Tall trees! (And the futuristic cities in which they may live)

In the future, I expect my cities to have trees.  You may or may not have thought about this expectation, and you may or may not agree.  But if you do, there are many actions required to ensure that future cities have trees.


Vincent Callebaut: Asian Cairns

This may not be on your radar of urgent environmental issues in the current political climate.  But our long-term future cannot be driven only by urgency.  We have to act out of aspiration too.  In the short term (0-20 years) that means fighting ridiculous vandals who cut down trees; prioritizing keeping trees alive during our long California drought (or your local climate calamity); and supporting local ordinances that protect old trees and forests. It means valuing their natural and economic benefits.  In the long term (50-200 years) it means re-imagining human habitats such that trees can thrive alongside, above, below, and within them.  I want my arcologies and mega-structures and futuristic dwellings on earth and in orbit to learn from and incorporate trees.  Tall trees!

You may now drop the needle on this post’s eponymous sound track, “Tall Trees” by Crowded House.

Let’s start by looking at some actual tall trees for inspiration…   Continue reading

Face the Future with poetry, art, and love

Last week I had the absolute privilege to be one of two dozen game masters (community managers and sense-makers) on the largest Foresight Engine the Institute for the Future has ever run: Face the Future, under the capable leadership of Jane McGonigal and experienced execution of Sara Skvirsky.  Furthermore it was a little like group therapy given the timing (right after the 2016 election) and the audience (high school students and teachers involved in Facing History and Ourselves, a group dedicated to teaching how the holocaust and other genocides depends on the decisions and silences of everyday people).

The topic could not have been more timely, or more provocative: the future of empathy. Take 10 to watch the provocation video at least, with content developed by my frolleague Jamais for the New Body Language edition of Future Now magazine (again, links forthcoming). I run down my three blog posts on the game blog below the fold.

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Mutants, Mindfulness and Muddled Tenses 

In my line of work, it’s understandable to occasionally be confused about tenses.  Lately, when that happens, I think about Isaac Azimov. More accurately, I think of a weird French animated film from 1988, Light Years aka Gandahar , the English translation of which Azimov happened to write. The tag line in English was, ” a thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved.” The plot involves time travel, duh. But what made the biggest impression on me as a child was the way Azimov translated the speech of the Deformed, mutant Gandaharians who aid the protagonist in the various eons of his quest. For example:

There seemed to be no present tense in their language. A thing “was-will-be.” The concept of the present is just an anomaly in the continuity of what was in the past, into what will be in the future. This tickled my nerdy little mind as a child, in between bouts of utter distraction by the cracked out synthesizer laden soundtrack. Whenever I’m feeling despondent about some quality the present lacks, I think about history and when that quality was, and the future and when that quality may reemerge.

Mindfulness, inverted.

Learning how to practice mindfulness has been a struggle for me, as my teachers seem to discount the future as a distraction from the present. The future is…well, really pretty important to me. This has caused some bouts of rebellion, against myself in my attempts to re-wire my brain into something generally more resilient.

Vivian and I used to debate whether there was such a thing as “mindful futures thinking.” We generally concluded “no.” But I think the long view of the Deformed, their fusion of acceptance and patience, is that elusive idea of mindful futures Viv and I were searching for. (Although I didn’t remember it clearly enough at the time to make my case. I’m reading Ready Player One now, so my head’s all twisted around the 80s sci-fi of my childhood. The rest of the 80s pop culture references sill allude me.)

When I started writing fiction as a child, I almost always wrote in the past tense. It was just easier that way.

When I started writing as an anthropologist, the past tense was the way to go for almost everything, except for brief vignettes or seriously highfalutin theory.

