An Interview with Futurists/Strategic Foresight Practitioners Mike Morrell and Frank Spencer - by Bill Dahl
The following is my interview with Futurists/Strategic Foresight Practitioners Mike Morrell and Frank Spencer. Their practice is called KedgeForward. I think you will find it stimulating, practical and very thought provoking. Frank clearly did when he shared that “these questions are some of the most thought-provoking and transformationally progressive that I’ve been asked in ages!”
Before we get into the interview, a little overview about KedgeForward, in their own words:
KedgeForward is an agile Strategic Foresight firm rooting you in where you want to be – in past hindsight, present insight, and visionary foresight – to give you the forward-pull you need! We are dedicated to helping businesses, communities, NGO’s, and transformational agencies to develop environments of creativity, innovation, sustainable practices, resilience, future-fitness, aspirational road-maps, and adaptive & flexible strategy for the “New World” of the 21st Century and beyond!”
“The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created; created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.”
Question # 1. Tom Friedman has written in his most recent book, Hot, Flat and Crowded: “And that is the real energy shortage in America today; a shortage of the energy we need to get serious about a big goal” (p.404). In terms of what you have written, and what you are thinking, what is the “big goal” we need to collectively and energetically get serious about in the U.S. ?
In terms of a “big goal,” we need to get serious about where not only the US, but all of humanity is headed if we don’t actively and intentionally change our way of thinking about EVERYTHING. This might sound dramatic or overly simplistic, but hear us out. Social entrepreneurs, scientists, evolutionaries, designers, policy makers, foresight professionals, etc. have all been talking about the fact that we are undergoing a historic shift in what we might call our “global operating models” – some are referring to this period in human history as the “great reboot” – and this shift necessitates a change in the way we view energy development, transportation, environmental policies, food economies, local and national governance, city building, technology development, and even our individual lifestyles. The reason that this “big shift” is impacting everything is due to the fact that everything is interconnected – an idea that seems obvious, but one that we have neglected in designing our organizations, societies, and the general human experience. Because we have long built our businesses, cities, and local/global policies from a linear and mechanistic platform, we have failed to recognize the more complex and “organic” nature of our world and its inhabitants. In doing so, we have reached a “tipping point,” and the interconnected systems are collapsing, changing, and quite frankly, firing back. When this happens, it’s our tendency to reflexively resort to “business as usual” in order to generate a short-term fix for what is really a long-term dilemma. You can see this type of thinking in the way that the US government has tried to address our present economic problems, pumping gaudy amounts of funds into the insurance, banking, real estate, and auto industries in order to prevent any further collapse. However, all that will do is prolong the inevitable, or potentially make it even worse. So, it’s imperative that the decision-makers across industries begin to actively invest in new ways of trans-disciplinary thinking within their organizations, and communities leading to adaptive, resilient, and transformative strategy development and action. This is why systems thinking, strategic thinking, futures thinking, and design thinking are growing by leaps and bounds in popularity – helping businesses, communities, nonprofits and even spiritual hubs to align with the big shift that is taking place, to reach for their aspirations, and to re-frame their outcomes in terms of the triple-bottom line of people, planet, and profits.
Question # 2. Is there an “imagination deficit” in the West today? If so, how does that reality need to be addressed, in your opinion. Be practical in your responses rather than philosophical please.
