The Future is not a Solution


Essay by Laura Forlano: “The future is a particular kind of speaker,” explains communication scholar James W. Carey, “who tells us where we are going before we know it ourselves.” But in discussions about the nature of the future, the future as an experience never appears. This is because “the future is always offstage and never quite makes its entrance into history; the future is a time that never arrives but is always awaited.” Perhaps this is why, in the American context, there is a widespread tendency to “discount the present for the future,” and see the “future as a solvent” for existing social problems.

Abstract discussions of the “the future” miss the mark. That is because experience changes us. Anyone that has lived through the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic would surely agree. While health experts are well aware of the ongoing global risks posed by pandemics, no one—not even an algorithm—can predict exactly when, where, and how they might come to be. And, yet, since spring 2020, there has been a global desire to understand precisely what is next, how to navigate uncertain futures as well as adapt to long-term changes. The pandemic, according to the writer Arundhati Roy, is “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

In order to understand the choices that we are facing, it is necessary to understand the ways in which technologies and futures are often linked—socially, politically, and commercially —through their promises of a better tomorrow, one just beyond our grasp. Computer scientist Paul Dourish and anthropologist Genevieve Bell refer to these as “technovisions” or the stories that technologists and technology companies tell about the role of computational technologies in the future. Technovisions portray technological progress as inevitable—becoming cultural mythologies and self-fulfilling prophecies. They explain that the “proximate future,” a future that is “indefinitely postponed” is a key feature of research and practice in the field of computing that allows technology companies to “absolve themselves of the responsibilities of the present” by assuming that “certain problems will simply disappear of their own accord—questions of usability, regulation, resistance, adoption barriers, sociotechnical backlashes, and other concerns are erased.”…(More)”

Impact Evidence and Beyond: Using Evidence to Drive Adoption of Humanitarian Innovations


Learning paper by DevLearn: “…provides guidance to humanitarian innovators on how to use evidence to enable and drive adoption of innovation.

Innovation literature and practice show time and time again that it is difficult to scale innovations. Even when an innovation is demonstrably impactful, better than the existing solution and good value for money, it does not automatically get adopted or used in mainstream humanitarian programming.

Why do evidence-based innovations face difficulties in scaling and how can innovators best position their innovation to scale?

This learning paper is for innovators who want to effectively use evidence to support and enable their journey to scale. It explores the underlying social, organisational and behavioural factors that stifle uptake of innovations.

It also provides guidance on how to use, prioritise and communicate evidence to overcome these barriers. The paper aims to help innovators generate and present their evidence in more tailored and nuanced ways to improve adoption and scaling of their innovations….(More)”.

Design as Democratic Inquiry


Book by Carl DiSalvo: “Through practices of collaborative imagination and making, or “doing design otherwise,” design experiments can contribute to keeping local democracies vibrant.

In this counterpoint to the grand narratives of design punditry, Carl DiSalvo presents what he calls “doing design otherwise.” Arguing that democracy requires constant renewal and care, he shows how designers can supply novel contributions to local democracy by drawing together theory and practice, making and reflection. The relentless pursuit of innovation, uncritical embrace of the new and novel, and treatment of all things as design problems, says DiSalvo, can lead to cultural imperialism. In Design as Democratic Inquiry, he recounts a series of projects that exemplify engaged design in practice. These experiments in practice-based research are grounded in collaborations with communities and institutions.

The projects DiSalvo describes took place from 2014 to 2019 in Atlanta. Rather than presume that government, industry—or academia—should determine the outcome, the designers began with the recognition that the residents and local organizations were already creative and resourceful. DiSalvo uses the projects to show how design might work as a mode of inquiry. Resisting heroic stories of design and innovation, he argues for embracing design as fragile, contingent, partial, and compromised. In particular, he explores how design might be leveraged to facilitate a more diverse civic imagination. A fundamental tenet of design is that the world is made, and therefore it could be made differently. A key concept is that democracy requires constant renewal and care. Thus, designing becomes a way to care, together, for our collective future…(More)”.

Perspectives on Digital Humanism


Open Access Book edited by Hannes Werthner, Erich Prem, Edward A. Lee, and Carlo Ghezzi: “Digital Humanism is young; it has evolved from an unease about the consequences of a digitized world for human beings, into an internationally connected community that aims at developing concepts to provide a positive and constructive response. Following up on several successful workshops and a lecture series that bring together authorities of the various disciplines, this book is our latest contribution to the ongoing international discussions and developments. We have compiled a collection of 46 articles from experts with different disciplinary and institutional backgrounds, who provide their view on the interplay of human and machine.

