselves’ etc are pervasive. There is a similar discourse in the everyday world, kids being encouraged to beat the bully, adults exhorted to work hard to build individual emotional maturity and the accepted expectation that we control our reality through our choices as consumers via the market.

The rewards society bestows are on those who have maximized their personal position. Taking one for the team is not rewarded. A ability to work through ego to achieve a personal goal is much more valued than the ability to engage and motivate a group to act. Now part of the problem is our measurement systems as to a large extent in organisations, and increasingly in society, what gets measured gets done and it is very difficult to evaluate the individual’s input in a group. Our reward systems of pay and promotion are reliant on us being able to evaluate an individual’s performance, so we look for leadership rather than evaluating followership.
What if this is the wrong way to go? A thought piece by John Crowley suggests that the future is more likely to be the complete opposite of the present rather than a continuation of it. What if we need to be developing more collective ways of being in the world? Much of the emerging work around wicked problems is group based, there is a recognition in many areas that we will need to work together in the face of descent scenarios, but what if we are actually training ourselves out of the core skills and attributes we will need? For many of us, the requirement to subsume our ego needs to those of a group is extremely difficult. We all want to be individual and stand out from the crowd, but a leader without followers is just someone out for a walk. In all groups, someone has to come last, not everyone can lead and there is always a number of roles that have to be fulfilled in order for successful group achievement, most of which involve following at one time or another. So if our systems, personal preferences and accepted behaviors counter this requirement, where are we left? I think part of our future challenge will be to learn to work effectively in all types of groups, organizations and communities. It will be those people who do not seek to lead who will be followed.

The archetype of the strong, decisive leader who has all the answers is not useful in the face of wicked problems, instead we will be searching for a leader who is comfortable with not knowing, able to work with people and follow when required. Greenleaf’s servant leader idea is along these lines, as is Sarkar’s Sadvipra. This goes further than being able to put up with people whilst working in a team, or just engaging in community when you feel like it, this is fully authentic person to person relationship and that it hard work. The requirements for the role will be an ability to overcome ego, to be present to the moment, knowing your moral stance and being curious and interested in others. How we learn to work together and give to each other without expecting payment is shaping up to be a challenge for the future.

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” –Laurence J. Peter

One of my favourite parts of foresight work is the opportunity to work with wicked problems. When a client calls wanting to engage with an issue for which there are no easy answers, my heart soars. The level of difficulty in these assignments is high but the engagements (thus far) have been very positive. Foresight is useful when it comes to engaging with complex problems as it gives you space to consider what ‘better’ actually means in the context of the challenge at hand.

Having spent the best part of a day in the past week engaged in a conversation about a wicked problem, I had cause to reflect on why I enjoy it so much. Part of the attraction is the intellectual challenge, as the navigation of the complexity pushes us to think more broadly and deeply about the issue and the potential actions that could be undertaken. I think the other part of the attraction for me is that there really is no right answer.

To clarify what a wicked problem is the APSC provides a series of characteristics:

  • wicked problems are difficult to clearly define
  • wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
  • attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences
  • wicked problems are often not stable
  • wicked problems usually have no clear solution
  • wicked problems are socially complex
  • wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation
  • some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

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Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

As outlined in a previous post, to have hope is to be powerful. Many wonderful things are achieved by people simply acting from hope. Hope can be seen in foresight workshops when people have the opportunity to envision their preferred futures, when they are still in the ‘what if’ phase, invigorated and energised by what could be. From experience, it is clear that to have a vision is not enough. Leadership and change require individuals to act in the present to bring about the future that is desired. A theory of Hope was developed over 30 years ago that aims to explain the agentic and goal directional qualities of hope through cognitive psychology. Though probably not the whole answer, it has been rigorously studied and appears to hold up under a number of different scenarios. According to this theory, Hope can be learned and its qualities taught to those who do not already have them, and it can be passed on to children. It is this ability to be learned, and the positive correlations with psychological health and enhancement, that makes Hope Theory such an attractive framework for futurists.

Futures Studies, especially when developing images of preferred futures, inevitably falls across the concept of hope. Part of the work futurists do is facilitating people, both individually and in groups, to develop positive images of the future that then move them to action. The conventional view of positive images of the future is that it is the image itself which harbours the agentic qualities. The well-trained futurist is expected to work with a client to generate such a compelling vision that the client will move towards it of their own volition; however this may only be half of the story.

