Saturday, April 30, 2016

Foresight is a right

Artwork: Mural by the Community Qolla Ayllu Cutimuy of Villa Elisa, La Plata, Buenos Aires[source].


A while back, a futures student posted on one of our community email lists a question that I've kept coming back to in my mind.

Is thinking about the future a right or a privilege?

This is interesting because it gets at a central paradox that one inhabits as a futurist. On the one hand, it's clearly a right. As human beings, whatever our physical limitations may be, we enjoy – as we must – a capacity to roam freely in the imagination. To hope, to dream, to explore. What could be more basic? (Zia Sardar's splendid 01999 collection, Rescuing All Our Futures, acknowledges and builds on this notion, looking at it primarily though a critical cultural and decolonial lens.) Consider too our historical situation: enmeshed in a fast-changing world, being able to think ahead is apparently a prerequisite for successfully navigating that change as individuals and as communities. So, yeah: foresight is a right.

On the other hand, foresight is evidently a privilege. Many people are so overwhelmed with the concerns and pressures of the day-to-day that the idea of spending time engaged with the longer term outside of the occasional daydream is a barely imaginable luxury. People are unaccustomed to thinking futures and tend to discount them: it was this recognition that prompted our first steps ten years ago towards what became Experiential Futures practice. Also, professional futurists are still a rare species, numbering in the hundreds worldwide. A majority of companies, universities, and governments lack proper mechanisms for incorporating foresight into their work. Similarly in the realm of education; despite basic education itself now being a global norm, few students even get to find out that the foresight field exists, let alone study it. Foresight is also a privilege.

A paradox then: normatively foresight is a right, descriptively it's a luxury. It's something everyone should be able to do, but in reality few have the opportunity. We need to close this gap, and there are some encouraging signs that things may be moving in the right direction.

There's Teach The Future, a project of long time futures educator Peter Bishop, "to establish futures thinking as a natural component of secondary, post-secondary and professional education". This wonderful initiative builds on a half century-old pedagogical tradition in futures studies, seeking to make it available to all.

There's the proposal by strategic consultant Jeff De Cagna that a Duty of Foresight be embraced by association boards alongside their existing legally established duties of care, loyalty and obedience. Law being part of my background, I find this very interesting: a legal obligation to think ahead more methodically could be quite a powerful measure.

This month (April 02016), there was a promising court decision where a federal US judge found in favour of a group of young people, aged between 8 and 19, seeking to sue the United States government for inaction on climate change, in light of harm to both their own interests and those of future generations.

And there are also assorted experiments with formal mechanisms embedding foresight in state governance. Some years ago Bolivia passed the Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra (Cormac Cullinan's wonderful book Wild Law covers this earth-centric legal territory very well). Sweden now has a Minister of Future Issues; her name is Kristina Persson. Finnish Parliament has a standing permanent Committee for the Future. In just the past week, my colleague Noah Raford shared the news that the Dubai Future Foundation has been established through a waqf, or perpetual charitable trust, "to shape the future of the strategic sectors in cooperation with the government and private sector".  Many jurisdictions have seen proposals or undertaken efforts towards various institutions of foresight – which, covered properly, would be a much longer post.

Admittedly this is all a bit impressionistic. We could stand to be rather more systematic about tracking signals towards what Richard Slaughter usefully described twenty years ago as social foresight; a collective capacity to engage the long term [full text].

It is more than a decade since Andy Hines, now head of the futures program at University of Houston, proposed an "audit for organisational futurists" [full text pdf] to implement and monitor progress within organisations. Perhaps the time has come for the field to take steps towards a larger-scale foresight audit – a Foresight Census, to monitor the shape of these activities and spread of capacities around the world.

Foresight is indeed a right, it seems to me. But we are extraordinarily fortunate to be part of an era in which it is also, Inshallah, becoming a norm.

> Dreaming together
Crimes against future generations
> Questioning hyperopia
Generational change
> Politicians discussing global warming

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Journalism from the future

I recently joined the advisory board of a startup called Scout, a crowdfunded project out of Seattle that's "accelerating the creation of a better future through stories, conversations, and prototypes". In other words, the initiative is about developing a platform combining journalism and science fiction. A discussion with Scout's co-founders Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath about how those two traditions come together reminded me of something I've been meaning to share here.

