Category: strategic foresight

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Futuring the Past

Flat Earth to Measles: Did We See That Coming?
In the first month of 2019 the United States saw more measles cases than it did in all of 2010. This disease of the past was once on its way to extinction (or deep hibernation) is now a current public health threat, which prompts us to think: how can our futuring better consider what we came from not just what it might lead to?

Measles was something that my parents worried about for me and my brothers more than forty years ago. Measles is one of those diseases that causes enormous problems that are both obvious and also difficult to see until they manifest themselves down the road. Encephalitis and diarrhea are two possible short-term effects, while a compromised immune system down the road is some of the longer-term effects. It’s a horrible condition, one of the most infectious diseases we know of, and also one that was once considered to be ‘eliminated’ from the United States,Canada and most of the Americas (which means existing in such small numbers as not worthy of large-scale monitoring).

In the first month of 2019 there have been more measles cases tracked than all of 2010. The causes of this are many, but largely attributable to a change in vaccination rates among the public. The fewer people who get vaccinated, the more likely the disease will find a way to take hold in the population — first of those who aren’t protected, but over time this will include some of those who are because of the ‘herd protection’ nature of how vaccination works.

Did We See That Coming?

Measles hasn’t featured prominently in any of the foresight models of the health system that I’ve seen over the course of my career. Then again, twenty-five years ago, it would have been unlikely that any foresight model of urban planning would have emphasized scooters or bicycles — old technologies — over the automobile as modes of transportation likely to shape our cities. Yet, here we are.

Today, those interested in the future of transportation are focused on autonomous cars, yet there is some speculation that the car — or at least the one we know now — will disappear altogether. Manufacturers like Ford — the company that invented the mass-market automobile — have already decided they will abandon most of their automobile production in the next few years.

The hottest TV show (or rather, streamed media production) among those under the age of 20? Friends (circa 1994).

Are you seeing a trend here?

What we are seeing is a resurgence of the past in pockets all throughout our society. The implications of this are many for those who develop or rely on futurist-oriented models to shape their work.

One might argue that a good model of the future always assumes this and therefore it isn’t a flaw of the model, but rather that, as William Gibson was quoted as suggesting: the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. The Three Horizon Framework popularized by McKinsey has this assumption built into it from the beginning. But it’s not just the model that might be problematic, but the thinking behind it.

Self-Fulfilling Futures

Foresight is useful for a number of things, but I would argue very little of that benefit is what many futurists claim. The arguments for investing in foresight is that, by thinking about what the future could bring we can better prepare ourselves for that reality in our organizations. This might mean identifying different product lines, keeping an eye out for trends that match our predictions, improving our innovation systems and “the impact of decision-making“.

Why is the case? The answer — as I’ve been told by foresight and futurist colleagues — is that by seeing what is coming we can prepare for it, much like a weather forecast allows us to dress appropriately for the day to account for the possibility of rain or snow.

The critique I have with this line of thinking is that: do we ever go back and see where our models fit and didn’t fit? Are foresight models open to evaluation? I would argue: no. There is no systematic evaluation of foresight initiatives. This is not to suggest that evaluation needs to concern itself with whether a model gets everything right — that the future turns out just as we anticipated — but whether it was actually useful.

Did we make a better decision because we saw a possible future? Did we restructure our organization to achieve something that would have been impossible had we not had the strategic foresight to guide us? These are the claims and yet we do not have evidence to support it. Such little evaluation of these models has left us open to clinging to myths and also to an absence of critical reflection on what use these models have (and also a wasted opportunity to consider what use they could have).

Yes, the case of Royal Dutch Shell and its ability to envision problems with the global oil supply chain in the late 1960’s and early 70’s through adopting a foresight approach gave them a step up on their competitors. But how many other cases of this nature are there? Where is the evidence that this approach does what it’s proponents claim it does? With foresight being adopted across industries we should have many examples of its impact, but we do not.

Layering Influence and Impact

Let’s bring it back to public health. There is enormous evidence to point to the role of tobacco use and lifetime prevalence of a litany of health problems like cancer and cardiovascular disease, yet there are still millions who use tobacco daily. Lack of retirement savings is a clear pathway to significant problems for health, wellbeing, and lifestyle down the road. The effects of human behaviour on the environment and our health have been known for decades (or millennia, depending on your perspective) to the point where we are now referring to this stage of planetary evolution as the Anthropocene (the age where humans influence the planet).