My current challenge is learning to write well in the present tense. The perpetual, perfect, perplexing, maddening present that infuses every sentence I write with a question lingering in my mind about WHEN IT TAKES PLACE. Take this meta paragraph, which describes how I have-will give scenario presentations:

I walk up on stage. I’m thinking about my first line. It’s in 2012, in the present. I’m thinking of my fifth line. It’s in 2022, in the future, and I have to bring the whole audience with me. In four sentences, we have to know we are here and now, and then agree to believe we’re some other time, some other place. I’ve done this before, many times. Sometimes it worked, others, not so much. When we talk about the future, all sorts of traps get sprung in people’s heads. We try to get around them. I’m trying to get around them. I’m trying to bring people into the future, while fooling their brains into listening to it for long enough to suspend their disbelief that the future won’t look like that and that won’t happen and just…imagine. The future is now. The future is the present.

If all the tenses in that paragraph confused you, welcome to my life. Unless you write futures, you have no idea. If we’re now in 2022, how do you talk about the now-past-then-future, say, things that happened in 2018?  If you lapse into past tense here, you’re likely to give your audience temporal whiplash, and generally lose the non-native speakers completely.  The solution here is to stay in the present tense, carefully dancing around pseudo historical land mines.

But despite all that challenge to our tense constructions, scenarios let us wrap our heads around futures. Even if they’re wrong, less likely to be accurate, less plausible, than other forms of foresight, they’re more tangible, and I think in many cases, more useful, in my opinion.  But is it the best solution to the tense problem when writing and speaking serious futures?

When I first started interning at IFTF, I discovered the challenges of writing in the future tense. Tenses. At that time, there were hardly any scenarios in the recent IFTF cannon. A vignette here and there, a lone report, but mostly there were forecasts. Descriptions of trends. Reports from the perspective of the present about future possibility.  There’s the strong forecast tense, ” this will happen.” There’s the weaker iterations, “will likely/may/might happen.” I got the hang of these pretty quickly. But there’s some really interesting evidence emerging that there may be some drawbacks to framing futures in this way, with the strong distinction between present and future.  My colleague Gabriel Harp gave this a much more thorough and nuanced treatment than I will here, under the provocative heading, “Does talking about the future make it less likely to happen?” Now this research is based in cross-cultural linguistics, which is all kinds of fascinating, and makes my muddled tense rant above seem shockingly ethnocentric.  Dr. Sohail Inayatulla has some pretty awesome lectures on his youtube channel  about cross cultural concepts of the future and how they shape thinking, which is similarly all kinds of fascinating.

In short, “what is the best tense” is totally the wrong question.  Even “how can we keep this not confusing” isn’t nearly ambitious enough.  The real question is, how do you know, based on your audience, what the most provocative, comprehensible and persuasive tense will be?  How do you develop cultural agility for futures thinking?




Deciphering a Meal

Momentous news! Maybe. The USDA has graduated from geometry into (okay, still pretty symbolic) imagery today as they released the new food guide, which lays the 19-year-old food pyramid to rest.

But aside from the purported question of how to convey to Americans what to eat, this image actually does something more specific, and I think, more important. By depicting our choices on a dinner plate, the USDA has pulled our conversation explicitly to meals.  Everyone understands the structure of meals.  But meals are not the only way we eat.

When I saw that image, my nerdy brain went immediately to one of my favorite articles by classic British anthropologist Mary Douglas: “Deciphering a Meal.” A structuralist, her focus is on boundaries, comparisons, and the operation of ordered elements in social contexts. This results in the delightful dizzying table here, where she maps the grammar of meals (in a decidedly English way, from continental breakfast to high tea to nightcaps).

And (although she is actually depicting in weird ven diagrams what is fit to eat) these images in their resonance to her discussion of what actually appears on a plate in a meal had a profound influence on me when I was studying charity meals as a social phenomenon in school.

