Thursday, May 02, 2019

Design and Futures, Volume I

Exciting news: a project years in the making has been published!

Together with my colleague Cher Potter of the Victoria & Albert Museum and University of the Arts London, we've been co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Futures Studies, about the intersections of Design and Futures.

This is an interdisciplinary garden I've been working in for about a decade and a half, and on which I completed what I understand was the first doctoral dissertation, back in 02010. It has been booming in recent years: witness the ascent of design fiction, experiential futures, speculative design, design futures, strategic design, speculative enactments; and their various ties to transmedia storytelling, alternate reality games, worldbuilding, larp, and immersive theatre. It's exciting and gratifying to see so much activity in this hybrid space.

JFS is an open access journal published electronically and in print by Tamkang University, Taiwan, usually quarterly, going back to 01996. It's also where I published my first piece in an academic journal, about establishing Open Space as a method for foresight practitioners, in 02005.

Cher and I received far more expressions of interest, from scholars and practitioners all over, than we could accommodate, and still the effort ballooned to fill two back-to-back issues, becoming in the process the biggest themed project the journal has put out in its 23-year history.

Below is our introduction to Design and Futures, Volume I, a collection of five peer-reviewed journal articles, and six manifestoes and interviews from an amazing array of contributors.

The whole thing can be found and accessed, for free, at the Journal of Futures Studies website.

Our hope is that anyone with a practitioner or academic interest in design/futures relationships will find value in the work; a labour of love by many hands.


Introduction to the Special Issue: Design and Futures (Vol. I)
Stuart Candy and Cher Potter, Guest Editors

As Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon famously observed: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1996).

Designers and futurists, it turns out, have a great deal in common. This mutual recognition is reaching critical mass as each comes to appreciate how their respective traditions have much to offer to making urgent change in the world, and even more so, together.

It is increasingly acknowledged within the futures studies community that operating with a largely verbal and theoretical bent over the past half century has afforded too little impact on actual future-shaping behaviours. Meanwhile, those in the design community recognise a need to interrogate higher-level consequences – the futures, the worlds – that their products, systems and other outputs help produce.

Part of what bringing design and futures into sustained dialogue does is to allow each field to become more fluent in a second language which is the other’s native tongue.

How may designers systematically map out preferred futures, and what frameworks might futures studies furnish to help them? Conversely, how might futures scholars and practitioners adopt designerly modes of exploration, working more materially, visually and performatively to instantiate and illuminate possibilities?

‘Design and futures’ together offer ecosystemic and embodied approaches to shaping our collective prospects, informed by a diverse range of practices.

We are excited to have been working with the Journal of Futures Studies over several years to bring readers a special double issue dedicated to ‘Design and Futures’.

In this first issue, Vol. I, we have five peer-reviewed articles: Stuart Candy and Kelly Kornet introduce a new framework engaging communities and individuals in tangible forms of speculation. Ramia Mazé argues for the significance of how political dimensions suffuse futures thought. Cher Potter, DK Osseo-Asare and Mugendi M’Rithaa analyse the worldviews embedded in a makerspace platform in Accra, Ghana. Jake Dunagan offers an account of teaching experiential futures, written in collaboration with a whole class of graduate students. Anne Burdick shows how a multilayered experiment around developing a storyworld, characters, prototypes, and plot, delineates a rich design space scaffolded by a simultaneously narrative, conceptual, and material brief.

Powerful shorter contributions by speculative designers James Auger and Julian Hanna, design futurist Anab Jain, Hollywood worldbuilder Alex McDowell, architect Liam Young, design scholar Jamer Hunt, and the geographically-distributed Decolonising Design Collective round out a remarkable first cross- sectional scan of design and futures perspectives.

In the next issue, Vol. II, curators, strategic designers, policymakers, and philosophers join the conversation.

As guest editors of this special edition, we wish to thank all authors who submitted articles and essays, and also the peer reviewers who so generously gave their time.

Our own practices originate in futures and design studies respectively, but we have both been actively ‘hybridising’ for a while now. In promoting such entanglements more widely, we aim to offer readers across both communities, and well beyond, insight into how disparate perspectives and tools, in combination, can challenge, remix, and strengthen each other, as well as open on to further exchange.

