Image: BestofWDW, Flickr

I recently had the opportunity to be futurist in the “ask a futurist booth” at the American Association of Museums conference. The intent of the booth was to pose alternative scenarios that would encourage museum folks to think about different possible future environments and what changes they might suggest for the museum experience.

The theme of this year’s conference was The Museum of Tomorrow. In looking toward the future, participants were trying to understand technologies and visitor needs that are changing and what these changes mean to them. Museums do a wonderful job of preserving our heritage and are now working to become social spaces for communities. It’s important to understand where we have been, and both how and why we ended up where we are today. But museums are looking into a rearview mirror.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a Museum of Tomorrows? This museum would present multiple plausible scenarios for the future. Each person that entered could experience different futures and gain more awareness of the possible options. Perhaps we should call our museum, a muesum? Imagine how much more creative and constructive our decision processes would be if we could imagine ourselves in lots of varied environments? We would be driving by looking forward and be able to see many of the possible roads on our journey.

GE created the Carousel of Progress at Disney World in 1967 and it has been updated five times. The attraction created an enduring and shared vision of what technologies and even social changes are possible (remember in the last scene, Mother is the one working). But it was only one, very technology heavy view of our future. So let us imagine what a Muesum of Tomorrows might look like and maybe together we can gain some traction to build one! In the meantime, futurists can continue to help by creating stories and scenarios of many possible futures.

Image: Andrew Bossi, Flickr

I’m finishing up Iain McGilchrist’s brilliant journey of a book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, looking for (and finding!) implications for futures studies and foresight. (I have a forthcoming article exploring the “I” of the beholder in relation to our discipline).  But more on that later.

What I wanted to share here is that at one point the author reminded me of the now-famous experiment on selective attention in which a group of people are asked to observe a basketball game between two teams, one wearing black T-shirts and other white. The assignment is to track how many times the players in white pass the ball amongst each other. (Watch the video here – and unless you do right now, I’ve ruined it for you!)

The diligent respondents, fixated on their task, pay such enormous attention to the back and forth between the players that they fail to see how a new figure enters the terrain – a person dressed as a gorilla – who not only walks nonchalantly across the scene but also comes to the fore, raises a fist, beats his chest, does a little jiggle, and exits. Few students from the study noticed the gorilla! (Simons & Chabris, http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/)

As you can imagine, the implications of this research are quite profound no matter the field. But from my perspective in terms of the work we do, I think there are two fundamental insights:

1)      Much of the real economic value in the world today is created by people who make things happen by sharpening their attention to what’s at hand – today’s work requires intensity of focus and clarity of purpose for creating tangible results. However, our best intentions are often dampened by the unexpected. As futurists, our value is to complement clients (decision-makers, innovators, strategists, entrepreneurs, policymakers) do their jobs even better by helping them navigate terrains fraught with gorillas – not only in the foreground of attention, but especially at the background, the fringe. This is why it is imperative that we engage in a co-creative process that brings out the best of both worlds. Futurists are there to help you explore the unforeseen, without denying or minimizing your expert knowledge. Your focus and expertise are essential when teamed up with the breadth, depth and temporal dimension of futurists (who are not trying to replace focused expert knowledge in your domain). It is the process by which you get both the score right (in the fictitious basketball game, and in the world of results), and also see the gorillas (benevolent or otherwise).

2)      My second insight is closer to home – why is this study important for futurists. We need to resist the siren call for content specialization. Our particular economic value doesn’t stem in replicating our clients’ expertise – we have to remain distanced enough (not too much, not too little – just enough) to be able to notice gorillas. Of course we all have our preferences in topic domains but we ought to stay true to our calling of ‘generalists’ – pattern finders, masters of ‘betweenness’, of relationship amongst things. This is why we get trained in ‘liking’ sources we normally wouldn’t read or watch (and yes, that’s often insurmountable entirely as individuals but also the reason why we offer ourselves in teams – and be sure that hell breaks loose when we don’t agree –thankfully, our clients don’t witness our internal processes); embracing otherness and the unknown, staying with them long enough to acknowledge and understand a different point of view; carry lenses that don’t necessarily feel comfortable or welcome. It is how it should be for value’s sake. Full detachment is neither possible nor encouraged – it wouldn’t serve anyone well, neither clients nor us – all we can hope for is to develop a tad of empathy for otherness, aka alterity. Finding and acknowledging what is beyond. It’s why I’m proud to call myself a futurist.

Image: Jo Naylor (Flickr)

The foresight work we do for clients seems to have two primary applications: as a stimulus for innovation and as a key part of the situation analysis that supports strategy development. I was recently reminded of one of the most important principles of strategy by an unlikely coach—Mr. Hoots, the Muppet.

My kids (now thirty somethings) were showing me an old Sesame Street segment in which Mr. Hoots is helping Ernie with his saxophone chops. When Ernie blows the sax, he keeps hearing an unexpected squeak. Mr. Hoots diagnoses the problem immediately: Ernie is still clinging to his beloved rubber duckie. When he presses the saxophone keys, the duckie squeaks. Mr. Hoots explains, “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.” This line becomes the chorus of a wonderful jam session featuring many celebrity cameos.

But what struck me is that clients working on strategy—and even foresight professionals trying to choose their own business strategy—often get stuck exactly where Ernie is stuck. Once they have identified a number of attractive options, they can’t decide which one to pursue. Many groups that reach this stage prefer to convince themselves that they can do it all at once—hold onto the duckie and play the saxophone at the same time. But strategy is about making hard choices. A wise vice president I worked with in a major consumer products company used to say, “You haven’t picked a strategy until you can tell me what it is that you’re not going to do.“ In other words, “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.”

