Category: Futures


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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Images – House for all seasons China

This story from Gizmag caught my eye for a number of reasons. Architect John Lin, who is a professor at the University of Hong Kong, has won an award from the Architectural Review in 2012 for his house which has been built in Shaanxi Province with philanthropic funding. It is designed to assist the continued urbanisation of China’s people as over half (51.27% or 680 million) of China’s population now live in cities, which is the first time in that country’s history.(Telegraph). Having seen a documentary recently on the White Horse village and their 4 year transformation from rural subsistence farming to urban dwellers, one of the reflections for me was the shape of everyday life and how our housing choices determine it.

The people of White Horse village were not 100% behind the change that was thrust upon them by central planning authorities. Their way of life changed dramatically, and while most agreed with the direction that China is heading, they were unhappy with the impact on their everyday lives. The traditional rural way of life where there were multi-age households and the elderly are part of everyday life changed when people moved into multi-storey apartments. The day-to-day engagement with their neighbours was gone and may of them struggled to cope.

The other reflection was that whilst the opportunity to make a living increased enormously, so did the costs of living. There were no more market gardens or vegetable plots for self-sufficiency. All the food they once grew had to be bought at the supermarket. This is the same situation in many large Western cities, with people unable to grow their own food, they are forced to buy it. The counter-trend in the West is the growing popularity of rooftop and balcony gardens for food.   Continue reading

 

Extinction timeline from nowandnext

This graphic is from nowandnext , the website of futurist Richard Watson, and I enjoyed reading it  as it predicts the extinction of many things we take for granted, one of them being futurists in 2050. At least I’ll be extinct after peace and quiet, spelling, getting lost and (my personal favourite) household chores and just before lists of predictions, physical pain and death are no longer.

The prospect of becoming extinct is not one that worries me, as the focus on endings is a powerful tool in foresight, and this is good example of how we can use predictions as a thinking exercise. The point is not to decide whether we think the prediction is right or wrong but using it as a way of exercising our foresight thinking muscles.

There is no explanation included on this artefact as to why futurists might become extinct, so the first step is to run a few short scenarios pulling together emerging issues to construct plausible images of 2050:

1. Computers are able to predict everything that happens – we enter the future of psychohistory or something like Suarez’s Daemon. This is the world of big data where we get enough information into computers, make them smart enough and hey presto, they are able to identify trends before they happen or manipulate events into predetermined timelines, so no need for futurists asking pesky questions about purpose.

2. Everyone becomes a futurist – we teach futures thinking in schools and therefore there is eventually no need for an occupation to do this. There is recognition that foresight is a critical thinking capacity that has to be developed in everyone.

3. Appreciation of the complexity of the world system becomes so widespread that the need for people to apply predictive thinking to it is regarded as quaint and old-fashioned.

4. Energy descent and climate change impacts mean that the future looks bleaker than the past and no-one want to pay someone else to tell them that.

We can see that there are a number of reasons why futurists might become irrelevant, most of which have some relationship to external (to me) factors that I may or may not have any influence on. This is one of the ways we can engage with predictions such as those listed in the timeline. In the face of this prediction, one of my options is to identify reasons why it may not occur, and use these as my comfort and reason for not acting. Alternatively, I apply the above scenarios to my business/community/self and run the likelihood of those scenarios occurring and consider the amount of influence I have on whether they turn out or not. I then decide how much energy I will apply to either bringing the prediction to fruition or trying to avert it. If I decide to expend energy on this prediction, I add it to my scanning frame and look for early signals of any of the scenarios unfolding.

This same process can be undertaken with any of the predictions on the timeline, so why not try it for yourself?

For instance, how does your future change once free roads become extinct in 2025? lost cost travel in 2030 or death in 2050?

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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There have been many who ponder the secrets to a long life. Having just witnessed the 70th wedding anniversary of my parents-in-law and taken part in a facilitated session on taboos around death and dying, this topic has particular resonance for me at the moment.

There is an obsession with living longer that some have placed at the door of the baby boomer generation. A google search using the term “how to live longer” surfaced 287,000,000 hits. There are a number of projects that seek to capture the wisdom and insights of centenarians as they are a rare enough breed that people want to know how to be one too.

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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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Amongst those people who are alert to the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change coupled with peak oil frustration is building as political debates seem to discuss everything else except this, the UN Copenhagen fiasco portends further international talk fests that accomplish little and the tiny steps attempted towards reform (“we might put a price on carbon”) are quickly tossed out of the balloon when some group complains. To many people actual progress is proceeding at a pre-global warming glacial pace. To those people the need to move to a low carbon or even carbon free energy future is critical if we are to prevent runaway global warming. Yet around them they see almost nothing is changing. In Australia we are digging the black and brown coal up as fast as we can and either sending it off to China or burning it to meet or urban energy needs to run our plasma televisions,  and air conditioners. Any entrepreneur who proposes a wind turbine farm is certainly going to be opposed by group objecting to the ruination of the landscape, the danger to wildlife or the impact on property prices. Meanwhile state governments invest in freeways rather than public transport and the proliferation of low cost airlines and the growth in per capita air miles is seen as an unproblematic ‘good’.

