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February 7, 2007

Thinking about thinking: what does this have to do with the future?

If Critical Futures Studies can be characterised by the idea that "the way we think about the future influences the futures that we get", then what might the implications be for the future of the way that we think about thinking itself? This is a theme that I would like to explore here over the next little while.

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What's in a name? Foresight spotting in academia

Yesterday I was sent a link to the Stanford Center for Critical Foresight, at Stanford University in California. Not sure when the centre was established, but the impression I have is that this is quite a recent initiative. Given that the critical futures and foresight discourse is a central thread in the lineage of practice that all of us here belong to, this immediately drew my attention.

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February 8, 2007

"Over The Horizon" Post-Mortems

Fred Kaplan's regular column "War Stories" for Slate Magazine became a weekly read for me during postgraduate studies at Monash University's School of Political & Social Inquiry. From his doctoral dissertation The Wizards of Armageddon (1983) to his analysis of the Bush Administration's defence policies Kaplan understood the human dimension of policymakers and the cycles of strategic thinking in US governments and think-tanks.

Kaplan's dissection of the Bush Administration's defence budget in February 2007 ends with the following observation:

This is all a game of funny money to begin with. We could hardly afford any of these things, vital or not, if the Chinese stopped underwriting our debt. It's a bit much, under the circumstances, to spend tens of billions of dollars on threats that some analysts foresee 20 years beyond the horizon and that are, at most, hypothetical even then.

Kaplan's critique raises an important problem for the new generation of Strategic Foresight practitoners.

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February 11, 2007

Si-Mi.com

Swinburne Masters of Strategic Foresight alumnus David Geddes has co-spearheaded a new Web 2.0 initiative: the digital media marketplace Si-Mi.com.

Geddes, and business partners Andrew Kelley and Simone Govic, have a digital business model that adopts lessons from eBay and differentiates Si-Mi.com from other user-generated content platforms such as MySpace and YouTube: The Age notes "Uploaders are able to set their own prices, and receive 90 per cent of all revenue generated "after cost"." One sign of Si-Mi.com's success beyond the YouTube model is the distribution deal it signed with Adelaide production company Kojo to distribute its films. Inside Magazine and ArtsHub have also favourably covered the digital media marketplace.

Prior to launching Si-Mi.com, Geddes and Kelley worked at Telstra Research Laboratories, and Geddes has served on the board of Open Channel, the digital media production cooperative. This transition illustrates the broader shift from innovation in "Big Science" institutions to entrepreneurial firms with small teams. The digital media marketplace platform was built using Agile Alliance principles.

February 27, 2007

Z'Ha'Dum

9 years ago on this date an alternate future came onrushing into my life after an operant Working in the Temple of Set, in which the magic realism became all-too-real. This cascade had dramatic effects: a relationship break-up amidst the fall of 21C Magazine, and consequently a journey through the cremation grounds. Although the symbolism was primarily Aghori, you might prefer the Bardo Thodol realms or Thelemite Crossing of the Abyss as metaphors. The audiovisual triggers that capture dimensions of this include the Babylon 5 episode "Z'ha'Dum" and the Laibach documentary Predictions of Fire on the gathering Balkans storm in the early 1990s.

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April 24, 2007

Meaning Making, Politics and Strategy

I had the rare fortune of interviewing for a job the other week (as I have almost always been asked to do things, or bid or put proposals). Unfortunately there was only one moment when I managed to jolt the interviews – a great way to know you have their attention. Asked about the importance of strategy documents, I said I consider them basically useless.

Their value, I proposed, rests only in capturing and reminding people of the meaning making that has already occurred amongst those generating the strategy. The important part is the meaning making process, as like it or not, a) strategy needs to be understood and shared by those implementing it for it to actually be followed and b) strategy needs to be a living, dynamic management of overall direction, that responds to an ever more complex operating environment, something a very dead document can never do. Blindly following a document that you might not understand or that you don't agree fits the changing context for the organisation is the opposite of strategic thinking and action: it invites only petty political plays and overall, strategic blindness on behalf of the organisation.

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April 30, 2007

Futures On Your Tele

SBS TV is currently airing an interesting grab bag of documentaries under the rubric of "Future Focus." As a futurist, I'm interested to watch, of course. I suspect, however, that many professional futurists would have sighed, and changed channels. Why is that?

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June 12, 2007

Robert Jungk: Secrecy In Futures Research

Note: Provided for self-education purposes only.

In considering at last the social role of science and technology, many natural scientists, especially physicists and biologists, have severely criticised the negative impact of security measures and proprietary barriers on the free exchange of all ideas, experiments and results created in laboratories and institutes. A similar stand has not yet been taken by those studying the future.

Yet all branches of forecasting are strongly affected by the ‘factor S’ (S for secrecy), because it puts deliberate obstacles into the field of vision; worse yet it may oblige those who are ‘in the know’ to publish half-truths because they are forced to leave out a decisive piece of information.

