You were right…

I had given someone close to me investing advice two years ago before the GFC. I can remember thinking long and hard before opening my mouth on this topic. I marshalled my arguments and collected a number of pieces of evidence. I said to them that I felt they needed to take a defensive investment position and to think about moving into gold for a proportion of their portfolio.

Now, whilst they read what I gave them and heeded my advice to some degree, they moved into a defensive position and hence lost less in the GFC period, they did not move into gold. They could see that what I had showed them about the short term was likely to be accurate and the potential losses large enough to move, the shifting of assets into gold was a long term move and they just couldn’t bring themselves to see things getting that bad.

I had a phone call yesterday, and as we were talking of a mutual friend who has bought gold at the top of the market as it stands now, this person said to me that if they were to get into gold, it should have been 2 years ago when I advised the move. Now given I don’t forecast, it is true that I am not often right. Being so did not fill me with joy.

This experience has demonstrated once again that we need to develop our ability to act on foresight. I am also likely to fall prey to this, as I ‘know’ I need to move or household to a level of self-sufficiency to weather the possible ructions that will appear over the next few years, but I seem to move very slowly. It is difficult to act in one present in order to bring about or prevent another. It takes great imagination, persistence, and high hope. What I see as normal really isn’t what others see, and this can result in a feeling that is Cassandra-like.

I think this feeling has begun to spread and intensify for many people. We can ‘see’ that there is the potential for the environment we live in and the society we take for granted to move into a phase of discomfort or even sustained descent. There is a feeling of generational inequity as the children growing up today face a future less prosperous than that their grandparents knew. Climate change is part of the picture, but the main issue will be the intersection of climate change adaptation and peak oil. Just when we need the ability to be flexible and resilient we will find ourselves ham strung by the lack of access to cheap energy. Some are hearing the message and making moves to do the thinking that is required of us. See this report from The Oil Drum.

The growth in cleantech will go someway to mitigating this trend, but only those cleantech industries that don’t rely on petroleum product feedstocks, which I imagine are few as the use of the crude oil is so pervasive in our societies. This reliance will increase the cost of these products enormously over coming years.

See the list below of commonly used products from crude oil.

Artificial Limbs Bags (garbage bags, shopping bags) Balloons
Bandaids Candles Clothing (polyester, nylon)
Combs Computers, calculators Crayons
Credit Cards Dishwashing Liquids Disposable Diapers
Eye Glasses, Sunglasses Fertilizers Fishing Rods
Flooring (linoleum, tiles, carpets) Garden Hose Hand Lotion, Cream, Petroleum Jelly
Helmets (bicycle, hockey, etc.) Heart Valves Helmets (bicycle, hockey, etc.)
Insect Repellent Insecticides Life Jackets
Milk Jugs Paint Brushes Panty Hose
Parachutes Patio Furniture Pens
Perfume Rope (nylon) Safety Glass
Shampoo Shower Curtains, Shower Doors Soft Contact Lenses
Soft Drink Bottles, Plastic Bottles Tape (clear, masking, etc.) Tapes – (cassettes, vcr tapes)
Telephones Tennis rackets Tents
Toys, Dolls, Model Cars Tires (synthetic rubber) Toothbrushes, Toothpaste Tubes
Trash Bags TV Cabinets Umbrellas
Unbreakable Dishes Waterproof Jackets, Boots, Pants

This over-reliance on crude oil, coupled with the peak of rare earth elements, makes our ability to manoeuvre our economies highly constrained.

An immediate switch to a no-growth paradigm could help but whatever we choose to do – there is pain acomin’


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The role of foresight – or where Cassandra plays

How do we adjust to a new reality before that reality emerges?

Foresight is an innate human capacity – we can all think about the future and imagine how things might play out.  Let’s call this Innate Foresight. It is this capacity that I spend a large chunk of my time helping people bring consciously to their decision-making in organisations. Foresight thinking or innate foresight, allows us to imagine the future is ways that haven’t happened yet. Usually we do this by day dreaming or thinking about something we have read or seen. We might do some planning or goal setting for ourselves in an abstract sense – thinking about buying a house or having children one day. We are guided by what is expected and seen as ‘normal’.

Moving from this innate capacity to developing structured thinking skills around foresight and especially scenarios. These skills will also encompass some understanding of how we relate to others. We apply this thinking at first to ourselves – what scenarios might play out for us, what paths might we need to follow to achieve our goals. Applied Foresight takes lessons we learn from the future for ourselves to change our direction or keep ourselves motivated in the present. We may or may not discuss this with others. We may talk about my ‘life’s direction’ or ‘being on a journey’. We understand that we are in time and so need to allocate energy to various activities to bring about preferred future states.  We might need to influence people along the way and we do so by referring to the end state we are trying to reach: “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up”. There is some room for movement away from the accepted but we tend to think inside the bounds of the usual. I am happy to take the expert forecast of what could happen, confident that they see further and more clearly than I do.

Applied foresight works very successfully for myself and my life but once I decide that the future I am ‘seeing’ is one others ‘should’ also want to achieve or prevent, I have hit Perspective Foresight. I might start being interested in how to influence others to my view. I will also want to acquire skills that allow me to understand how others think about the future and to surface what they see coming. Perspectives can be useful for understanding, and they help me try to influence the way people see the world so I can ‘sell’ them my vision or direction. The future is a competition of these perspectives, and although some co-habitation is possible, the most popular view will prevail and I may well want it to be mine. I understand how others develop their views but I am still mystified at times about how they think they are right. I am starting to see that there may be development over time in my thinking and values. I am trying to build a zone of non-commitment before I react to others. I can see my beliefs and views as a river and I want a strip of beach on which I can park new ideas and play with them before deciding whether to add them to the river or throw them back into the neighbouring bush.