Of the immensely exciting community weaving that is underway where futures and design meet, these pages represent just some initial strands. We foresee many more to come.

Simon, H.A. (1996) [f.p. 1969]. The Sciences of the Artificial (3rd ed.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 111.


The second half of the JFS special issue Design and Futures, including another five peer-reviewed articles, and ten essays and interviews from around the world, is coming soon.

From killer apps to killer imps
Ghosts of futures past
Designing futures (Interview)
The Futures of Everyday Life
> Design is a team sport

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Participation design

I was revisiting earlier today a podcast conversation between two people I much admire –– an episode of Team Human recorded by writer and host Douglas Rushkoff with security and privacy architecture consultant Eleanor Saitta.

Rushkoff's first book Cyberia (01994), for me as a teenager in Australia, was a gateway to a whole lot of things I'd never heard of before. I've followed his work for about 25 years, and we've met a few times over the past decade. Saitta, whom I first met when we spoke on a conference panel in Singapore together in 02013, blew my mind over breakfast, in I think our first face to face conversation, by putting me on to Nordic Larp, a big topic to dig into more at some stage. She coedited the excellent Knutpunkt book The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp (02014), a great entry point if that topic piques your interest.

So there's this exchange towards the end of their discussion that has come to mind more than once since I first heard it.


Douglas Rushkoff: [You have written about] our determination to maintain this illusion of individuality and selfhood in the face of an increasingly networked reality. In one of your essays, There is no Future, which is a way of saying that the future distracts us from the present that we're in, you say:

Our production of narratives runs very deep. We create the "self" as a distinct entity, different and separate from the world, and create a narrative about how that self has interacted with the world through its history. This, even, is where the problems start. We try to live in that narrative, instead of in the real world. The self we create doesn't really exist, and the narrative we create is more fiction than real.

Eleanor Saitta: And I should caveat that by saying: Creating and living in fiction can be an incredibly powerful tool for political change –– as long as you know what you're actually doing. As long as you you remember that you're doing this thing.

This is something that I've argued at a completely practical level. It's really interesting to look at the toolkits that people use to design, for instance, social networks. “Experience design” –– the experience that they're talking about there is the individual experience, and that is the thing that is designed.

DR: Right, UX/UI [user experience and user interface design] is the individual user. It's not community experience, collective experience.

ES: There is no practice of, the phrase that my friend Andie Nordgren uses is 'participation design'. And this is looking at a participation frame that says, yes, we have a set of personas, and they have their individual interests, but the participation actually happens between personas, and between different parts of the community, and that's the thing that we actually really care about designing.

It's useful to consider individual experiences, and certainly every system has interactions that are individualistic, but a lot of what is interesting [lies in between these].

If you've got the in-house wiki for some organisation, there's the person who always starts pages, there's the person who cleans up pages, there's the person who is really unlikely to start a page, but will absolutely go through and flesh out all the details and find the citations. And those are participatory roles that are happening between people, and you want to encourage and shape those interactions. And trolling and griefing and all of these things; these are also participatory roles that we want to discourage.

But there isn't a design discipline that focuses on those things, those interactions, those participations, as the first-class structures.


(Starts ~54 mins in.)

I've transcribed this to share here because it's interesting in its own right, and partly also as a bookmark: the fact it has come to mind multiple times seems to be tugging at some threads that are important and that I hope to tease out properly in another post. 

For now I'll just say that this idea of 'participation design' rhymes with approaches we've been working with around 'structures of participation' (Natalie Jeremijenko), 'designing for emergence', and 'situation design' (including, over the past five years, and thanks to Ella, live action roleplaying games).

Engendering circumstances in which we can usefully speculate and improvise, it turns out, is all about this design terrain made up of the spaces between people.

> Dreaming Together (pdf)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The latest

Lots going on at the moment, and so I've posted a persistent /now page, to update every so often as a snapshot of what we're getting up to around here!