Imagine a panel of specialists working on a comprehensive study about the present and expected future energy resources of a nation. Among them might be those who have inside knowledge of some decisive breakthrough. They are immediately faced with the problem of how they should discuss the matter, or indeed if they should discuss it at all. They must weigh up the importance of their obligations to the community and to their employers, and they must decide whether to put their name to a survey they know to be partly wrong.

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June 13, 2007

Surveys of Futures in Higher Education

The World Futures Studies Federation has made available the Surveys of Futures in Higher Education study (PDF) that Jose Ramos compiled in 2002-03 as a Swinburne MSSF program intern.

I remember one of Ramos's "counterintuitive" findings was the growth of Futures Studies and Strategic Foresight courses in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, which challenged the view that FS was dominated by US courses.

Does anyone know if the WFSF or another professional futures organisation is planning a follow-up study?

September 19, 2007

Darren Sharp on the 3rd Living Knowledge Conference

Smart Internet CRC researcher Darren Sharp has filed a blog report on the third Living Knowledge conference, held in Paris from October 30th to September 1st 2007.  The Experientia blog Putting People First offers a parallel commentary on Sharp's presentation.

Amongst Sharp's observations are reflections on Fondation Sciences Citoyennes which organised the conference, and his meeting with La Fabrique du Futur founder Eric Seulliet.

This is familiar territory to Strategic Foresight practitioners: Richard Slaughter has articulated the vision of Social Foresight on the basis of institutions and movements that builds social and civilisational capabilities, notably in his book Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight (RoutledgeFalmer, New York, 2003).

Eric Seulliet's connection of foresight and innovation has parallels with the European tradition of the World Futures Studies Federation, and many other practitioners from designer Bruce Mau to Jose M. Ramos' work on anticipatory innovation.

Sharp's report suggests the transdisciplinary frontiers of foresight + design are morphing as Slaughter and others suggested from a conceptual capability via methodologies such as Eric von Hippel's innovation toolkits into a social capacity.

September 23, 2007

Jose M. Ramos on Anticipatory Innovation

Futuristics contributor Jose M. Ramos has published a 7-part series called Anticipatory Innovation which spans many dimensions:

• A reflection on Ramos' personal journey and evolution as a futurist.

Genetically Modified Organisms as one example of collective innovation.

• The effects of debates on nuclear deterrence and sustainability on Ramos' values and worldviews.

• Innovation as the coevolution of sociotechnical systems.

• The personal influence of crises and normative futures as a form of radical awareness.

• The multiple dimensions of self: cultural, ecological, ethical, normative . . .

• The foundations of Anticipatory Innovation as a mode of inquiry, a heuristic method and a change process in different contexts (e.g. individual, firm, community, industry, national, global).

Ramos' reflections cohere around a pattern that I've seen over the past 15 years in other co-journeyers: large-scale crises (structure) triggers the transutation of the individual (self agency) through the willful creation and application of methodologies (symbol-creating agency) which becomes a "strange attractor" for a small group (collective agency) to influence sociopolitical and civilisational trajectories (deep structure). This pattern is diachronic: it is observable through individuals, groups and societies over an extended timeframe. For individuals, it's a stratagem to achieve Dreams and overcome Hazard.

September 25, 2007

Scenario Connector

John Cassel is working on a project to develop an online collaborative approach to scenario development based on web 2.0 principles. The concept is basically to create a peer to peer approach to scenario development. In his words:

The overall goal of this environment is to provide a large-scale, analytical-deliberative platform for collaborative foresight and open scenario planning.

He calls the approach 'Scenario Connector' because it is about connecting a diverse number of online actors / agents in a fluid and ongoing / heuristic manner to develop sets of stories or 'tag bundles'. This means that potentially each entry by a participant can be evaluated, added to and modified. Sort of like wikipedia for scenarios and futures? Imagine a project called 'Future of water for such and such a location'. Potentially such a project has a main page, something like wikipedia or other format, which shows the primary assumptions about what people think are driving change. A farmer might offer farming practices, a climatologist might offer greenhouse emissions, an academic might offer as a driver 'worldviews', and together it links a whole number of stakeholders that normally have a difficult time sharing space. But the page stays up, so that over the years, as our awareness of water trends and emerging issues changes, so does the 'water futures project page'. Thus it links the potential of longitudinal and diachronic narrative scenario development, with the potential for open and epistemologically diverse stakeholder inclusion. The image of a wikipedia-full of possible futures comes to mind.

[it] makes scenario creation simple by allowing sit-
uations and events to be described as combinations
of tags, which are short text labels. Then, situa-
tions and events are joined together in networks that
illustrate the possibility of events transforming one
scenario into another. Scenarios can be quickly as-
sembled from existing tag sets, from scenarios the
user has previously created, from scenarios that other
users have shared, and by tags provided by the sys-
tem on installation.