Many business consultants, innovation experts, community development planners and thought leaders have written extensively on the fact that there is an imagination deficit in the United States and Europe, but that’s not necessarily the case. In areas such as technology development, social and economic entrepreneurship, education, or organizational transformation, the ideas being generated by a new breed of innovators is really nothing short of amazing. Examples of the type of imaginative innovation that is coming out of the global shift in thinking and creating are huge leaps in brain science as a means to solving long-standing medical problems; the invention of very cheap water purifying devices such as the LifeStraw that can revolutionize health in places such as poverty stricken parts of Africa; new techniques for organic farming within cities; and sustainability innovations such as “Smart Mud” that can replace non-biodegradable plastics. However, even though we see the need to change the way we think, live, eat, govern, etc., and even though many people are coming up with these fantastic solutions to our most pressing needs and problems, it can be extremely hard for such creativity to be applied to local and global problem-solving when the models that we are operating under in business and government are completely outdated. Quite honestly, we are beginning to think in a 21st Century way, while living in a 19th and 20th Century world. For instance, the infrastructure in most cities hasn’t change much over the last 50 years, making it extremely difficult to implement really imaginative and progressive ideas that are blossoming around transportation, energy, food distribution, or shifts in demographics. We recently saw this in using foresight to help a knowledge-based economic incubator. They had a great vision and mission, desiring to attract creative culture businesses and boost the knowledge-based economy in their city in line with 21st Century emerging trends, but they just couldn’t get the support of the economic development council who saw city-wide economic growth only in terms of 20th Century service economy business models. This type of thinking and (in)action – a failure to become flexible, adaptive, resilient, and generative in terms of the emerging dynamics of the 21st Century – is going to leave businesses, cities, and governments regretting the fact that they were completely out of position to seize the new opportunities and advantages that manifested by 2020. Those who saw the value of strategic foresight and mapped their way into the future will be the leaders of the pack, so a great shift will be taking place in terms of new cities and organizations becoming the economic leaders over the next 10 to 20 years as well. In other words, an “imagination deficit” isn’t really the problem; rather, it’s a lack of “imagination incubators” or learning environments that are conducive to the creation of strategies and actions that would lead to short and long-term solutions.
Question # 3. In a recent op-ed, David Brooks – NY Times – Brooks uses the term from another author called “Adaptive Efficiency” – “An economy’s success depends on its ability to invent and embrace protocols. Kling and Schulz use North’s phrase “adaptive efficiency,” but they’re really talking about how quickly a society is infected by new ideas…..When the economy was about stuff, economics resembled physics. When it’s about ideas, economics comes to resemble psychology.” Please provide us with several suggestions that you are firmly convinced that “accelerate adaptive efficiency – or the rate at which a society is infected by new ideas.
This is exactly right, and perhaps the difference between North and Kling/Schulz is the difference between top-down, command/control understandings of how new ideas disseminate versus a bottom-up, emergent view. We don’t want to discount the truly authoritative statesman figure who can inspire us to collectively embrace protocols – though we acknowledge that, for better or for worse, such figures are increasingly rare (which is the core lament of Edwin Friedman in A Failure of Nerve). More common is the crowd-sourced, seemingly viral dissemination of memes (to use Richard Dawkins’ helpful term, which has taken on a life of its own in cyberspeak). For example, the idea of the transfer of music from an “object” to “information” that occurred over ten years ago – first via ‘pirate’ means in Napster and then through legitimated channels in iTunes – was but the first revolution we’re witnessing along these lines. (Major artists moving from major labels to independent releases direct to listeners – bands like Radiohead and Pearl Jam – were the next step. Major authors are going to soon follow suit.) We believe that the “freeconomy” is going to be a major player in bottom-up adaptive efficiency in the next five years as products and services trend toward zero cost. And, of course, this is made increasingly possible though the growth and spread of social media. Many have begun to call the collective impact of sites such as Facebook and Twitter names such as “the 8th continent,” and the combined population of these two sites alone is greater than many of today’s nations. So, much like the idea of giving away information for free as a means to speeding up its memetic evolution, the idea of “citizen government” is another accelerator of adaptive efficiency. The reason that this is important relates back to the shift from trickle-down ideation to grassroots emergence and entrepreneurship. When people reach a place of critical mass in terms of their belief that they have an impact on the future – and fueled by the collaborative intelligence and open-source engine of the pervasive web – then new ideas spread at an incredible rate. This is why we have entered into a time that foresight professionals often describe as the VUCA environment, meaning that change today is “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” This make it all the more vital to engage a strong foresight strategy and future-fit capacity within our organizations and communities. As our economies are increasingly directed by ideas, it becomes necessary for us to also become adaptive in our approach to future thinking and planning.
It is also important to note that organizational models are shifting as more and more people turn to peer-to-peer (P2P) avenues of learning, sharing, and product/service development. The old model suggested that products and information should be guarded, kept secret, and used as a means to separate for competitive advantage. The new models of organizational transformation and generating community revolve around individuals and groups coming together to realize the larger meaning behind industries, society, and humanity as a whole. We are finding out that when we work together to recognize deeper meaning, we have the accelerated ability to “see” and create more sustainable and resilient systems, as opposed to a lack of vision that is inherent in the “economics of stuff.” These new operational models will be the culmination of the collective impact of ideas such as social media, freeconomy, P2P, social innovation, collaborative intelligence and citizen government, and may be our best hope for overcoming the global obstacles that threaten humanity in the 21st Century. Our intentional push to create such environments in our businesses and cities in the present is one of our greatest and most important jobs over the next decade.
