Showing posts with label futures studies 101. Show all posts
Showing posts with label futures studies 101. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Spend Some Time Daydreaming the Future

Humans are natural storytellers. That should make my work easy, because the apex of strategic foresight is using storytelling to plan for the future. Futurists call these stories “scenarios,” and while they have a very serious purpose, they work best when they are also compelling, entertaining (and believable) fiction.

This kind of storytelling isn’t a fringe activity either, it is completely mainstream. Many organizations, notably large corporations in industries such as energy, health care or transportation, commission custom sets of scenarios to guide their own planning. Shell has a 40 year history of developing scenarios to guide their decision making. (You can access the Shell scenarios here.) Sometimes external players create scenarios to forecast the future of a major company and its potential impact on their marketplace. See, for example, this set of scenarios created in 2006 about potential futures of Google.

Reading stories of the future helps get you in the habit of thinking on a longer time frame, scanning for information and identifying important trends and events as you read the news. Spending a little of your important daydreaming time inhabiting potential futures equips you to create plans that:
  • Encompass an appropriate vision for what the organization wants to accomplish
  • Identify appropriate long term goals
  • Don’t rely on vulnerable assumptions
  • Are flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and embed appropriate contingencies
Exploring scenarios helps you to understand the potential consequences of crucial decisions. Stories, for example, might help you discover the downside to creating a 10-year master plan for an expensive new building on a site that will be flooded with increasing frequency, as sea levels rise and storms increase in frequency and severity.Stories might help you understand what kinds of collections, the museum needs to build to serve the needs of a community with rapidly changing demographics.

Some people are beginning to recognize that strategic foresight, including scenarios, may be the future of planning.  I’ve compiled a small but growing list of museums that used forecasting as a basis for planning at their museums, for example,
  • The Museum of Northern  Arizona, which is helping the community of Flagstaff navigate demographic, environmental and economic upheavals.
  • The Valentine Richmond History Center, where  director Bill Martin led the museum through  a planning process addressing four themes identified by their forecasting.

These organizations have, for the most part, used CFM’s trends forecasting, notably the TrendsWatch reports, to frame their discussions. There is a small, but growing literature of museum-specific scenarios (You can find some in CFM's Tomorrow in the Golden State: Museums and the Future of California, and others in the archives of the CFM Blog.) 

However, there are some excellent scenarios created for sectors tangentially related to museums that have offer lessons for our field.

Scenarios for the Future  of the Book  (2012) was created for the Association of College and Research Libraries. It presents four potential futures:

Consensus (meaning their forecasters thought  this is the most probable future) in which books have largely been digitized, tablet readers rule, and printed books are legacy objects valued by scholars and collectors.
Nostalgic (meaning their forecasters preferred this future, but thought  it unlikely to happen) in which e- books turn out to have  been a fad, printed books are less expensive and more popular than their digital equivalents, and print-on-demand technology empowers self-publication. “Books are the new business card;  to be taken  seriously, clients want to be given a copy of the book you’ve written.”
Privatization of the Book: in which personal libraries of physical books are status objects for collectors and the social and economic elite. While digital works are more readily accessible, print copies are preferred.
Printed Books Thrive: a future in which digital and print publications amicably share the market.

These scenarios give the staff of libraries very specific, plausible visions of what the future might be, and context in which to make strategic decisions about space, staff, time and resources. That, in turn, can help overturn assumptions about what “library” means, and opens the door to envisioning new roles. (Such as the role outlined in this great post about a library pushing the boundaries of “library” identity.)

Another very well-done set of scenarios is Learning in 2025 by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. This forecast presents a variety of resources (including some very well-done videos interviewing education professionals of the future). At the bottom of the main web page you will find a set of scenarios grouped together as “The Learning System of 2025,” presenting 4 stories of potential futures: 
  • A Vibrant Learning Grid
  • A National System for Global Competitiveness
  • Learners Forage for Resources
  • Schools are Centers of Resilience

You may recognize these scenarios as the inspiration for my own riffing on the museums and the future of education. I highly recommend you read these stories of potential futures, and see how they may lead you to question your assumptions about the what “museum” means, and open the door to envisioning new roles. Enjoy.








Friday, July 13, 2012

Futurist Friday: Internet Fail


Futurist Friday is a series of occasional posts featuring recommending reading, viewing or listening resources to expand your thinking and fuel your  forecasting.

When I teach forecasting workshops, I lead participants through the process of identifying trends and disruptive events that may shape the future.

As I’ve written in CFM’s Futures Studies 101 series, trends sneak in under our radar because we don’t notice their gradual effects, or project where they will take us. Disruptive events, on the other hand, spring out to take us by surprise. By spending some time contemplating what kinds of events could have sudden and profound effects on our world, we can be prepared to respond quickly and effectively. A good example is your museum’s risk management and/or emergency response plans. (You do have one, right?) These typically cover floods, fire, storm, power outages and, sometimes, terrorist attacks. As my workshop attendees consistently demonstrate, however, a intelligent and imaginative group of people can come up with a far, far longer list of credible threats we may have to deal with in the future.

