Resilience Frontiers: Day 5 — Conceiving Policy

Resilience Frontiers: Day 5 — Conceiving Policy

Thoughts on the Week

This was a long and often intense week — as only these types of events can be. The reality of actually gathering together 125 people from a variety of professional, cultural and demographic backgrounds must have been a logistical nightmare, and I understand much of the work was undertaken in the few weeks before the event.


That counts as a success in and of itself. However, the downside of this type of intense week where virtually everyone flys into a venue via long-haul air flight is exhaustion from the jet lag, the discomforts from changes to diet, and the endless hours under artificial light and air conditioning (not to mention contributing to the problem we are trying to solve. We are trapped.).

I think that while this was mostly handled well, it reminded me of the importance of venue and setup of venue (I have been looked at quizzically by colleagues when I spend what seems to others as far too long planning the venue and ‘arranging the chairs’. I may be OCD on this issue, but if you want the best from people you need to pay attention to these things. If anyone asks me where the next such event should be held, and they did suggest that there might be another one later this year, and what the venue should look like — I have a vision already.

It should be in a smaller city away from the noise and pollution of millions of urban dwellers. To a place where thinking is easier. A working venue needs to be human sized, not an aircraft hanger (however nice the hanger!). It needs to be closer to nature. Every culture on earth has some form of gathering place where you can gather and be closer to nature. In Far North Queensland, Australia it would be in an older Queenslander style building — open to the elements with big verandas and a tin roof, in New Zealand it would be a Maori Marae, in Canada it would be a mountain lodge. Every culture has them. We should seek them out. This is where breakthough thinking will happen more freely, although breakthroughs can and do happen everywhere.

Some place where we can recharge our microbiomes AND pursue answers to global challenges.

Nonetheless, we covered a lot this week.

Day 1 — Probable Futures: we broke this complex problem of technology trends down into chunks, ie, the future of AI, biotech, satellites, sustainability ethos, for half the day and then reformed into cross-fertilisation groups, ie. water, food, health, nature and human security. This was a good start. The only two things that we could have added to this mix was (1) some horizon scanning to provide a common evidence-base to work from — which I provide in my Day 1 blog and (2) more communication among and between groups — we did this, but it was such a big event, I don’t feel the quality of those conversations reached a high enough level. The only answer really is smaller events.

Day 2 — Desirable Futures: we learnt the technique of ‘moonshotting’ (definitely just made that word up). It was interesting and we had a lot of very interesting discussions, but we learnt the method by doing individual moodshots, which we then discussed and used the group to add ideas to what we had offered to share with them. This was good. The method is starting with the future end-point and working back to what you’d do to get there. Like JFK and the race to put a man on the moon. Decide to go and then figure out how to get there. Our problem is that we did not have time enough to reconstruct that pathway back to the present during Day 2. We left it hanging. I’m a scientist by training. We hate loose ends.

Day 3 — Strange Futures: using a structured conversation that allows ideas to ’emerge’ from the joint efforts of a group, the ‘strange futures’ approach allows you to explore future thinking that would otherwise difficult to access for all but the most creative thinkers (e.g. William Gibbson is my favorite). It provides a simple mechanism to help a group of people achieve this. The difficulty is that the group needs to meet regularly, I think, and they need to repeat this often — aside from learning the technique, I am not sure we were at it long enough to come up with something really spectacular in Day 3. But I think a dedicated group in a workplace setting using 1-2 hours a week could come up with something awesome. Eventually. We need to seed this into organisations — I know that I will take this back to Public Health Dorset and see what I can do with it there.

Day 4 — Group Moonshot: this was an extension of Day 2 in light of Day 3. Day 4 was complex. It was engaging. It was fun, but as with Day 3, you don’t know where you are going. It’s not going to work every time, but there were enough ideas that at least a couple could be worked up. Having a diverse group was fundamental to an interesting discussion. What will it produce? I’m not sure. It’s not the method I would use to map out a strategy, but having gone down a more traditional scanning-planning-response approach — I could certainly see using the moonshot for identifying transformational ideas. Again, you might want to run a lot of smaller events and accumulate wisdom from a collective network of like minded groups. This would require a longer term commitment that would need a central coordinating, mentoring and leadership function from the UNFCC and hopefully the UNCBD (they should be in the room — the solution lies across the three Rio convention secretariats really).