Obama Foundation Design Workshop, Hawaii, 6 January 02019
Photo courtesy of The Obama Foundation

Some recent highlights...
  • VERY EXCITINGLY we concluded a series of workshops for the Obama Foundation held in Honolulu, Hawaii in January, to help design and launch a new Foundation program supporting the efforts and initiatives of emerging leaders from across the Asia-Pacific region (pic above!!!)
  • Situation Lab has begun exploring with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory ways to support and enable the imaginative forays of folks that formulate new space missions (pic below!!!)
  • We've completed an experiential futures project on climate action with the World Bank Climate Investment Funds and Institute for the Future, and look forward to sharing more soon...
  • The long-gestating Journal of Futures Studies Special Issue on Design and Futures, co-edited by me and Cher Potter from the V&A Museum, is coming out in a bumper two volumes. We're thrilled at a lineup of contributors that includes philosopher Timothy Morton, curator Paola Antonelli, designers like Anab Jain, Dan Hill, the Decolonising Design collective, and a wide range of academic and practitioner contributors, both established and emerging.
  • Building on our collaboration with the United States Conference of Mayors –– together with Civic I/O and Governance Futures Lab at Institute for the Future: last year Jake Dunagan and I introduced futures thinking to mayors from across the USA at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and followed up at the 88th annual mayoral conference held in Boston, Massachusetts. This March we're back at SXSW to keep futurising American mayors. 
  • In the coming weeks and months I'm heading to invitational workshops at the Santa Fe Institute (New Mexico) and the Lorentz Centre (Leiden, Netherlands), and running engagements at the Skoll World Forum (University of Oxford), North Carolina State University, and Stanford d.School. With lots of exciting experiential futures action in the offing there are more details at /now –– and further news to follow. Stay tuned!

Situation Lab visit to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, 28 January 02019
(right, USC Sitlab Director Jeff Watson)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

On Getting Started in Experiential Futures

The Omidyar Sessions, Part 2

This post concludes an edited transcript of a webinar I did recently for The Omidyar Group. The first part was about some of the strategic purposes and elements of foresight work; this second part deals with organisations venturing into experiential futures. Both represent my responses to practical questions posed by folks working for various impact philanthropy entities in a range of broadly intrapreneurial roles, but the key points may be applied to a wide range of contexts.


People are asking about the usefulness of immersive scenarios, and also about the creepiness of certain examples.

The first thing is to recall that “immersive” is not the only possible scale of this work. That’s important because making something immersive can be a pretty high bar, in terms of labour and time, and potentially other kinds of resources, like expenditure of political capital to try it for the first time in an organisation. So experiential futures is not only about immersive experiences where you inhabit a future, or a set of them, for a period of time: that's just one end of a spectrum. At the other end are things at a smaller scale, easier to produce; artifacts from the future. These are closer to the kinds of assets produced all the time within organisations to communicate ideas and fertilise conversations, but they come out of this approach of “how do we make something from the future?” All this falls under the design-space umbrella of experiential futures.

The other point to note is that creepiness is only one possible tone that an experiential scenario – object or immersion – might evoke. A project like NurturePod might be creepy to some people, but an intervention like the Tunisia 02014 scenario wasn't creepy at all; it was super aspirational, and even (against that backdrop of of extreme turbulence) almost utopian. So again, in the same way that we should be careful not to overidentify the immersive end of the design spectrum with experiential futures more broadly, because there's a lot more options than that, we should also be careful not to overemphasise certain moods or genre conventions, because there’s certainly not just one flavour of future out there.

And I think that is part of the utility. As an experiential futures practitioner, someone who has been mapping and using it over the last dozen years, and coming to understand its potential, I operate from a recognition that there’s a vast amount of variation for us to work with. Any kind of future that you may want to have people think about, or to think about yourself, can in principle be mediated in any number of artifacts or situations. Whereas traditional futures practice has usually used a very narrow set of strategies.

My students recently completed an assignment at Carnegie Mellon, a class of 40 designers, where in teams of four or five, each team turns a classroom into an immersive scenario that that the entire class group steps into and spends 15 minutes in. We call these rooms Time Machines. (This is inspired by H.G. Wells, who was not just a founding figure in speculative storytelling, but a founding figure in futures. Wells invented the idea of the time machine in the late 19th century.) Our use of the term refers not to a device, but to a space designed to think and feel with. The students don't have a huge amount of time or resources to do this, so notwithstanding what I said before about immersiveness possibly being more demanding, it doesn't necessarily have to be. It really depends on what you're trying to do.