Please note our open access publishing strategy for this book to enable widespread circulation and accessibility. This means that you can make use of the content freely, as long as you ensure appropriate referencing. At the same time, the book is also published in printed and online versions by Springer….(More)”.

Systemic Mapping and Design Research: Towards Participatory Democratic Engagement


Paper by Juan de LaRosa, Stan Ruecker, Carolina Giraldo Nohora: “This article presents an argument to extend possibilities and discussions about the role of design in democratic participation. We ground this argument in case studies and observations of several grassroots experimental participatory design workshops run with the intention of producing spaces for community deliberation and a tangible transformation of these communities. These cases show how systemic mapping and prototyping are used to increase community understanding of how potential futures represent values systems that should correspond to the values the community would like to see in place. The methodologies used on these workshops are presented it here as an opportunity to question the role of design in democratic deliberation and policy making….(More)”.

The Time Tax


Article by Annie Lowrey: “…In my decade-plus of social-policy reporting, I have mostly understood these stories as facts of life. Government programs exist. People have to navigate those programs. That is how it goes. But at some point, I started thinking about these kinds of administrative burdens as the “time tax”—a levy of paperwork, aggravation, and mental effort imposed on citizens in exchange for benefits that putatively exist to help them. This time tax is a public-policy cancer, mediating every American’s relationship with the government and wasting countless precious hours of people’s time.

The issue is not that modern life comes with paperwork hassles. The issue is that American benefit programs are, as a whole, difficult and sometimes impossible for everyday citizens to use. Our public policy is crafted from red tape, entangling millions of people who are struggling to find a job, failing to feed their kids, sliding into poverty, or managing a disabling health condition.

… the government needs to simplify. For safety-net programs, this means eliminating asset tests, work requirements, interviews, and other hassles. It means federalizing programs like unemployment insurance and Medicaid. It means cross-coordinating, so that applicants are automatically approved for everything for which they qualify.

Finally, it needs to take responsibility for the time tax. Congress needs to pump money into the civil service and into user-friendly, citizen-centered programmatic design. And the federal government needs to reward states and the executive agencies for increasing uptake and participation rates, while punishing them for long wait times and other bureaucratic snafus.

Such changes would eliminate poverty and encourage trust in government. They would make American lives easier and simpler. Yes, Washington should give Americans more money and more security. But most of all, it should give them back their time….(More)”.

….

What is the difference between current awareness and horizon scanning?


identifying the trends

An informed perspective is more important than ever in order to anticipate what comes next and succeed in emerging futures”. HBR, October 16, 2015

Article by Clare Brown: “Legal professionals are busy people. They are concerned with doing the best they can for their clients and making sure that their business runs smoothly. Trend spotting or horizon scanning isn’t necessarily at the top of their daily “to do” lists but if they want to grow the firm effectively, everyone – from trainee to managing partner – needs to anticipate future events. 

The best way information people can help to do this is to first understand how everything fits together. We need to look at the difference between current awareness and horizon scanning – and put them both into a wider strategic context. When we present our management teams with evidence that they need automated current awareness, we should also be dazzling them with future information possibilities. 

…The answer might lie in a strategic and collaborative form of foresight, or as Kerstin E. Cuhls defines it, “a systematic debate of complex futures”. Large corporations, governments and intergovernmental organisations have used various methods to use information in their efforts to predict all possible outcomes. For instance, 

Georghiou (2007) reported that foresight activities have been conducted in conjunction with NIS in the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, The Netherlands, Austria, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Columbia, India, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and other countries. In Germany, the Fraunhofer Society has taken the lead in progressively applying foresight not only in NIS but also in the preparation of strategic scenarios at the corporate level (Cuhls, 2015). (Yuichi Washida and Akihisa Yahata “Predictive value of horizon scanning for future scenarios in Foresight, 3 February 2021)

The excellent article on horizon scanning I mentioned above explains how they attempt it. In essence, it involves literature searches, conversations, taking a broad view, and being open to any and all possibilities:

  • Structured: it is a systematic approach by applying methods of futures research, science-based, and based on new theories of futures research
  • Debate: it includes interaction of relevant actors, active preparation for the future or different futures, and orientation towards shaping the future
  • Complex: it includes the consideration of systemic interdependencies, takes a holistic view
  • Futures is plural: it is an open view on different paths into the future with thinking in alternatives. We also envisage different types of futures, in futures research we differentiate between possible, probable and preferable futures…(More)”.

