Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Hawaii 2050" kicks off

Last Saturday, 26 August saw the kickoff event for the state's futures-oriented public discussion process, "Hawaii 2050", at the Dole Ballrooms, Honolulu. About 530 participants from across the islands were in attendance. I am still recovering from the monster effort involved in staging four "futures rooms", which allowed participants to experience, about 130 at a time, two of the four scenes (from among countless possible futures), as a catalyst to further discussion about the possible, probable, and preferable paths that change could take in Hawaii between now and 02050. See this earlier post for more background. In each case, a colour name was attributed for logistical reasons (to put on people's nametags and room signage), not to imply anything about the contents of the scenarios, which were kept secret from participants until they stepped in the door. The photos below, taken by HRCFS graduate student Cyrus Camp, provide a little of the flavour of each.

In the "Orange" version of Hawaii circa 02050, two corporations -- "Aloha Nuclear and Water", and "Kobayashi Virtual Concern", vie for the Hawaiian Governorship in a political debate staged at the Dole Underwater Hotel and Casino.

For "Maroon" Hawaii, participants are cast as attendees at a compulsory -- like jury duty -- civic education program, in the Honolulu ahupua'a. At this "introductory session", presentations are made about the abundant and versatile hemp crop grown in this future Hawaii, and about the role of do-it-yourself biofuel in a renewable energy portfolio.

In the "Silver" scenario, a post-"peak oil" global economic collapse has led to the rise of a military-run society, overlaid with a puppet Hawaiian monarchy. Participants entering this scene are cast as refugees from smaller Pacific islands disappearing under rising oceans, and inducted as citizens and subjects of the so-called Democratic Kingdom of Hawai'i.

"Blue" Hawaii posits a sort of technological Singularity, after which the meaning and status of ordinary humanity is transformed. Here participants are a group of "premods" (PSEs -- persons sans enhancements; homo ludditis; naturals) being addressed by staff at MBED, the "Mind Body Enhancement Depot". They are offered a free technological upgrade paid for by the World Council in order to raise the GHI, or Global Happiness Index.

Now, none of these was intended to be taken as either advocating or predicting a particular path; the aim was instead to promote a broadened sense of what the possibilities could be. From that perspective, this part of the event seems to have succeeded. People were highly engaged by the exercise, and responded energetically and thoughtfully to the ideas presented therein.

This article from Sunday's Honolulu Advertiser says some more about Saturday's program, and this piece by futurist Jamais Cascio (our guest presenter at last week's futures salon) provides a highly thoughtful response to the whole "Hawaii 2050" effort, as well as the Immersive Futures themselves. Details of the scenarios can be found here. All feedback on any aspect of this event, or the broader endeavour of which it is part, would be most welcome.

I will be out of action for the next few days, attending Burning Man for the first time, in Nevada, but there will be more on "Hawaii 2050" -- as well as Burning Man -- in postings to come. Thanks to all those who volunteered their time both in the leadup and on the day to make this event possible, but mahalo especially to my futures colleagues Jim Dator and Jake Dunagan for being absolutely terrific to work with on this ambitious experiment in making futures thinking more real.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Honolulu Futures Salon: Jamais Cascio

This evening, HRCFS ran its sixth Futures Salon, hosted by Jackie Ward at the fabulous Ward's Rafters in Honolulu, with guest Jamais Cascio. Jamais, a futurist and scenario specialist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, presented and went on to lead a great discussion about the historical development of the scenario methodology in futures, the current state of play, and emerging varieties of immersive scenarios, including "artifacts from the future". Their crucial role in improving futures thinking, he suggested, lay in offering "provocation and evocation": encouraging us to think more deeply and creatively about our options. Rather than trying to predict the most likely future, they instead (at their best) describe plausible, compelling, internally coherent visions of, and stories leading from the present into, potential future worlds in which we could find ourselves. He offered some excellent insights into the "democratisation of futures", which is what he sees as the gradual supplanting (or supplementing) of broadcast-model "genius forecasting" with collaborative exploration.

