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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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’.
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.