(KedgeForward has begun working on a model that supports the operational environment of “seeing the whole,” and you can visit our posts on “Holoptic Foresight Dynamics” to read more about it.)
Question # 4. In His Book, A Whole New Mind – Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, author Daniel Pink suggests: “The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind — computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBA’s who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers — will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.” [i] Question: Do you agree, disagree, how so? Provide us with a couple of concrete examples where you see this is occurring in American society.
We whole-heartedly agree – with the caveat we mentioned in your second question. Looking back over the 20th century, one of the greatest dearths we faced was not a lack of resources, but of imagination. The impoverishment of imagination under a strictly modernistic world-view cost us untold amounts of vital indices that we tend to relegate to ‘intangibles’ because we allowed ourselves to be run by the bean-counters – intangibles such as ‘happiness,’ ’sanity,’ ‘rest,’ and ‘play.’ We see a shift already happening where our culture will hopefully be operating at an ever-increasing imagination surplus on the near-term horizon. Not that the need for engineers and lawyers is going away anytime soon – we can’t fly airplanes on creative intentions alone! – but creatives and intuitives will hold increasing influence over even what have previously been thought of as the ‘empirical’ sciences. One example that comes up is the pioneering field of integrative medicine, like what’s happening at Duke – the long-term feud between allopathic (traditional) medicine and homeopathic remedies seems to be reaching the beginning of the end. Further, a wider range of more intuitive meaning is being permitted into this leading-edge health care – questions like ‘What does it mean to be human?’ ‘What does it mean to be healed?’ are being asked in ways that incorporate whole people, including their emotional and spiritual dimensions. This was unheard of a generation ago – so much so that ‘clinical’ is a euphemism for sterility!
We are also seeing a renaissance of creativity and the arts in faith communities and spiritual spaces – including liturgy as street theatre. Witness last years flAsh Wednesday flash mob requiem in Atlanta – or, on the other side of the country, Ash Wednesday in the Street in San Francisco. Another great example can be found in the way that the idea of the “workplace” is changing, and the studies being done that demonstrate an increase of productivity when creative elements and whole-life incorporation are being added to the work environment. Google has led the way in the United States, allowing their employees to do their work anywhere on campus rather than sitting all day at a sterile cubicle, providing stress relief such as massages as a part of the work day, and inviting whole families to eat on campus at their full service restaurant, which offers delicious and healthy meals on a daily basis. What we’re coming to see is that these supposed ‘intangibles’ are actually life-and-death matters. They make as much difference as invisible oxygen in the lungs of a culture. As we stated before, there is a shift in the collective mindset from a mechanical way of viewing business, government, society, and life – a typically Western way of seeing the world, and one that was greatly reinforced in organizational culture by early pioneers of the Scientific Method who espoused the core values of efficiency, production, and unlimited progress – to an organic view of human existence which permeates every aspect of our lives. It’s finally being recognized that we can’t detach business or governmental development from the rest of life, and that a “whole-brain” approach is the most natural way for we humans to operate across the board. Not only would such an approach kick open the doors of the creative life that is so badly needed in our economic and social domains, but may very well bring about the sanity needed to solve our ongoing dilemmas such as poverty, gender equality, and sustainable living – problems that have been exacerbated by the very mechanistic form of business that we have cherished in the West since the 19th Century.
Question # 5. In their most recent book, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism George Akerlof (Pulitzer Prize winner in Economics) and Yale’s Dr. Robert Shiller take the following position: “The human mind is built to think in terms of narratives, of sequences of events with an integral logic and dynamic that appear as a unified whole. In turn, much of human motivation comes from living through a story of our lives, a story we tell to ourselves and that creates a framework for motivation. Life could be “just one damn thing after another” if it weren’t for these stories. The same is true for confidence in a nation, a company, or an institution. Great leaders are first and foremost creators of stories.” [ii] Question: The economic downturn in the U.S. has many communities scrambling to re-imagine and re-engineer their economic infrastructure to re-position themselves for a vastly more sustainable economic future. This is particularly true in quasi-rural communities, like the one I reside in. What can KedgeForward do to assist communities like mine in crafting these narratives to attract new residents and new employers, assuming you agree with the importance of these narratives, as described above by Akerlof and Shiller?