An interesting method Jamais used to illustrate the useful application of this collaborative approach was a "futures mash-up", in which we each wrote down, on separate post-it notes, a trio of the next decade's possible trends, or events in the social, environmental, economic, political -- and yes, technological -- realms, then partnered with another participant to brainstorm on a fourth piece of paper some interesting possible consequences of matching any random pair. The future, he pointed out, is both exhilarating and frightening to consider, but, like the exercise, is best seen as a synthesis -- the result of what we do together.

All this is, not coincidentally, highly relevant to the "Hawaii 2050" kickoff happening in Honolulu on Saturday 26 August, where HRCFS is staging four alternative immersive futures, reflecting divergent possible paths for change in Hawaii, out to the year 02050, for participants to use as a basis for more meaningful discussion about decisions in the present day. At this event, Jamais (together with 500 of our closest friends) will have an opportunity to witness a Hawaiian take on the cutting edge of immersive future scenarios, as a provocation aimed at improving our collective futures conversation. More on this to come, but for now, mahalo nui loa to Jamais for joining us in Hawaii to share his ideas.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Barbershop futures

A couple of months ago, I got a haircut, for the first time in over a year. (Stay with me now, there's a perfectly good reason why I'm opening with that piece of pure trivia.)

The gentleman who did the deed, who introduced himself as Wally, was originally from Hong Kong, and having come to America as a young man, had spent the past 25 years cutting hair in San Francisco. He was, he hastened to add, still poor -- but he cheerfully told me about his ambitions, his life, and the likelihood that he would keep cutting hair for many years to come.

We got around to talking about what had brought me to the city, and the fact that I was a student of futures -- no, not the financial kind, but "the future" plural -- alternative possibilities.

Wally's eyes lit up. "You study the future!" he cried. "Tell me about the future!"

Now, while his response was uncommonly enthusiastic, the misunderstanding that my interest in the future meant I would be willing or able to forecast what would happen in the news the following day, or the appearance of the next customer to walk through the door, was not at all unusual. It happens to me all the time. People hear that I'm in futures and, depending on some combination of how credulous they are, and how silly I seem (maybe it's the hair?), frequently an assumption is made that I'm about to make an outrageous claim arising from some cursory crystal-ball based research. They don't know anything about me at that point, so the ridicule is at least pre-emptive (sheesh! at least give me a chance to show how ridiculous I am). There's often a dash of hope mixed in there with the ridicule, too, which is interesting, like there's a private wish that I'll be able to let them in on some secret to predicting the future, even if they're already 95% sure I'm full of shit.

In any event, Wally's interest was genuine, and I was able to explain that my work in the field is not in fact oriented toward predicting The Future, but rather toward helping people consider a range of possibilities relevant to their situation, and thus perhaps to choose more wisely between them. I told him that I and my colleagues work with governments, communities, businesses -- any group interested in thriving in conditions of change -- dealing with process more than content. This is because first, even the broad themes can vary hugely depending on the client or topic in question, and as for the "content" of the future itself -- well, it varies hugely depending on a whole lot of things.

Wally was insistent. How could any of this apply to his business? Ah. This certainly got me thinking. I knew, and still know, nothing about the hair industry. But I ventured that something could happen suddenly to affect the viability of his business. He pointed out that people had been cutting hair professionally for six thousand years, and they weren't likely to stop next week. Touché, Wally.

I ruminated, partly aloud, partly internally, about things that could affect Wally's modest barbershop on Van Ness Street. Fashions could change; people might decide to cut their own hair, or not to cut it at all. Shaved heads, do-it-yourself style, could develop a mass appeal. Military conscription might consign a proportion of his clientele to standard issue, regulation-length buzzcuts. A widespread health problem, such as a lice outbreak, could have the same effect. On a longer timescale, humans might evolve hairlessness -- or elect to disable our follicles through some kind of chemical or electronic therapy. Wally remained unperturbed.

I noticed that he had posted a sign advertising scalp and face massage -- here, then, an alternative business model. We agreed that if, perchance, circumstance should pose an unforeseen disruption to his hair-cutting activities, he'd always have the massage to fall back on.

