Image: Steve Jurvetson, Flickr.

In the wake of World Water Day, there has been a meme floating around social media stating that “More people have access to mobile phones than toilets.” The statistic behind this (which is not usually cited on social media) comes from a UN report on access to toilet sanitation which states 6 billion people have access to mobiles, while only 4.5 billion have access to toilets. It is a terrible situation and one that continually needs to be addressed. And encouragingly, there are innovative efforts at work to help resolve this: in India, the No Toilet, No Bride campaign is ensuring women have access to sanitation by requiring men to guarantee a toilet before a marriage can take place.

What I really wanted to address is the rather glib and dismissive way mobile phones are treated by this message. There is an implicit dismissal of mobiles, with the implication being that society has focused on the unimportant (mobiles) while neglecting the needed (toilets.) This ignores entirely the benefits mobiles have provided, particularly to residents of less developed countries where sanitation is still an issue.

The reason why mobiles have spread farther than toilets is easy to see. It is cheaper and quicker to set up a mobile phone network and system than it is to dig sewers and lay pipe for indoor plumbing. And the device cost to the user is lower. Even in the developing world you can get a mobile phone for less than the cost of a new toilet.

But what about the benefits? What have mobiles done for under-served consumers?

  • Made communication easier. In countries where it is difficult to travel due to poor infrastructure, lack of vehicles, or civil unrest, mobiles have allowed friends and families to easily and safely stay in touch.
  • Banked the unbanked. Mobiles have allowed millions of people without bank accounts to participate in formal financial systems and begin to save money. Mobile banking and m-money services allow users to pay bills, transfer money to other users, send remittances, and even make in-store purchases. The most successful, Kenya’s M-pesa mobile banking system launched by Safaricom in 2007, now has 15 million users, who , since M-pesa opened, have used the system to transfer money equal to 20 % of Kenya’s GDP.
  • Fostered small business. In cities and villages around the world, mobiles have led entrepreneurial consumers to go into business for themselves. Often this has meant offering phones for rent or re-selling air time. But as feature phones and smartphones spread, so too do opportunities, for example, one man began selling his services as a tutor, teaching people how to access the Internet and use apps on phones.
  • Enabled political activism. The events of the Arab Spring have most recently demonstrated the role mobile phones with Internet and social media access can play in politics. In Kenya, efforts to  gather information on election-related violence led to the creation of the Ushahidi crowdsourced, mobile-driven reporting platform.

All of this is not to say that lack of toilets is not an issue, but rather to highlight the fact that helping people lead safer, better lives is not a zero-sum game. Yes, it is terrible that 2.5 billion people don’t have access to toilet sanitation, but that is not because 6 billion people have mobile phones.

Image: Brett Neilson, Flickr

So, the 2012 election cycle is in our rear-view mirror, and the political media is only half-jokingly running stories on possible 2016 contenders. In the immediate aftermath of November 6, there have been two dominant stories about the election, the demographic challenges facing the Republican party and how unprepared the Republicans were for losing. As someone who has an interest in consumers and the future, the first story-line interests me, but as a foresight practitioner, the second story fascinates me.

As campaign post-mortem stories roll in, I am struck by how blindsided the GOP seemed to be by the results. Story after story quotes campaign officials, pundits, donors and voters on their puzzlement that Mitt Romney lost the election. But what it also lacking in these stories is any quote from a member of the conservative establishment who saw the writing on the wall for Romney. While it is still early times for the definitive telling of this election, the fact that political reporters can’t find a naysayer is telling. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, has a persuasive piece on how the right-leaning media created an echo chamber that allowed no contrarian thinking to color its coverage of the election, leading viewers/readers with the impression that the race was in the bag for Romney. And while I can understand how voters might have been sold on this narrative, campaigners tend to be a more cynical and mercenary lot, believing their candidate, but also realizing that not everyone wins.

As someone who advises clients on the need for alternative futures, this unheeding belief in only one narrative (Obama can’t win, Romney can’t lose) runs counter to what I do on a daily basis. But it also forces me to confront a bias of my own: unless I deliberately think about it, I tend to believe that everyone considers alternatives to their current expected future as a matter of practice. This election reminded me that many, many people don’t — and that is one way we can be useful to clients.