We can see things coming in various degrees of focus and yet the influence on our behaviour is not certain. Indeed, the anticipation of future consequences is only one element of a large array of factors that influence our behaviour. Psychologists, the group that studies and support the evidence for behaviour change, have shown that we are actually pretty bad at predicting what will happen, how we will react to something, and what will influence change.

Many of these factors are systemic — that is tied to the systems we are a part of. This is our team, family, organization, community, and society, and time — the various spheres outlined in Bronfenbrenner’s Social-Ecological Model. This model outlines the various ‘rings’ or spheres that influence us, including time (which encompasses them all). It’s this last ring that we often forget. This model can be useful because it showcases layers of impact and influence, including from our past.

Decision Making in the Past

By anchoring ourselves to the future and not considering our past, our models for prediction, forecasting, and foresighting are limited. We are equally limited when we use the same form of thinking (about the future) to make our models about the past. In this case, I think of Andrew Yang who recently spoke to the Freakonomics podcast and pointed out how our economic thinking is rooted in past models that we would never accept today. He’s wrong — sort of. We do accept this and it is alive and well in many of our ways of thinking about the future.

In speaking about how we’ve been through economic patterns of disruption, he points out that we are using an old fact pattern to inform what we do now as if the economy — which we invented just a few hundred years ago — has these immutable laws.


The fantasists — and they are so lazy and it makes me so angry, because people who are otherwise educated literally wave their hands and are like, “Industrial Revolution, 120 years ago. Been through it before,” and, man, if someone came into your office and pitched you an investment in a company based on a fact pattern from 120 years ago, you’d freakin’ throw them out of your office so fast.

Andrew Yang, speaking on Freakonomics

Foresight would benefit from the same kind of critical examination of itself as Yang does with the economy and our ways of thinking about it. That critical examination includes using real evidence to make decisions where we have it and where we don’t have it – we establish it.

Maybe then, we might anticipate that measles are not gone. Let’s keep our eye out on polio, too. And as for a flat earth? Don’t sail too far into the sunset as you might fall off if we don’t factor that into our models of the future.

Image Credit: “Flat Earth | Conspiracy Theory VOL.1” by Daniel Beintner is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0

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Unpossible

Yinka's Ship

‘Post-truth’ was named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. No fitting word reflects the strangeness of 2016 with the exception of unpossible, a word I made up and in a post-truth world might as well be as legitimate as many of the arguments being made about the most important things of the day, which is why we need to rethink how and what we pay attention to. 

When I was a little kid I was absolutely fascinated by ships in bottles (and still am). To me this was the embodiment of the impossible made possible. I’ve been shown how its done, read about it and still can’t really believe it despite seeing many ships in bottles over my lifetime. Gothic boxwood prayer beads are in the same category: they are both of the world and otherworldly at the same time. Brilliant stuff.

These are creations of human ingenuity, craft, patience and beauty.

What we have started to see in the social world are acts that are equally implausible to comprehend, yet lack all of these qualities but share one feature: creativity.

It may be time to examine what creativity means and what its impacts are because what might have been harmless chatter is now becoming big business and its transforming our world in ways we never could imagine and ways we might not really want.

In short: we are creating the unpossible.

Truthiness of fiction

Writing in Salon, Erin Keane reminds us that it was ten years ago that the concept of ‘truthiness’ was first floated out by Stephen Colbert and went on to become the 2006 Word of the Year by Mirriam-Webster. Keane reflects on the genesis of the word and how it articulated how a feeling of something being true could override the availability of evidence to support its existence without necessarily creating an entirely new reality.

With truthiness, though, we still recognized that truth exists, just that it could be overridden and bent to serve our own emotional purposes.

In a truthy world the absence of clear evidence didn’t mean that something didn’t exist if our feelings suggested that it might. Hence, we had an assault of Iraq and search for weapons of mass destruction based on a feeling that someone like Saddam Hussein would want to deploy them if he had them (which might have been true, but he didn’t have them and there was no evidence to suggest he did so it wasn’t true).