In “Deciphering a meal,” Douglas’ major foil for the unit of the meal is “drinks,” structurally and socially distinct from meals in a number of interesting ways.  But, for today’s issues and question the more pertinent contrast is meals and snacks. Much of the food industry thrives on snacking–what doesn’t fit into the unit Meal. I’ve actually heard as a research question in RFP’s “what are the new ‘eating occasions’ for X?” These things fit into the old food pyramids, however elliptically.  They are not eaten off of plates.  They are eaten out of wrappers, out of bags, out of cleverly designed dispensers to fit into all the nooks and crannies of modern live that are not sitting down at a table, with a dinner plate, and eating a meal.

I think it will have legs.  It uses patterns and logic that have solid cultural foundations, that I’ve heard echoed from women arranging their daily meal on a chipped plate at a soup kitchen to enthusiastic design students hoping to curb obesity.  And I agree with Marion Nestle when she notes that there’s more science behind this than any previous incarnation.  But I think it’s also important to remember that meals are only one element of our daily menus.

Which Resilient Future? As many as we can imagine.

This essay is cross-Posted from Shareable.net, and teaser over at the Future Now blog.

Image: Flickr user billaday

“I’ll be dead by then. Shot.”

Large brown eyes stared back at me as he spoke, with a sincerity and certainty that tied my stomach in knots.

I was learning that it’s really hard talking to twelve-year olds about the future, particularly this little guy. Thinking ten years out is a stretch for many of the adults I work with at the Institute for the Future. And now my colleagues, and our collaborators at Collective Roots and East Palo Alto Charter School, had set out to help a class of seventh graders envision their futures—their actions and their surroundings—in a decade.

Most students placed themselves in their charter school’s vision of their futures: attending college, getting a job, considering careers, caring for family members (all scenes embellished richly with high-end cars). But not this guy. We went around and around trying to find a story he felt was plausible that didn’t include his untimely demise. He had witnessed enough friends and family members die in random and arbitrary situations arising from poverty and urban violence, that he considered it inevitable that he wouldn’t survive past his teenage years.

How could a child live without hope for a future? What can “resilience” possibly mean in the face of such a personal future?

Image: Flickr user deadair | Ricardo Wang

Resilience is generally defined as the ability to bounce back from disturbance and to cope with adversity. With roots in ecology, psychology and materials science, the concept has gained currency in the last few years as an alternative to clinging tight to stability, amidst rampant volatility at every scale.

Resilience builds upon foundations of sustainability, embracing the core idea of not letting the demands of the present starve the needs of the future, yet without the demand that we preserve or conserve the past. Faced with the inability to sustain our past, we reinvent ourselves for a new context. Resilience asks that we envision alternative futures—including and especially transformative ones. Resilience is intimately connected to the practice of creating futures. The Resilience Solutions Group at Arizona State University defines human resilience, in part, as a “sustainability of purpose.” It is not enough simply to bounce back: one has to bounce forward into hope and purpose.

But how do we, and my young student, create hope and purpose in the context of an uncertain and deeply unsettling reality? And how does this sense of purpose infuse large-scale systems with many diverse and evolving parts? To answer those questions, we not only need to understand the importance of imagining the future, but also how resilience hinges on the concept of diversity. IFTF Research Fellow Jamais Cascio includes it in his take on the principles found in most resilient systems, and I think it is one of the more central ones.

Diversity is a key element conferring greater resilience to collectives and communities, according to the Resilience Solutions Group. In a collective, community, or organization, diversity of roles and respect for the capacities that allow individuals to fulfill those roles is the kind of diversity associated with greater resilience. That is, people turn their difference into purpose for themselves, creating both more resilient individuals and more resilient communities.

What I propose is that we need more than this kind of diversity for a resilient future. We need diverse alternative futures. It is these alternative futures that link the resilience of individual lives to the resilience of large-scale systems. Ecologists will tell us that diversity, in the sense of biodiversity, is essential to the stability and resilience of ecosystems.

