Category: Thinking capacities


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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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?

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.

Having lost my bag on a recent trip to Japan, it became obvious to me how much I rely on my ability to plan and then the opportunity to put that plan into place. I had packed clothes that I felt would be appropriate for the various activities and then found myself with nothing. Clothes could be purchased but with the difference in size between the average Japanese woman and me it was going to be a stretch. I found this quite discombobulating and reflected on my attachment to being comfortable with my stuff.

When things don’t go as planned is always a great time to reflect on what is important and what has ‘charge’ in a particular situation. I am not clothing conscious but I do like to feel comfortable, this wasn’t about that. This was ‘my stuff’ that had gone missing. I have been through a period of simplification and had shed a number of my possessions, so I have been contemplating the idea of letting go.  This reaction appeared to be about travelling and taking stuff with me to feel more at home in a strange place. My adult equivalent of a baby blanket. So what happens when it is not available?

For the past few days I have done without a high level ability to communicate, read signs and generally make myself understood. Life is reduced to the basics and that is enough. I think this feeling of enoughness is an interesting idea. Is it possible to be ‘full’ without being encumbered? I visited a Buddhist shrine in Nagoya and there was enough and no more. The tea ceremony, the design of the teahouse, the gardens designed for contemplation were all enough with nothing extra that wasn’t absolutely required. There was extreme beauty in this, a carving out of space for contemplation, which is seen as a luxury now in western society. So the luxury is in time, space and peace not in the trappings. When my stuff arrived, there was a requirement for me to ‘spend’ time unpacking, ironing and deciding what to wear. Previous to this I had not needed to use my time in such a way and could reflect, read, and rest unencumbered. This is the tension – what do we need to sustain us? Things or time?

I think that balancing these two requirements will become more and more important in the future as the cost of living increases, but we know we need to ‘buy’ more time to reflect and act in order to support ourselves and make wise decisions as the complexity around us increases.

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 …

From time to time we find ourselves speaking to the next generation of leaders about leading for the future. And not surprisingly we speak about, and place a premium, on the quality of people’s thinking. We extol to people that “the level of thinking that creates a problem is rarely about to solve it” (with apologies to Albert Einstein or whoever is supposed to have said that). Without fail when you listen to and analyse the way that these proto-leaders are thinking, you hear and see how they are trying mightily to transcend the narrowness of previous modes of thought.

One mode of ‘prior’ thinking that gets a thorough caning is the thinking underlying most of our institutions. Like the famous Monty Python sketch about “what have the Romans done for us?”

Institutional thinking is seen as outmoded, slow, narrow, restrictive and totally unsuited to our modern times and thoroughly modern challenges. So naturally our problems require thinking that is un-institutional. This all seems perfectly obvious so where exactly is the problem?

The problem is that large scale change requires institutional steps to change the laws, rules, boundaries, agreements in order for those changes to become widely adopted. Without institutions then change is always just a matter of individual personal choice. Garret Hardin showed in his archetype, ‘the tragedy of the commons’, that well thought out individual action can maximise the personal and bring down the collective very well. At some stage rules are going to have to be established and enforced that compel the bulk of people to conform to a set of agreed social agreements. And along with these social agreements we will also need a whole bunch of people to enforce and possibly even punish people who will not conform. Climate change is one such change that is only going to managed at a planetary level when a planet full of individuals begin to cede their individualism to the rights of institutions.

Yet the post-modern way, the post-conventional way, is to see the institutional as always being shallow and prior to their way of seeing the world. So as a person’s perspective grows then the institutional is left behind, not for them, not for their leadership. Who, therefore, is left to do institutional leadership? Who would want to be a plodder, to do the long and hard yards that are necessary to get laws changed, to fight for new rules? Who would want to sacrifice their efforts to support an institution, somewhere were their individual efforts are subsumed into the collective? In our world in the thrall of change, innovation, and creativity then those who push knowledge forward are seen as the leaders; the creators. Someone nameless and faceless has to follow behind and institutionalise the best of those innovations otherwise they never really change the world. Ideas don’t change the world; they need to be institutionalised to do that. The idea of women voting didn’t change the world; the fight to get women the vote did that. The concern about the environment did not change the world; the new rules around environment protection did that. And as soon as something is institutionalised it is out of date, now part of the problem not part of the solution. Who wants to be that?

The funny thing about knowledge is that it is always provisional. An idea is only as current as it is, until a better idea comes along. Thus we see the ceaseless growth of knowledge as progress. Institutions are different. Find the error in an idea and we get a new, better idea. Find the flaw in an institution then we get a weakened institution, we don’t automatically get a better one. Diminish the institutions of politics, of education, of commerce and you get a weaker, less effective institution because it is less respected, less authoritative. Someone else has to come along afterwards and build the new institution, do the hard yards, make all the new deals, create the new agreements.

