Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adding Foresight to Your Toolbox

In a world in which “life-long learning” is the norm, museum professionals are constantly enrolling in workshops, short courses and on-line seminars. Why not add futures studies to that mix? I kick-started my career as a museum futurist with a five-day immersion course given by the University of Houston’s Strategic Foresight program, and have been encouraging other museum folk to take advantage of this fabulous crash course ever since. In 2010 one of my Houston classmates, Joe Cavanaugh, director of the National Museum of the Pacific War, shared his take on the curriculum. In 2011 Lisa Eriksen blogged about her experience with the certificate course (Lisa went on to organize the California Association of Museums Future Leaders program). This week, as U. Houston registers students for the latest round of training (May 12-16, 2014), Kate Burgess-Mac Intosh shares her take on futurist training. Kate, who is taking graduate courses offered by U Houston, is an emerging futurist, educator, and principal of Revitalizing Historic Sites.

Professionally, I have had a pretty winding road up to this point. From fine arts and art history, to museum studies, future studies, and now special education, I’ve been in a classroom, either as a student or teacher, my entire life. I know that I would not be where I am now without passion, drive, creativity, and a willingness (and, most importantly, desire) to constantly take on new challenges and learn new things. Foresight has allowed me to objectively look at this path not as divergent, but as a culmination of interests leading to the ability to objectively and creatively face what comes next.

Initially, I was attracted to futures studies because of the allure of dreaming about our future. An entire field built around reading, scanning, and thinking far and wide about what comes next, and, the potential to get paid (paid!) to do those things?  How could anyone not be intrigued?

When beginning my futures journey, I started by reaching out to a futurist I had met through CFM, Garry Golden. Garry, with Elizabeth Merritt, presented a day-long workshop on the future of museums at the 2011 AAM conference in Houston. This was one of my first in-person futures experiences, having heard Garry speak at a previous online event for Emerging Museum Professionals through CFM and AAM. This workshop, which was a combination of an overview of futurist methods, group hands-on activities, and culminated in mini-presentations of our forecasts, started my journey to futures studies.

From those early interactions, I began to ponder what a professional futurist is, what they do, and how one could pursue an interest in futures and foresight (side note – those two terms are used somewhat interchangeably throughout the field, something I had to learn early as well). I researched online, watched videos of lectures and presentations from futurists, read articles and blog posts, and started following futurist organizations, such as the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Future Society. I talked to Garry and learned more about the Futures program at the University of Houston, the program he had attended and where he presently lectures. I reached out to faculty at the program, and set the ball rolling, enrolling in my first class, Introduction to Futures Studies (now Introduction to Foresight), in the fall of 2012.

A journey that started with a workshop, research, and the start of graduate courses has culminated in a complete shift in my way of thinking. I can no longer suggest a small change, as I’m much more aware of systems because of coursework in systems thinking, now knowing that a small change can spark major shifts. I can no longer read about a protest or hear of a rebellious or entrepreneurial young person without seeing them as a contemporary social change agent. I can no longer read an article about a technology in development without following up “oh this is so cool” with the implications of the invention in my head, filling in an imaginary implications wheel a minimum of three tiers out, seeing clearly in my mind that Google glasses will cause car accidents...(or whatever connection I may make).

Foresight studies educates you in different aspects of thinking about how the world works, such as cause and effect through systems thinking, social change, and planning through scenarios. Studying foresight:
  • Energizes your creativity
  • Expands your connections
  • Exposes you to potential futures
  • Encourages you to be more aware
  • Enables your thinking processes to expand
  • Educates you in different aspects of thinking 

For example, two of the domains I study– the future of leisure and future of art and creative practice, have fostered new inspiration and ideas for my work as a consultant. Another, the future of education, has inspired me to grow my professional toolbox further, adding special education to my career pursuits.

The University of Houston offers an incubator-type learning environment. Combining in-class and online atmospheres where ideas are freely exchanged, learning is multi-dimensional and incorporative of a team approach, where both students and teachers take leadership roles, and futurists emerge ready to tackle the changes and challenges we will all face.

Adding foresight to your toolbox, whether it is through attending conference sessions on the topic, reading reports or books, joining a futures-related online group, taking a workshop, or pursuing a course or certificate, is an opportunity to expand your thinking and to consider the broader picture of how today’s museum will not only survive, but thrive, in the future.


If Kate, Lisa, Joe and I have convinced you that a bit of formal futurist education would be a valuable addition to your toolkit, I encourage you to enroll in the May 12-16 iteration of the University of Houston’s Certificate course in Strategic Foresight. April 11th is the deadline for getting the conference rate at the hotel, but registration for the Certificate will remain open until the class is full.

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