Every now and then, there surfaces a piece of writing that uses the formats and tropes of nonfiction reportage to explore a future scenario diegetically. Such writing can dramatise a point of view on the future(s) to great effect. To say it's diegetic means that it's framed "from" or "within" the hypothetical, as opposed to the more common, and literal-minded, mode of explicit speculation about what could or "will" happen from the vantage point of today.

Conventional prospective or speculative journalism holds the future at arm's length, pontificating. Diegetic reporting actually goes there. It's journalism's version of the "artifact from the future".

Now, scenario writing for formal foresight processes often uses a similar communicative gambit. Still, I find it refreshing when real journos and writers use their skillsets and bully pulpits around the mediascape to tackle this territory. Not to denigrate the efforts of *cough* well-meaning futures types, but when a writer has mastery of those forms and genres which authoritatively mediate developments in the wider world (or seem to), it gives an enormous boost to their readers' capacity to entertain a hypothetical context.  This can range from breaking-news reports to long form historical analysis. In any event, part of what makes future journalism tick is the same thing that can make asserting possibilities in materiality so effective: it brings the future to life.

Another vector to this post comes from The Economist, which a few months ago launched The World If..., a welcome (nay, overdue) effort from a mainstream media brand to systematise some kind of imaginative engagement with possibilities. But in selecting the format they missed a big opportunity. Instead of using their own journalistic idiom to perform future events and analysis, compellingly demonstrating to readers the cultural, commercial, political and strategic implications of each "what if", the articles peer at the possibilities from an armchair planted firmly in the present.

So for those occasions when scenarios are best communicated in writing, we should seek to get a better handle on what works, and why. Below is a starter list of diegetic "journalism from the future" articles. What could be called "future longreads" are starred. *

By the way, let us distinguish what's covered here from a cloud of related approaches which deserve examination elsewhere:
Newspapers from the future: a classic, even clichéd way to mediate a future scenario, but with good reason. Cases range from the Yes Men's brilliant 02008 real-world intervention The New York Times Special Edition, to Near Future Laboratory's recent paper about the future of football, to the famous prop in Back to the Future Part II [as per the pic at the top of this post; and while it's true that this isn't exactly an example of what this post is about, BTTF Day was just recently – so there we are].
Scenarios: Stories produced by futurists specifically for strategic conversation-prodding purposes often incorporate diegetic, and frequently first-person, accounts of future events. Like this.
Future headlines: These are a staple of shorthand scenario-writing (see Ogilvy and Schwartz, Plotting Your Scenarios, p. 9).
Video/audio news reports: there are a lot of these around, the main lesson of which to date appears to be that they are super hard to do well. The best might still be Orson Welles's brilliant 01938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which is very nearly an experiential scenario (it's discussed at length in terms of its effectiveness and ethical calculus here, pp. 272 ff).
Diegetic future documentary: see here.
Entire books framed as documents of a future or alternative present: a favourite example, offhand, is Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, the verisimilitude and plausibility of which are bolstered with in-story textual artifacts such as scientific journal references. Five centuries earlier, Thomas More's Utopia did something similar (see here pp. 266-267).


Alan S. Drake, The Oil Drum
USA 2034: A Look Back at the 25th Anniversary Year
Set in 02034 (published 02007)

James Fallows, The Atlantic
Countdown to a Meltdown, 02016 (02005)

Niall Ferguson, Time
The Nation That Fell To Earth, 02031 (02006)

Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone
Goodbye, Miami, 02030 (02013)

Rebecca Solnit,
The Age of Mammals: Looking Back on the First Quarter of the Twenty-First Century, 02026 (02006)

Michael Rogers, NBC News
Synthetic actors: an interview from the future, 02022 (02005)
What is the worth of words? 02025 (02006)

Bruce Sterling, Wired
Dispatches from the Hyperlocal Future, 02017 (02007)


This is a stub; no doubt there are many more instances around. I'd be happy to add (and credit) suggestions that readers may share.

> Death of a President
A history of experiential futures
The New York Times Special Edition
> Video reports from the future
Four future news clips from MIT
Humans have 23 years to go
> The Future of Church

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dreaming Together

Below is the text of an article I wrote for Made Up: Design's Fictions, a collection edited by Tim Durfee and Mimi Zeiger at the Art Center College of Design.

Artwork: Willie Riley Japanangka, Bush Plum and Snake. [source].


In my first year of university, I remember reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. One passage in particular leapt out at me:

It is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of any one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning, its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone.

Something in my eighteen year-old mind resonated with this expression of fundamental existential loneliness which I suspect everyone feels to a degree as they come of age. But these words haunted me for years, and I’m not entirely sure why. It may be that I was grappling with this paradox: Are we truly condemned to live and dream alone? All of us?

