Posts Tagged futures

Leadership for the long term Robert Hickson Apr 13

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Long term thinking has never appeared to be a strong point in New Zealand’s public or private sectors. We used to have a Commission for the Future, which produced a range of reports (a list of which is available courtesy of the McGuinness Institute), but it fell out of favour during the Muldoon years.

Muldoon & the demise of the Commission for the Future

The Commission for the Future is scrapped, by Malcolm Walker, 1981.NZ Cartoon Archive. Alexander Turnbull Library. A-316-2-010

More recent governments haven’t established anything like it. The Key-led National Government set up a green growth advisory group, which came up with a very pedestrian report that, three years on, is hard to see having had much of an influence. And Pure Advantage, a private sector initiative which also had a focus on opportunities for “green growth”,  hasn’t been active for a year. Some local government bodies do attempt to look over the horizon to help with their long term planning, but different councils don’t tend to collaborate for broader and on-going foresight activities.

Meanwhile, a range of other countries have taken more systematic and embedded approaches to foresight. These are described in a paper by  Dreyer & Stang [Pdf] in the 2013 Yearbook of European Security. One of the biggest challenges of any foresight programme is being able to demonstrate tangible benefits. Another is the political tension of balancing the needs of current and future generations. While routinely done in some cases (education, superannuation, and some infrastructure projects), it is  a hard issue for politicians and government agencies to effectively deal with in many other cases. Jonathan Boston, at Victoria University of Wellington, is exploring this issue in a book that he is currently writing.

None-the-less, as Dreyer & Stang describe, and a recent UK Public Administration Select Committee notes, some governments consider it an important capability for the public service, and politicians, to develop and maintain. Particularly, joined-up foresight across agencies. This was an issue raised by another select committee in the UK last year too.

Agencies in New Zealand produce scenarios, or undertake environmental scans from time to time. But there is usually no coordination between current or with past activities, or any apparent development of the suite of capabilities and connections a good foresight system needs to have.

Chief Executives of government agencies here are being encouraged to “develop a culture of stewardship“. In a rapidly changing world, with greater interdependencies between national economic, environmental and social systems, a better approach to anticipate changes and test assumptions is a necessity not a luxury. Particularly if you a little global trading country stuck down near the bottom of the planet.

What will our options be if the European Union collapses, dairy prices continue falling, foot and mouth disease (and/or fruit flies) establishes here, the Auckland housing bubble bursts, tensions  between the US and China disrupt out strategic alliances, or we discover a wonderful new carbon-neutral resource to potentially develop? Do we understand how decisions we make over the next few years will enable or restrict our responses to some of the future changes that we can already anticipate?

Influential futures reports from the past Robert Hickson Mar 18

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It was, apparently, “Future Day” on the first of March. I didn’t see that coming, and Google didn’t have a Doodle commemorating it so it can’t be that big a deal yet.

The School of International Futures celebrated it, after a fashion, by listing five important futures publications in the last half century.

Their criteria were

… these publications and the people involved have helped to shape strategic futures, to raise the profile and importance of strategic foresight and to embed futures into both policy and strategic planning.

Drum roll please …

The limits to growth (1972). This attempted to model future population growth and its effects. Its pessimistic scenarios resulted in extensive criticism, but some of it’s predictions don’t appear wide of the mark now.

Shell’s early scenarios (1973). When one of the world’s most profitable companies supports futures thinking for forty years there must be some value in it. Last year Shell published a brief retrospective on their scenarios.

Mont Fleur Scenarios (1992). These helped inform the post-apartheid government in South Africa. Adam Kahane, who facilitated the workshops, has given his impressions on their impact.

Kenya at the Crossroads Scenarios for Our Future (2000). I hadn’t heard of these, and aren’t sure what influence they actually had.

Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (2008). From the US National Intelligence Council. They published their first global trend report in 1997 (looking out to 2010). But the 2025 report flagged a possible “multi-polar” world.


You could include the IPCC assessment reports. Irrespective of your opinion of them (or your position on climate change), they have been important for both governments and some in the private sector. However, I’d go for the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006) since coming from an influential economist it made many outside of the science and NGO communities really sit up and take notice.

The important thing about futures reports isn’t whether they are right, but whether they stimulate more critical thinking about the future, and they lead to change.

Fantasy Futures Feast Robert Hickson Jan 21

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In the spirit of summertime “light” content, where people imagine ideal dinner parties (or voyages to Mars), I’ve drawn up my own futures soiree. It’s not a gathering of all the great and good futurists to come up with a prediction of what the future loos like. Rather it’s a gathering of  knowledgeable and hopefully erudite folk from a range of fields who will help me explore, rather than predict, where we may be headed and what options for guidance may be available.

My first choices, in ascending order of birth are:

Leonardo da Vinci  (1452-1519). An obvious choice, but always helpful to have a genius polymath involved who can not only imagine but design the future.