Inevitably, one of the disruptive events that workshop participants throw into the mix is “massive solar flare brings down the internet.” Yes, such an event is well within the Cone of Plausibility, and yes, it would have huge effects on society as a whole, and certainly on our institutions.

So, for your futurist Friday reading, here is a interview with David Eagleman on the vulnerabilities of the internet. To summarize:
  • Solar flares can and do put communications satellites out of commission, and can cause geomagnetic storms that could “blow out transformers and melt our computer system.”
  • Cyber-warfare directed at military or corporate targets, or civic infrastructure. In the future, governments or terrorists may target general internet connectivity as well as specific targets. Or the perpetrators may simply be malicious hackers (this type of malicious “griefing” was one forecast explored in the Institute for the Futures “SuperStruct” game –n 2008.)
  • Political mandate, as in Iran and Egypt which both shut down the internet in the recent past to exert control over social media. Did you know that 61% of Americans approve of the idea of the U.S. president having a “kill switch” to shut off internet access? Homeland Security’s 2010 proposal on this didn’t make it through Congress, but stay tuned…
  • Cable cutting. I didn’t know 99% of all global web traffic runs through deep sea networks of fiber optic cables. Apparently there is growing history of sabotage of these networks, and they are understandably difficult to protect.
If you prefer to listen to reading, you can download a podcast that Eagleman did on the subject on 4/1/2010.

Spend a little time imagining that you wake up, one day, to the NPR Morning Edition lead story “Internet down, across the globe, no projection yet to why or when connectivity will be restored.” What would be the immediate implications for your family, your neighborhood, your museum, the country, the world? What steps would you take to adapt?                                           

The next major geomagnetic storms are forecast for mid-2013—plenty of time to review and revise your emergency plans. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Are Natural History Museums Ready to Become Superheroes?

Look at the tagline at the top of this page: “because museums can change the world.”

I can make a credible argument that natural history museums have the greatest potential, among their brethren in art, history, science, to play global superhero, if only because the need is greatest.

Want an example? The Mapping the Biosphere project aims to document 10 million new species in the next 50 years. The project’s vision is nothing less than saving the planet’s biodiversity (and therefore, perhaps, our own species). Key players include museums, of course, The Natural History Museum in London among them.

But to change the world for the better, natural history museums must first change themselves. In the next century, they will have to adapt to shifts in traditional funding sources, increased demands for online access to their resources and changing tastes among visitors and donors.

To explore the selective pressures shaping the evolution of our natural history museums, I will be leading a day-long forecasting exercise on June 16, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections in New Haven, Conn.

I’m trying to design the workshop to benefit the field as a whole, as well as being an immersive primer on forecasting for attendees. Participants will receive a lightning introduction to scanning & forecasting, and then flesh out scenarios (stories) illustrating potential futures that may face their institutions. These scenarios, and the reasoning behind them, will be disseminated by SPNHC and by CFM as a starting point for thinking, and planning in natural history collections around the world.

I’ve recruited a talented crew of natural history geeks (hints to their identities embedded in links) to sketch the beginnings of stories about alternate futures that participants will elaborate and explore, but I need your help to get our authors started.

Each proto-story will be built around a few specific drivers of change: existing trends or potential disruptive events that may shape the museum environment in coming decades. I would like your help in generating a list for authors to choose from.

I’ll prime your imagination by naming just a few of these drivers of change:

Trends Potential Disruptive Event
  • Rapidly decreasing cost of genetic sequencing
  • Increasing rate of mass extinctions
  • Increasing rate of digitization
Add your observations on important trends in comments, below.
  • Congress increases NSF research funding by 10x in 2015
  • Pandemic bird/swine flu virus sweeps the globe in 2020. Feared to reside in museum specimens as well as livestock
  • Massive “hack attack” in 2018 targets research databases of major US institutions, including colleges, universities and museums—erasing and changing data, inserting self-replicating viruses and worms.
Add your ideas for potential disruptive events in comments, below.

When thinking about trends, focus on things you see changing now, in a particular direction and at a particular speed: increasing or decreasing, slowly or quickly. For example, museums are ramping up digitization of records and specimens at an ever accelerating rate, which has enormous implications for accessibility and utility, and equally large implications on budget and infrastructure to support those databases over time.

When thinking about disruptive events, imagine newspaper headlines: you bring up the NYT on your tablet on April 24, 2015, and read “Congress votes to increase NSF research funding ten-fold.” Wow—gamechanger. How might this one stroke of a pen change our world? Imagine a specific event and give it a specific date (year).