Much more recently I read a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End. It’s a terrific story, and has stood up well over something like fifty years; although here, as always, there’s nothing so characteristic of an age’s thinking as its science fiction. Clarke is of course most famous for co-writing with director Stanley Kubrick the epic 01968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of all sci-fi writers, he strikes me as remarkable for the way his imagination burned to achieve escape velocity from the culture of his era – not to mention his species; to dream a way out into truly different times and places, and take us there.

It was reflecting on Clarke’s feats of imagination that got me to wondering about the odd fact that our brains are not temporally bound. There’s no physical limitation preventing us from cognising wildly different and yet fully coherent life-settings in detail. Anatomically, human brains across the planet, and over tens of thousands of years, haven’t really varied much. Yet the variety of worlds – landscapes, cultures, languages, values, technosocial setups – that the human brain has managed to host, to create and navigate, has been enormous. The very fact that each of us today carries in mind a model of our personal context and surroundings at this historical moment, a world in many ways unimaginable to our ancestors, underlines that in principle we’re capable of imagining equally disparate possible worlds of the future – even if we generally don’t. It’s what our minds are surrounded and scaffolded with that makes all the difference.

“Unimaginable” is not absolute, it’s situational. The reason that this matters, I suggest, is that it points to a missing piece in our modern technoculture: I think we have a chronically impoverished practice of public imagination. Yes, there’s Arthur C. Clarke, and Godzilla, and Star Trek, and many other speculative entertainments before and since; but for “serious” purposes – governance, politics, and the “real” worlds we shape using those processes – we simply have not developed a habit of imagining and sharing the long-range scenarios at issue in any concrete way. Meanwhile the massive failure to understand our power as a species and to exercise it with anything approaching strategic foresight, let alone wisdom, is producing epically hairy environmental, economic and other consequences that are increasingly plain to see.

This is not a new line of thought. Noting the curious imbalance that we have countless thousands of history specialists and yet pay scarcely any serious attention to the rest of time, it is now over eighty years since the stupendously influential author H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man) called for Professors of Foresight. Some inroads have been made on that front since; indeed the entire scholarly field of futures studies, also known as foresight, speaks to the need highlighted by Wells in 01932.

Nigh on half a century has passed since Alvin Toffler observed, in a classic article which led to his 01970 bestseller Future Shock, that we have no “heritage of the future”. This observation goes right to my point about the need for an overall cultural capacity, toward which an academic field has proven to be only a partial solution: our inherent and permanent lack of a future “heritage” means we have to work hard to create one. And although certainly a challenge, the creation of tangible compensations for our lopsided temporal inheritance can certainly be done, as the emerging practitioners of experiential futures and design fiction are now learning.

It seems to me that the stakes and eventual possibilities for these hybrid forms of design are far greater than one might suspect from watching highly produced videos on the thrilling future of glassware, or prototypes of nifty gestural computer interfaces.

For when it comes to the process of public choice – the way humanity supposedly shapes its destiny in our ostensibly most “developed” communities – we congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy, and fret endlessly over its procedures; the whos and hows of voting; the rituals of deliberation (the weighing of alternatives) and decision (the killing of alternatives when we make a choice). But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent?

Whatever their personal shortcomings, I locate the problem not with political candidates but in the scandalously uninspired fodder used to generate public conversation. So where might we look for a solution?

My friend Natalie Jeremijenko, an engineer and artist, has described her work as being about the creation of ‘structures of participation’, a phrase I use often because to me it captures what good futures work does, too. Foresight practice involves creating structures of participation for co-imagining. Likewise, the task of governance is bound up with the design and use of structures of participation for collectively shaping the common good. To my mind, those appear in quite diverse forms and at different scales, ranging from the design of a meeting or conference, to the design of a political/legal system like the United States of America, and also to the design of a political and experiential futures intervention like the one I’m about to describe.

With foresight and design colleagues I have been doing experiential futures since 02006, and its roots and influences go back much further. Of all interventions that I know of in this vein, the most exciting to date is one I heard about shortly after it occurred during the Arab Spring. It is a significant illustration of the faculty of public imagination.

In January 02011 Tunisia ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ending a 23-year dictatorship. Immediately the economy started tanking – the revolutionaries hadn’t known they would succeed, and didn’t have detailed plans for next steps. With a backdrop of economic suspension and a political vacuum, what followed might have been as bad as what had gone before. What did in fact happen next was rather extraordinary.