This mindset (experiential, transmedia) invites you to going through the process of figuring out who you are trying to reach, and what kind of vectors you have to them. Say that it's the leaders or founders of some large organisation, and that they are super busy people and you're lucky to get a 15 minute appointment. This tells you something about the kinds of ways that you may be able to engage, or the kind of impact that you will need to design for. In this case maybe one option would be to make something to send them or put under their office door. They could open an envelope and find this physical thing from the future. Then it's not a room they have to be physically transported to, which could be really hard to organise.

Part of the value of having the wide design space of “experiential futures” lies in actually thinking through the options, because it forces you to figure out what is important about the futures conversation that you want to have, with the people you want to engage, and how you hope to move the needle in that encounter. Is it to get them to take some problem more seriously? Or maybe the topic is something they obsessively discuss, but the longer-term thinking around how it could evolve is limited, because they lack high-quality hypotheticals to work from. So maybe that's a clue to the interventions you could be doing. Thinking through the design space is in itself a potential value, and the action that follows can be that much more tailored and intentional.

In the case of me and my colleagues, all this experimentation started with workshop or process design. So before we ever imagined the approach of creating hypothetical artifacts and bringing futures to life in a performative way, like many futurists we used to run workshops where the standard settings would be for people to read a scenario we'd written, and then respond to it based on the mental model that it conjured for them. And that can be quite effective in some ways, but it always relies on a certain level of what we might call systems imagination, which is not a ubiquitous skillset. To read something about how the world, or a community, could be wildly different 20 years from now, and be able to think and feel that through properly, is not a task that everybody finds easy. (In fact, it often doesn’t work at all, in terms of leading to the kind of strategic and operational changes that it is supposed to prompt.)

We realised that we needed to make a greater effort on our side, so that less effort would be required on the participant or audience side, in order to get to higher quality, more granular, more viscerally grounded conversations about alternatives. My dad used to say, “hard in the writing, easy in the reading,” and I think this is useful not only for writing, but for any kind of communication. You as a practitioner have to put the hard yards in on your end, particularly if you want to engage people who aren’t always thinking about this stuff, or who are time poor. Everybody's got reasons to put the futures conversation aside and deal with the urgent things in front of them. But by creating experiences that enliven the hypothetical, whether they be immersive, or tangible, or interactive like a game (these are all part of the same design landscape), you create different types of portal into strategic conversation and raise the chances of high quality engagement. This is part of the job.

Turning to the ethics question, which comes up especially around guerrilla futures and staging what-ifs that present as-if real, it's really a case by case matter. I don't think the extremes of “always” or “never” are useful. “It's never okay for people to feel for a moment like something is happening that is not happening” would prohibit even, say, surprise parties. And the “always ok” end isn’t right either. “It's just a hypothetical, what’s the worst that could happen?” Well, potentially a lot of harm. (This is why shouting fire in a crowded theatre is illegal.) And circumstances change. Just recently we had the 80th anniversary of the War of the Worlds broadcast from Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre, an amazing moment in the history of media. This was a 1938 radio dramatisation of the H.G. Wells story about an alien invasion, which was taken seriously by some proportion of the population across the U.S., because it sounded just like it might have played out on radio at the time if there really had been an alien invasion, where your regular programming is interrupted and so on. This was a first, so they didn't necessarily know beforehand that it would create the kind of turmoil that it did. But when the same strategy was adapted for broadcast in Spanish in Ecuador in the 1970s, the people who did that couldn't say they didn't know, and I think somebody was killed in in the panic that ensued, and that's not defensible. It has to be a case by case thing, rather than always or never.

Somebody else has asked, if we were to apply experiential futures to our work, when and where would we use it?

