Tag Archive: descent

Because life is so often incomprehensible, books one can’t quite understand can seem truer and deeper than those one can.

Alain de Botton

Executive summaries over reports – 140 characters over email – texts and facebook posts over letters, these are all examples of the shortening of attention and time spent engaged with one idea. The modern working person does not have the time to spend thinking about an issue or problem for more than a few minutes. Their attention is spread across multiple mediums – computer, phone, face to face – they are busy all the time. In fact, a check of progress is to ask someone – are you busy? A positive response is good, a negative is met with raised eyebrows as if the absence of busyness somehow implies wrongness or failure.

This obsession with being busy, having interesting status updates and quick witted ripostes on social media is counterpoised with rising complexity and the need for leaders to engage with the deeper levels of problems rather than the surface presentation. Many of us skim along the top of things – linking together ideas at a surface level, regardless of their past usage or lineage. It is rare to come across someone who takes the time to think through an issue, we are rewarded for our ability to react quickly and make decisions on the run. When these decisions turn out to be less than optimal, we make more to fill the gap or try to re-direct the ship. We certainly don’t spend time looking at our assumptions, understanding history and identifying the deeper dynamics at work.

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One of the first books I bought on the ‘the future’ outside of texts I was reading for the Masters of Strategic Foresight was Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart. I bought a copy in 2003 while at a World Future Society conference in San Francisco, it is printed on a material made from plastic resins and fibres. It claimed to be waterproof, which I tested, and recyclable, which I haven’t as yet. The material is soft and pleasant to the touch. They describe the material as a ‘technical nutrient’, “a product that can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles.” (p5) I still remember how excited I was by both the book’s message and the embodiment of the message by the artefact itself. The idea of cradle to cradle manufacturing, where the waste products of one process becomes the feedstock for another, is still a very seductive idea to me. That this should be key requirement of all design is also one which has been slow to catch on, but is starting to appear. Europe requires that the recycling of packaging and products be considered during the design process. The idea of upcycling is starting to gain traction, as is the closing of systems in restaurants and the like.

Cradle to Cradle


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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

One of the issues I alluded to in the previous post was our tenancy to bifurcate the future into positive and negative stereotypes – utopia or dystopia. This topic has come up a couple of times in the past week, so I thought a follow up post might be appropriate. The model I want to use to start this discussion was developed by Andrew Curry and Anthony Hodgson and you can find in the Journal of Futures Studies which places all of its material on the web free of charge.

The format of their model that I use in my work is below. The standpoint is today, and you can see from the chart that I start five years or so into the past, the first horizon is the world we know today, overtime it recedes and the seeds of the second and third horizons can be seen if you look. In the work we do, the third horizon is the future we are trying to create, the emerging signals of which exist today. It won’t be a straight line extrapolation from one to the other, instead there is what is known by the technical term of ‘the messy bit’ between us in the present and the future we are wanting to create. It is the messiness of the second horizon that derails many in their thinking about the future. We want the clean break from the past and to step into a future that is desired. Our ability to make straight line linkages between events in hindsight fools us into thinking this is possible when looking out to the future. My contention is that we currently need to develop compelling images of 3rd horizon futures and that it is the role of the leader to navigate the messy bit from today to tomorrow. Continue reading

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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Victoria was inundated with water yet again, which is devastating for those who are in the thick of it and may have consequences for the State as a whole.

Traralgon flood (The Age 06/06/12)

The government has assured Victorians there is no threat to power supplies after floodwaters began spilling into  the Yallourn open-cut coal mine, forcing the adjoining power station to operate on a reduced capacity.

The Yallourn mine has suffered ”significant leakage” since the nearby Morwell River burst its banks, affecting a conveyor system used to transport coal to the Yallourn Power Station, which supplies 22 per cent of the state’s electricity supply and eight per cent of the national electricity market. Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/environment/weather/floodwaters-pour-into-coal-mine-but-power-supplies-safe-minister-20120606-1zv5e.html#ixzz1wyzcuC5v

There are infrastructure shocks in all countries at all times. Some countries are better prepared than others, usually because they have patchy service delivery at the best of times, others (usually Western countries) come to a complete standstill. We were living in the UK during the 2000 driver’s strike in which they blockaded fuel depots and the populace panicked and bought fuel which in turn meant there was none to be had about three days into the strike. This affected food availability as people started to panic buy and it seemed to take a long time for the Government to control the situation or enact a rationing regime. Coming from Australia which had regular odds and evens days for fuel buying when I was growing up, this seemed ridiculous. We had gone on a driving holiday from York to Cornwall and so were holed up in the very south of the country which was not a bad place to be. This experience probably sensitised me to the potential for infrastructure disruption, as I had experienced problems with gas when a Victorian plant had exploded the year before which resulted in me having to take cold showers when 6 months pregnant in the middle of a Melbourne winter with no heating. Now for those of you who deal with infrastructure issues on a daily basis, these are small issues but as the French heatwave deaths in 2003 demonstrated, many people are not prepared for climatic extremes.