A month after the revolution, for one day in February 02011, several newspapers, television and radio stations across the country reported as if it were June 16, 02014; three years and four months into the future. They reported stories from within a hypothetical future Tunisia enjoying newfound stability, democracy and prosperity.

Social media activity swarmed around the #16juin2014 hashtag (and for the first time led the national conversation to trend at number one on French Twitter), and critically, the mood and situation began to change as people imagined and debated the destiny of their country. The intervention also helped spread the call for Tunisians to get back to work, a key step towards recovery in the wake of the upheaval.

This remarkable story should prompt many questions, but the one we’re most interested in here is: how might a sustained commitment to structures of participation for public imagination work in other contexts at scale?

For instance, what if standard political brand-oriented advertising expenditure were curbed, and candidates instead had to produce feature documentaries not about, but “from” the future that their policies envision?

Most places have a library or museum dedicated to preserving their past; how about a public building dedicated to immersing visitors in an ever-evolving array of experiences of what the community could become one generation from today?

Or why couldn’t we set aside a public holiday each year, dedicated to staging a Festival of Possible Worlds in the streets, parks and piazzas of great cities around the globe?

Let us return to where we began. It is true that at some level, our personal experience can be only ours. But I no longer fear that we are condemned to dream alone.

I think that humanity is fundamentally psychedelic – quite literally: mind-manifesting – and that the history we collectively choose to live out in years and decades to come will depend on how well we cultivate public imagination, through experiential futures, large-scale participatory simulations, transmedia games, and the like.

I believe we can dream together, now. And I suspect that to the extent we rise to the challenge of good governance for the 21st century, that’s exactly what we will be doing on a regular basis.


> Video of the short presentation at Institute for the Future's ReConstitutional Convention on which this piece was based.
> Pdf version of the above including references. The full title is "Dreaming Together: Experiential Futures as a Platform for Public Imagination". (Note: The text was completed as shown here in mid-02013, except the version submitted for Made Up included the citations and endnotes found in the pdf, and did not include five-digit dates – that's tsf house style, yo. The editors have advised that the book's publication has been delayed several times. A link will be included here when it appears.)

The Futures of Everyday Life
> An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia
A History of Experiential Futures 02006-02031
> Whose future is this?
The technology of public imagination
> TEDxFutures 

Friday, November 06, 2015

Found: The Future of Church

An unearthed future artifact, and the story behind it.

A few years back I worked with Wired magazine on their wonderful monthly feature "Found". I had been inspired by this series during our early work developing experiential futures practice, about a decade ago now, and by 02011 had done a fair amount of "artifact from the future" creation (especially with Jake Dunagan via our jointly-run public art outfit, FoundFutures, staging live encounters with future artifacts and scenes in everyday life).

It was an honour to be involved as a freelance contributor to the magazine, helping to flesh out these playful snapshots of possible futures, and seeing where we might push the envelope a bit.

Each month editor Chris Baker and I would hop on a phone call and iterate on possible concepts to inform image production. One time he brought the idea of the "Health Spa of the Future", and I excitedly proposed making a future spa brochure to tuck inside the magazine; a sort of diegetic insert, and a twist on the SOP of using the back page. Unfortunately, the cost of a separate print run was prohibitive. (The Future Health Spa still ended up being a pretty neat image.)

The concepts Chris brought to the table were usually part-developed already, but one I eagerly initiated for us to explore together came from a news item I'd seen in May 02011:
[N]euroscientists ran a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test on an Apple fanatic and discovered that images of the technology company's gadgets lit up the same parts of the brain as images of a deity do for religious people. (CNN)
According to this research, "Apple was actually stimulating the same parts of the brain as religious imagery does in people of faith." (BBC News)

The Future of Church!

Here was a different cultural register from the Future of Health Spas, Yard Sales, Sporting Events, Doorbells, etc. And this image could come, I suggested, from the mashup of a house of worship and the Apple Store, playfully reworking the architecture and symbology -- altars, icons, stained glass, and so on.

Chris persuaded me that a stained glass window alone could be equally evocative but easier to execute (a better tip of the iceberg). We brainstormed its contents and then in the summer he set to work finalising these and getting the thing physically made to photograph for the feature. The resulting illustration by Sam Gilbey, and glass by David R. Forte, made for one of my favourite future artifacts ever produced for Found. It seemed to dig beneath the usual tech preoccupations and invite some deeper questions.