So when we talk to the new leaders about the future, those who grasp the need for new ideas, we ask them are you prepared to build the new institutions that we need? Because if you don’t who will? Someone has to. But it will take time, maybe more than your lifetime to do. And if you do commit yourself to building the new institutions then you know that there is someone who was like you who now sees you as part of the past, too slow, too reactive, the problem and not the solution.

What kind of leader will you be? What kind of leader does the future need you to be?

One of the most easily understood ways of evoking foresight when you are part of a decision-making process is to utter the phrase “what is the worst case scenario?” Almost everyone understands when that phrase is asked then they have to imagine things not working out as they expect/hope and then to decide whether the ‘risk/opportunity’ arising from the decision outweighs that non-preferred future. This is one way to test the Goal Commitment of decision-makers.

The worst case scenario is also used when a person is trapped in a low-hope circumstance and they believe that a recommended course of action will only make things more hopeless. When the worst case is closely examined and does not seem so disastrous then a low hope person can find the self agency to take the course of action and hope can be restored.

The attraction for practitioners is to think that such a commonly understood use of the foresight can be deliberately employed to open up a foresight space in decision-making processes. Further it could be imagined that evoking ‘worst case’ will lead to better, more foresightful decision-making. But will it? I have just read a very useful book on this very topic. Called, not surprisingly, Worst Case Scenarios by Cass Sunstein (2007), and it takes a serious look at the strengths and weaknesses in this foresight approach. The book does makes for uncomfortable reading at one level as it clearly concludes that the serious consideration of the ‘worst case’ is a bridge too far for most people. Still within it I did find some hopeful signs.

While there are a few examples of the social capacity to consider the worst case scenario (e.g. CFC gas bans, Y2K, Swine Flu) history, at the present, is replete with examples of policy and leadership trainwrecks in this regard (Hurricane Katrina, global warming, 2009 Victorian bushfires) and few issues that keep some of us awake at night (GM food, nannotech). Sunstein’s hypothesis is that we can’t use worst case scenarios about futures that people don’t have a current referent for. So domestic airline security was not a referent for a worst case scenario on 10 September and it was on September 11. This is quite depressing as it does suggest that we will need to experience something like the worst case before we will be able to think about the worst case. Bugger.

Some more joyful points from Sunstein; he found that the shibboleth of the futures community, the Precautionary Principle (having no evidence that something won’t go wrong is not a basis for doing something anyway), is basically useless in situations of significant complexity because the principle prevents all actions and inactions because whichever way you move you will offend it. After trashing the much-loved Precautionary Principle, Sunstein then found favour in the much-hated ‘future discounting’ approach to the worst case. While futurists hate the idea that the future is less ‘valuable’ than the present, Sunstein found that it is an effective way to consider worst case scenarios. If consequences can be monetarised then decision-makers do have a basis of making preventative and precautionary decisions. Importantly though Sunstein also found that future discounting did not work in worst cases that involve the loss of human life.

I’m very glad to say that Sunstein did find a need for worst cases to consider Intergenerational Neutrality to be fully effective as a decision-making tool. He favours processes that explicitly draw back the “veil of ignorance to the intergenerational question.”  Rather than avoid the question of whether our actions (or inactions) suit us and our choices, he favours worst cases that consider the impact on those not present now who will live in a worst case that they did not choose. He also favours processes that make decision-makers explicitly declare their view that a life today is worth more than a life in the future as part of their cost-benefit approach – what he calls the ‘morally objectionable’ viewpoint.

Ultimately I think that managing worst cases is at the core of our purpose as practitioners. Being better able to navigate such treacherous waters must be one of our core competencies that we can offer to our clients and organisations to assist them.  It appears that technique will only get you so far and that ultimately it is our ability to reason and act morally in considering the worst case that will determine whether we are a help or a hinderance.

As we learn to see the constructed-ness   of what we commonly call ‘reality’ then we begin to glimpse that very few things can be thought as truly enduring. When we put down our preferred ways of seeing our environment and, perhaps for the first time, start seeing things as they really then we start to sense the tremendous uncertainties that are around us. After we sit with this awareness for some time then we being to sense that uncertainty and change open up new fields of opportunity. Eventually we realise that seeing, sensing and sitting are ‘necessary but not sufficient’ conditions – we have to act – somehow.

Ekhart Tolle has a neat way of describing this eventual realisation.

“If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it or accept it totally.” (Power of Now (1999) Chapter 4).