You could tie it in to the strategy generation process discussed earlier, using engagement with alternative futures to generate options: have the people in the room take the scenario seriously enough to come up with ideas about what could be done either to make more likely the things that they’d like to see happen from that scenario, or make less likely the things that they wouldn't want. Using the experience and its emotional affordances as a way to create motivation to engage in that discussion over that longer time horizon, instead of it being like, “Oh, that's 20 years away, too far to worry about it.” That why immersive scenarios can be so striking: done right, they kind of collapse the distance, temporal and psychological . People in the room get angry, or excited, or sad about things being hypothesised as happening decades from now. And the time horizon for the scenarios, how far out you're inviting people to think, is also a really important and context-sensitive variable. If it's too close then you're not stretching into the variety of things you may need to deal with. If it’s too far out, there’s the risk of snapping the bonds of credibility, and you kind of check a box, “Okay, we talked about 2050, can we please come back to reality now?” Judging where the sweet spot is, between too far and too near, is part of the art of this work.

And then there’s a question here about opportunities to integrate futures and systems practice. Well, in some senses they are already integrated. Many practitioners, including me, see futures as the deployment of a systems mentality and way of thinking about change. Systems and futures are not these two completely separate things, “Oh, golly, how do we mesh them?” They actually have a lot of shared history. For example, The Limits to Growth report from 01972 is a landmark of systems literature and of futures literature, which is not a coincidence because they have some common roots. Still there’s lots of opportunity for continued integration.

One last thing about the variety of ways experiential futures can be deployed. I mentioned it as a prompt for discussion of possible strategies, or for testing existing strategies. It could be used as a way of exploring particular issues or points (what ifs) in the possibility space, on a more ad hoc basis, rather than a fully-fledged systematic one (multiple future rooms staged in parallel).

And experiential approaches can also be used as a way of bringing to life, for deeper scrutiny and discussion, the futures that are already in the room, or in the culture. There's a framework that a colleague of mine, Kelly Kornet, and I have developed called Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF). It begins with inquiring into the images of the future that a particular population or person has: What do they worry about? What do they hope for? What do they expect? This is called Ethnographic Futures Research (EFR), and it goes back to the 1970s. You draw them out on those things sufficiently to produce, or really co-create, a scenario; asking a bunch of questions to help structure the thinking. Then you “experientialise” it by taking these scenarios and turning them into artifacts or experiences. Then you might loop back and put artifacts from those futures in front of them, or put them in a space where those futures are dramatised. “Remember that conversation where you said these words about how the future might look, or what you're worried about, or hopeful for? How does it look now?” Or, it could be that you do the ethnographic interviews with the leadership of an organisation, manifest their imagined futures, and then put a wider constituency into these mental models brought to life, as a basis for deepening the conversation. So there are different ways that this stuff can be deployed for organisational strategic purposes, as well as for citizens.

I hope that these brief touchpoints we've had are starting to trigger some thinking that might be useful, and offer ways of amplifying what you’re trying to do, by adding experiential futures elements.


(Thanks again to TOG's S&C team, and everyone who contributed time, energy, and excellent questions during this phase of our collaboration.)

Experiential Futures: A brief outline
> The Experiential Turn (with Jake Dunagan)
> Dreaming Together
> The Original Time Machine Assignment
> Time Machines in The Futurist
Time Machines in The Economist
> Guerrilla futures ethics (The Futures of Everyday Life, Ch. 6)
> Ethnographic Experiential Futures (EXF)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

An artifact from Australia's future

The apology to the Nauru Generation, November 02068.

It may not always be obvious in the writing here –– apart from my favoured spelling –– but I was born and grew up in Australia, and despite spending most of my adult life outside the country, have never lost the accent.

In my view there are two great and lamentable stains on the Australian polity, a pair of relationships between the official centres of power in the settler society, and their Others.

The first is the foundational and ongoing dispossession and genocide of the country's indigenous peoples. The second is the callous and inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrant arrivals by boat.

These tragedies have in common a disregard of the basic interests and humanity of both groups. They are symmetrical horrors, but any resemblance is not purely coincidental. The two are joined at the root.

Any country founded on colonial imposition harbours at some level unaddressed and sublimated guilt on the part of settlers, especially the "first" white ones, starting with the very fact of their/our presence and carrying through a monstrous historical litany. Policies today punishing people who want in, but don't look like us, can be seen as an ugly and pernicious case of referred pain in the body politic, or as the vernacular has it, kicking the cat.

Australia is not the only country in the world with this kind of baggage. But perhaps it is becoming more obvious there, or more publicly so, how these pathologies are related.