However, Steve Jobs was unwell at the time. The world famous inventor and CEO had been battling cancer, and a "Found" artifact referencing this notion of Apple fans' religiosity through a beatified Jobs could be poorly timed, and in light of his health situation might be misinterpreted. 

So the feature was done, but unpublished. At that time I thought Wired might have been taking an overly cautious view, but the final nail was driven home on October 4th, 02011: that was when Chris told me that, as far as the magazine was concerned, this stained glass window would not see the light of day.

I remember the date because 24 hours later, Steve Jobs died.

Holding off had of course been the right decision. If the piece had run as planned in the October 02011 print issue it may have caused unintended offence, and drawn unwarranted criticism, since the thinking behind the artifact had had nothing to do with Mr Jobs's illness or mortality, and everything to do with the neuroscience research published earlier in the year -- and beyond that, with the far-reaching admiration Jobs inspired, the iconicity of the brand that he had grown, and the enduringly religious character of American society, ever a culture of true believers.

In any case, sure enough, the Future of Church never made an appearance, and "Found" ceased to run in Wired in 02013.

Still, with the back story in view, perhaps this once lost, now found artifact can be seen as food for thought on how the future appropriates the past, as well as fair tribute to an icon of contemporary culture.

Update 6 Nov 02015: Wired's Chris Kohler got in touch to report that the image was later repurposed for another feature comparing the resignations of Jobs and Pope Benedict XVI.

> The Thing From The Future
Strategic foresight meets tactical media
> FoundFutures postcards
> More found futures
> The Darfur Olympics
> Anachronisms

Monday, November 02, 2015

La Chose du Futur à Paris

A special edition of The Thing From The Future was distributed to 500 delegates at the UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris last week.

Since 01999 the Youth Forum has been the institutional mechanism for youth (which in the UN system means people aged 15 to 24) to make recommendations to the UNESCO General Conference.

This 9th edition of the Youth Forum incorporated, for the first time, a process aimed at improving participants'  futures literacy, developed by UNESCO's head of foresight Riel Miller. The Future Literacy Knowledge Lab, or FKL, is described in outline here and in detail here [pdf].

From my perspective as an advisor and senior facilitator for the Forum, among the most notable elements of the experience was the juxtaposition of this process, aimed at exploration and emergence, with the formality and fixity of international diplomacy's default settings. Ingenious workarounds were required in order for delegates to be able to converse and co-create in small groups given the geometrically pleasing, but collaboratively disabling, furniture arrangements. The literally nailed-down meeting room configurations reflected a firm expectation of centrally managed, as opposed to open or peer-to-peer, conversations.

How does such an architecture shape what happens, and what doesn't? An instructive contrast may be found in the opening and closing circles of Open Space, a meeting format which both symbolically bespeaks and practically enables something very different; a fluid and participant-driven flexibility (see, for example, Harrison Owen, Expanding Our Nowpp. 82-83). Maybe someone has already compiled a pattern language of meeting spaces. There's much to learn from such cases.

In any event –– despite its best efforts, here the furniture's expectations were not allowed to triumph! Far-reaching futures discussions were had, assumptions were surfaced and questioned, alternatives were articulated, expressive future artifacts and prototypes were created.

And at the end of the Youth Forum futures workshop, a special bilingual English / French The Thing From The Future / La Chose du Futur * was distributed to all attendees, a concrete expression of the intention to democratise and distribute futures thinking far and wide. Now these hundreds of delegates have made their way home to communities all around the world, cards in hand.

Thanks to UNESCO, to Youth Forum delegates –– and especially to Riel Miller and team for their efforts to open space for possible futures, not only in the proceedings themselves, but through providing an experience and a tool to use again in days and years to come.

Of course distributing cards and rearranging spaces are fine ways to begin; meanwhile I wonder about working with the deeper cultural currents in play. How may we make a habit of inviting fuller versions of ourselves to show up in these formal and ritualised settings? How might we offer better hospitality to the unusual, the creative, the crazy and playful and magical and wild and unborn in each of us?  For when it comes to "serious" conversations about the future, these voices too seldom find any place at the table.

> The Thing From The Future
> The technology of public imagination
> Whose future is this?

* Very special thanks to Cedric Flazinski of N O R M A L S design lab, and to Sandra Coulibaly Leroy of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) for their invaluable translation assistance. And on a semi-related note: bilingual Emglish/French Playsheets for the game are available via the UNESCO website [pdf, A4].