Tag Archive: personal capacity

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.


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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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 field of foresight has always employed instruments to aid our ability to make wise future-focussed decisions. The entrails of the sheep, the crystal ball, the Monte Carlo simulation, the scenario and the agent-based model are all examples of the development of better foresight instruments.

As the numbers  of the foresight Greek chorus grow and their lamentations of the coming of “Peak Oil”, “Peak Debt”, “Peak Calories” and “Peak Water”, to name a few, grow stronger than what instruments can help us? If we are arriving at a new epoch of limits, both climate and resource based, then what do we build as the next foresight instrument?  It is ourselves that has to become the best foresight instrument it can be.

For what else is there than can rationally consider the tragedy of our societies seemingly ‘head-in-the sand’ or ‘duck and hope’ strategies to our many serious challenges we face and not despair?  What else is there that can seemingly stand on the abyss and find hope, humour and motivation? It is just ourselves.

I see them in the classroom and the workshop. Often they are there to gain knowledge and to sharpen their thinking by gaining a critical, and not cynical, edge. They come to play, to practice and to listen to each other. They seek companionship and some measure of legitimation while they are on this difficult journey.  Certainly developing your cognitive, creative and emotional intelligences does improve the foresight instrument.

But the biggest single improvement in the foresight instrument that we can make is to add that feature that energises it – to add to it a battery that seems to not need recharging. What is this source of inspiration and spirit – it is love. For within all of us, often buried a long way down, is that core of who we all are together. It transcends reason and logic because when we get back to that place it is just so clear as to ‘Why’. When that is clear then What and How are much closer to hand.

There is no shortage to ways to make this improvement. I just encourage everyone to just find time to find a practice and a way that works for them. You will be so glad you made the effort and investment and importantly all of us will be so happy as well because we need everyone on this. We need everyone because like Ernest Shackleton on ice – no one can be left behind.

Interior York Minster

The dynamic of trading off the long-term for the short-term appears hard-wired into our systems. Our brains discount the future, our body wants us to eat fats now to save for later and so we enjoy this process far too much. As a society we are unable or deeply unwilling to put off today so we can have tomorrow.  As small children, those who demonstrate the ability to wait for something have higher achievement scores later in life, so the ability to wait does reward us but not until later and it is this later which is the issue.

I recently recorded a keynote for a virtual conference on place based poverty run by UnitingCare which considered the long-term view for people in poverty and what might be needed to bring about change. My core message was that joined up, holistic and long-term planning for services, infrastructure  and service delivery were the key issues. I said this knowing that under current systems, it is very difficult for Governments and their service delivery agencies to deliver. Not for a want of trying, but rather funding and reporting requirements, both in Government and in the service world, actively work against it. However, all of these requirements are not ‘real’ in the sense they can be altered, they are simply constructions of a time and place. Committed people can change these requirements and therefore the results delivered on the front line.

Richard Slaughter in the Biggest Wake up Call in History discusses the mafia in Italy and says that the reason there is garbage piled high in southern Italy is the short amount of the time a crime boss stays at the top of a syndicate results in short-termism of thinking – why provide for the future if you won’t be around to enjoy it? Our brains find it difficult to think about how good something might feel in the future or how bad the consequences of poor behaviour might feel – ask anyone with a hangover.  As the reigns of those at the top get shorter with electoral cycles, CEO roles, share returns all under constrained time frames, the propensity for short-termism will increase, ironically at the same time, as we need to be thinking long-term. This is not a coincidence, it is the nub of the challenge we face. We have to become cathedral builders rather than property developers.

To build a cathedral is to toil for centuries without one generation seeing the outcome, it may their sons/daughters or grandchildren that see the finished product. Why do such a thing as for most of us there has to be individual gain, and in medieval times it was grace – or the points you accrue before you try to get into heaven.

What might be the modern equivalent?

What long-term goal with an individual payoff and a longer-term societal good could we identify?

On core purpose

In a world that seems to require us to be acquisitive and driven to succeed, how do we know what we actually need as opposed to what we might want? I think one answer to this is ‘core purpose’.

Do you know your purpose for action in the world? Think about the idea of being able to express your purpose in 6 words. This idea comes from a friend, Stephen Johnson, who wrote the book ‘What do you do for a living?’ in which he talks about leadership from purpose. Having just been appointed as CEO of a large company, he was showering before his first day of work and it struck him that he didn’t know what he was here to do. He asked his wife (who works a paediatric doctor in a hospital) to express what she did for a living, she replied, ‘I make sick children well’. He found he didn’t have the same clarity of purpose. Do you?

Being able to encapsulate your reason for action in a mere six words is an injunction. Having a core purpose delivers clarity around what we should be doing on a daily or hourly basis. Asking ‘does this fit my purpose’ is an injunction, a pause for reflection and re-orientation. The use of injunctions comes from the wisdom traditions, to give us a reason to stop and reflect upon our actions. Action without reflection and understanding is blind, just as theory without action is meaningless.

My core purpose for the past 3 years has been to help people consciously develop their innate foresight capacity. I can feel that there is another purpose starting to arise for me as time and experiences are accumulated in the service of my purpose. I find this idea interesting, our core purpose can and will change as we change. The challenge is to have enough stillness in our lives to allow core purpose to emerge. I think we also need ritual as part of this process. A way of allowing the future that wishes to emerge through us a voice that we can hear.

Give yourself time and space to listen to your core purpose as it tries to emerge through you. As someone once advised me ‘get out of your own way long enough to hear what is being said to you’.

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.