At the start of last month a performer named Sammy J released a short video through the website of the national broadcaster, ABC. Although he is best known as a comedian, this three-minute clip was not in any sense comical. It showed him taking the role of a future Australian Prime Minister, and apologising in Parliament in the year 02068 to the victims of the (longstanding, since 02001) zero-tolerance policies towards asylum seekers arriving by boat, and the offshore detention facilities established to hold them on the island of Nauru, in the South Pacific.

Just about any Australian citizen or semi-interested observer is bound to recognise right away the analog in recent history to this imagined future event. The 'Nauru Generation' mentioned here is heard as a parallel to the indigenous Stolen Generations of all-too-recent Australian history, and the premise of a belated official apology unmistakeably points back to the long-awaited apology to indigenous peoples delivered in Parliament in 02008 by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

We've previously seen here at The Sceptical Futuryst many cases of future documentary fragments, and for that matter feature-length treatments of political prospects. We've come across near-future newspapers making near-utopian developments tantalisingly tangible; and also the specific strategy of using future artifacts to dramatise potential regret in an effort to prompt world leaders to take effective climate action at the COP 15 summit in Copenhagen in 02009 (apparently it didn't work, though the Paris Accord has since taken steps in the right direction). We've even seen change at the scale of a whole country spurred by an transmedia experiential scenario, bringing an aspirational possibility to life, in Tunisia's Arab Spring campaign #16juin2014 (which seemed to succeed, up to a point). And we've looked at artwork imagining an Australian Aboriginal monarch on the national currency.

I don't recall previously seeing this particular approach; a stand-alone video fragment of the political process (if you're in the U.S., think C-SPAN) to comment on present controversies.

People often ask about whether hope or fear, preferred or perilous, is the more strategic and effective type of future to dramatise or discuss.

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. Speaking generally, for one thing it isn't always clear whether a certain eventuality is positive or negative. Those describing or portraying it may feel one way, and find that others see it in an altogether different light.

Actually, for any posited changes there might be a range of responses. (This was deliberately the case for the changes explored via our recent experiential scenarios NaturePod and NurturePod, for example.) Embedded ambivalence can be a useful approach when using the lenses of possible futures to look at people's various present-day perceptions and values around changes unfolding now. Whether expected or not, divergent reactions to a scenario, experiential or otherwise, may be instructive.

Leaving aside the question of what happens to trigger it in any given case, one might still ask which of the two responses as elicited is the more effective; is hope (and similar) or fear (and similar) the more useful emotional territory? This is a slightly sharper question, but again, I find it more fruitful to see different moods as a palette of conversational or deliberative affordances, than to try categorising certain registers as better or worse overall on some universal yardstick.

I've written this partly to sort out some of my own thinking, without having looked at any commentary on the video, so I don't know how it has been received. However the version posted here has logged over 850,000 views to date (and it's not the only one online), which for Australian political commentary suggests a decent level of resonance and virality.

What I had already seen and read of Australia's offshore detention centres left me aghast, and for readers unfamiliar with the backstory here, the New York Times reported just yesterday that a lawsuit has been filed against the Australian federal government, claiming that the migrant detention camps amount to a crime against humanity.

But I think the perspective offered in this future video artifact might conceivably be useful regardless of where one sits on this issue, or on the political spectrum.

An official apology from the year 02068 invites viewers today to consider how future people, two generations from now, might regard the policies of the present. Asking this type of question could be a helpful reflex in relation to many current cultures and policies, wherever and whenever you may be in the world; not only in Australia, not only on this issue, and not only at this moment.

I want to add that fifty years seems a much longer period than we need in order to reasonably picture political regrets coming home to roost in this case, although I expect the choice of a distant temporal vantage point was likely meant to underline how slowly the current (conservative) government is catching on to the moral and historical import of these policies.

Still, especially with that generous time horizon, it's disappointing that the incidental glimpse of Australia's Parliament in half a century is noticeably less diverse than today's (a white bloke again at the helm, but no visible minorities in view), and nothing else in the scene seems to hint at changes in the national political landscape. Even if this were meant as a broader comment on institutional inertia and how infuriatingly slow to change the governance layer can be, this seems a missed opportunity. (My guess is that it's just a standard instance of Cascio's first rule for how not to write scenarios: change only one variable.)