There are a number of sound hypotheses for why this is the case, but the “portfolio effect” provides an especially useful analogy. In this interpretation, biodiversity increases resilience as suites of species pursue different responses to environmental perturbation. This response diversity increases the chance that at least some responses will be effective, thus allowing the services in that ecosystem to weather disruption if not without interruption, then with quick recovery. Alternative futures ask us to discern these diversities of roles, purpose, strategy, and outcomes in our lives and all around us.

At IFTF, we most often create alternative futures with organizations: companies, government entities, professional societies, etc. We present forecasts and scenarios of the future and help our clients think through alternative strategies that would serve their organizations’ purpose within different perspectives on the future. We encourage them to consider diverse external forces as well as technological and social innovations that could transform them from within.

Key to this is the idea of purpose. For most publicly held companies, their ostensible purpose is clear: to maximize shareholder value. In a world where the major institutions of daily life—our commercial enterprises—are focused on this single-minded purpose, the task of creating resilient futures through diverse strategies has been taken up most intensely thus far by individuals on one hand and larger communities on the other.

This mural by Mona Caron imagines the past, present, and shareable future of Market Street in San Francisco. Photo by Michael Rauner Photography.

More and more communities are exploring alternative visions of the future, focusing on the services supporting everyday living. The transition town movement is an aggregation of local communities imaging new possibilities for their own futures. Alternative food production systems are exploring not only narrow bids for self-sufficiency, but also the unique strengths and boundaries of foodsheds, and the complexities of regional integration and support. Experiments in alternative currencies and manufacturing systems similarly question the wisdom of centralization, creating and evolving abundance of new roles and relationships. These visions and practices play a role in increasing the resilience of these communities and those that learn from them. Consciously creating these transformative futures is the core methodology that the foresight network Resilient Futures holds up to hasten this possibility.

And while these experiments may not supplant the institutions and organizations that have so shaped our society over the last century, they do point to transformative futures. In these futures, in order to be more resilient, organizations hew to larger and more diverse purposes than shareholder value. It is not so much that any single one of these experiments holds the key to resilience, but they add to our portfolio of responses to a turbulent future. They potentially cushion the core services of our society from disruptions, be they imminent, ongoing, or remote.

Another notable thing about all of the experiments described above is that they are futures that are collaboratively created and practiced. Numerous participants can consider more radically diverse futures than a single mind could manage. A few years ago Jason Tester and Rachel Hatch, colleagues of mine at IFTF, set out to imagine the future of care-giving with United Cerebral Palsy. It is a topic both emotionally heavy and extremely timely, and it took creativity on their part to find a way of collaboratively generating diverse alternative futures of care-giving with people who are tired, taxed for time, and too often stigmatized. They created a scenario of a fictional town that needed to learn how to care for its residents—amidst rapidly dwindling resources for public services and rampant feelings of social isolation. Suggestions poured in from all over the country, indeed internationally, for alternative forms of care-giving that give each of us new roles to play. The result was a vision of the future where the burdens of “care-giving” give way to “caring.” Distributed practices allow us to share our diverse strengths to create a more resilient way of caring for those in need.

Image: Flickr user nothing to hide

But that still brings us back to our young student in East Palo Alto who expects to die before he’s grown. One critical problem he’s facing is that he can’t see an alternative future. He’s locked into one view of his future. While perhaps honest with his experience, the future narrative he constructed left even less room for growth and transformation than his peers’ consensus view of their personal futures, regulated as they were by charter school, teachers, and parents. We coached all the students in imagining transformative events, considering unexpected twists, personalizing broad future forces like climate change and evolving food systems. And we kept coming back to this young man offering him what we thought might be possible alternative stories for his future. All the while we asked ourselves, “Is it possible to use the future as a way to change his future?”

Just when my colleagues and I thought he had bested us with his despair, he finished his story. He found a future he could live in. While we were helping other students with plot points and grammar and chestnuts of futurity, he wandered over to a small group of girls who were each telling their future stories in the same scenario. He finished his own story with aplomb, moving to the posh suburb of his classmates’ aspirations, working a fun and safe job, and “not smoking, doing drugs, or going to prison.” He found a transformative future, anchored not in any of the futures we offered, but in a future shared with his peers.