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People often ask me why I became a futurist. The answer to the question looks clear in hindsight, there is a progression from an interest in certain subjects at high school then Uni, all of my roles in the workforce had a component of futures thinking required in them and then I found the foresight program at Swinburne. The lived experience was different, there was no clear goal, rather I went where my interest and curiosity led me. My experience of people who were seen to be future oriented in organisations was that they were often on the outer, seen as difficult because they asked hard questions or advocated for a different direction but in the pre-1990s recession world they were left near a pot plant in a tucked away office to think their thoughts and every so often someone would lob in asking them to be involved in something. They were always interesting people to have a chat with and most were happy to spend time talking to a younger person who had an interest in thinking out ten or twenty years.

The leaner organisations that have evolved since the late 1990s have no place for these oddities.

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Envisioning the City of the Future | Blog | design mind. This work caught my eye as it is an interesting view of the future of cities. Cities have become a big focus for sustainable development, social innovation and projections around the future due to the tipping point that was reached in 2008. As, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s human population (3.3 billion people) were living in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost 5 billion. “Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth.” http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2007/english/introduction.html

The New Cities Summit in Paris, the inaugural annual conference of the New Cities Foundation, came at the right time (May 2012). It brought together thought leaders in technology, infrastructure, architecture, energy, transport, national and local government, the media, academia, and the non-profit sector from all regions of the world. Seven hundred high-level urban thinkers and city shapers met to discuss the “first truly urban century.”

The report on the frog website and the ebooklet that can be found here indicated the types of discussion which were had for the duration of the conference.

The lives of the people living in those cities can be improved – and the impact of this growth on the environment reduced – by the use of “smart” technologies that can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of urban systems. Given that cities are, and always have been, about the clustering of people, digital innovations are now undoubtedly accelerating human interactions in urban environments and readying citizens for contributing to inclusive growth. By unlocking technology, infrastructure and public data, cities can open up new value chains that spawn innovative applications and information products that make possible sustainable modes of city living and working.

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I am so glad that I can take the issue of peak oil off the table. It was difficult to get people to listen and to engage in thinking about the ways in which their lives might change in the face of restricted resources. Of all the future issues/opportunities I deal with when speaking to clients and students, peak oil was the one that most looked blank at when it was mentioned. The failure of the peak oil community to start a conversation on how we might live within our means as a wider society reflects my experience. We don’t want to give up our comforts, and confront the fact that things may actually get worse from here on in.  Many people don’t believe there is a link between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, and in fact, burning more fossil fuels may be necessary to cope with a changing climate.

George Monbiot has called it in the Guardian this week.

For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil – the decline of global supplies – is just around the corner. We had some strong reasons for doing so: production had slowed, the price had risen sharply, depletion was widespread and appeared to be escalating. The first of the great resource crunches seemed about to strike.

Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case.

Linking peak oil and climate change was one lever used by the sustainability movement to try and get some traction in the idea of doing with less and this has proved less than successful. I think Monbiot hits the nail on the head…

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via Ecouterre.com

There are some interesting ideas in this latest list of fashion meets environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, the commodification of nature continues… 10 Eco-Fashion Garments Inspired by Nature and Biomimicry | Ecouterre.

Stefanie has found scraps of wood which she has made into couture pieces of clothing, Suzanne is using couple of bathtubs, some yeast, a pinch of bacteria, and several cups of sweetened green tea to make her fabric which is then dyed by beetroot. Donna is using a nanotechnology-based, structurally colored fiber that mimics the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings that does not require dyeing (see image).

When you have a look through the fashion on the website above it is an interesting  project to question the assumptions and thinking behind many of these ideas by moving them into to a world of restricted resources to generate questions such as these:

Which could continue to survive under cradle to cradle manufacturing requirements?

Which looked to ‘waste’ to find a source of material?

Which are high-tech and therefore require the full functioning of a technological society to support it?

Which can be used to support people when they are deprived?

Which will require low wages and third world manufacturing to be commercially viable?

All of these questions can be legitimately asked in relation to innovative strategies and new products in any industry, but more often than not are ignored. When these questions are answered, there will be products and services supported that are acceptable to the moral stance of the organisation/entrepreneur. People may still not like the outcome, but at least the bigger questions have been dealt with. It is the unconscious choices we are trying to make conscious.

In addition, the sustainability of innovation is a key issue when looking at the future. What are the assumptions about the techno-economic base that the large-scale commercialisation of any of these ideas rely upon? If we are into making things for the long-term, these issues will be at the forefront of our minds, if we want to make a quick buck, then we can afford to ignore them because, at the moment, externalities are not priced into our market.

When I am working with clients to determine a course of action, I like to ask the ‘three questions’:

Who benefits?

Who does not?

And the kicker – just because we can, does that mean we should?

The moral dimension of innovation is often swept under the carpet when shiny new technologies beckon.

In a future where we may have less rather than more, who decides what resources are used for?