But to return to the question of specific emotional charge: part of what is interesting to me about this future video is that, as someone who wants to see the harms of these policies acknowledged, stopped, and remedied without delay, this particular scenario comes as a complex mix of awful and hopeful.

It portrays the right thing being done, but after waiting far too long.

(Many thanks to Eddie Harran for the tip.)

> Dreaming together (external website)
> On the money
A Climate of Regret
> Foresight is a Right
> Future documentary
Guerrilla futurists combat war on terror
> An experiential scenario for post-revolution Tunisia 

Friday, November 30, 2018

On Foresight in Organisations

The Omidyar Sessions, Part 1

This year I've been doing some work with the fabulous folks at The Omidyar Group, a collection of impact philanthropy organisations and initiatives blessed with an in-house team of excellent, greater-good-oriented humans skilled in systems and complexity practices.

At the team's annual planning retreat some weeks back, I joined to facilitate a deeper exploration of the potential value that a foresight/futures orientation and toolkit can bring to planning and strategy. We also recently met in Washington DC with a larger community of practitioners from across TOG for a workshop about experiential futures, and in a follow-up webinar soon after, had a chance to dive into some practical questions people had surfaced on reflection.

This post is one of two, from an edited transcript of that online follow-up. I'm sharing them here because they have a practical focus and may be of use for folks newer to these areas. At the bottom of each post are some links for further reading.


Let’s start with the question about how to operationalise futures to support practical decisions and make it useful in organisations.

Our gathering in Washington DC focused on a particular aspect of practice which I had been asked to highlight, experiential futures. This is an emerging set of approaches to doing futures work with design, performance, film, and materiality, all these media and modalities that have not traditionally been used so much. What does it look like when you infuse foresight practice with those diverse ways of connecting with people and mediating ideas? We looked at many examples, and also practised a bit using The Thing From The Future card game.

Prior to this is a whole body of futures literature and practice that is not oriented towards being animated experientially, but that is still focused on making a difference to how decisions are made, and helping people navigate change. The experiential turn in futures builds on a previous half century of work, conceptual infrastructure, methods, and so on. I gather that people here have some experience with scenarios, so that’s a good place to begin.

We can never know precisely what the future is going to hold. But scenarios can help provide a way of moving forward in our thought and decision-making processes despite that fact. It's a move that can be made in many different ways, because there are at least a couple of dozen different ways of generating scenarios, and of course, each can be used to make particular scenarios for any number of topics. So it's a really large design space or activity space we're talking about, and there's a lot of literature and prior practice.

I'm going to make a generalisation about all that scenario work, that it's a way of systematising our navigation of uncertainty, by parsing what I think of as the possibility space into a series of alternative hypotheses about how change could unfold.

Scenarios describe those different hypotheses, different theories of what could happen in the domain you’re interested in, be it the political scene in the United States, or artificial intelligence in healthcare, or whatever. Since we don't know exactly how change is going to turn out, there is a need for for a contingent, plural, multiple-scenarios approach, and that need becomes more obvious the further out in time we try to cast our gaze.

Scenarios for strategic conversation in organisations or communities can be used to test the robustness of existing strategies or to generate new options, or both.

To test current strategies (policies, priorities, plans, actions), whatever they may be, you take each of the scenarios in turn and say, “How would we fare if this is what happened in the wider world while we did these activities?” That is, you test or “wind-tunnel” current efforts by putting them against the backdrop of those different hypothetical worlds and seeing how they would hold up.

Scenarios can also be used to generate strategies. Whatever the scenarios are about, whatever time horizon they are on, you ask “inside” each one, what does success look like here. What would you wish you had done, if by the year 2030 or 2040, the domain you’re operating in had unfolded in this direction? Also, what could be done along the way, if anything, to steer things towards conditions in the scenario that you like, and away from things you want to avoid? Ask these same questions in each scenario, and you end up with lists of actions that might be good to take, either to influence what may be in your control, or address what happens outside your control. You can create a portfolio of candidate strategies from those lists. “Well, it looks like almost no matter what happens, X, Y, or Z, here are the things that we should be doing that will stand us in good stead.” Then there are contingent plans: “If the world (or the country or the market; the relevant context as framed) began to move in that direction, then here are the things that we should think about rolling out.”