It is opportune that Vaclav Smil’s latest offering, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, has just landed. Smil is required, if uncomfortable reading, for anyone who professes a concern in matters to do with energy transition. In his previous writings Smil has outlined in forensic detail all aspects of our current energy system. In his previous books Smil has destroyed the optimistic claims proffered by alternative energy proponents that we can maintain our current economic and social systems by just changing from carbon-based systems to something else. The numbers just do not add up. So is Smil also impatient for change? No he is not.

In this book Smil outlines how the energy transformation that we must make, and we will make it, is a generational exercise. The history of energy system transformations show us that anything up to four generations would be needed to accomplish the bulk of the economic, political, scientific and social unwinding and rewinding that will have to take place. When we change how we get our energy, and especially if the energy that is coming gives a lower energy return on its investment then everything must change –  by everything he means how we live, work, feed ourselves, educate our children, form communities, relate to other people, form our geopolitical relationships, fight our wars, entertain ourselves and create art. Everything.

Smil’s latest warning is that people are underestimating the extent of change and overestimating how quickly the changes can occur. When things move slowly, as Smil says they must, then people will get frustrated, will toss out their political leaders because they are not ‘doing anything’, and then toss out the ones after that because they are no better. What will follow is decline in institutional respect, suspicion that others are ‘free riding’ on the backs of others who are trying to do the ‘right things’ and commercial enterprises will flee from investing in the necessary innovations.

Into this unpleasant scenario I inject myself and all the other like-minded souls who are concerned about the future. What should we do, given Smil’s prediction? I suggest we need to practice patience and purpose.

If Smil is right, and I think he is pretty close, then I think preaching and practicing patience is a good first step. We need to realise that we are unlikely to see the desired transition in our lifetimes. Rather than blame others for failing to do more we should adopt the philosophy of the people who built the great cathedrals and their like. Begin a monumental building process that will be completed and enjoyed by those who come after us. Ours is not the key generation, not the group who will save the world. It merely is the generation that realises that a lot needs to be done and so starting work is far more important that thinking about the end. Adopting and living to that purpose might be the best thing we can do.

Patience and purpose together. The necessary changes will be made quickest when someone starts, so we are the ones who can start now. We need the patience to realise that our individual actions will be largely invisible, like the actions of the person who lays one stone in a wall are largely invisible when the wall is completed.  We need the purpose to stay at the task while others are not doing likewise. Someone needs to start, I think it needs to be us.

There is a pair of questions about the future that when people are asked, no matter where in the world and when it was asked, they evoke the same set of answers.

The questions?

  1. Do you think you will have a good future?
  2. Do you think the world will have a good future?

The answers?

  1. Yes
  2. No

It seems a curious pair of answers when you first see them. We have an answer why we see that pair. You see people are confident about “I” futures – the ones that I control by my own actions – while people are less confident about “We” futures – the ones where a bunch of I’s need to act in a way that supports their mutual interest.

Thus we come to one of the most critical goals of doing foresight work – working with groups to help them create shared futures – “We” futures. While it is important that individuals feel hopeful about their own futures it is critical that we also develop hope in our shared futures too. These are the big ones that occupy a lot of our thoughts.

So can we do it? Yes we can (Doesn’t that sound familiar)?

We know how to do this by visiting a theory of moral reasoning – a philosophical approach called The Social Contract. In this theory of moral reasoning we should make decisions as if each and every one of us had contracted to act in our collective interest. Sounds cool doesn’t it?  The core of this theory is contained in a game of logic called The Prisoner’s Dilemma – if we can make the correct call in the game then we can always make moral decisions.

The game goes like this.

“You are in a totalitarian country and you are arrested by the police and charged with a crime you did not commit. You know that there is no group that is going to get you out of this situation; you have to get yourself out. You learn from your captors that someone else, someone called Smith, has also been arrested and is currently being interrogated along with you. Your captors tell you they must have some to charge with the crime. They don’t care who it is, either you or Smith will do. They offer you this deal. If you cooperate and give evidence against Smith and he refuses to cooperate then he goes to jail for 10 years. If Smith cooperates and gives evidence against you while you refuse to cooperate then you get the 10 years. If you both cooperate and give evidence against one another then you will each get 5 years. If you both refuse to cooperate, well they will have to release you both and then go and get another couple of people and start again.”

You don’t know Smith and will never meet Smith. So what do you say to your captor? Your best decision from your “I” perspective is to cooperate – either you get out if Smith doesn’t or you get 5 years if he does. The best outcome for both of you is a “We” future – both refuse and both go free. But here is the clincher – Do you trust Smith? If you act in such a way as to get both of you out, refuse, then Smith is out no matter what he decides. Because you acted in such a way as to expose yourself to hazard then a good future is possible for both of you. If you trust Smith then that is the only decision you can make. But can you trust someone that you have never met?

And that is what goes to the core of “We” futures – building ideas of good futures based on trusting the other party, even if we don’t know them and never will know them. The big car and house, the round the world holidays – If we both take it all then we both are in trouble. However, If I don’t cooperate and I trust you to do the same then we have a good future together – I trust you notwithstanding that you might betray me and take the holiday, car and house anyway. If I act in any other way then I’m consigning myself to a bad future.

But can I trust you …