A futurist recharges his batteries

by John Mahaffie on July 31, 2012

I first drafted this piece for my own records, but found it worth sharing, so I fixed it up a little, and present it as personal reflection that may somehow be useful to others in and near the futures community. I plan to share some of the thoughts on foresight that my experiences in Toronto triggered and fueled in future posts. 

Last weekend, I attended the Association of Professional Futurists (APF), ProDev Seminar, July 27, 2012, and other APF events in Toronto, and part of the World Future 2012 conference. The APF ProDev day was our best ever:  tight, focused, yet exploratory. There were no negative spirits in the room and I had a chance to learn about and try some new things, then muse with colleagues over what I could take from them, use or discard, etc. in my work.

The day had an undercurrent of the “big conversation” about what foresight work is about, what it’s for, how we do it, new and old methods, etc. But the focus was on specific and useful state-of-the-art approaches in foresight. It was nice to see my colleague Jennifer Jarratt’s great work putting this together come into focus in a great day. As her business partner, I was on the front lines of that effort, but as an observer, and occasional sounding board only. I did none of the work. And it is a recurring joy to have sessions guided by Mary Jane Naquin, a superb facilitator and tone-setter for such gatherings.

The APF ProDev day met at OCAD University’s sLab in Toronto, July 2012

I should not make too much of age, but it is part of the conversation in the futures field and in the APF. Younger futurists and younger sensibilities were again a part of our discussions, but  long-established professionals including Rick Slaughter,  Peter Padbury, and others, gave us value and blended the “generations” agreeably. I confess being nearer to the old guard than the young, but my sympathies are firmly with the latter. Any chance I had to tell younger futurists at the meeting to press into our midsts boldly, I did so, but they really didn’t need me to say so, they proceed with already-high confidence in the quality and innovativeness of their work.

APF found a ready partnership with the design folks at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) for the ProDev seminar. OCAD and other designers are reaching toward futures as our field has reached toward design, and the hands have clasped warmly in the middle.

OCAD offers courses in strategic foresight and blends its power in design with a forward view. We had Greg Van Alstyne, Director of Research, Strategic Innovation Lab, and eight or so of his current and former students along with us for the day. And APF’s own Lloyd Walker, who facilitated, is an original design futurist, combining his skill and background in industrial design with futures studies.

APF ProDev Seminar exploring design futures

Exploring design/design futures. At the APF ProDev day, we used the techniques of design futures under Lloyd’s guidance and with the inspiring insights of Cindy Frewen Wuellner and Greg Van Alstyne and his students to try our hand at exploratory design sessions. For me, this worked and felt just like visually-oriented scenario development in small groups, which I frequently lead, but with an emphasis on the product idea coming out of the process. In other words, the exploration followed the same kind of track that we usually do, but the outcome goal was a specific, if far-future, product idea.

For the workshopping, we used the concept of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) as our realm to explore. Lloyd used the session to demonstration how you open up the thinking, then come to closure/decision on a deadline, simulating product development design (with a stronger foresight component).

In our breakouts, we illustrated our ideas. In a theme recurring for me, because I am trying to learn to write fiction, our designer coaches told us to “Show it, don’t tell it.” The power lacking in words and bullet lists comes through in drawings. And we explore and discover more while drawing.

Video futures. Heather Schlegel (Heathervescent) showed two videos that demonstrate what could be with retail transactions/alternative financial tools (e.g. to pay a restaurant tab or order flowers). Done for SWIFT, the videos were high production value live action scenarios. The videos have the power of getting people to understand possibilities in a way that most reports and often static images cannot. The discussion that followed Heather’s remarks and the videos was about what it takes to produce them, and how they make a difference in getting ideas across to people about future possibilities.

APF explored Integral Futures under Rick Slaughter’s care

Integral futures. Rick Slaughter, the originator of integral futures, told his personal story, about his “arrival” in the foresight field, how it was inspired, and his first work through his current efforts with the “Knowledge Base of Futures Studies”. He discussed some aspects of integral futures, and did a live demonstration with volunteers walking through the quadrants, taped out on the floor. As a steady user of Rick’s ideas and the integral model, it was great to hear more about the concepts and approaches he has developed, and to be able to ask him in detail about his work.

Canadian futures. Peter Padbury outlined what Policy Horizons Canada is doing to bring foresight to a central place in the Canadian Government. Peter’s got a steady, focused way about his work, and it’s rooted in tons of experience with public sector foresight, plus consulting. As someone from the United States, I wound up simply jealous that Canada is at least trying to stir foresight into its Federal government.

APF “Town Hall”. The Town Hall was in the same spirit as the ProDev, with the old guard and younger futurists sitting down together (about 22 of us) for lunch and discussing the field, how we talk about it, what its guiding principles are, etc. There is to be a White Paper on this, which has a plan and purposes yet to be elaborated on. Riel Miller, Jennifer Jarratt, and Peter Bishop will develop it together. We began, but did not claim to deepen or complete, a discussion of what is “in our DNA” as futurists: the core principles, purposes, and approaches we use.

Bringing this fresh focus on the question of what is our work all about fit nicely with the insights of the Pro Dev seminar and other conversations. My preliminary conclusion is that the APF should consider the different messages we would share on what foresight is for, versus how foresight is done. I try hard to not make the deeper theories and more complicated methodologies my clients’ problem. In other words, there’s a black box inside which the magic happens!

WFS session. Jennifer Jarratt and I led a session, “Our Role in Shaping the Future,” at the World Future Society conference at which we explored the roles of human agency in shaping the future. We made our session a conversation with the 50 or so attendees and passed the microphone in a way that happens too rarely at conference sessions. The folks appreciated that and shared terrific insights.

We had prepared for them an exploration of why and how people shape the future. We offered a short list of types of futurists: the professional, the citizen, the accidental, the undercover, and a few others. This was another chance to explore what we do, how and why we do it, and the different ways our efforts may take hold. Jennifer and I will do more work on this, and the great thoughts of our attendees will help us dig more value out of the exploration we have started. Before long, we will have a short piece offering results of our exploration and the survey we used to develop its ideas. Send us a message here if you would like to see that summary.

APF 10th Anniversary Reception. The APF celebrated its 10 years at a reception in an old distillery in Toronto. Cindy Frewen Wuellner, the APF co-chair, shared highlights of the Association’s history and especially its progress. A number of folks got recognition for their work and their contributions, which gave me a sense of pride in the professional community. It’s too rare that we stop, for a moment, our grumbling about the mundanities of our little society and look at what’s great about it.

An APF anniversary highlight is a new book by the APF, the Future of Futures. It’s available as an e-book here. It’s a terrific state-of-the-art piece and also a nice history of the Association.

My conversations at lunch, dinner, in bars, hallways, etc. through the Toronto visit explored a lot of these things, and aspects of applied (for me, highly applied) futures. I also had the chance to talk at length with futures educators and current futures studies students about how we teach the tools of foresight.

How it all added up for me

My time in Toronto was a chance to catch up with friends, make new friends, refocus my thoughts on the work I do as a futurist. Stir in fresh insights, perspectives, and new ideas, try out and see new techniques, and have a pretty marvelous time doing it. I am re-energized and inspired. Worth every dollar and the time spent.

Batteries 100% recharged and ready!

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