Michel de Montaigne  (1533-1592). French essayist. A long time favourite of mine because of the insightfulness and clarity of his writing (if you get a good translation). Able to move easily from anecdote to deeper meaning, which is a critical skill in the futures space.

Edward Gibbon  (1737-1794). Historian, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Someone with a long view of history and societies, which is also valuable when looking forward. (We’ll try and keep him off diatribes against religion).

Mary Warnock  (1924- ). Philosopher and ethicist. You can’t think seriously about the future without some awareness of philosophical and ethical issues. Baroness Warnock’s already tackled ethical issues associated with recent developments in treating human fertility.

Elinor Ostrom  (1933-2012). Political economist and Nobel laureate, who looked deeply at managing common resources. That’s definitely going to be an ongoing issue.

Joi Ito  (1966- ). Director of MIT’s famed Media Lab. Someone with a very good depth and breadth of knowledge about the cyber world and where it may lead, both academically and from a business perspective.

Charles Royal. Someone I actually know (from our time at the Ministry of Research, Science & Technology). Charles is a talented musician and academic, and has thought carefully about how Maori systems of knowledge (and other indigenous knowledge systems) can contribute to today’s and tomorrow’s world.

To round out the dinner, I’ll need a great host/hostess. While Kim Hill, Bryan Crump and Jim Mora from Radio NZ National may be interested, their experience lies more in one-on-one interviewing. But they’re welcome to pop in for coffee later.  I’ll see if Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet  (1588-1665), a famous salonnière, can make it to keep the discussions going in good humour.

Of course, there are many more people (both past and present) I’d like to have to dinner. The list above lacks sufficient diversity in gender, race, and experience but you need to keep the numbers down so everyone participates in the discussions. So I’d look on this as the first of several very interesting evenings. As well as well seasoned sages and creative types I’d want to have some of the talented next generation thinkers and doers from all over the planet be in on the meal and discussion.

An interactive futures table of elements Robert Hickson Dec 17

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Last year I developed a Futures Periodic Table. Since then I’ve been wondering how to make it interactive, so you can drill down to find more information on each “element” and playing around with combinations. I may have a solution to that now.

Last week I was at a presentation given by Paul Duignan about a visualisation tool he has developed called DoView. This is being used in strategic planning, evaluations, and in other ways. It struck me as also a good way of organising and exploring futures-related information. One of the good things about DoView is that you can use it in a workshop as a more dynamic way of collecting and organising information and models as you go, rather than playing with typical slide presentations or other visualisation packages that are less nimble to rearrange.

Paul was enthused by my Periodic Table, and mocked up a concept for his DoView blog. I’ve now also started trying to turn the static into something more interesting. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I’m finding it useful – particularly  the ability to move backwards or forwards easily, and clone elements form one page to another.


DoView Futures



Have a look at what I’ve done so far at this Link (you don’t need to download DoView), or peruse the screenshots below. Feedback is encouraged. I’m only just beginning to explore how you can build models of interacting elements rather than just presenting information. So keep tuned in the new year.


Converting the graphic into sets of interactive elements in DoView that you can click on or link to each other (click on image for larger view in another window):


Include details on particular elements on separate pages, and navigate to and from the:


DoView allows you to link to websites, so you can include links to sources of primary data:


Create linkages between different elements based on questions, issues or scenarios:


Map out the inter-relationships between elements:


Dr Seuss, futurist? Robert Hickson Nov 27

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Once you’ve read one mega trend report, you’ve read ‘em all. Or so it often seems. This is a point succinctly made by Spencer & Salvatico. They suggest that the popularity of publications on trends is because

“… many people believe trends to be the beating heart of futures thinking and foresight.”

You can go to town analyzing mega trends (ie long term trends, such as an increasingly older national population, likely to influence a broad range of factors).  That often appeals to the commercial and government sectors who may like the illusion of certainty from an apparently robust analysis. Spencer & Salvatico note that conditions have changed, and the focus of foresight should too.

“Pinpointing and analyzing Mega Trends sounds like a great way to adjust strategy or develop a competitive innovation portfolio, but it has become an outdated practice in the 21st-century landscape of convergence, complexity, and disruptive creativity.”

They make a good point. A big failing in futures is the consultants producing a nice glossy/interactive trend report for the leadership team who then don’t change that much at all. However, Spencer & Salvatico seem a bit hard on trend analysis – focussing more on the quick end of year “top trends in X for next year” types of articles, rather than giving some acknowledgement to the more thoughtful mega trend reports that have been produced, and have subsequently been used to good effect.

Trend analyses are useful if they are part of a bigger piece of futures work. Such trend reports serve to make their audience aware that its not going to be business/policy as usual. As I noted in my post from last week, its the questions that such analyses raise that are the useful bit. But I whole heartedly agree that describing trends is not enough.