Thanks to Kathi Vian, Jamais Cascio, and Alex Zautra for conversations that inspired this piece.

Thanks also to Jeremy Smith for asking me to write this, and to the editors over at Shareable.net who found the awesome images!

Human-Centered Futures, Part I

Futures thinking can be awfully disembodied sometimes.

Sure, we talk about people all the time. Sometimes in “artifacts from the future,” there’s a hand holding some gadget. Some of us talk about embodiment as something important: embodied learning, embedded selves, etc. But that is different from looking at actual people. I’m not saying that people-centric futures don’t exist, but they’re more scarce than I would like.

Some time ago I embarked on a quest to figure out how to do human-centered futures work. This was before I started delving into anticipatory anthropology as an established whacky little sub-discipline stemming back to Bob Textor and Margaret Mead, thoughts on which will comprise a future post. In various ways, I’ve been trying to answer: how do you put people into futures thinking? This is the first post of a series in which I will take a stab at some answers.

For one, you involve everyday people—either as research informants, participants, and/or co-creators. The popular euphemism among some of my colleagues is “bottom-up futures,” ethnographic futures that take their insight and foresight from the details of people’s everyday lives in the present. This doesn’t mean that I, as a futurist, just regurgitate the future visions that people share with me. That’s interesting—I elicit them, especially if I’m using formal ethnographic futures research (EFR) techniques. That part’s like a backwards oral history.

But I also ask myself two primary questions: what will this person bring with them into the future, and what might they find when they get there? Continue reading

Emotional Networking (Crosspost)

Here’s the piece I wrote over the weekend for the Health Horizons blog.  I didn’t get to meet them, but on Friday I listened rapt and gawked at the webex of Emota.net, our neighbors in Palo Alto who are doing some seriously cool stuff. It’s on the HH and Future Now blogs HERE.

I just got a note in my email.  My aunt is busy with her own appointment, and nobody had yet volunteered to pick my uncle up from the VA hospital tomorrow, after he recovers from surgery.  Hey, it’s a Friday.  I can take off a little early to pick him up, and get him to my cousin’s place over the hill.  I respond to the email, volunteering. In a grocery store across town, my aunt’s phone chimes in her purse.  On the tray attached to my uncle’s hospital bed, a digital picture frame brightens, and my little bobble head avatar floats forward and let’s him know he can expect me when it’s time for him to check out.

I could live with this future. A couple years ago, the same arrangement would have taken at least a dozen stressed-out calls between my aunt and my mom, my mom and me, me and my five cousins, me and my aunt, and finally me at the VA with my mom, trying to find my uncle’s room in the biggest dead-cell zone in the valley.  At the end of the day, while everyone’s relieved when the surgery goes well, everyone has a headache.

This streamlined future of ambient, collaborative caregiving isn’t quite here yet, but today at IFTF we heard a fantastic talk from one of our neighbors, Emota.net. They’re bringing this future to life. They’ve coined their discipline “emotional networking, which complements existing telehealth solutions to address not just clinical health, but emotional and social aspects of elder care.” They’re building a platform that can operate across numerous devices, and facilitate the convergence of multiple communications media to bring different generations together.

The purpose is to distribute caregiving practices among a support network of family, friends and care professionals, while giving this network a tangible presence in a person’s everyday environment.  It takes “ambient co-presence” to a functional extreme, creating a gentle convergence of email, updating services, and virtual worlds. Image that you’re hanging out on your grandma’s kitchen table, tossing her hearts and flowers on a break while she reads your status updates (if she’s so inclined). And she bobs around in an app on your desktop, or phone, or tablet. If she needs help, you’ll get a notice, or if she’s really sick, her nurse will get a notice.  Otherwise, you’re just there: framed on the table with her other family, friends, caregivers.

This all sounded awfully familiar.

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