The way Ekhart puts it is quite straightforward – continue, leave, change it. But is straightforward easy?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that we really do not want our choices to be this straightforward. I’m suggesting that all those things that we had to bring within our apprehension were originally ‘hidden’ because we did not want to really to bring them into awareness in the first place. What we actually put down were our psychological defences – we took off our protective clothing and so here we are – naked so to speak – with three simple choices – continue, leave or change it. Why would we do this? Why would we not want to know that our choices are clear? Because if our choices are so clear and all we have to do is choose one then to do none of those things means that we are cowards. We would rather run away and hide from having to make a choice.

Which leads me to my thoughts on courage for I believe it takes courage to commit to one of Ekhart’s three choices. What type of courage am I talking about? Is it Dutch courage that we need? Dutch courage is when you find courage through something that suppresses your fear – giving soldiers alcohol so they will choose something (put their life on the line) that they would not choose if they were sober. Does that sound like an ethical goal commitment process to make one of Ekhart’s choices – I don’t think so.

I have found a type of courage that I think is applicable to Ekhart’s choices. It is called 2-o’clock in the morning courage and it is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.

“As to moral courage, I have very rarely met with the two o’clock in the morning kind. I mean unprepared courage, that is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgement and decision.”

That I think is why we do what we do. We extol to our clients and ourselves that we want/need to see things as they truly are in order to spot hazard and sense opportunity. We tell ourselves that we want to get to the deepest level, that we wish to make fundamental change in order to create our preferred futures. We push closer and closer to that point in time when we actually realise what our choices are – do we continue with this life, do we leave and create a new life or do we try to make this life better – and then we find out how brave we really are … at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Assumptions are the sworn enemy of robust forward planning of any type. One of the basic axioms of foresight is that our assumptions blind us to possibilities. So we need to examine our assumptions as much as possible…right?

Easier said than done as assumptions play a fundamental role for us. If we did not have them, and everything started from first principles, we would not get out of the house in the morning. We use assumptions to short circuit thinking processes – when I turn on the hot tap I assume hot water will come out of it. How many minutes have you wasted in hotel rooms with unfamiliar showers trying to work out where the hot water comes from?? Assumptions speed up this type of process. Where they trip us up is in big picture thinking about the future. Any report, modelling or forecast will have assumptions built into it as the future is not yet known therefore we MUST assume something. Can you critically examine these assumptions and better still can you catch them before they are accepted as fact?

So, how do we deal with assumptions in organisations and when thinking about the future? We need four ingredients – mindset, culture, embodied behaviours and systemic rewards.

Mindset – can you ask dumb questions? Are you able to be the ‘idiot’ who asks the question that you may be the only person who doesn’t know the answer to? Are you able to question the emperor’s new clothes – can you take risks? The internal ability or mindset to approach problems with a beginner’s mind, to ask the dumb questions and to risk your incompetence being demonstrated is a key attribute of able long-term thinkers. If you self-image is wrapped up in always being the expert or looking competent then there is a very high likelihood that you will never be an able long-term thinker. If you are able to put down the need to be right and pick up curiosity and develop the ability to ask excellent questions then you are part-way to developing a capacity for the long term view.

Culture – is the uncovering and questioning of assumptions ‘allowed’ within the culture of your organisation? Or are the elephants in the room outnumbering the people?  Many groups do not allow the unspoken assumptions to be questioned and those that do are asked to remove themselves. There is always risk in asking the obvious question, especially if you are exposing those higher up the hierarchy to difficult questions and asking them to make hard choices. There are many organisational cultures that allow assumptions to flourish in order to duck hard decision-making and these organisations invariably end up in difficult places.

Embodied behaviours – do your senior managers ask dumb questions or are they too wrapped up in looking like they know it all? If the leaders within an organisation are not actively trying to uncover the assumptions operating within the group, there is little chance for a culture of open discussion and robust debate to be established, let alone flourish. If the CEO can model this behaviour but allows their direct reports to do otherwise, there is no chance a culture of questioning will flourish. Command and control works in situations that are complicated, with solutions that can be developed over time by smart people putting their heads together. It does not work in complex environments where solutions will only ever be partial and a system view is required to navigate past obstacles and to take advantage of opportunities.

Finally, what are the rewards generated by the system in operation? Humans like to operate within known systems. Most people coming new into an organisation will work out what behaviours and mindsets are required by the rewards on offer. Does your organisation reward the questioning of assumptions? Will you receive a positive performance review if you are happy to look stupid on occasion and say you don’t know, or are those who exude confidence and always have the answer given the bonus or the promotion? If you do not have questioning behaviours present in your organisation or you are constantly being undone by assumptions, then look at your system of explicit and implicit rewards to see what behaviours are being promoted over others. Remember the system always works perfectly, if you don’t like the outcome then the system will need to be changed.

Developing the mindset, culture, behaviours and rewards that support the review and questioning of assumptions is not easy but it will deliver the ability for your organisation to engage in robust planning for the future.