They note that important components of any foresight or futures activities should be

  • Identifying values that underpin trends – so you can understand and not just describe
  • Exploring the implications of trends – this is usually a given in good mega trend analysis, but it is the hardest part
  • Systems thinking – this is all the rage now, but certainly we aren’t very good at it currently
  • Design – don’t be passive, bring action into play to help you shape the future
  • Aspirations – don’t be agnostic, be clear about the type of future you want
  • Guiding narrative – to tie all these together and help explain where we’ve come from and where we are going. [Narrative, in my opinion, is already in danger of becoming an over-used phrase in many fields, but it is still often the most effective means for grabbing the CEOs or Minister's attention, and giving them something they can use in their discussions]

They use Dr Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! to illustrate their main point – don’t stop when you have described your trends.

Some would possibly consider The Lorax as Dr Seuss’s futures piece. I hadn’t heard of On Beyond Zebra!, but S&S use it to illustrate that futures work shouldn’t be too constrained by our current conditions and commonly held views. One of the boys in the story invents letters beyond Z, and great fun and creativity ensue. So too, hopefully, with 21st century foresighting (as well as making our world better).




Randomized futuring Robert Hickson Oct 04

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Now everyone can be a futures expert with this on-line futures buzzword generator, courtesy of Roman Tschäppeler.

It generates a three word phrase that you define in your own way. Roman encourages sharing them on his website or via Twitter using the hashtag #RemixDemix.

Here are some I generated:


TISSUE FUTURE MANIA – which could be an unexpected consumer appetite for lab-grown meat, or harking back to the Dutch Tulip Bubble, people investing heavily in stem cell and tissue culture public offerings to make a fast buck, or keep themselves young and healthy.

POLITICS MARKET OPHOBIA – the socialists and Occupy groups strike back, banning reference to “the market”

INFRA STYLE ING (yeah, the inglish ain’t purfect) – why limit your style choices to just clothes, hair and makeup. Now you can customise your body parts and appendages, and inject those luminescent GM bacteria to perfect your style and advertorial content.

NEO MEAT MARKET – that craze for lab-grown meat again.

DE CODE HOOD – Yo, homies! We’re gonna rip all those sensors, drone and sh#t out of our neigbourhood. Don’t want the government snoopin’ on us all the time.


Roman’s partly stolen my thunder for a Future’s Bingo card I’ve got in preparation. More on that another time.



Random futures Robert Hickson Jun 30

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Here’s a short collection of what, to me, are interesting developments.

Will good design turn more people on to eating insects? A finalist for an international design competition has developed a bench top grasshopper rearing unit. This is to encourage more (Westerners) to take seriously a UN plea to eat more insects [Pdf].


Unlikely, I think, for sensitive Western palates. While crunching on chitin has more appeal than vat grown meat, there are other alternatives also under development.  Vertical farms, and aquaponics (combining fish farming and hydroponics into one system), for example. There are less high-techy options as well.


Smart phones are becoming smarter. SRI is working on what it calls “cognitive indexing” to develop better artificial intelligence to predict what you want to ask by taking account of a range of information.


You can also start making your house “smarter”, with commercial kits becoming available to connect bits of your house up with each other. Welcome to the brave new world of the Internet of Things. Cisco is going large on this. But there are a range of challenges to work through, particularly getting different devices to communicate with each other.


If you are interested in hearing more about what Rodney Brooks has to say about robots (as I mentioned in an earlier post) then this TED video is good.


Finally, I got a mention in the Herald on Sunday (and a new name at the end) in a piece about Wills & Kate & Baby.



Thinking Futures Workshop Robert Hickson Feb 22


The NZ Futures Trust is running a workshop in Wellington on 6th March. The purpose is to help connect up future thinkers and to help identify how the Futures Trust can better support futures thinking in NZ. The workshop will:

• identify gaps in the way futuring works to support New Zealand businesses

communities, policy-making and decision-making.

• identify and review potential “fixes” for the system gaps

• consider new ways to connect with other organisations, and

• work out how we can open up access to the resources held by NZFT and other organisations.

To find out more and register go here. Spaces are limited.


I’m involved in helping organise the workshop.

A Futures Periodic Table Robert Hickson Jun 15


I’ve been playing around with a graphic to make it easier to keep track of important trends and drivers influencing the future. This Table of Elements is what I have come up with.  It arranges the elements into the basic Futures Framework of Social, Technological, Political, Economic and Environmental trends (or other drivers/influencers of change).

I have loaded a PowerPoint presentation of it on SlideShare – A Futures Periodic Table – which gives more explanation of what each element is. I took my inspiration from the Periodic Table of Meat.

You may quibble that there are too few futures elements. But that’s the point. It is easy to get confused when you have lots of trends to contend with. So I have tried to keep it at a high level. And I have pandered to the geeks with a special “Lanthanide”and “Actinide”  science & technology series of elements  later in  the slide presentation. Yes, I have been somewhat arbitrary in what I have included.

Combine the elements (there are no rules about what can bond with what) to see if that helps consider future possibilities. Don’t forget about the Black Swans (or wild cards). Have a look, and let me know how I can improve it.

A Futures Periodic Table

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