I left, 45 minutes later, hair a couple of inches shorter than intended (the added toll of engaging your barber in a conversation he wants to prolong) not entirely sure that I had demonstrated to his satisfaction, or to my own, the strategic usefulness of futures thinking for those in the haircutting trade. But he had, apparently, been persuaded that it was worthwhile, interesting and -- importantly -- possible to think about alternative futures. It could open up new avenues of exploration; not all of them, thankfully, based on catastrophic lice infestations or burgeoning military engagements. (Damage control and risk management are merely among the more easily grasped practical applications of futures thinking.)

What this encounter made me realise was, really, two things. The first is that I need to be careful not to become the proverbial hammer looking everywhere for a nail to strike. What Wally really needed after 25 years of steady but unspectacular business was not a futurist, but maybe a bit of local advertising and a more realistic price schedule (charging just $12 a haircut, in San Francisco, no wonder he wasn't getting rich). The second realisation, in contrast, was that futures can indeed be helpful, for almost anyone, in clarifying where they may be able to make a difference, and where they are less likely to do so.

To explain: that occasional dismissive reaction to my chosen specialisation, which I described above, is one end of a spectrum, the "you can't predict the future" end. The other end of the spectrum is the "future is self evident" end. It's possible for people to believe both these things simultaneously, and what's more, to be right. If they believed the former today about the price of oil per barrel in 2020, I'd have to agree. But if they believed the latter about the likely fate of a drunk stumbling on to a busy highway, I'd be inclined to share that view also. There are lots of layers of change occurring simultaneously, and to make sense of them requires sensitivity to the relative momentum and internal dynamics of each. To me, this field is in large part about exploring the massive grey area between the white of complete predictability and the black of complete unpredictability -- which are both categories, I would argue, of phenomena for which one can refuse to take responsibility. No wonder people rely on them so much.

Most change does not occur at these extremes, however. There's a certain amount of regularity in how things operate, and persistence in the patterns of change they adopt, and a certain amount you can do to influence them one way or another. And you might as well act consistently with what you'd like to see happen. As Wally put it; "If you plant roses, it doesn't come up vegetables". This was his own rather beautiful and profound expression of the principle that as ye sow, so shall ye reap. (He was elaborating his karmic philosophy that if he ripped his customers off, he wouldn't be able to sleep so well at night; which was reassuring.)

As to many of the things that matter to us, we can do something about them. The something (or various alternative somethings) we can do, and why and how, and to what possible ends -- identifying and acting upon these is, to my mind, the purpose of futures thinking.

Maybe I should get my hair cut more often.

/Barbershop futures revisited/

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Immersive futures for "Hawaii 2050"

My opportunities to post to The Sceptical Futuryst have lately become few and far between, in the labour-intensive lead up to the "Hawaii 2050" event in Honolulu on August 26th. This day-long summit, initiated by a committee of the Hawaii State Legislature, the "Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Task Force", is to launch a public consultation process revolving around the question of how to make Hawaii sustainable; ecologically, socially, and economically. It is planned as a kickoff for a series of community discussions about what I and my futures colleagues describe as possible, probable and preferable futures for the islands, all of which should culminate in A Sustainability Plan for Hawaii. (Woody Allen: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." Couldn't resist.)

A recent article from the Honolulu Advertiser puts the event in context, and this response by an alumnus of the futures program highlights some of the challenges and limitations of using "sustainability" as a concept. My own views on sustainability lead me to wonder if an "alternative futures" frame isn't perhaps a better starting point for productive conversation around potentially massive social change than a straight-up "green" one. I have no quibble with the honourable intentions informing the language of sustainability, but for the most part it already has its ideological adherents and detractors, whereas a discussion of futures more broadly may be better able to transcend predefined political divisions, more accommodating of different perspectives.

Anyway, the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies is part of a University of Hawaii team that has been contracted by the Task Force to organise this event. Although there will be a dose of speech-giving and other ceremonial malarkey, the HRCFS team's role is to bring a futures twist to the discussion.

