Thursday, October 26, 2006

Barbershop futures revisited, part I

A colleague of mine, an exceedingly perceptive, forthright and charming futurist from Belgium, Dr Maya van Leemput, recently emailed me in response to a post put up in August, "Barbershop Futures"...

I was asked to write about futures thinking for a project here ... that wants to address the general apathy that the organisers believe might underlie the local success of the extreme right.

A wrap in two lines: 2017 is a cultural project in Antwerp, Belgium, with free performances and events in public spaces of the city, playing with the idea that art can save the world. It publishes an old style printed 'Paper of the Future' that tries to give its readers some food for thought about local and global futures.

[T]his organisation wants to encourage people to think for themselves and preferably "a bit further than their noses are long" (a Flemish expression I didn't want to keep from you). So I wrote one introductory piece for their Future Tabloid already and now they've decided to keep up the effort after the elections too and want me to contribute regularly.

When they asked me this I had been reading your blog for a while and thought of an "open letter to a colleague" in response to your Barbershop futures post. Something that would let me be personal and professional at the same time. What do you say?

I said go for it. Here's the open letter, unedited:

Dear Stuart,

Compliments on your blog, motivating stuff.

I can relate to your barbershop futures experience. I like the image of the hairdresser that doesn't need a futurist and the futurist that needs a hairdresser (take this literally, I see your 12-months uncut style in my mind's eye). Your discussion of "the misunderstanding that my interest in the future meant I would be willing or able to forecast" and your thoughts on the usefulness of futures thinking were helpful. I'm confronted with the same misunderstandings and like your conclusion: "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."

I have been holding futures conversations with the hairdresser on principle since 02000. I say 'the' hairdresser, but actually there were more than a few: in Antwerp, Brussels, London, Antigua, and like you, in San Francisco. The first time I hadn't planned it, it just happened. It was in my home town in Belgium and when Vincent, who had his shop in a hip and happening street in the centre of town, heard that I study 'what and how people think about the future', he was unstoppable. "So have you heard? You must have heard?" he asked in a complicit tone. "You must know what I mean. It's really important, we're heading for a big change, people are changing, more and more people know, we're moving on to the next level, the energy in Antwerp will turn around soon." He went on to explain the history of the cosmos, the human psyche and the world, in true new age spirit mixing 101 mystic, spiritual, religious and scientific beliefs. The reason he told me this, he said, was that I was in a position to spread the word, people would listen to me more than to him. This particular hairdresser certainly felt he could use a futurist. He wanted me to go out and tell the truth (his truth) about the future.

Advocacy, Wendell Bell sees it as a task of futures studies. How many study the future to explicitly proclaim one and only one future, the true future? There are some. Most futurists advocate futures thinking itself however, I guess that's where I am too.

The kinds of goals you were pursuing with your hairdresser when trying to work out a view of future possibilities in relation with his business, are probably among the most widely accepted and applied objectives of our trade. To take one set of (often economically oriented and as such pre-defined) goals and search for the various ways in which these could be achieved or challenged often makes sense even to those with an otherwise short-range outlook. The survival, growth or decline of economic units (whether they are charming small businesses like Wally's or large corporations) mostly concern questions of change within an otherwise unchanging framework.

You remark 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." So in that case, does the hairdresser really not need a futurist? He lives in a neighbourhood (the changing nature of which, by the way, might affect his business). He might have children. He lives in a world that is threatened by human greed. He is part of a nation the leaders of which are trying very hard to determine what the future for everyone on earth will be like, regardless of what futures people might choose for themselves. Does Wally think the fact that the same shampoos he buys in bulk to wash your elegant locks, are being sold in single-use packaging in third world countries, affects the future? And actually, does he give a damn?

I guess you'll be off to the hairdresser again at some point. If the conversation turns to futures, I'm curious to read about it again and hope you can steer it beyond the barbershop perspective. As you suggest, futures thinking is relevant to almost anyone. I see it as part of our job to help people experience this for themselves. Maybe it will turn out to be impossible to escape from being "the proverbial hammer that is constantly looking for a nail to strike" after all.

When futurists start asking difficult questions back, that's when things get interesting. It's certainly a kick. I ask my hairdressers about personal, local and global futures, best-case and worst-case scenarios, expectations and interpretations. We talk about what's needed for an ideal to come nearer and what can be done to avoid the worst. We talk about who's responsible for getting what done, about the means and the paths. Sometimes I draw a complete blank but a lot of the time, people get into telling me all about their hopes and fears as if I'm not some unusual stranger but an old mate that they can confide their secret ambitions to. I recommend it.

I've got carried away thinking about the barbershop and futures conversations and haven't even got round to addressing the matter of the crystal-ball and prediction. That's for next time: I'll get back to you.

It's a pleasure to receive such a thoughtful, extended response to a post. Thank you, Maya! Although I doubt I'll do justice to every point made here, there are a few thoughts I can offer by way of a reply.

/To be continued.../

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