When thinking about both trends and events, consider all the arenas in which important trends and events can occur: cultural, technological, environmental, economic and political.

Here is a short post illustrating how trends and events are combined to create the seed of a story of the future that can help us decide what actions we need to take now.

You can register to join us at the forecasting workshop.

And in any case, please use the comments section, below, to help me brainstorm trends and events that can jumpstart our thinking in June.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Navigating Conservation Futures



I’m often bemused when I compare the answers to two questions I frequently ask museums:



  1. One of the key functions identified in your mission is preserving collections. What’s your goal? How long do you want them to be around?
  2. What timeframe do you examine when you approach institutional planning?

The answer to 1) (once I stipulate it can’t be “forever”) is usually in a 200–1000 year range. The answer to 2) is usually around 20 years, if that.

This depressing disconnect made me particularly happy to receive a paper from MaryJo Lelyveld, conservator of frames and furniture, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, titled “Beyond Swabs and Solvent Gels: Using Scenarios to Generate, Evaluate and Navigate Conservation Futures." This is a good read for the staff of any collecting institution. How can we expect to do a good job of preserving scientific, artistic, historic and cultural heritage for future generations if we don’t spend some mental energy considering the impact that trends will have on collections and collecting?

The main text of the paper is a general overview of forecasting and scenario planning, pitched at conservation professionals. For those budding futurists and have read the Futures Studies 101 series on this Blog, or attending the University of Houston’s Certificate intensive Certificate in Strategic Foresight* this will be a review of familiar material.

But I recommend Appendix 2: Scenarios for the Future of Conservation to the attention of all readers. Here Lilyveld summarized pertinent trends in all the STEEP categories (social, technological, economic, environmental and political) and assesses their impact on collections. She also defines a set of key issues and addresses them through presenting the seed (or kernel) of three scenarios—hypothetical stories of the future about 20 years from now. These are set in Australia, but the drivers of change shaping that nation are broadly similar to those facing the U.S., and the scenarios could be adapted for American museums with minor changes.

The Great Release envisions a future in which the rising financial burden of caring for collections, slow economic growth and the collapse of government funding leads many state and regional galleries to close their collections and aggressively deaccession materials. Private and cooperative collectors step in to buy these materials, and conservators (92% of whom are self-employed in this future) band together to form centralized cultural heritage skills centers to care for these distributed collections. The current Maker movement gives rise to the “Thing-kers” movement—people eager to learn lost trades and return to the comfort of tangible artifacts.

In GaME on natural disasters and terrorist attacks have fueled the movement of collections, and conservators, to centralized, secure storage sites. (Hmm, sounds like Louisiana.) “Real” exhibits lose ground to “immersive art experiences.” Not that collections are not longer valued. au contraire—some museums have begun to monetize their collections by selling biological samples to commercial enterprises, others sell accurate 3-D models of their material. Conservators specialize as either Heritage Scientists, focusing on analysis and research, or Cultural Replicators, skilled in 3D documentation, database management and creation of virtual experiences.

Conservation 2030: Museoagora paints a picture of the future in which museum growth and expansion is fueled by increased volunteerism on the part of retiring Boomers and unemployed Millennials. Attendance rises to new heights, and museums expand their activities in a variety of ways, turning their grounds into botanical arks and creating pop-up museums in local businesses. The increased use and transportation of collections demands more conservation support, assisted by advances in nanotechnology and molecular engineering that essentially enable artifacts to heal themselves. (This is what futurists would call a “bright future.” Can you tell?)

As with all scenarios, these stories are starting points for deeper exploration. You might adapt and expand them to apply to your museum and its community, helping your staff to plan for many potential futures, all of which include well-cared for collections.

*Registration is now open for the Jan. 9–13 session of the University of Houston’s Certificate in Strategic Foresight course. Register by Dec. 9 for the early bird rate, and mention you are a CFM follower for a 20% discount! Several museum graduates have documented their experience in the course here on the CFM Blog.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Futures Studies 101: Implications Wheel

What would happen if a space craft full of weak, disoriented insectoid aliens parked itself in orbit over South Africa?

The implications of that (highly) improbable event are explored the 2009 film District 9. The director posits humans would confine the aliens to a ghetto outside Johannesburg, scornfully dub them “prawns”, and exploit them for military research. This plot, as with so much good science fiction, explores our actual history and culture, but it applies a useful forecasting technique—looking at a trend or event, thinking about the implications, and seeing where in the cone of plausibility those ripple effects might take us.

So maybe aliens aren’t going to park above your museum. Pick something more plausible that may profoundly affect your current plans. For example:

  • Your community is aging: within 10 years, 60% of the population will be over the age of 65, and fewer than 20% of families will have school age children.
  • Your local government decides to implement Payment in Lieu of Taxes, and slaps you with a bill for city services equal to 5% of your current annual operating expenses.
  • Your museum decides to merge with another organization in your community.