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The image below this post comes from the latest IMF working paper (May 2012) looking at the “The Future of Oil: Geology versus Technology” (opens pdf) which attempts to take both the models of oil availability – that proposed by geologists and that by technologists and work out what the likely price implications are going to be to 2020. An internal working paper that “does not presume that there is a constraint on how much oil can be taken out of the ground. It prefers to believe that extraction rates will depend on the price that will be able to be charged for the final product”, it makes the wonderfully understated point that “the future may not be easy”. I continue to be amazed at the number of people I meet, sitting in leadership positions, who are unaware of this issue. I have heard from colleagues of engagements in the past couple of years with groups of senior decision-makers who have refused to discuss the issue as they believe it to be a fringe problem.

World Oil Price IMF 2012 (in 2011 dollars)

This is in fact a core strategic issue for all businesses, community service providers and governments, especially if what the paper finds holds true. In the introduction, the authors state that they will:

Discuss and reconcile two diametrically opposed views concerning the future of world oil production and prices. The geological view expects that physical constraints will dominate the future evolution of oil output and prices. It is supported by the fact that world oil production has plateaued since 2005 despite historically high prices, and that spare capacity has been near historic lows. The technological view of oil expects that higher oil prices must eventually have a decisive effect on oil output, by encouraging technological solutions. It is supported by the fact that high prices have, since 2003, led to upward revisions in production forecasts based on a purely geological view. We present a nonlinear econometric model of the world oil market that encompasses both views. The model performs far better than existing empirical models in forecasting oil prices and oil output out of sample. Its point forecast is for a near doubling of the real price of oil over the coming decade. The error bands are wide, and reflect sharply differing judgments on ultimately recoverable reserves, and on future price elasticities of oil demand and supply.

The paper is technical and, I am assuming rigourous, it is clear from my reading of it that they were struggling to model to large range of unknowns on the process that they had set themselves. They state that there are wide bands of error in the model as the future is unknown, “there is substantial uncertainty about these future trends that are rooted in our fundamental lack of knowledge, based on current data, about ultimately recoverable oil reserves, and about long-run price elasticities of oil demand and supply”. The model forecasts a “near doubling of real oil prices over the coming decade”, with a global average growth rate of between 3-5%. Given that the Chinese, Indian and Brazilian account for 25% of global GDP and their growth rates are forecast to be at least 5% over this period, it suggests many countries will stagnate or go backwards.

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Yesterday, I saw a link to the trailer for the new J.J Abrams TV series which is apparently slated for a Fall 2012 showing in the US. The publicity blurb below explains its premise.

Our entire way of life depends on electricity. So what would happen if it just stopped working? Well, one day, like a switch turned off, the world is suddenly thrust back into the dark ages. Planes fall from the sky, hospitals shut down, and communication is impossible. And without any modern technology, who can tell us why?

Now, 15 years later, life is back to what it once was long before the industrial revolution: families living in quiet cul-de-sacs, and when the sun goes down, the lanterns and candles are lit. Life is slower and sweeter. Or is it?

On the fringes of small farming communities, danger lurks. And a young woman’s life is dramatically changed when a local militia arrives and kills her father, who mysteriously – and unbeknownst to her – had something to do with the blackout. This brutal encounter sets her and two unlikely companions off on a daring coming-of-age journey to find answers about the past in the hopes of reclaiming the future.

From director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2”) and the fertile imaginations of J.J. Abrams and Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”), comes a surprising “what if” action-adventure series, where an unlikely hero will lead the world out of the dark. Literally.  (http://www.nbc.com/revolution/about/)

Putting to one side the plausibility, or not, of all electrical power suddenly evaporating, the depiction of how society might look 15 years after such an event is interesting from a foresight point of view. When I watched the trailer, I was immediately struck by the similarities with the work of James Howard Kunstler in his book ‘World Made by Hand‘ which is mentioned in a previous post.  The rise of warlords, and the move back to an agrarian way of life, alongside the dilapidation of the built environment are all features of his novel. Rather than the  overnight removal of electricity, Kunstler alludes to a gradual decay of infrastructure and services as the price of keeping everything going rises off the back of peak resources. In his world, there is community which is strong and interconnected but this is in an area of the US which is difficult to access. Urban areas and those rural areas close to large cities are less secure and many millions of people have died.

