Anticipating The Future: Imagination And The Long View

“One of the things nearing extinction is the art of longing. As in wanting something you cannon immediately have. If anything positive is to come from the situation the world finds itself in, it is my great hope that speed, instant gratification, and over stimulation are swapped out for longing, imagination and relational connection. For a child or teenager to sit thoughtfully and ponder what is to come, to hope for or envision something amazing, to dream of a place or a future.” -Brian Transeau via A Stitch in Time? Realizing the Value of Futures and Foresight

In today’s world, education and educators are going to need to do a much better and more proficient job of articulating a future that students can begin to envision and anticipate…

Take a minute and let that settle in and percolate.

We live in a world where that has become increasingly important to achieve and even more difficult to provide. We’ve entered a time when the rising tides of ambiguity and uncertainty have made the “future” a much more opaque and unknown proposition. Much like a broken down and ‘out of order’ escalator, our linear and known processes and structures of the past and present are no longer working efficiently, effectively, or find themselves to be viable for the future that is currently moving towards us, often in a turbulent and volatile manner

Which is adds to the importance of what UNESCO shares from their work on Futures Literacy. “Without images of the future that inspire hope and foster collaboration there is a high risk of despair and war.” For which UNESCO continues, “The malaise of poverty-of-the-imagination must be overcome.” Poverty of the imagination. A concept or lack thereof that we are going to need to consider deeply moving forward if our individuals and organizations are going to be able to bring their full selves and thinking to the process of creating more inclusive and better futures.

UNESCO proposes that, “Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change.’ A potent transformation in what people are able to know, imagine and do.”

Unfortunately, in many ways we have replaced our proactive sense of curiosity, wonder, imagination, and amazement with world that is now inundated with a passive acceptance of instant gratification based in Google searches, personalized algorithms, artificial intelligence, in an on-demand environment. We have to come to realization on how we begin to close the imagination gap that keeps us from the realization of more inclusive and better futures and leaves us mired in outdated mental models and maps. Or as futurist Peter Scoblic shares, “One of the conclusions that I’ve come to in my research is that imagination is a woefully undervalued strategic resource; and what organizations can benefit from tremendously is the institutionalization of imagination.”

In many ways, not only is it getting more and more difficult to envision the future, it is getting harder and harder to anticipate it…

It is no longer enough, as individuals and organizations, to just ask what we want to be? Anticipation requires of us that we have to be willing to ask of ourselves and our organizations where we want to go? We have to be willing to release from the short-termism in thinking that pervades the majority of our current contexts’ in order that our individuals and organizations can begin to proactively engage a long view for the future.

As Laszlo Zsolnai puts forth, “Decision-makers who strongly discount things in space and time are interested neither in the solution of long range ecological and human problems, nor in the global impacts of their activities on the natural environment and human communities. Discounting the future impacts of present generations is ethically indefensible because it renders extremely low weight to the interest of future generations.” In other words, an unwillingness to proactively consider the future and how the decisions and actions of our current circumstances has weight and bearing upon that future, is effectively showing an unwillingness to consider our future generations and the world that they will be inhabiting from us and what kind of world we have chosen to make for them. We cannot and must not release our responsibility in the present for creating a better future for those that will come after us.

We cannot choose to defer that future to our future generations…

And yet, we cannot choose to fully define that future for next generations through linear thinking, considerations of certainty, and singular narratives. Rather, we are going to have to be willing to open ourselves and our organizations to the emergence of a variety of futures and a diversity of narratives as we consider taking a long view towards the future.

Or as RSA shares in their paper A Stitch in Time? “A crucial challenge to strategic foresight relates to the idea of legitimate futures. It asks the questions whose future is it? and who has the power to decide about that future?”

It is not enough that we are engaging a long-view for the future, but a long-view that is more inclusive. Or as RSA adds, “By centering goals in our formulations of the future, we are “colonizing the future with today’s idea of tomorrow.” We see organizational vision or mission statements setting our this future in today’s corporate language, but it can only ever be shaped by today’s context and thinking. It is this challenge that anticipating emergence seeks to address. To make sense of, and engage with, emerging complexity we need a different mindset and approach.”

And as Roman Krznaric describes in RSA’s A Stitch in Time? “We have colonized the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please. The tragedy is that the unborn generations of tomorrow can do nothing about this colonialist pillaging of their future.”

Creating more inclusive futures will not only necessitate a diversity of voices and narratives, but engaging the voices and narratives of those that have been long marginalized and often remain at the edges of these considerations and conversations. If the goal is to create better futures, it will not be founded in a command and control stance. For the goal is to create, not conquer the future that our future generations will inhabit. For it is position of creation, not a control and a conquering attitude and stance, that will then allow for emergence, and openness and acceptance of that emergence, in the forming and considerations of those futures.

Or as RSA puts forth, regarding emergence, “If we anticipate emergence, we seek instead to make sense of, and change, the present. We remain open to the emergence inherent in complex systems and, rather than trying to control them, work with them to make sense of the present. As a result, we do not try to structure the future because we are no longer constrained by probability and desirability.”