Now, those logical or hypothetical — if unproven — suppositions matter less. We’ve taken out ‘facts’ from the middle of the equation separating truth from fantasy.

In the US election, ‘fake news’ sites outperformed ‘not-fake news’ sites. In other words: those peddling fictions about the world drew more attention than those who sought to share what actually happened in the world. Except, what also actually happened was that people were reading, maybe believing, but certainly sharing and endorsing these made up stories, which were once referred to by names such as ‘lies’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘slander’. Now, it’s called reporting in a post-truth environment.

When the head of a news organization that promotes people who believe there ought to be a cap on women and girls in science and attacks citizen movements focused on social justice like Black Lives Matter is promoted to the role of chief strategist for the White House to serve as a representative of the people in strategy, that is post-truth at work. **

Tardigrade amnesia

The Tardigrade is perhaps the most remarkable animal on the planet. They can survive in temperatures close to absolute zero and over 150 degrees centigrade. If resilience had a mascot, it would be the tardigrade (pictured below — with credit to Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden).

waterbear

While the effect of an election on policies and practices from healthcare, environmental protection, human rights, and safety and security may be wide-reaching and last beyond the term of office for most politicians the response can’t simply be to ‘toughen up’ and accept what’s being done, even if it is done under the banner of electoral legitimacy. Resilience is not about just absorbing shocks, but also about adapting to prevent the shocks from coming, to lessen their intensity, and also about systems change wherever possible.

The tardigrade is an expert on resiliency. It is as if it decided that, rather than plan for the best-case scenario, it figured out what the worst case would be and developed itself for that context first. Even if the tardigrade doesn’t encounter absolute zero temperatures that much in the world, it is ready for it.

Resiliency in social systems requires the same thinking.

In the US election and Brexit vote we saw politicians, pollsters and the media all get it wrong: they didn’t assess the mood and mindset of voters accurately. More importantly, voters may not have voted for what they are getting, but against what they got. In that case, what they ‘got'(i.e., had) was a sense of falling behind, perceived unfairness, absence of connection between their social world and the one talked about on TV or in government, and isolation from the economy, society and a world they thought they knew and were promised — something that built up over decades.

The voters wanted something different than what they had, but they may not have understood what they might get from this difference.

Foresight, in hindsight

Strategic foresight is a discipline that combines creative thinking, data, and planning together. It’s a burgeoning field of practice-based inquiry that offers an opportunity to explore various hypotheses about possible futures. We cannot reliably predict the future, particularly in complex systems, however it is possible to anticipate events based on trends, forecasts and signals that emerge from the data we have about the past and present when applied to the planning for the future.

Strategic foresight is a relatively young discipline, yet it holds much promise in aiding our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity and guide our actions to prevent problems and amplify those factors that can generate solutions. The result are ‘evidence-informed imaginations’ like the one that my colleague Peg Lahn and I did on the future of the neighbourhood in a growing city like Toronto, Canada. Ahead of legislation curbing the way high-rise building were built, we anticipated massive problems for Toronto’s high-rise condominiums based on the data we gathered and scenarios we developed. Falling glass was largely an ‘isolated’ incident 5 years ago and soon became a massive problem across the city and will continue to plague these buildings that will likely need to be completely ‘re-skinned’ in less than 20 years due to their reliance on poor design choices based on the city’s climate.

Our work bucked the trend toward optimism in condo development toward evidence-informed pessimism. Neither optimism or pessimism are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather what’s key is creating the kind of storyline that fits evidence, emotion and provides a narrative for what might happen. In doing so, a strategic plan can develop the kind of performance measures and monitoring and evaluation plans that help detect whether a particular scenario is starting to play out in the world. If so, it’s possible to correct things before they get problematic.

Strategic foresight combined with resiliency and systems thinking can be a way to envision the impossible as possible to prevent what becomes unpossible.

Consider what systems you’re working in and ask yourself if you’re seeing all (or many of) the pertinent possibilities and how they might play out. This is where fiction can be an asset, not a symptom, related to a larger issue. If you want some initial foresight into the current state of affairs in Western politics — from Le Pen in France, Farage in the UK,  Hofer in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the United States, Kellie Leitch in Canada — dive into Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic “It Can’t Happen Here” .