How do you begin to get a handle on all the ways in which these changes (good or bad) will affect your organization? How do you begin to plan your response?

One very useful tool is the Implication Wheel—a method of visual mapping that leads staff, board members and other stakeholders through a process of wrapping their brains around a change, and planning effective responses.

Start by putting your trend or event at the middle of your wheel.


Then ask yourself:

  1. What is likely to happen next?
  2. How would my (our) life change?
  3. What would we need to decide?


So, for the merger, you might add:


Then, choosing one item from this first circle of implications, ask the same questions and build out from there.



Push participants to explore implications of the central event in all the “STEEP” categories—social (cultural), technological, economic, ecological, political. And consider both small and large frames of reference. Social/cultural implications might be institutional (staff with very different backgrounds and training have to learn to work together) or local (the distinct communities that used the two museums need to get comfortable with each other). Same for political implications—you need a communications plan both internally (for staff and volunteers) and externally (for members, funders, community stakeholders).

Implications wheels are great for a number of reasons: 
  • They are accessible. People who don’t feel comfortable writing memos or position papers usually feel ok contributing a thought on a sticky note and putting it on the wheel. 
  • It feels messy and provisional, which can encourage people to free associate. Sometimes this is the best way to flush out touchy topics or fringe possibilities. (To foster this approach, I recommend drawing freehand on a white board or flip chart, and/or using sticky notes.) 
  • It has high visual impact, and illustrates the decision making process in a way that easy to share with other stakeholders. (If you want to create an electronic document to share, you can use mind mapping or flowchart software to transcribe the wheel.) 
  • The method tends to do a very good job spotting major negative implication of a decision or event, and identifying opportunities.

You can find a brief introduction to Implications Wheels here, and a longer exploration showing how it was used to model the implications of pandemic flu here.

If you have done an Implications Wheel for a decision or event facing your museum, I would love to see it. Are you willing to share? Please do!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Futures Studies 101: How to Read the Newspaper


I joke that the biggest change in my life since becoming director of CFM is that now I read the financial section of the New York Times.

Except it isn’t a joke.

Once future studies gave me a framework for my reading, I started reading more broadly and strategically. It has improved my education in many areas in which I was woefully ignorant (economics, global politics. Pop culture). It uncovers news items we share via Dispatches from the Future of Museums and inspires posts on this blog.

So, silly as it may sound, I will devote this post to describing how I, as a futurist, now read the newspaper, based on yesterday’s edition of the NYT (Oct. 5, 2011). I encourage you to add your savvy tips on reading in the comment section at the end of the post.

First. I skim headlines, mentally dropping stories into the general STEEP categories of futurism (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political). This helps keep my scan wide, and ensures I don’t just fixate on bright shiny objects. (Ooo look! Apple released the iPhone 4S. No transformative changes.)

I also look for stories relating to trends in areas we follow regularly at CFM: anything related to museums, of course, but also ethics, education, energy, transportation, green design, accessibility, mobile tech, gaming, demographic change, philanthropy, food and crowdsourcing. Also (of course) 3D printing and yarnbombing.

Some stories seem directly applicable to the museum field: the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Take a Stand project is an effort to train the next generation of teachers who will “bring classical music to populations that normally wouldn’t have it.” How can museums contribute to training the next generation to appreciate and use our resources?

But many important stories have indirect, but profound, implications for society and our field. I watch the unfolding news about the presidential campaign with acute awareness that a Republican victory in 2012 would be a disruptive event creating a very different political future for museums. Funding for NEA, NEH, NSF and IMLS might be drastically cut. Tax-exempt status might be under greater threaten from political leadership that seeks a balanced national (or state) budget without tax increases on businesses or “ordinary” Americans.

I think about the future implications of any given story—a Japanese reactor shut down yesterday, dealing another blow to public confidence in nuclear power not only locally but, potentially, internationally. Japan’s power strategy was based on nuclear; in the aftermath of damage from the earthquake and tsunami in March, it will almost certainly rethink this strategy. If Japan turns its attention and money to alternate energy research, could this kickstart progress globally?

The most interesting story about the iPhone actually wasn’t about the phone per se, it was about the effect it might have on products and services it may drive closer to the brink of obsolescence. The writer points out that its improved features pose (further) threats to makers of video cameras, telephone providers and makers of digital greeting cards. How will the ever increasing sophistication of smart handheld devices like the iPhone effect the American economy overall? How will it shape how visitors consume and share museum content? (This was before the announcement of Steve Jobs’s death, which may change everything!)

Beyond the serious stuff, I look for stories that provide color and detail for potential scenarios of the future, like this story on squatters in Britain who simply take over vacant properties (and are apparently, under current law, very difficult to evict). In a contracting city like Detroit, where conventional museums are closing, what would happen if people occupied vacant buildings and opened “squatter museums,” to protest the decaying urban infrastructure, and tell their own stories?