There is no one future, rather there are futures. Futures that are constantly evolving and emerging. Futures that are often difficult to see, making it even more difficult to anticipate. However, no matter how non-obvious the future is that we are marching towards, we have to create the narratives that not only take a long view towards those futures, but engage an environment that allows both individuals and our organizations to take a more anticipatory stance towards those futures.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” -Noam Chomsky

Paradigm Shifts: Seeing Systems Leverage Points

“Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. it creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.” -Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer

No matter how hard we try to put our systems in a neat and tidy box, they always seem to spill out. Like a bad dam on a downhill stream, the water will find a new path, a new way around. Often in ways that we can’t predict or plan for, which we are learning firsthand and constantly in our current context. As Donella Meadows shares above, “the universe is messy, it is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic.” So, no matter how many constraints, controls, or parameters we put upon those systems to keep them neat and orderly, their complexity and nonlinear behaviors have a tendency to continually ooze out, surprising us, while upending our assurances, assumptions and predictions. Or as Donella Meadows reminds us, “We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review adds in their article Changing Systems? Welcome to the Slow Movement that, “System work is not about solutions; it’s about discovering and steering local pathways for change at a pace appropriate for our ability to learn and for what local communities can enact and absorb.” Much like that ineffective dam trying stop the flow of the downhill stream, we have to approach our systems with a new lens, reframing towards new perspectives. Moving from a sense of control, to one of flows. Seeing our systems as fluid and dynamic, rather than stagnant and stationary. We have to move our lens from the dam, and a focus on control, too seeing beyond the flow, and determining how to create the conditions to guide that flow. Especially under the circumstances and context that we currently find ourselves amidst and the possible paradigm shifts we face. The organizations that will remain relevant in moving forward are shifting their mindset to be more adaptive and agile, to moving from a sense of control to supporting flows. For which Margaret Wheatley adds, “The stream has an impressive ability to adapt, to change the configurations, to let the power shift, to create new structures.” 

The stream will find a way…

Or as Wheatley puts forth, “Water answers to gravity, to downhill, to the call of the ocean. The forms change, but the mission remains clear. Streams have more than one response…” Which means that today’s systems leaders need to determine how they are going to guide that stream? How they are going to determine the leverage points to guide and improve our systems, even in the midst of the complexity and chaos that we are currently facing? As Meadows shares, “A small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Which means that we have to become much more aware of what shifts, of what leverage points, can best guide our systems in moving forward, as we determine the possible futures we are determining to create.

Donella Meadows refers to these as “leverage points” or places to intervene in a complex system. Meadows, in her article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System shares twelve places to intervene in a system, which she provides in increasing order of effectiveness:

12. Constants, parameters, numbers.

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows.

9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.

8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.

6. The structure of information flows.

5. The rules of the system.

4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.

3. The goals of the system.

2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters – arises.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

In education, as we begin to look deeper into our systems, especially as we consider such frameworks as continuous improvement, it behooves us to take a deeper view of at least a few of these “leverage points” and how they might be used not only for systems improvement, but in helping our systems become more agile and adaptable to a world that is shifting in some rather dynamic and exponential ways. Let’s review a few and begin to work our way up the “leverage” scale…

6. The Structure of Information Flows: we live in a time where networks are not only beneficial for information flow, they are beneficial for idea flows, and connecting our individuals and organizations both internally and externally. Which brings us into the work of Douglas Engelbart and the ABC model for continuous improvement through networks, of: Level A which “represents the knowledge acquired by front-line workers as they engage in their practice”; Level B which is when “learning occurs across individuals within a workplace”; and Level C which is when learning occurs “across institutions.” Unfortunately, most improvement models work only on the  A and B dimension level and struggle to move into the C level. For which Alex Pentland adds from his book Social Physics, “It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse.”

5. The Rules of the System: as Meadows shares, “As we try to imagine restructured rules and what our behavior would be under them, we come to understand the power of rules. They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power.” Which is why that the idea of transformation is much easier than the real reckoning of what it takes to bring about any type of authentic transformation. Which gets to the overcoming of the formidable statement of “this is how we do things here.” It is also part of why the transformation rhetoric that occurred at the beginning of the pandemic has slowly arc’d back slowly over time towards more status quo thinking.

4. The Power to Add, Change, Evolve, or Self-Organize System Structure: as Meadows shares, “The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself.” All of which are an incredible heavy lift and struggle for educational institutions that have relied less on nonlinearity, adaptability, agility, and emergence, and much more on linearity, predictability, and certainty for the last hundred years. While this is a high-leverage point for system resilience, it is high-effort lift and will remain in the high-effort quadrant for some time as education looks to transform itself in the coming years.

3. The Goals of the System: as Meadows shares, “Even people within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving.” And unfortunately, too often in education we believe that the moral purpose of education is enough for everyone to be clear about the systems goals that are determined to drive the organization forward, and it is not enough. Goals need to be articulated, they need to have meaning, they need to be continuously repeated, and they need to be worth standing up for, if they are to create any type of “leverage point” for the system.

