Seeing the Unknown

We prepare for what we know and see. To address the challenges of the future, we need to imagine things differently in order to see them before they exist.

Sometimes we need to believe to see things. Sometimes we need to know what we don’t know and can’t know (now) to understand what we’ll need to know in the future.

There are a class of problems and situations where this ability to see the unseen and know about the unknowable that are critical to survival. These are the problems that often have signs — weak signals as they are called — that often become obvious all at once — and often when it is too late to address.

The Lesson of Water

These are often illustrated by such morbid fables like the frog (or lobster) in the boiling pot. Water provides us with an amazing example of phase transitions that incorporate linear and non-linear effects simultaneously. Watching a boiling pot of water its easy to see that the movement and bubbling starts slowly and changes into a full boil relatively quickly. For the poor frog the water might get warmer and even quite comfortable for minutes then getting too hot and fatal within the last few seconds.

Or consider how the outside temperature can fluctuate with little appreciable effect on the water around us until it drops to zero degrees centigrade and then a radical transformation takes place: ice.

Water can transform on a scale akin to a Pareto distribution where we see relatively stable patterns over time and then radical change in a short burst. The same can be true for social, environmental, and organizational systems.

What we don’t want to be is the frog.

Visionary Innovation & Evaluation

Humanity doesn’t know enough to say what environmental sustainability actually looks like, especially in a future unlike any humanity has ever experienced.

Matt Keene as recounted by Beverly Parsons on the need for visionary evaluation

My incredible colleagues Beverly Parsons, Lovely Dhillon, and Matt Keene started contemplating what it meant to think, act, and create systems of learning aimed at the future, while acting on the present. The focus of their efforts began with looking at the environment and then branched out to include other areas that featured problems (or solution sets) that functioned like water: they could bubble slowly and then boil over.

In doing this, they started to envision what visionary evaluation would look like.

While we know a lot about water, we know far less about environmental sustainability as mentioned above. What Matt was getting at — and is discussed in this introduction to visionary evaluation — is that we are framing much of our actions based on knowledge of the past and present, not the future — which is where what we do today will be realized in its effect. For most complex issues, our actions now don’t affect the system until further down the road. They take time and many have wide-scale effects and consequences.

It’s why we might consider visionary evaluation. Visionary evaluation is a values-based, principled-focused approach to understanding change dynamics by encouraging us to see how things are unfolding using human well-being as the North Star or benchmark. By anchoring our perception of what is transpiring — which is uncertain, dynamic, interconnected, and complex – to something that we can objectively measure and monitor, we not only provide a means to assess our position relative to what’s happening, but make informed decisions and commit to wise actions.

Anchoring Change

This approach to evaluation sews the seeds for purposeful, healthy, forward-thinking innovation by allowing us to make changes, adaptations, and new products and services based on what is to come, not just on what is. By anchoring our work to values and principles, it also means we are less likely to be side-tracked by those events our foresight was unable to anticipate and re-calibrate based on something stable. We have something to anchor our change efforts.

This approach is less arbitrary than many other adaptive models which might help us to consider change, but don’t provide guidance on how to consider what changes are worthwhile pursuing.

To draw on the image above: it provides mountains when the rivers and shorelines are in motion.

By knowing where we are relative what is happening and using our best intentions, values, and principles we can be far better at seeing where we can go than limit ourselves by where we are and what might come.

Notes: This week (Feb 9 – 15, 2020) features a series of posts on Visionary Evaluation on the AEA365 blog. It’s worth checking out whether you’re visiting this now or later — just click here for a starting point.

If you’re interested in learning more I’d recommend you pick up the new book that outlines visionary evaluation and what it can do to support new thinking and wise action to support innovation on areas like the environment, transportation, economics, design, education, and more.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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