I have an article on the future of human rights in the current issue of The Futurist magazine. (Download the article in PDF — courtesy of the World Future Society,

I note that human rights are being transformed by “several powerful, positive trends … centered around changes in values and new technology.” I suggest that these trends will drive three struggles that will shape the evolution of human rights over the next few decades:

  • Freedom-enhancing technology versus repressive technology
  • The rise of new powers versus the influence of the legacy great powers
  • Clashes within societies over values

Please note that these are my own views and do not represent the positions of Foresight Alliance.

Image: micahb37 (Flickr)

A report last week about the continued decline of the cost of genetic sequencing got me thinking about genetic privacy.

The fabled “$1,000 genome” is coming into view, the pricepoint at which full sequencing can begin to be part of routine medical care in the developed world.

That pricepoint also opens sequencing up for non-medical purposes; someone could do so to find out about a partner, employee, or celebrity, as long as you could obtain some kind of genetic sample.

Celebrities are highly plausible targets; an entire industry seeks out and distributes every little detail about their lives, and genetics promises insight into medical conditions, behavioral quirks, and propensities–all fertile ground for celebrity gossip. Of course, a lot of the information genetics could currently produce will be vague and pseudoscientific, but that hardly matters  for this purpose.

This raises several questions:

  • Is it illegal to have someone else’s genome sequenced?
  • What happens if one has it done in another jurisdiction, as such sequencing will soon be possible in many places with lax enforcement?
  • What are the penalties, given that candid celebrity photos can earn five and six figures?

In the future, I suspect that actress Scarlett Johannson might be more leery of selling a used tissue for only $5,300.


Futurists often talk about values and their impact on the way the future unfolds.

Earlier this year, as my wife and I were planning a trip to New Zealand, my Foresight Alliance colleague Josh Calder made me aware of the thesis of David Hackett Fischer’s book, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States. According to the Amazon summary of the book, the two nations share many common political, economic, social, and cultural elements, “but all of these elements take different forms, because constellations of value are far apart. The dream of living free is America’s Polaris; fairness and natural justice are New Zealand’s Southern Cross.”

During our visit we saw and heard many ways in which the values of fairness and natural justice play out in New Zealand life.

Waitangi Treaty Ground (Image: Croasmun)

The Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori (the Polynesian settlers of New Zealand who arrived at least 700 years ago) and the British settlers was signed in 1840. The two cultures still coexist and there is active discussion even today about the treaty’s meaning and its practical implications for relations between the two cultures.

Image: Croasmun

The Polynesian settlers of New Zealand weren’t just the first human inhabitants of the islands, they were the first mammals to arrive (other than bats). The Polynesians and the Europeans introduced a number of other invasive mammal species—rats, opossums, pigs, and so forth. Now there is an active effort to create and expand preserves where these invasive species have been eliminated so that remaining native species like the kiwi can again flourish.

Image: Croasmun

Native kauri trees were prized for their timber, which was widely used for shipbuilding. Kauri grow slowly and it is now illegal to cut them down. Kauri products are still produced and sold, using trees that fell that have been preserved for thousands of years underground.

Image: Croasmun

A small example—New Zealander’s apparently have the option to refuse delivery of junk mail.

New Zealand recognized women’s right to vote in 1893, the earliest of any current nation in modern times.

Values matter!

Image: Victor1558 (Flickr)

I’ve just finished reading The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family, by Liza Mundy, a Washington Post reporter.

Mundy closely examines what she calls the Big Flip: the rapid trend toward millions of women in the US, Western Europe, and East Asia becoming the primary breadwinner in their households. In the US alone, nearly 40% of working wives now outearn their husbands, Mundy reports.

It’s really striking to consider how gender roles will shift as a result of the Big Flip. Young women entering the job market today “are poised to become the most financially powerful generation of women in history,” Mundy observes. That’s right—“in history.” And even more important, this power your daughter or sister or girlfriend or wife will hold will be broadly collective—not solitary as has been the case for the independently wealthy women who have peppered past generations. How will she handle it?