2. The Mindset or Paradigm Out of Which the System – its Goals, Structure, Rules, Delays, Parameters – Arises: as Meadows puts forth, “Paradigms are the the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, comes systems goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows, and everything else about systems.” Meadows also shares that “paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system.” Which we are currently experiencing. A crisis does not necessarily equate into a paradigm shift, and the longer the arc of that crisis, the harder it becomes over time to make any type of consequential shift. What we often fail to realize is the deep resiliency of individual and organizational status quo and how deeply it is truly entrenched in most systems.

1. The Power to Transcend Paradigms: Meadows puts forth that, “There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is true, that everyone, including the one that shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.” Too often, and not just in education, we find ourselves tied to one paradigm, one framework, be that individually or organizationally. We are systems thinkers. We are design thinkers. We find ourselves in “vs” mindsets over “and” thinking. We tend to isolate rather than braid our thinking to begin to take us beyond the current thinking towards better strategies, concepts, frameworks, and even paradigms. Today’s individuals and organizations need to be in a constant reflective stance, rethinking and reframing, with an openness and willingness to disrupt current mindsets when new thinking creates the circumstances for and need to allow new thinking to invade those cognitive spaces. We can no longer afford to entrench our thinking in the known.

As educators look to improve systems and systems thinking in moving forward, awareness of Donella Meadows “leverage points” provides a starting point to determine how to begin reframing from a sense of trying to control our systems, to one that brings us towards being more open to guiding our systems forward in much more relevant and even transformative manner. It is in this stance, that emergence opens up new possibilities, and ultimately shifts our paradigms.

“The scarcest resource is not oil, metals, clean air, capital, labour, or technology. It is our willingness to listen to each other and learn from each other and to seek the truth rather than see to be right.” -Donella Meadows

Pulling Threads: Unraveling Foundations

“The faster the car, the further the headlights must go.” -Gaston Berger

It is difficult to put into words the amount of pain, suffering, disruption and damage this pandemic has wreaked across society. It cannot be understated, ignored or denied. And yet, on other fronts, it has acted as catalyst for rapid, sweeping change. Riding alongside this pandemic has been plethora of panruption. We’ve watched business transformed from mortar to mobile. Education has moved from the schoolhouse to the homestead. Every facet of society has experienced or continues to experience some form of change or transformation, often in an ultra-accelerated manner. And for that reason…

Adaptability, agility and learnability through volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity under continuously shifting context and circumstances has become our current environment under which we are required to survive and thrive. 

It is the environment we planned for, but never truly expected to experience or ever arrive. But no matter, as it has become our current context, the one we currently reside within, both as individuals and as organizations. And for that reason, we are learning that our legacy mannerisms are limiting factors that tend to pigeon hole us and our organizations in past practices that have or are currently losing any semblance of relevance for the future. We can no longer define ourselves by where we’ve been or what we’ve achieved previously, as it has become imperative that we are able to adapt and reinvent our systems continuously in moving forward. It is the loop that we find ourselves and our organizations in. And we are finding it to be an incredibly heavy lift.

It is a learning challenge. 

It is an adaptive challenge.

And it is an everyone challenge…

If we are going to engage the action and language of real transformation.

And it will require pulling threads, no longer just out of curiosity, but now out of necessity and need. Everywhere we look there are threads hanging, waiting to be pulled. But we know, once those threads are pulled, there is no going back once the unraveling begins. And that can be deeply unsettling, not only in the unknowns that lie behind those hanging threads, but the paradigm shifts that accompany them.

Pulling threads takes us into and opens up spaces that we’ve tended to avoid or even failed to acknowledge. We can no longer choose to neatly cut off these threads and move on. We have to prepare ourselves for the unraveling. We have to prepare ourselves and our organizations for what these unravelings will provoke, the reflection they will require, the learning they will necessitate, and the action that they will eventually initiate.

And at an even deeper level, it is also in realizing that the pulling of these threads will unravel the mental models and maps that we’ve all built up as individuals and as organizations.

Pulling threads also opens up new possibilities and moves us towards a variety of emerging futures, which will necessitate much more exploring of new learnings, new strategies and new thinking. For, if we are going to get to a point of truly doing different, we will have to learn to think different.

Here are just a few concepts, frameworks, tools and strategies to explore and threads to begin to pull…

  • Complex Adaptive Systems
  • Strategic Foresight
  • Sensemaking
  • Scenarios and Scenario Planning
  • Experiential Futures
  • Horizon or Environmental Scanning 
  • Strategic and/or Future Narratives
  • Emergence / Emergent Complexity
  • Identifying and Mapping Change Drivers
  • Axes of Uncertainty
  • Trend Analysis
  • Backcasting
  • Networks
  • Forecasting

We live in a time where no one concept, framework, tool or strategy will be enough to move us forward into these emerging futures effectively. Rather, it will require the braiding of these in ways that best supports individual and current circumstances and the context in which they reside. It will necessitate moving past either/or to and thinking, as well as understanding that we have to create broad agency within each individual as well as an anticipatory stance towards creating and moving from what we see as plausible to much more possible futures.

“It is important that the future be seen as a number of possible alternatives. Futures, not future.” -Eleonara Masini