The concept of ‘rightness’ and the role of the system in the development of the future starts to become an issue when I want to create change at a large level. Perspective foresight shows me that not all people see the future the way I do. I am understanding now that there are levels of development in all types of cognitive and psych-social variables. Systemic Foresight helps me to understand that I am in a system within a system (turtles all the way down), that reality is socially constructed and so I have the ability to see both of these and therefore possibly create something new.  A systems understanding of the world may come from systems thinking, it may come from a post-modern discipline, it may also arise from being oppressed or outside the dominant system and so aware that one exists at all. At a systems level, the role of values becomes key – what do I value and how do I bring this to bear in the world?  How do I know I am doing ‘good’ work in the world? What systems do I want to change or sustain and why? Systemic foresight looks at what exists in the world as being fit for purpose at the time it developed in the world and asks ‘if we think the system has poor outcomes, what has changed in the world for this to be the case?’ The second question is then, ‘how do we design system that we bring the now ‘good’ outcomes to existence?’ Systemic foresight asks many more questions than perspective foresight as it has accepted that reality is how we see something, it is not a fixed state.

Once I have sat in systemic foresight for a good, long while it starts to dawn on me that there must be more than just this. What that means for each of us will be different, but there is usually a spiritual dimension to the question. The role of what is good and true becomes more than reference to a moral code, there is a choice about the stance taken, the boundaries that are set, the agreements that are made. This activity is moving from cognitive to embodiment. It is no longer enough to think in this way, and choose perhaps to act. Action becomes central and predominant in terms of my personal energy use and where I choose to spend my time. The paths to embodied foresight are varied, it may be you came from the work of Ken Wilber and Integral, or through Robert Kegan, or Steiner, Aurobindo, energy work etc. The step change between systemic and embodied foresight is that the future becomes a driver for action rather than a support for decision-making. I make decisions based on the future impact on others – human or not. I have not found people who have developed this level of foresight thinking are usually deciding whether they support the ongoing development of the human race. They are weighing up the pros and cons of humanity on the planet and deciding whether to support the dominant paradigm or try to transform it or undermine it in some way. Part of embodiment there is the wish to want to move to enactment. To bring the future that wishes to emerge through us into being. I do this through the social technology of Scharmer, Senge etc, others may be working in empowering people to act through other methods. Enactment may actually be another level, I haven’t seen enough of it to know as yet.

I don’t know that the world needed another step model of foresight but this one emerged and here we are. This maps well onto the experience I had whilst teaching foresight to post-graduate adult learners. Most came in at the perspective foresight level and by the time they had left the program they were solidly into systemic foresight with some moving into embodied. This model is also influenced by the work of Richard Slaughter, his five levels to social foresight draw on the use and spread of foresight tools and techniques to drive understanding. See here for explanation. I agree that this is the case, I also think we have to spend time on our moral basis of decision-making; our leadership skills and self understanding; and a process of embodying the future in the present, of acting as though the future is emerging through us. If you are familiar with Cook-Greuter, Lovinger and Graves you will see echoes here as well.

I’ll sit with this for a while and see if it still makes sense down the track.

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I have my voice

So it begins, maybe April Fool’s Day is just the day for me to start writing about these topics. Not really sure who the fool is – likely to be me after a few weeks of trying to find something interesting to say. I just returned from a trip to Europe and one thing that long haul flights are good for is musing on what seems to be arising next. Over and over again, the theme of foresightful action arose. This was especially strong in the area of innovation, foresight, climate change and peak everything including oil. The first phrase that arose was ‘descent development’ but I really felt that as an oxymoron, or should be. So the phrase – descent innovation – kept coming to me. What are the innovations we need to develop in the realms of psychology, culture, behaviour and systems to try to surf the descent wave rather than have it crash over us.

I spend a good proportion of my professional life talking to people about foresight and leadership. I think this is a key aspect of the descent story – we need to use all the tools at our disposal to try to make the landing soft for the billions of people on this planet. I am not going to try to convince people that descent is coming or even that it is inevitable and I am more than happy to be wrong. However, everything I have read and seen for the past 8 years is screaming at me that the time to act is passing, we must accept that the age of progress is over and look to develop holistic sustainability to survive in the short-term.

I say to people that climate change is not a problem for the planet – it will survive the way it has done before – this is a species survival challenge. Do we believe that as a species we should continue to operate? After musing on this for a while – and it was a good 12 months – I can state that I am a humanist. I believe we should survive as a species on the planet. I would prefer that we learned to share with our fellow tenants a bit more, but nonetheless I want us to continue.

The challenges associated with climate change are many and varied, but they are further complicated by the looming end of cheap and abundant energy in the form of fossil fuels. I am not going to debate anthropogenic climate change here, but regardless of what is causing it, our arsenal of tools is hampered by the fact that many of our important metals and fuels are beginning to peak or at least become more expensive to access. This will impact our ability to mitigate the effects of a changing climate  and I believe will result in outcomes that I really don’t want to experience. But, hence the hope in the title, there are ways we may be able to soften the impacts through forward thinking, innovation, collaboration and prototyping.

So I am going to use this space to muse, converse and engage with the ideas of descent, innovation, leadership and foresight. Come join me and see where we end up.

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