It can.

The unpossible can only happen if we collectively create it.

Image credit: Yinka’s ship by Garry Knight used under Creative Commons License. Garry’s work is amazing and worth checking out. Thanks for sharing your art with the world!

** I struggled with the notion of even linking to this content, but also feel that I’m contributing to an echo chamber if those views aren’t seen and experienced, even if it’s just a small dose.

If we are to address truths — hard ones, complicated ones, ugly ones — we need to speak with truth and not pretend these voices aren’t there or comment on them if we are unwilling to expose ourselves to some of it in its original form and not solely filtered through other perspectives. One of the issues we face is that too often we (humans) speak about groups we know nothing about from any source that came from that perspective.

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Innovation Framing

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Innovation is easier to say than to do. One of the reasons is that a new idea needs to fit within a mindset or frame that is accustomed to seeing the way things are, not what they could be, and its in changing this frame that innovators might find their greatest obstacles and opportunities. 

Innovation, its creation and distribution is a considerable challenge to take up when the world is faced with so many problems related to the way we do things. The need to change what we do and how we live was brought into stark view this week as reports came out suggesting that April was the hottest month in history, marking the third month in a row that a record has been beaten by a large margin.

If we are to mitigate or mediate the effects of climate change we will need to innovate on matters of technology, social and economic policy, bioscience, education and conservation….and fast and on a planetary scale that we’ve never seen before.

In the case of climate change we are seeing the world and the causes and consequences  posed by it through a frame. A frame is defined as:

frame |frām| noun

1) a rigid structure that surrounds or encloses something such as a door or window, 2) [ usu. in sing. ] a basic structure that underlies or supports a system, concept, or text: the establishment of conditions provides a frame for interpretation.

When discussing innovation we often draw upon both of these definitions of a frame — both a rigid, enclosing structure and something that supports our understanding of a system. Terms like rigidity can imply strength, but it also resists change.

Missing the boat for the sea

If we continually look at the sea we may assume it’s always the same and fail to notice the boat that can take us across and through it. In a recent interview with the Atlantic magazine, journalist Tom Vanderbilt discusses how we can miss new opportunities because we feel we know what we like already, much like the kid who doesn’t want to eat a vegetable she’s never even tasted before. Vanderbilt hits on something critical: the absence of language to covey what the ‘new’ is:

I think often we really are lacking the language, and the ways to frame it. If you look at films like Blade Runner or The Big Lebowski, when these films came out they were box office disasters. I think part of that was a categorization thing—not knowing how to think about it in the right way. Blade Runner didn’t really match up with the existing tropes of science fiction, Big Lebowski was just kind of strange

Today, both Blade Runner and The Big Lebowski are hailed as classics — only after the fact. It’s very much like the Apple Newton in the 1980’s failing more than 20 years before the iPad arrived even though it was a decent product.

Believing to see

A traditional evidence-based approach to change is that you must see it to believe it. In innovation, we often need to believe in order to see.  This is particularly true in complex contexts where the linkages between cause-and-effect with evidence are less obviously made.

However, it’s more than about belief in evidence, it’s belief in possibility. It is for this reason that foresight can make such an important contribution to the innovation process. Strategic foresight can provide an imaginative, yet data-supported way of envisioning possible futures, outcomes and circumstances. It is a means of enabling us to see future states in possibility, which enable us to better ensure that we are ready to see the present when it comes.

This is part of the thinking behind training exercises, particularly obvious in sports. A team might imagine a number of scenarios, which may not happen as outlined during a game, but because the team has imagined certain things to be possible, there is an opportunity to have rehearsed or anticipated ways to deal with what comes up in reality and thus helps them to believe something enough to see it when it comes.

Spending time envisioning possible futures, whether through a deliberative process like strategic foresight, or simply allowing yourself time to notice trends and possibilities and how they might connect can be a means of imagining possibilities and preparing you to meet them (or create them) sometime down the road.

Do so gives you the power to select what frame fits what picture.

 

For more information on strategic foresight check out the library section on this blog. If you need help doing it, contact Cense Research + Design.

Photo credit: Innovation by Boegh used under Creative Commons License.