Finally, I try to talk about one or two interesting articles with someone else, to test my understanding of the content and to get their take on it. And I listen to what they found interesting—often a different reader will focus on things I completely missed.

Overall, reading with a futurist focus has expanded the range of things I know at least a little about. (Even if I still don’t really understand derivatives.) It helps me think about museums, and the world in which we operate, in a richer context. And it expands my mental rolodex of interesting people in all sectors that AAM might want to involve in future projects.

Now excuse me while I go buy the ingredients for Pork Katsu. The recipe looks delicious. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Straight Up or with a Twist: Two Examples of how to Envision the Future

The biggest challenge in preparing for the future is imagining what it will be like. One of the most important roles of futures studies is to help people write stories of the future that, like all good fiction, tell the truth about something that hasn’t actually happened yet. These stories are called scenarios: imagined futures based on the intersection of new and existing trends and potentially disruptive events.

An effective scenario should be internally consistent; be engaging and compelling; explore uncertainties and differences; and be provocative, pushing people a little past their comfort level and igniting their imaginations. Scenarios should not try to eliminate uncertainty, reinforce a preferred outcome, or make people comfortable with things as they are. A really good scenario blows apart the boundaries of peoples’ thinking and opens their minds to new ways of seeing the world.

Here are two great examples that create scenarios in different media. The Institute for Alternate Futures' Vulnerability Scenarios, created for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are straightforward written descriptions of potential futures. For each of ten areas of focus (education, economy, housing, etc.) they present a description of the current situation and trends and then present three stories of the future: an alpha forecast (the most likely future), beta (a dark future based on worst-case projections) and delta (a preferred future). I think forecast #3 on education is of particular interest for museumers.

Scenarios can be dramatic and immersive as well. KnowledgeWorks Foundation has teamed up with Grantmakers for Education to produce a more playful way of envisioning the future of learning in 2025. They’ve created videos depicting a “future learning agent” interacting with distant students via the web to organize their “learning journey” assignments, and audio interviews with future teen learners.

CFM encourages this kind of storytelling in many ways, including our Voices of the Future videos. If you would like to tell your story of the future of museums, either as narrative (via the CFM Blog) or video, contact CFM Coordinator Guzel duChateau and let us put you on the schedule!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Finding Foresight in Houston

Today’s guest post is by Lisa Eriksen, an independent consultant to museums, artists, and cultural organizations. Previously, Lisa was the director of education and public programs at the California Historical Society. Lisa is blogging this week from the Houston Future Studies certificate course—the one I took last year.

This Monday, I learned about multiple futures, change, and that eras are ended by discontinuity. Last May, a new era in my career began when I was invited to participate in the workshop “Forecasting the Future of California Museums” at the American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. My thanks to Celeste DeWald, executive director of the California Association for Museums, and Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of AAM’s the Center for the Future of Museums for including me in this enlightening workshop and helping set me on the road to a “transformative transition” in my career.

Before the CFM/CAM workshop, I was aware of field of futures studies, but never thought deeply about it could be applied to my work with museums. I had dabbled in foresight in my leisure reading and online adventures. On the wall of my office is a printout of the Trends and Technology Timeline 2010+ from Richard Watson’s website, which I find fascinating. When I discovered there was a 5-day Strategic Foresight certificate program offered at the University of Houston I thought this is for me, and here I am in Houston!

The first day of the course was a fascinating introduction to the practice of futures studies and how to analyze change and systems. A few snippets we learned are that no one can predict the future, but that “the trick of being a futurist is to always be thinking of multiple futures.” The present may or may not singular, but the future is multiple, there are many possible futures that we need to consider. Futures studies (note the use of the plural) is academic term, whereas strategic foresight is used more often in professional context. Change can be both viewed as inbound (what happens to us) or outbound (the change we create) - the future is a combination of both. Professor Peter Bishop recommends that we create organizations where people are rewarded for bringing in ideas about the future from outside, no matter how irrelevant. Eventually, one of these ideas will be important in planning for future change. Assumptions, which are often viewed negatively, are useful in considering beliefs and values in forecasting the future. We need to challenge assumptions and stress testing for uncertainty.

In attendance are 35 individuals who came from as Perth, Australia and Trinidad and Tobago. We have an economist/city planner, a life coach, a non-profit marketing consultant, an engineer, people working for technology companies and in tourism, a number of people from various branches the military, and many others I have not met yet. I am not sure which I am enjoying more, the instruction or the engaging dialogue I am having with my fellow students. My mind is full of new ideas and I already have a cadre of fellow futurists-in-training to share ideas with. Now on to a whole week of finding foresight!

Interested in starting your own training as a futurist? Join us at the AAM Annual Meeting in Houston for a day-long forecasting workshop co-taught by professional futurist Garry Golden of Oliver Kaizen and me (Elizabeth Merritt). AAM members can register for the annual meeting by Feb. 18 for the Early Bird rate—just $375. Not a member? Join now to get this special rate!



Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Museum Eras*—Creativaceous, CarbonNeutraliferous, Developonian?

My last posts on “Futurism 101” talked about the sneaky nature of change, and the constant need to scan for signs of change that is creeping up or waiting to spring upon us. This post introduces eras—patterns in time created by the interplay of these driving forces. For a compiled introduction to futures forecasting for museums, download “Tomorrow in the Golden State: Museums and the Future of California
 
Two types of change—incremental and disruptive—interact to weave the landscape of the future. Typically, any field of endeavor (medicine, for example, or transportation) is characterized by “eras” that start and end with transformative, innovative change. Within an era, people experiment with variations on the era’s dominant theme and change tends to be incremental. An era ends when the next great innovative leap leaves the last dominant innovation gasping in the dust.

Here’s an example of an era drawn from the field of medicine: Alexander Fleming launched the era of antibiotics in 1928. His discovery of penicillin ushered in a century in which drugs could effectively target bacterial infections. After a slow start the pace of discovering new drugs took off and now there are hundreds of antibiotics. Now the pace is tapering off as it becomes more and more difficult to find effective new antibiotics and bacteria become resistant to our old standbys. IMO, Watson, Crick and Franklin laid the groundwork for the next medical era, that of gene-based medicine, when they deduced the structure of DNA in 1953. Old eras don’t die, they just taper off and cease to be the dominant force in their field. We still depend on antibiotics, but we no longer pin our hopes on dramatic advances in health on these drugs—for that we look to breakthroughs in gene therapy and nano-technology guided by genetic targeting.

Futurists watch the interplay of incremental and disruptive change, trying to foresee how change will play out, and at what pace, within an era, and (more importantly) spotting the early signs of the slow petering out of one era, and disruptive change marking the beginning of a new era. This is particularly important because new eras usually call for new strategies, and radical disruption of existing plans.

As a budding museum futurist, I’ve been working on this question for awhile: what are the eras that define the museum field? Here is one possible nominee:
The Era of the Blockbuster Exhibit—late 20thcentury


“Treasures of Tutankhamen” debuted at the National Gallery of Art in November, 1976, eventually drawing 8.25 million visitors as it toured the country. “Tut” spawned a museum-going frenzy—in Riches, Rivals and Radicals, Marjorie Schwarzer writes of people queuing up all night for tickets to the exhibit, camping to get a spot, and fainting in line. The huge impact of “Tut”, cultural and financial, shaped exhibition planning in medium to large museums for decades to come. With time, the downside of reliance on blockbuster exhibits became clear. The pulses of income and visitation were addictive, but not necessarily sustainable, and a return to more conventional short-term, in-house exhibits could look like failure by comparison. Museums that used the income from blockbusters to expand or staff up needed ever larger and more popular exhibits to support swollen operating budgets. Now the blockbuster era is tailing off (if not yet quite moribund) further damaged by the increased costs of shipping and insurance and the logistics of international loans. Blockbuster exhibits are still with us, but they don’t define the landscape the way they once did. During this financial downturn, the trend is for museums to draw on their permanent collections, digging deep into storage to create high-quality, if not quite so glitzy, exhibitions.

I could really use your help creating the Geologic Chart of Museum Eras! Describe a time period you think constitutes a museum “era,” kicked off by a transformative innovation, which (if the era is over) petered out over time, superseded by the Next Big Thing. Post here, in comments, or email me at emerritt@aam-us.org. And yes, I will draw up the results in spiffy colors and post it to the Blog…

*and before some smart-alec paleontologist jumps all over this—yes I know these are periods, not eras. YOU try making geologic puns about museums.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Scanning for Change: or How Important Work Can Sometimes Look Like Wasting Time

Last week’s mini-tutorial in futures studies was on the sneaky nature of change. How can we notice change as it creeps up or springs upon us? We can actively look for bits of information that give hints of the future. This information may be embedded in articles, blogs, tweets, “top ten” lists, research results, mainstream media, books, films and everyday conversation.

In future-speak, looking for such early hints of the future is called scanning. Scanning identifies and monitors change, anticipates disruptions and helps us imagine the implications of what we observe. Our goal in scanning is to find what is not already known, to go beyond established wisdom and seek the new. We look for early signs, teases and hints of trends that are just beginning or changes in speed or direction of existing trends. This post is my pitch for the absolute fundamental importance of scanning in making us aware of what is going on in the world. In other words--read, people! It was important when you were in school, it's still important now.

Now it's harder, though, because you aren't flogging away at a textbook. You are looking for your own source material, and you don't know where the important stuff is going to pop. Your scanning should includes mainstream sources (newspapers, journals, magazines etc.) but also "fringe" sources (blogs by new voices and emerging experts, social media, YouTube.) Mainstream sources will tend to reinforce what you think you already know, but the fringe sources may well challenge your beliefs and help you to question your assumptions.