My interest in this in part stems from my desire to see many many people engaged in the process of futures exploration. Early on in my discovery of Futures Studies in 2000 I was inspired by Robert Jungk's 'Future Workshops', which aimed to popularise the visioning of preferred futures in Europe for citizen empowerment in the face of creeping technocracy. Later I worked to link action research with futures studies, as I felt we / I needed to create a bridge between the visions of futures and action / innovation in the present. John Cassel's concept certainly carries many of the principles on action research, such as stating one's assumptions explicitly, the heuristic evaluation review of facts / concerns, and providing an open and participatory space where such work can unfold.

Yet like the branching system it wants to create, such projects also branch into different possible futures, so I will list some of my fears and preferences:

- It would be a shame to see such a platform dominated by the affluent, which is almost inevitable when we think about who has IT infrastructure and bandwidth / speed. How does one create such a system so that it can reflect that experiences of the majority world, and their perspective?

- It would be a shame if the scenario connect approach or culture were wedded to a positivist epistemology that dismissed the moral / ethical and normative dimensions. We are still haunted by David Hume. Can this system accommodate the need to develop preferable and ethical futures, not just descriptions of what we think will / can happen?

- It would be interesting to see whether it is possible to develop layered futures based on Inayatullah and Slaughter's categories (eg litany / pop, social analysis / problem oriented and worldview / epistemology), incorporating both empirical, systems based and epistemically reflexive approaches, or on Chris Stewart's framework for Integral scenario development. Is this asking too much for an open online approach?

- Can such a platform also facilitate the development of policy, projects and innovations, eg action-influence in the present? To satisfy me, it must be more than just speculation and mental exercises, we need to link these approaches with wise social change that addresses the importance of developing socially just and ecologically sustainable futures.

The project throws up some interesting questions and challenges. The project is in the development stage, and John Cassel is currently creating the technical foundations and building a collaborative team. But he should be commended for taking a bold leap into a new frontier for scenario development.

Anyone interested should contact: john [dot] benjamin [dot] cassel [at] gmail [dot] com

View the project concept overview at: http://scen-connect.sourceforge.net/

September 29, 2007

Reflections on This Is Not Art

The Australian independent arts festival This Is Not Art (TINA) is on this weekend in Newcastle (27th September - 1st October 2007). Over the past 9 years TINA has evolved from an underground subculture to become the catalyst for thousands of artistic collaborations and vanguard projects. For its panelists and participants TINA is a very real example of collective intelligence and a rhizomatic network that transcends academic theory to change lives.

I had been in a year of isolation after the demise of 21C Magazine when Sean Healy aka Jean Poole invited me to TINA in 1999. The TINA years from 1999 to 2003 were an intense period of improvised logistics, late-night conversations in the Octapod or on the cenotaph hill, meetings at Goldbergs cafe, crowded gigs, and amazing panels. It coincided with my most creative period as Disinformation's new editor which Healy, Marcus Westbury, Barry Saunders, Erin Clark and others enabled me to experiment with. I started with sessions for Electrofringe and the National Young Writers Festival before ending up in the Student Media Conference, in a meta-reflection on my 1994 stint at La Trobe University's student newspaper Rabelais. Finally, TINA provided a participatory space to experiment with Strategic Foresight frameworks and models, such as running a Spiral Dynamics session on film clips and considering how Octapod could become a Vital Signs Monitor on community futures. In-the-moment experience trumps the artefacts.

By 2005 I'd had enough and wasn't saying anything new. So I've not gone to TINA for a few years although I run into TINA allies in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. In these meetings, I often think of Chuck D's advice that your thirties should be a time of consolidation and building on the energy of your twenties. I'm looking forward to a new period of collaborations with some fellow TINA alumni --- and waiting with interest for what emerges from TINA 2007.

September 30, 2007

Ben Eltham on Micro-Entrepreneurs, Risk & Strategy

I recently caught up with Ben Eltham, founder of the Straight Out Of Brisbane (SOOB) festival, and one of the cultural creatives I met at This Is Not Art (TINA) in Newcastle. Eltham is in Melbourne to work on the Melbourne Fringe Festival and with the new independent think-tank the Center for Policy Development. You might have read Eltham's articles in Artshub, Crikey and New Mathilda.

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October 2, 2007

Agile Disruptive GTD

Meet The Life Hackers

Wired Magazine's Gary Wolf has an extensive profile of Getting Things Done author David Allen in the October 2007 issue.

Allen's GTD system is a heuristic for time and workflow management popular in Fortune 500 companies and Silicon Valley firms.  GTD gained visibility after The Atlantic Monthly's James Fallow profiled Allen in its July/August 2004 issue.  New York Times columnist Clive Thompson also mentioned Allen and GTD in an influential article on the "life hacking" movement, which includes sites such as Lifehacker and Merlin Mann's 43 Folders.  Allen has parlayed this exposure into the coaching firm David Allen & Co. and its subscription online community GTD ConnectLockheed, Microsoft Research and O'Reilly Media have all applied or debated Allen's GTD in their research environments.

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