Today — Conceiving Policy through Futuring Methods

Today’s session topic was ‘policy relevance’, but I think we were flagging so much that the organizers juggled things around a bit. We didn’t spend much time talking as a group about policy relevance, but I did have a couple very good conversations, which were about how people may or may not be able to take this experience back to their ‘day job’. The ideas generated here need to be captured, they need cultivating, they need exposure to the light of criticism — mostly they need to fertilize the ground of future futuring that is hopefully to come.

Today’s UNFCCC plenary talk had some very interesting bits

  • This event is an experiment to see if a common conciousness emerges [I wonder that if it does, how we turn it into a social movement].
  • There is nothing built into SDGs to ensure sustainability — they could be achieved and then subsequently lost — I never considered this.
  • This is the UN Year of Foresight — I had never heard this before.
  • Today’s exercise will have to be conveyed to other organizations so that they can build ‘road maps’ that deliver action.
  • We need to keep our eyes open for organizations that we can partner with in order to achieve more moonshots.

We have heard many times during the week that linear thinking is not going to allow us to solve ‘exponential growth’ type problems. I get that. I also see that futuring methods (and importantly Systems Insights methods — which were referred to but not included in this event) could have a lot to offer.

It was a courageous effort by the UNFCCC to hold such a massive event and it will be an enormous job to process this material in a reasonable period of time and in a way that engages not just the participants, but the wider climate change adaptation community in order to ensure that we have a continuous stream of moonshots.

Sustainability of effort suggests that we can’t make much progress in whopping great big events like this week, it’s just too expensive, and not at the scale we need to get to, but it was a brilliant ‘kick-off’ event. Going forward, we need a series of events, and organizations that create internal ongoing futuring processes that advance thinking and increase the odds of identifying spectacular moonshot ideas.

Finally — Futuring and Thought Leadership

Congratulations to Youssef Nassef, Climate Adaption Director, and all of the UNFCC group for being thought leaders in this area and for starting the ball rolling. I think you have inspired many participants to bring the excitement and potential value of these methods back to their organizations. Please stay in touch with them to monitor their progress.

Sterling Hawkins plenary contributed a couple thoughts that resonated with me in terms of the scale of the challenge we face and the rate of change we are experiencing — a simple metaphor — “it took about 50 years for the automobile to reach 50 million people, it took Pokemon Go 19 days to achieve the same thing.” Technological change is happening faster than we can see, let alone understand. The imminent twin crises of climate change and ecosystem collapse seems of a scale and complexity that it is laughable that anyone could think that it could be tackled using the linear thinking that got humanity into this mess in the first place. We have an innovation gap.

I don’t know if futuring is going to help us close that gap — but I think its worth a very good effort, because if most people are going to trod the linear thinking path, at least a few of us should explore elsewhere.

And if you are thinking that we need action, not more thinking and analysis – a final message from Sterling’s talk — “Xerox invented the personal computer 20 years before Apple. Steve jobs didn’t invent the personal computer — he just thought about it differently”. Ideas, innovations, moonshots — they are all around us, we just need to get better and assessing and re-purposing them. It’s a global crises. There is no cheating here. Only winning or losing — and “we are in this for the species boys and girls” (Starship Troopers, Movie, 1997).

Thanks for reading — that’s all from Songdo, South Korea — back in the office, first thing on Monday, Boss, promise! I have an idea I want to share with you…

This futures blog

This blog is about how we create ‘healthy places’ and what our possible ‘futures’ could be given current trends and momentum within society, the economic and political systems, and the environment. I use the plural ‘futures’ intentionally, because our future is not pre-determined (I hope), we can and should work towards the future we want. This blog aims to generate discussion (maybe even some debate) around ‘Healthy places futures’ in the hope that if we all put our minds to it, a collective vision may emerge, which would inform any strategy we might put in place to get us to our preferred future. We’ll be leaning on heavily on futuring tools found on our Shaping Tomorrow hosted website:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed (William Gibson 1993).

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