We believe that Western culture needs to both renew its narrative tradition – and learn how to take a break from it. We can learn a lot of both from our world’s spiritual traditions, interestingly enough! To learn how to celebrate our collective stories, we can look at how a Synagogue celebrates Passover, how traditional Churches anticipate Advent, or how Mosques observe Ramadan. There is an ancient word for this that makes religious practitioners more than passive bystanders to their sacred narratives – the word is anamnesis, and it carries the “You are there!” connotations of transforming worshipers into participant-observers. You needn’t be religiously observant to appreciate this core insight -we are storied people, and in order to individuate and live out our unique stories, it’s also crucial to have a sense of shared meaning with others – whether this plural ‘others’ is your family, neighborhood, culture, nation, business, or faith. At the same time as we need more participant-story, we need less story. It’s living out of the tired stories and tired scripts of generations past that perpetuates much of the ancient enmity, prejudice, and bloodshed on our planet. Jew vs. Palestinian, Northern Hemisphere versus Global South, man vs. woman, black vs. white, young vs. old, and traditional vs. emerging realities are enacted again and again because we’re living from dysfunctional senses of storied identity. It is here that the East can teach us from their spiritual tradition – entering a kind of sabbath space where we take a break from story, from identity, from self-reflexive cognition. That can be deeply nourishing and restoratve, especially in our media-saturated world. This is where Eastern practices of Yoga, Zen meditation, or even Christian Centering Prayer can be quite helpful. As with everything related to the art of living well in the 21st century, this is a “yes/and” process rather than an either/or - of becoming simultaneously more storied and yet, free from the encumbrance of narrative hubris.
Having said this, there’s little doubt that our global economic environment has led many to seek ways of re-framing their strategies and processes. But we believe that even the “downturn” itself is partially a symptom of the bigger shift in narratives about business, culture, community, technology, economics, government, and global human development overall. One of our favorite pieces written on the emerging renewal of the human story – and our collective need for such a renewal – is called The Fourth Story by the late socioeconomic futurist Robert Theobald. His point in writing this piece was to demonstrate that we are now experiencing one of the most radical narrative changes in all of history, in which we are beginning to understand why the world works as an interconnected web of systems, and how this understanding can lead to the creation of resilient, sustainable, and value-based societies and communities. The four elements of this “fourth story” include the creation of clear and unique intention in our strategy, discovering the driving forces and realities of our time to which we must adjust, building coalitions of groups and people that have similar missions, and acting to make profound changes in our direction. Embracing Theobald’s understanding of new ways of viewing the world, KedgeForward employs a powerful toolkit designed to help communities and businesses uncover their basic assumptions, biases, and larger world-views that impact the way they form their internal and external operations.
Many business consultants or strategists simply feed organizations the next big fad in terms of fixing what seems to be broken, but most change processes and attempts at implementing foresight into a business or city culture fail miserably due to the fact that they are being added to a foundation of thinking that is unchanged, holds to group bias about logic and actions, and operates from major blind-spots that will frustrate any attempt at transformation or breakthrough growth. Once we have helped the organization to develop the capability to see beyond their current approach, we are then able to facilitate an exploration of alternative future scenarios and outcomes through the analysis of mega-trends, emerging and “fuzzy” issues, collective intelligence, and transformational mapping approaches that help to catalyze an agile, adaptive, resilient, robust, and generative strategy that can seize new opportunities, aspirations, and preferred futures. With a strong focus on future-fit city and community development, we have a keen interest in residential growth, economic attraction, and the creation of innovative businesses that position a region as economic and sustainable leaders in the 21st Century. Any re-engineering of economic infrastructure will be of little value without building a strategic narrative that resonates with leadership, stakeholders, and shareholders alike.
You can contact Frank and Mike at:
Frank Spencer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Morrell: email@example.com
[i] Pink, Daniel H. – A Whole New Mind – Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Riverhead Books – Penguin Group (USA) Inc. New York, New York Copyright © 2005 by Daniel H. Pink, p. 1.
[ii] Akerlof, George A. and Shiller, Robert J. – Animal Spirits – How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters For Global Capitalism, Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ USA and Oxford, UK Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press, p. 51.