Image: GoXunuReviews, Flickr.

Amazon sent out a news release this morning announcing that sales of digital books for their Kindle digital book format/reader had eclipsed sales of printed books. All printed books, not just hardbacks. (That milestone was reached in July 2010.) This news about digital book sales edging printed sales is apparently a big deal as many of the people on my Twitter feed have sent around the link to the news release.

But what does it mean? There are those who decry the rise of the e-book, claiming it is the end of books. But this is not the case. It may be the winding down of printed books, but the healthy growth of e-book sales does not indicate books are going away. In fact, in the news release, Amazon states that 2011’s strong digital copy sales, along with growth in printed book sales, has “resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate for Amazon’s U.S. books business.” Clearly the book is not going away. Had there been mass communication tools 500 years ago, no doubt there would have been hue-and-cry over printed books edging out hand-copied versions. (“What are the monks to do?” “Is this the end of scribes?”) But books flourished because of the printing press, and they will continue to flourish as e-books.

Image: Paul Joseph, Flickr

One of the things we help our clients do is reframe their perspective on their business. As we tell clients, we can never have the depth of their institutional knowledge, but by coming in with an (educated) outsider’s perspective, we can help them uncover their hidden assumptions and biases, and move past these biases to more productive innovation.

I was thinking about this as I was listening to a story on NPR about the recording industry. Music was the first entertainment/media sector to be seriously gutted by the Internet and digital media. Other entertainment sectors—books, movies, tv—all view the music industry as a cautionary digital tale and are working hard to avoid making the same mistakes. But faced with the sweeping changes brought by Internet disintermediation, some in the business still can’t shake their old frames. In a story about how the Internet makes it easier for artists to record music and sell directly to customers, comes this quote from Neil Jacobson, an executive with record label Interscope:

If you want to be a great brand ideally you’re relevant to the masses. And getting to the masses now is harder than it’s ever been, there’s just so many places you have to get.

In the middle of an article on the future of the recording industry, and how the Internet is creating new and myriad opportunities for artists to market and sell their music directly to consumer, Jacobson is arguing that artists need record companies to reach all the new opportunities the Internet has created. Clearly Jacobson can’t get beyond his assumption that artists need labels, and has turned the freedoms offered by the Internet on their head, making them a need for labels, not a means to ditch them.

Another piece on NPR’s Planet Money blog help put paid to Jacobson’s notion that artists need labels. It features the story of Jonathon Coulton, who moved to New York 20 years ago to become a musician, but settled into a career in software programming instead. Now, because of the Internet, he is selling his songs and gaining a critical reputation and popular following. And while he is not earning U2 money, the $500,000 he has earned has been a pleasant surprise.

Our job as futurists is to help our clients see the future, unburdened by the outdated frameworks of the past. Whether or not artists still need labels is debatable (and other people in the initial story make stronger arguments for labels), but the music industry—and every industry—doesn’t need thinking that tries to bend the future to the past.

As analysts of social change, one trend we monitor is the dramatic, ongoing evolution of the American family. The Leave It to Beaver model of married-couple-with-kids, plus the odd dog or gerbil, now fits less than one-fifth of US households. Instead, many more people are living in “voluntary” families composed of (or at least including) self-selected, non-biological, non-married relationships.

Now a study led by Dawn Braithwaite, a social scientist at the University of Nebraska, has examined the trend more deeply, identifying four types of voluntary families:

  • Supplemental families, the most prevalent type, develop when a person’s relatives are geographically or emotionally distant.
  • Substitute families stand in for relatives who are absent, for example due to estrangement or death.
  • Convenience families are temporary ones formed during college or a rehabilitation period, for instance.
  • Extended families augment a biological unit, such as multiple single parents and their children living together for mutual support.

For the people who choose them, voluntary kin are “different from close or best friends in that they are expected to be permanent relationships and to fulfill roles played by family members,” explains Braithwaite. Indeed, members often use familial terminology such as “she’s like a sister to me.” The trend is likely to continue: as Braithwaite says, “Most people [in them] find voluntary families important and a great source of understanding, companionship, and support.”

Image: toastforbrekkie (Flickr)

Egyptian with mobile phoneThe raid that killed Osama bin Laden yesterday has to have been one of the most secret operations in the world — and yet it was live-blogged by an inadvertent witness.

Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant trying to get away from it all in the small Pakistani city of Abbottabad , was so irritated by the low-flying helicopters that he began tweeting about them as they were overhead, not realizing that they were American machines carrying out the operation that would end bin Laden’s life.  After Obama’s announcement, Athar added, “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.” (He now has 65,000 followers on Twitter.)

Was he the only person on social media in Abbottabad?  No, he explained, but others in the area tend to be on Facebook instead.

Pakistan is not even very wired, with 94% of the population not using the Internet.  But even in that very poor country 38% of the population had mobile phones in 2010, and that number has surely risen.

This is another moment that tells us what a transparent world will be like: an ever-smaller percentage of newsworthy events will occur without witnesses able to record and broadcast what they see.  This may already seem ubiquitous — from NATO plane spotting to Syrians reporting demonstrations — but it has only just begun.

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Image courtesy Sierragoddess (Flickr)

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