I don't want to give too much away at this point, as a degree of secrecy will help maximise the impact for those in attendance, but what we are contributing is the staging of four rooms -- Immersive Futures Workshops -- in which participants will get a taste of four radically different versions of Hawaii, nominally set in the year 02050. This project is, then, part of our Center's effort to concretise usefully and interestingly the various conceptions of the future that people might have, through the use of design thinking, artifacts from the future, and an experiential version of scenaric storytelling.

Our divergent "future scenes" have been elaborated using (HRCFS Director) Jim Dator's four generic images of the future -- each one being a different shape of change, based on different assumptions about how the historical process could play out. The four are continued growth, collapse, discipline, and transformation, and we're preparing spaces at the Dole Cannery Ballroom for actors and presenters to populate in what amounts to a kind of parallel theatrical presentation, where each group of summit participants is also cast in a future role when they walk through the door.

Stay tuned for more -- this promises to be very exciting!

Friday, August 04, 2006

McDonough virtually on Maui

From Monday 31 July through Wednesday 2 August, with two colleagues from HRCFS, I attended a conference entitled "Islands of the World", held by the International Small Islands Studies Association at Maui Community College, part of the University of Hawaii. The general theme was Sustainable Islands — Sustainable Strategies, with an emphasis on the interconnected topics of ho'ohanohano (social equity and heritage), po'okela (economy), and malama 'aina (ecology). These represent the three strands of the increasingly popular integrated "triple bottom line" (elements also known respectively as people, profits and planet).

Very well intentioned, and also well attended (35 countries were reportedly represented among the delegates), the bottom line of this event, from my point of view, was to remind me of why I believe that the concept of sustainability is simply not equal to the enormous task of inspiring genuinely progressive, practicable solutions to the great ecological and social challenges that it is increasingly being called upon to address.

The broader reason is that "sustainability" is not a sufficiently exciting motivator to power the profound changes it seems we're likely to need. In essence, it's simply the absence of systemically self destructive behaviour. The ubiquitous Brundtland Report definition of sustainable development: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Necessary, of course. Sufficient? I think not. Architect Bill McDonough (recently referred to in this posting as an exemplary advocate of design thinking in fixing current industrial practice) has written about how weak an idea it really is. Paraphrasing McDonough, if you asked someone how her marriage is, and the reply was "sustainable", you'd have to feel sorry for her. Sustainability is an earnest, but somehow heavy-hearted idea, too limp to bear its own pompous weight. If the planet is in as much trouble as the greatest exponents of sustainability evidently believe, I doubt there's enough passion in the idea of becoming "non-self-destructing" to turn things around.

A more specific reason is that sustainability appears to invite a backward-looking (excessively past oriented) ethos. Many of the speakers in plenary sessions referred directly or by implication to what they perceived as a need to "go back to go forward", and there was more than a smattering of romanticisation of the past, as if the answers to all questions that matter in this area could be found simply by somehow resurrecting ancient cultural practices. A plausible account of exactly how those practices revived from a premodern era could practically be accommodated in the overdeveloped urban landscape of Honolulu (for example), I eagerly await. In fact I'm highly sympathetic to the efforts of native Hawaiians and other groups to renew and reinvigorate a relationship with the land, and the cosmos, that has been weakened and damaged by the interventions of history, i.e. by European settlement, and the dispossession and dislocation that came with it. The Australian Aboriginal predicament bears some comparison here -- there too, extremely long-standing, traditional patterns of relating to, and living off, the fruits of land and sea (quintessentially sustainable patterns, you might say) were massively disrupted in a matter of years, beginning what appears to many from our current historical vantage point to have been a downward spiral of exploitation and disconnection; a litany of social and ecological results probably too catastrophic for words to bear. It is not just native or indigenous peoples that have experienced loss here. Indeed, the fact that the missing links between humanity and landscape are so readily identified by them in those terms highlights the relatively greater and older alienation of Western cultures from their own, non-exploitative, direct knowledge of ecology -- once upon a time.

