In a previous post I noted that futures thinking usually tries to identify what people think will change and what they think needs to change.
As lockdown constraints ease, we are seeing a lot of opinions about both. There is no shortage of shovel ready points of view and aspirations.
Aspirations are good, but what we aren’t seeing so much of (at least I haven’t) is more nuanced thinking about how we get from here to there, and how different aspirations and expectations may be negotiated. Many advocating for a low carbon economy envisage a sudden shift. While those arguing for retaining some of the status quo favour a not so hasty change.
So, what we end up with is often framed as a dichotomy of choices – “either, or” rather than “and.” The latter recognises transitions are required, and that different aspirations may need to be reconciled or concessions made.
The UK’s RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has developed a useful framework to help think about the how. It helps considerations about what activities and practices need to stop, start, restart or continue as organisations and states move towards a post-pandemic and more equitable and sustainable future.
Its value is in highlighting the complexities of change, particularly when moving on from such a profound crisis. As the RSA comments, we are often bad at stopping things (even what were supposed to be temporary actions), and often layer new initiatives on top of old, which usually makes things worse.
A weakness I see in the RSA’s framework is that it is static. It may encourage a point-in-time decision making response, rather than an on-going process of consideration. We need to continue trying new things, and thinking differently, rather than just amplifying what has been tried the last few months. And it’s important to continue to ask “should we stop this now too?”
Tim Harford emphasises that making change isn’t just about pushing down on the accelerator – providing more incentives, for example. It is also about asking “Why aren’t they doing the right thing already?” and then removing the impediments. What are the brakes holding us back?
Bridges to the future
The RSA is promoting thinking about building bridges to a post-pandemic future. Listen to their Bridges to the Future podcast.
This echoes, independently I think, Pierre Wack, one of the creators of modern day scenarios. He stated that “scenarios are a bridge to connect current concerns with external reality”.
What matters isn’t just where the bridge is leading us, but what we need to do to create that bridge as well.
Bridges to the future is a nice metaphor. It is important that we think that there are more than one. And that they will be both adjacent and consecutive. There is not a single bridge that we have to cross.
It’s also helpful to recognise that such bridges will not be engineering marvels built to last. Often they will be more like swing bridges – discomforting to some, requiring some trust, improved on over time, or pulled down.
It is easier to imagine where you want to go, but more challenging to figure out how to get there. That’s where futures thinking and frameworks like the RSA’s are useful.