And, of course, how will men handle it? Actually, a good chunk likely won’t mind much: for at least three decades, growing numbers of men have been willingly downshifting their careers and spending more time with their families, up to and including being the househusband. One former auto-industry manager touchingly confided to Mundy that after he got downsized, he began telling people, “I didn’t lose anything—I got promoted from one day a week [with my kids] to seven.”

Nevertheless, the Big Flip represents the deepest and widest shakeup of Western gender roles in centuries. Many people will find adaptation difficult; there’s already a growing trend of Western men traveling to places like Thailand to find traditionally minded wives. And many women breadwinners themselves are surprised by how ambivalent they feel about their new role and the tradeoffs it imposes on their lifestyles and relationships.

But adjust we must. Barring some unforeseen discontinuity, the powerful educational, economic, and social drivers behind the Big Flip ensure it will continue for at least another generation. We may be about to learn the answers to some seriously big questions, such as: Are traditional gender roles more rooted in nature or nurture? Are our current work arrangements deeply “male” in some way? And maybe even: what do women want?


Photo credit: Clif Grim

We’ve just heard that for the first time there are more U.S. women Olympians than male Olympians. Women have continued to make significant progress in all aspects of our society. One way to understand this progress is to look very precisely at the ways women are accepted in our culture. Edgar Schein, notable in the field of organizational development, has a wonderful model that identifies three layers of organizational culture: (1) artifacts, (2) espoused beliefs and values, and (3) underlying assumptions. While each layer is more difficult to uncover, the deeper you go, the more intrinsic the ideas are to the organization’s beliefs and corresponding actions.

I’d like to propose a corresponding set of layers for women’s roles in an organization: (1) Pinking the Organization, (2) Empowering Women, and (3) Embracing the Feminine.

  • “Pinking the Organization” is about the artifacts an organization uses to appear welcoming to women, from the trivial — such as how women’s bathrooms are outfitted — to the more serious issues such as family-friendly benefits. In organizations at this level, there is an awareness that women are needed and effort is made to ensure appropriate accommodations. Men also benefit from this, for instance via time off for births, flexible work conditions, and an increased focus on communication.
  • “Empowering Women” is the next level; beliefs about the value of women are turned into formal action. There is real energy around enabling women to be successful. Companies promote and mentor women because they’ve recognized how much value they get from the skills and knowledge women bring, seeing empowered women as good for business and the bottom line. Enthusiasm at this level is genuine: women are encouraged, promoted, and mentored to succeed. Women appear at all levels of management in this organization, with some rising stars running major areas.
  • “Embracing the Feminine” is a much more transformational level. Beyond enabling individual women, it’s about enabling a feminine culture. This requires questioning and, if needed, changing the prevalent business model. Instead of masculine values of win-lose, the focus is on win-win. The organization solves conflict through negotiation, is relationship-oriented, and places a high value on people. Whereas in “Empowering Women” women compete on equal footing with men in the existing organizational model, “Embracing the Feminine” encourages both men and women to solve new problems with new behaviors.

How would you assess your organization?

We’d be interested in hearing.


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.

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)

Tiny houses are an American tradition, dating back to the 150sf cabin where Thoreau wrote his masterpiece on simple living. Now they’re back in vogue, driven by foreclosure woes, boomers downsizing, and eco-consciousness. According to an interesting update in the New Haven Advocate, at least two consulting firms—Rightsize by Design and Tumbleweed Tiny House Company—now exist to help consumers plan their live-in gazebo, while numerous blogs promote the movement. A home designed by Tumbleweed costs $16,000 for plans and materials, or about $39,000 ready-made. Tempting…. but honestly, can you imagine what this trend would do to US divorce rates if everyone started moving into tiny houses? Just give me the revolving hut that George Bernard Shaw used as his backyard writing studio — but let me keep my 4BR/2BA, and my relationship, intact please.

Image: nicolas boullosa (Flickr)

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