And yet. I remain far from convinced that the key to the future is merely to imagine ourselves breathing new life into a dimly remembered, idealised past. There's no question that the recovery of a respectful understanding of how things used to work is a necessary step to moving forward successfully (which for my purposes here subsumes "sustainably"), but it seems to me to be an incomplete prescription at best. The wholly justifiable case for rediscovering and reasserting traditional identities and values in the political arena ought not to be mistaken for a comprehensive solution to massively complex problems, which will almost certainly have to be resolved cooperatively if they are to be resolved at all. Overlaying "the past" upon "the present" is, I'd wager, surely more complex than simply plonking down a layer of old-time farming or fishing on the modern substrate of habits, tastes and dependencies. Arguably, in fact, it's a deeply disingenuous argument that calls for a rediscovery of ostensibly simpler times gone by, because the shift of historical momentum required to "go back" could well be more tumultuous than the curve of accelerating change that describes how we got here to begin with.

I would be really interested to hear from people who have addressed some of the subtleties in this area of social change, but so far, arguments I've encountered to the effect that the key to a sustainable future lies in history have seemed largely empty to me.

So, on Tuesday, McDonough presented at this conference. However, he did so virtually, using a souped-up videophone called Teleportec, which lets audience members see the image of the presenter (who does their thing remotely) and enjoying the texture of the curtains on the stage behind their projected, ghostly image. McDonough did an absolutely excellent rendition of his standard address on Cradle to Cradle design principles, which notably did not include his doubts about "sustainability" oriented discourse. (Here's someone astute enough to know not to bite the hand that feeds him; or perhaps simply gives good intentions their due.)

He generously allowed time to answer questions (from unamplified audience members, whose inquiries were relayed to the speaker by an on-stage MC, in an abridged and garbled form -- not the best Q&A system I've ever seen). I was fortunate to have the chance to inquire about whether McDonough knew of anyone who was pursuing design thinking in relation to political design. Being a former Dean of the University of Virginia's School of Architecture, who used to live in Thomas Jefferson's house Monticello, he frequently refers to Jefferson's achievements as an accomplished designer of both buildings and society. Maybe there was something lost in the valiant MC's translation of my question, but McDonough's reply surprised me. He didn't answer "no" directly (though that was the upshot of his response), but rambled a bit about staying as far away from politics as possible. To be fair, there was more to the answer than that, but it struck out on a tangent and never came back.

Now, if politics is so contagiously distasteful an occupation as all that -- and I'd heartily agree that presently, in virtually all places I know about, it probably is -- we might usefully understand its vagaries as an invitation to design a better system, not to avoid it. (For a sample of the view of the political process as beyond redemption, even in a country generally considered relatively prosperous and democratic, try the devastating article "Ten reasons you shouldn't go into politics", by Mark Latham, former leader of the Australian Labor Party.)

Why is it, I wonder, that people who can readily perceive the systemic flaws of political practice seem so reluctant, or are unable, to bring themselves to address those flaws with constructive conversation about possible solutions? I had a similar feeling after the distinguished futurist consultant Joe Coates presented a devastatingly comprehensive critique of the United States Constitution at the World Future Society conference in Chicago in 02005, but he declined to offer any outline for possible solutions, suggesting that to do so would only invite kneejerk critique. (He also asserted that to deign to vote only encourages politicians; not an uncommon view, I guess, but one I see as rather glib and unsatisfactory, feeding as it does the vicious circle of political disengagement.)

A young man approached me after McDonough's presentation (which, I hasten to reiterate, was in all other respects sterling) and provided two references he felt related to my question on political design, but I have not yet had time to pursue them. They were:
- Steven Shalom on ParPolity
- Glenn Paige on Global Nonviolence

As always, I'd be interested to hear from readers with something to add on this topic. Meanwhile, I ponder the untouchability of politics, and the growing need to get to work on rethinking it all from the ground up -- inventing and designing a politics to inspire engagement, whose success we can measure (to appropriate another McDonough line) by the number of children's eyes that light up; rather than one that pushes away, as if by magnetic repulsion, the best people, and contaminates anyone who gets too close.