Tag Archive: thinking 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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” –Laurence J. Peter

One of my favourite parts of foresight work is the opportunity to work with wicked problems. When a client calls wanting to engage with an issue for which there are no easy answers, my heart soars. The level of difficulty in these assignments is high but the engagements (thus far) have been very positive. Foresight is useful when it comes to engaging with complex problems as it gives you space to consider what ‘better’ actually means in the context of the challenge at hand.

Having spent the best part of a day in the past week engaged in a conversation about a wicked problem, I had cause to reflect on why I enjoy it so much. Part of the attraction is the intellectual challenge, as the navigation of the complexity pushes us to think more broadly and deeply about the issue and the potential actions that could be undertaken. I think the other part of the attraction for me is that there really is no right answer.

To clarify what a wicked problem is the APSC provides a series of characteristics:

  • wicked problems are difficult to clearly define
  • wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
  • attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences
  • wicked problems are often not stable
  • wicked problems usually have no clear solution
  • wicked problems are socially complex
  • wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation
  • some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

Continue reading

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

As outlined in a previous post, to have hope is to be powerful. Many wonderful things are achieved by people simply acting from hope. Hope can be seen in foresight workshops when people have the opportunity to envision their preferred futures, when they are still in the ‘what if’ phase, invigorated and energised by what could be. From experience, it is clear that to have a vision is not enough. Leadership and change require individuals to act in the present to bring about the future that is desired. A theory of Hope was developed over 30 years ago that aims to explain the agentic and goal directional qualities of hope through cognitive psychology. Though probably not the whole answer, it has been rigorously studied and appears to hold up under a number of different scenarios. According to this theory, Hope can be learned and its qualities taught to those who do not already have them, and it can be passed on to children. It is this ability to be learned, and the positive correlations with psychological health and enhancement, that makes Hope Theory such an attractive framework for futurists.

Futures Studies, especially when developing images of preferred futures, inevitably falls across the concept of hope. Part of the work futurists do is facilitating people, both individually and in groups, to develop positive images of the future that then move them to action. The conventional view of positive images of the future is that it is the image itself which harbours the agentic qualities. The well-trained futurist is expected to work with a client to generate such a compelling vision that the client will move towards it of their own volition; however this may only be half of the story.

Continue reading

 

Extinction timeline from nowandnext

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People often ask me why I became a futurist. The answer to the question looks clear in hindsight, there is a progression from an interest in certain subjects at high school then Uni, all of my roles in the workforce had a component of futures thinking required in them and then I found the foresight program at Swinburne. The lived experience was different, there was no clear goal, rather I went where my interest and curiosity led me. My experience of people who were seen to be future oriented in organisations was that they were often on the outer, seen as difficult because they asked hard questions or advocated for a different direction but in the pre-1990s recession world they were left near a pot plant in a tucked away office to think their thoughts and every so often someone would lob in asking them to be involved in something. They were always interesting people to have a chat with and most were happy to spend time talking to a younger person who had an interest in thinking out ten or twenty years.

The leaner organisations that have evolved since the late 1990s have no place for these oddities.

Continue reading

A BENDIGO business is prompting community discussion about the ever-growing demand for human services.  Care Beyond Measure is preparing for the worst – the day when demand out-numbers funding and workforce – and wants everyone to start thinking about the future. The in-home care provider is busy training a workforce of personal carers but is also taking the time to plan a community forum to be held in August. Care Beyond Measure senior manager Kevin Pittman paints a bleak view of the future and has prepared a presentation to highlight the “train wreck” that is edging closer and closer.  “There is a situation developing in our community that we need to start thinking about,” Mr Pittman said. “We really needed to start thinking about it 10 years ago but hey, any time is better than none.

“We need to start thinking about how we’re going to prepare for this situation.” Mr Pittman described the “situation” as a trifecta – staggering increases in demand, shortages of government funding and a shrinking workforce. “Who the heck is planning how to face a situation where we have much more demand, much more complex demand, much less money and much fewer staff all at the same time?” he asked. Bendigo Advertiser, 28 May 2012 

This is an interesting story – the aged care system in Australia has been under pressure for some time. There is 2011 report by the Productivity Commission that led to the current 2012 Government response, Living Longer Living Better, which is akin to moving the deck chairs around the Titanic. Their effort to switcheroo funding without biting the bullet of real reform means that most of the promised funding increases were moved to the end of the 5 year period (2016-17). Given the current (un) popularity of the Government, they are unlikely to be in power when these increases fall due. The Productivity Commission Report suggested opening up a very regulated industry to competition and moving the costs of aged care onto the consumer. This makes economic sense in the face of shrinking Government revenue and growing numbers of ageing Australians needing care over the next 20 years. It makes no political sense when the people facing the loss of their nest eggs all vote.

Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The questions?

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

The answers?

  1. Yes
  2. No

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

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

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

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

The game goes like this.

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

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

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

But can I trust you …