Revolution seems to take us back to a world which is similar to that described by Kunstler, with the urban areas reminiscent of the wild west in America shown in TV series such as Deadwood (but this time with ninja-like fight scenes). It will be interesting to watch the series with a foresight eye, to identify what the assumptions about the present have been and how these play out into the future. What I would like to see are some depictions of how we might move to a positive future in the face of such challenges, is it really our fate to be thrust into a violent world of oppression and fear?

Have a look at the trailer below and see what you think.

As I sat through another remarkable week where more national governments throw almost unimaginably sized lumps of money at so called ‘crises’ (e.g. 10 May 2010 -European Central Banks create a 962 billion Euros to fix the ‘sovereign debt’ problem), I began to wonder what is it that is going on at the level of Present Need that these remarkable examples of Pathway Thinking are being employed?

One way we can stop ourselves falling into our traditional patterns of thought and hence missing emerging opportunities (and risks) is to not always start out by trying to work out what the ‘problem’ is. Once we think we understand a problem then we often simultaneously create the pathways where we will find the solutions. Instead we can look at the pathways that people are employing in order to find the problem they are seeing; using a medical metaphor instead of diagnosing from symptoms (Present Need) and then choosing the best treatment (Pathways Thinking) we could  look at treatments chosen to establish the probably diagnosis reached and to then think about that.

So back to my ruminations. Clearly it is a widely accepted pathway of thinking that the value of sovereign debt securities should not be allowed to go down in value. Likewise it is also clearly accepted that the value of bank stocks, housing prices, (name your asset here) should also not go down and so the accepted pathway of thought is to find ways to make them go back up again.

Why? Surely lots of things go down … don’t they? Or is down thought bad and is up thought good? Maybe we are happier with up and down makes us sad? I started to think about this some more and tried to look for examples of pathways that chose actions to promote down as good or at least not bad. And my results? Well there are lots of examples of down in the physical world – gravity is a good example – no point choosing pathways that want to fight gravity is there? (Note: Ignore flight and skyscrapers here). And friction which makes speed reduce – there is no point trying to find pathways towards increasing speed is there? (Note: ignore the boys on Top Gear here). I mean friction is not a problem is it? And heat which goes one way – well a pathway to make thermonuclear dynamics go the other way is about as silly as well – printing money out of nothing to replace the value of something that has gone down in value isn’t it (note: ignore quantitative easing here).  No, it’s quite clear that the physical world is full of down and that is perfectly natural (sic) thing and down isn’t thought bad there or doesn’t make us unhappy – does it?

Next I looked in the natural world, of living matter and down is everywhere there too. True things in the natural world do go up but then they tend to come back down again and then the pattern repeats. Organic matter tends to increase in complexity for a while (goes up) and then eventually it breaks down, decays, dies and returns to its simple organic form again only to rinse and repeat. And that process isn’t one that we feel necessary to choose pathways of thought to prevent is it? We are not bothered by down in the natural world are we (note: ignore Botox and Extropians here)? I quickly moved on.

Finally I got to our manufactured world, the world that we create from our dreams, plans and actions. Surely down is an accepted part of that world isn’t it? History teaches us that empires rise and fall so we down is clearly accepted as a normal part of cultural processes – isn’t it? And economic systems go up and down and so we don’t only choose pathways that promote up and refuse to admit down – do we (note: don’t go there)? My observation of technology was that it does seem to like up a lot (e.g. Moores Law) and whenever something went down (size) then it lets something else go up faster (e.g. enjoyment, functionality).

And then I remembered what Lewis Mumford wrote back in 1970 in his magisterial book “The Myth of the Machine”. His view was that our view of the world and our part in it were based upon some unchallenged beliefs.

“There is only one efficient speed: faster; only one attractive destination: farther away; only one desirable size: bigger; only one rational quantitative goal: bigger.” (p170)

There it was, as reiterated by the magisterial music combo Yazz – the Only way is Up.

If our Present Need is suggesting down then we must choose pathways that get us going back up again.  Now 982 Billion Euros made sense as a Pathway choice. Yazz must be on the playlist all the world’s politicians.