To solve big issues like climate change, we need to reframe our problems



Essay by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg and Jonathan Wichmann: “Imagine you own an office building and your tenants are complaining that the elevator is way too slow. What do you do?

Faced with this problem, most people instinctively jump into solution mode. How can we make the elevator faster? Can we upgrade the motor? Tweak the algorithm? Do we need to buy a new elevator?

The speed of the elevator might be the wrong problem to focus on, however. Talk to an experienced landlord and they might offer you a more elegant solution: put up mirrors next to the elevator so people don’t notice the wait. Gazing lovingly at your own reflection tends to have that effect.

The mirror doesn’t make the elevator faster. It solves a different problem – that the wait is annoying.

Solve the right problem

The slow elevator story highlights an important truth, in that the way we frame a problem often determines which solutions we come up with. By shifting the way we see a problem, we can sometimes find better solutions.

Problem framing is of paramount importance when it comes to tackling the many hard challenges our societies face. And yet, we’re not terribly good at it. In a survey of 106 corporate leaders, 87% said their people waste significant resources solving the wrong problems. When we go to the doctor, we know very well that identifying the right problem is key. Too often, we fail to apply the same thinking to social and global problems.

Three common patterns

So, how do we get better at it? One starting point is to recognise that there are often patterns in the way we frame problems. Get better at recognising those patterns, and you can dramatically improve your ability to solve the right problems. Here are three typical patterns:

1. We prefer framings that allow us to avoid change

People tend to frame problems so they don’t have to change their own behaviour. When the lack of women leading companies first became a prominent concern decades ago, it was often framed as a pipeline problem. Many corporate leaders simply assumed that, once there were enough women in junior positions, the C-suite would follow.

That framing allowed companies to carry on as usual for about a generation until time eventually proved the pipeline theory wrong, or at best radically incomplete. The gender balance among senior executives would surely be better by now if companies had not spent a few decades ignoring other explanations for the skewed ratio….(More)”.

Street Experiments


About: “City streets are increasingly becoming spaces for experimentation, for testing “in the wild” a seemingly unstoppable flow of “disruptive” mobility innovations such as mobility platforms for shared mobility and ride/hailing, electric and autonomous vehicles, micro-mobility solutions, etc. But also, and perhaps more radically, for recovering the primary function of city streets as public spaces, not just traffic channels.

City street experiments are:

“intentional, temporary changes of the street use, regulation and/or form, aimed at exploring systemic change in urban mobility”

​They offer a prefiguration of what a radically different arrangement of the city´s mobility system and public space could look like and allow moving towards that vision by means of “learning by doing”.

The S.E.T. platform offers a collection of Resources for implementing and supporting street experiments. As well as a special section of COVID-19 devoted to the best practices of street experiments that offered solutions and strategies for cities to respond to the current pandemic and a SET Guidelines Kit that provides insights and considerations on creating impactful street experiments with long-term effects….(More)”.

Who’s Afraid of Big Numbers?


Aiyana Green and Steven Strogatz at the New York Times: “Billions” and “trillions” seem to be an inescapable part of our conversations these days, whether the subject is Jeff Bezos’s net worth or President Biden’s proposed budget. Yet nearly everyone has trouble making sense of such big numbers. Is there any way to get a feel for them? As it turns out, there is. If we can relate big numbers to something familiar, they start to feel much more tangible, almost palpable.

For example, consider Senator Bernie Sanders’s signature reference to “millionaires and billionaires.” Politics aside, are these levels of wealth really comparable? Intellectually, we all know that billionaires have a lot more money than millionaires do, but intuitively it’s hard to feel the difference, because most of us haven’t experienced what it’s like to have that much money.

In contrast, everyone knows what the passage of time feels like. So consider how long it would take for a million seconds to tick by. Do the math, and you’ll find that a million seconds is about 12 days. And a billion seconds? That’s about 32 years. Suddenly the vastness of the gulf between a million and a billion becomes obvious. A million seconds is a brief vacation; a billion seconds is a major fraction of a lifetime.

Comparisons to ordinary distances provide another way to make sense of big numbers. Here in Ithaca, we have a scale model of the solar system known as the Sagan Walk, in which all the planets and the gaps between them are reduced by a factor of five billion. At that scale, the sun becomes the size of a serving plate, Earth is a small pea and Jupiter is a brussels sprout. To walk from Earth to the sun takes just a few dozen footsteps, whereas Pluto is a 15-minute hike across town. Strolling through the solar system, you gain a visceral understanding of astronomical distances that you don’t get from looking at a book or visiting a planetarium. Your body grasps it even if your mind cannot….(More)”.