Good scanning involves more than just plowing through that pile of journals and books you never seem to get to. It also involves nosing around obscure blogs, watching (occasionally silly) videos and browsing trashy magazines. In other words, it is playful, eclectic and exploratory—adjectives museum practitioners usually use as complements. Until it comes to sitting at your own desk putting off “real work” to soak up bandwidth with YouTube or flip through “Martha Stewart Living.” Then it feels an awful lot like wasting time.

So how do you validate this activity, and make sure it doesn’t get pushed to the bottom of the priority list? I recommend embedding it in your work environment and your daily routine. For example, what is the home page for your internet browser? The most important tab that opens for me every morning is iGoogle, which I have configured to include:

  • A Newsbar programmed to scan for a bunch terms I am interested in at the moment, including “future of museums,” “alternate reality games.” “futures forecasting,” “demographic trends” and “future of education,” along with the names of interesting people I am keeping an eye on. 
  • Google Reader, where I follow about 60 blogs, with a few of my favorites being
  • Museum Audience Insight from Reach Advisors, featuring previews and highlights from their research for organizations in such as tourism and resorts, museums and culture, community development, and healthy living.
  • Know Your Own Bone where Gen Y blogger Colleen Dilenschneider writes about the evolution of social change in museums and other nonprofits
  • Worldchanging a nonprofit media company that seeks out and highlights “new tools, models and ideas for building a bright green future.”
Do I read all the blog posts that pop up in the reader? Good heavens no! That really would eat my life. But usually I find two or three interesting posts each day by scanning the headlines, and if I don't find anything that looks promising, I'll read a couple at random, anyway, just in case.

  • A gadget monitoring Twitter, but I keep Tweetdeck open as well, where I set up search columns to following timely topics (like current conferences) as well as the tweets of a couple hundred organizations and individuals CFM “follows.” The most useful tweets, for me, disseminate links to research and news items I might not otherwise spot, or bring interesting projects to my attention.

Is this distracting? Well honestly, it was at first. Sometimes it still is. But I make a habit of checking iGoogle and Tweetdeck when I sit down at my computer in the morning, again just after lunch, and during an afternoon break. This is an "official" and valued part of my work day.

Another thing you can do to embed scanning in your work is to create formal ways to share and use what you find in your scanning. I'll write more about that in a future post...

You can access Garry Golden’s Guide to Scanning for Change, along with links to more blogs of interest, on the Reading About the Future section of the CFM web site. We share highlights of our scanning in our weekly e-digest, Dispatches from the Future of Museums. But if you rely on us to do the scanning, we risk becoming myopic or missing good stuff. The more eyes open the better, when it comes to spotting the future. Help us out by using the comment section, below, to share your favorite sources of information about trends and innovations!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Sneaky Nature of Change

This is part three in a series of short essays exploring the basics of Futures Studies and how they can be applied to the museum field. Find the whole series by clicking on “Futures Studies 101” in the blog’s tag cloud.

Complacency is the enemy of futurism. Too often we chug along, taking things day by day, oblivious to how the world is morphing around us into something entirely other. The key to forecasting is being aware of change—change that is happening or is on the cusp of breaking over us. This is harder than it sounds, because change is sneaky and hides itself in various ways.

You’ve heard the fable that if you put a frog in a pot of water, and heat the pot slowly, the frog won’t notice being boiled to death? This myth, while laughably underestimating amphibian common sense, reflects a deep truth about human nature. Sometimes change is hard to notice because it happens slowly and unobtrusively. The cost of insuring collections creeps up, the willingness of cities to let museum property remain tax-free creeps down. This kind of incremental change is hidden in plain site—we don’t see it because it is gradual, and we often don’t step back to see the overarching pattern over time.

Conversely, radical, transformative change can be hard to imagine because it may be outside our experience. How do you convince a tadpole it is about to grow legs and become a frog? You can’t expect what you can’t imagine. Disruptive change pounces, rather than creeps upon us, often finding us unprepared. Would a museum professional from 2000 have predicted that bag checks and metal detectors would be a common part of the museum-going experience? (A change in culture triggered largely by the terrorist attacks of 2001.) Would a museum intern in 1969 have anticipated that by the time she became director, museums would be reaching huge audiences that never physically visit the museum via something called “the internet?” (The first message was sent over ARPANET on October 29th, 1969.)

These two types of change, incremental and disruptive, interact with one other to create patterns over time. Take, for example, the passage of the No Child Left Behind act. That disruptive event, interacting with a number of trends, created a storm that still buffets the museum community. The new focus on teaching to the test, combined with the rising costs of fuel, tight budgets and increased parental anxiety has led the number of school field trips to nosedive. Now we live in a future that calls for new strategies for museums to reach students—for example, via the web—and new incentives for schools to use our learning resources—like tailoring programs to fit NCLB-oriented curricula.

