Black Swans

Future Views aims to produce ‘route maps’ to help Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs) collaborate to ensure that children and young people can access arts and culture and live creative, productive lives up until 2036. Another level of the enquiry is exploring how we actually think about and imagine the future. We will produce a speculative design toolkit that LCEPs around the country, and anywhere, can use to envisage the future.

So, what is our approach to thinking about the future? This question has been thrown into sharp relief by the result of the EU referendum. The arguments for and against were all based on predictions of the future, either in or out of the EU. The people who have more of their future still to live out in a changed country had less voice than other age groups. 65% of 18-24 year olds eligible to vote did not. 16 to 18 year olds (except in Scotland) were unable to vote. But young people are overwhelmingly for staying in the EU as you can hear from some voices here.

The EU referendum result in favour of Brexit was what futurists call a ‘Black Swan‘.  It was unexpected (and people didn’t think black swans existed until they were seen in the wild). It is having major complex ramifications on all dimensions of our life, much still to unfold. These ramifications, such as the financial crash already under way, are so hard to consider in advance that we naturally put up a psychological block to them. We have a bias against ‘scaremongering’ or ‘alarmism’, wanting instead to comfort ourselves with a neat and preferable version of potential events.

Black Swans are a useful concept in a future-gazing method called Scenario Planning.

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Typical future-gazing can be very utopian, building on existing stories about the future we all want (Jet Packs!), or it is more informed by current data and extrapolates from existing trends (Everyone will be obese or diabetic!). Scenario planning combines the two, so that you use data about the present as a basis for dreaming. But there is more to the method. You use the imagination as much as you can, to tell stories or paint pictures of particular scenarios. Speculative Design is basically Scenario Planning but using imaginative tools such as storytelling, graphic illustration and materials design.

With Scenario Planning, you must be strongly informed by a wide range of influence factors, and very clear-sighted about how influential these factors might be and how they interact with each other. You need to consider multiple scenarios in very categorical ways. And you have to keep retelling these stories, reappraising them as the context shifts. The purpose of scenario-planning is to assess threats and opportunities and take a proactive stance so that you can mitigate the threats and benefit from the opportunities. With this approach, you recognise that you can’t really predict the future, but you also come closer to being able to influence the future by understanding the factors that are generating it.

So where do Black Swans come in?

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Black Swans and also Gamechangers represent critical events or uncertainties that disrupt trends from a continuous line. For example, I might plot my savings as a rising line into the future, but if I get a serious illness combined with big legal bills, this could lead not only to the line of my savings going down but to me losing my house or worse. A Gamechanger is something that may have a lighter or more positive impact. For example, a new type of smart device could change the game of how we access information or culture. Black Swans are bigger, stronger and more complex in their effects.

Once you have worked out the Trends (and key Megatrends), and Gamechangers (and Black Swans) that are going to be relevant to your particular question, you can then start to imagine scenarios. So, to give some hypothetical examples, if the Trends are towards all learning and culture being online, and the key Megatrend is that most work will be replaced by algorithms and robots, and the Gamechanger is wearable technology, and the Black Swan is total control of technology by the state, then what might young people be doing in schools or theatres in 2030? How will it feel? Will it be completely different from what we experience now, or some things alike? What will be the optimistic and the pessimistic version of this scenario?

To find out more about scenario planning (and how it can be applied in museums) have a look at this presentation.

This post was by Bridget McKenzie, Director of Flow.


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