Tag Archive: we futures


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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“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
― E.F. Schumacher

There is sometimes a tendency when thinking about and planning for future activity to want to make solutions more complex than they need to be. Whether this is due to a desire to forecast the ‘right’ direction or because understanding of the present day situation is lacking, or (more cynically) to sell a solution that only ‘you’ can deliver, more often than not the most complex answers to future problems/opportunities are not likely to be those that will work.

I have noticed in my work and teaching that to successfully wrestle with the future is to think through the complexity to identify the simplicity on the other side. If the situation is already complex, adding more complexity will not help. If the situation is complicated, then making it complex will not assist you either. Knowing the difference is a key part of foresight activity. Too often situations that are very complicated are described as complex as a way of ducking responsibility for the hard decisions or ceding of control that may need to occur to move to an outcome. Sometimes, complex situations are only partly appreciated so are considered complicated, and solutions generated which won’t work and then don’t work much to the dismay of those developing them.

complicated = not simple, but ultimately knowable.

complex = not simple and never fully knowable. Just too many variables interact.

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People develop conscious and unconscious images of the future as a matter of course. They do so for themselves, their families, their country and globally. These futures can be probable, preferred and or simply possible. The images of the future held by individuals are interacting with the present, setting the tone for decision-making with the imagined future influencing what directions are currently taken. In this sense, images of the future are essentially the manifestation of our expectation that transformation is possible. Creating a vision, be it as an individual or organisation, taps into the deepest desires of the people involved and allows them to express how they wish the world to be.

Holding clear images of the future is one way fear and trepidation about complexity can be minimised. Individuals can engage with the complexity through development of futures images, trying out different options for operating, which then allows clear decisions to be taken in the present which otherwise may seem fraught with difficulties. The future becomes a playground in which the boundaries of the present loosen and creativity abounds.

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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.

“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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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.