What sneaky trends do you see creeping up on your museum and the field as a whole? What disruptive events can you imagine that may lie waiting to pounce? Please share your thoughts with other readers…

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Future Studies 101: Potential Futures

This is part two in a series of short essays exploring the basics of Futures Studies and how they can be applied to the museum field. Read part one here.

Studying the future isn’t all that different from studying history. We start with what we know (the present), and things get increasingly uncertain as we move forward or back in time. Historians study traces of the past through written records, oral tradition and physical evidence. It may seem they have more to work from than futurists, but they have no way to know for certain if they get it right, since there’s no way to visit the past. Futurists, on the other hand, must use their intuition and reasoning to imagine where the forces that shape our path will take us, but have the advantage that they will, eventually, get to test their “imagined futures” against reality.

The farther we look forward from the present moment, the more things have the potential to change. Absent a sudden, cataclysmic event (for example, an earthquake or a terrorist attack) tomorrow will probably be pretty much like today. Ten, twenty, thirty years out, however, events will have diverged far more. We can imagine potential futures as a cone radiating out from the present. This “cone of plausibility” defines futures that might reasonably occur. The edges of the cone are defined by the limits of plausibility. Functional teleportation within the next fifty years is probably a non-starter, for example. However, 3-D printers that recreate objects from digital data already exist, and could become the functional equivalent of teleportation for objects in the near future. (For an example of how this could affect museum futures, read this scenario.) Immortality is probably not in the cards, but extension of healthy lifespan by ten or twenty years might well be.

Dead center in the cone of plausibility is the expected future. This is how the future would look if business proceeds as usual. Things may change gradually, but only in the direction we have come to expect. Contrary to what common sense would suggest, the expected future is highly unlikely. It’s far more probable that some force will cause us to veer off course and land elsewhere in the cone, somewhere between the expected future and the limits of plausibility.

This is the realm of foresight: what are these possible futures? What factors would bring any given one into being and how can we spot those factors early on? Where in the cone is our preferred future, the one we consciously choose, and how do we make it our destination?


CFM offers Future Studies 101 seminars and workshops, in which participants explore potential futures in the cone of plausibility, and envision their own preferred futures. One such workshop will be held on Sunday, May 22, 2011 at the AAM annual meeting in Houston. If you are interested in our giving a workshop at your organization, conference or event, contact futureofmuseums@aam-us.org.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Futures Studies 101: The Purpose of Foresight

This post is the first in a series of short essays exploring the basics of Futures Studies and how they can be applied to the museum field.

Why is foresight important? Without someone playing the important role of futurist, we risk being mired in the present. Our planning is often focused on short term challenges and immediate needs. We have a tendency, when looking at only a short time frame, to defend old assumptions and choose narrow measures of success. We tinker with the edges of what we already do well rather than risking innovation. It’s all too easy, when faced with the need to change, to become paralyzed by fear, uncertainty, doubt and outright denial.

Futures-thinking breaks through this logjam by freeing peoples’ imaginations. It fosters a start-up mindset where anything is possible, people are willing to question assumptions, think broadly of how to measure success, discover or create new needs and try lots of things, fast, knowing that many of them will fail.

Foresight isn’t the same as prediction. Rather than placing a bet on which particular future is most likely to occur, foresight’s role is to help us imagine many plausible futures and identify useful actions that can be taken in the present. Futurists accomplish this in three fundamental ways, by:

  • Identifying and monitoring change, tracking the flow of trends, events and emerging issues
  • Imagining different futures and testing new assumptions through forecasting and scenario building
  •  Communicating and responding to change
Over the next couple months I will blog a brief introduction to foresight and futures thinking emphasizing the first two methodologies—identifying and monitoring change (otherwise known as scanning) and imagining differences (forecasting and creating scenarios). And I will encourage the field to think about how future studies can supplement or be integrated into institutional planning. (For starters, see this guest post by Angie Kim on the potential for forecasting to transform traditional planning. )

If you are interested in exploring futures studies in more depth, consider registering for the University of Houston’s weeklong program Certificate in Strategic Forethought. It will be offered in Brussels, Belgium this December, but if you need to stick a little closer to home, it will also be held in Houston, January 10-14, 2011. I highly recommend the course. Last spring, Joe Cavanaugh, director of the National Museum of the Pacific War, and I attended, and thought it was awesome. (You can read Joe’s review here.) A couple of museum folk have contacted me about the January iteration, so maybe there will be another museum contingent, which would make for good discussions! Peter Bishop, head of U. Houston Futures Studies, and CFM Council member, is generously offering a 20% discount on the registration fee to people affiliated with CFM (that would be you, gentle readers!)