In using scenarios to generate strategy, you end up with a strategy portfolio that can include a range of things that are good to do no matter what; things to do if X or Y happened; and things to do if Z were to occur.

So that’s the structure of the logic: using futures to interrogate strategies that you already have, on one hand, or generate new options, on the other. Since the organisation that you're working in obviously already exists, what's really helpful may be a combination of the two things. Take the strategies already in place; our program priorities; how we're allocating resources over the next several quarters or years –– and in light of these alternative theories of how change might unfold, ask what else we could or should be doing.

Then you have to place bets, essentially. Organisations and communities do this anyway, but they don't necessarily do it informed by thoughtful consideration of the longer term.

It perhaps becomes obvious in light of this that you need some capacity to keep track of how change is unfolding in real time. Not just a set of scenarios (experiential or not), but some way to monitor the signals today that scenario X or Y might be starting to trend. This points the way to an underlying argument, and certainly the place I'm coming from, that what you really want is to instill and augment an ongoing capacity for foresight. It's not such a great idea to just make a special big deal of doing scenarios once; what is needed is a persistent process for describing and using alternative images of the future, that are being updated as the world changes. (You don’t take just one reading of your bearings as you steer a ship, because everything is in motion; navigation requires constantly reading of changing conditions and updating plans accordingly.) As certain possibilities come into view, you start taking them seriously; when other possibilities that once seemed viable wither on the vine, at some point you let them go, and their accompanying strategies, if they are no longer relevant.

What I think organisations (and governments, and societies in general) really need is this distributed capability, which some of us in futures practice call a social capacity for foresight, or social foresight.

In organisations, this would include having a periodic opportunity or cyclical structure for revisiting the multiple-scenario outlook, recognising that the futures are changing just as the present is. But then on top of that, you also have a kind of shorter loop, a day-to-day practice of scanning for change in the present as things arise.

This goes to the connection between tools for futures sensing and the maintenance of policy or strategy. We've talked a bit about how scenarios can be used to test or generate strategies, but in terms of monitoring signs that suggest what should come forward in the weave, or moved back, you need to have a good evolving map of the present, too.

Here is where scanning practices enter the picture (environmental scanning; horizon scanning; these are semi-interchangeable terms). Scanning is about looking at the operating environment to see what is coming down the pike. And so if you have a scenario set that includes, as part of the analysis, things you need to look out for –– relevant trends and emerging issues, and their implications –– then someone in the organisation would be keeping track of what's going on, and looking at the list of triggering factors accompanying the scenario sets, and saying as those signals materialise, “now that this new technology is available, or this election has concluded, or this demographic is entering the workforce, we may need to be doing such and such.” And you are collectively poised to act because you invested in a foresight capacity, considering the necessary steps ahead of time, instead of being surprised and put on the back foot.

This is how you tie the existence of an up-to-date scenario set to the existence of an up-to-date picture of what is going on in the world, and what it's trying to tell you. The scanning function is less about the grand process of creating the map, and more about the essential day-in day-out work of tracking the journey.

It’s worth underlining that foresight and futures practice as a whole is more than just generating and using scenarios (I'm steering away from the term “scenario planning” someone mentioned earlier, because there's a whole deficit model in the planning paradigm that I think is problematic.) In my experience there tend to be more people that are aware of that particular method, scenarios, than are aware of foresight practice and the wider set of methods. Having the wider set is much more helpful than having just one tool, and it’s important to avoid conflating this one thing that we could do with the whole array of things that we could do. Different contexts call for different methods, techniques and actions.

Still, in any case an effective organisational foresight capacity calls for some form of scanning, scenarios and strategies. All three are essential.


Stay tuned for Part 2, which is about the practicalities of experiential futures.

(Thanks Becky, Rob and all!)

Further reading in the field:

> Scenarios and strategy: Van der Heijden (n.d.)
> Scanning: Conway 2009
> Foresight process: Dator 2009; Voros 2003
> Foresight methods: Glenn and Gordon 2009; Curry 2015
> The Thing From The Future: Candy 2018
> Social foresight: Slaughter 1996; Candy 2010 (Ch. 7)