What futurists do, and why
I don’t remember her name, now. She was less than twenty-five years old, but even then she already looked more than forty.
Way back when I was still a callow, confused graphic-design student – which, arguably, I perhaps still am – the old Hornsey College of Art buildings-complex up on London’s Crouch Hill was a veritable rabbit-warren of hard-to-find rooms hidden away along strange stairways and labyrinthine corridors. There were drawing-classes, of course, in cold, draughty old studios; Eddie Franklin-White ran his mixed media unit there, experimenting with early analogue synthesisers linked to lasers and lighting-systems; performance-artists such as Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce (now Jill Smith) did their performance-art pieces there – as you might expect, I guess. But up above Eddie’s studio was this woman’s space – and what she was doing there was very different indeed.
This was an art-college, yes, but her cramped, cluttered room didn’t look like an ‘artist’s studio’ at all. There were plenty of drawings there, of one kind or another, and also all manner of odd but not-exactly sculptural-looking objects: yet central in the space, facing the window, was a huge engineer’s drawing-board, complete with high-precision pantograph. What?
Turned out she was one of the college’s very few industrial-design students: and she was there because it was not so much a matter of study as a way of life, with a true artist’s intensity. Yet it was a way of life for a reason – a deadly-serious reason. Literally.
I don’t actually know what her illness was: one of the more aggressive forms of multiple-sclerosis, I think. But in a very real sense, she was facing a fate all too literally worse than death: debilitated, dependent, an accelerated decay of capability yet stretching on for years. What she was doing was developing the tools – particularly tools in a physical sense, but others as well – that she herself would soon need, to survive and stay sane within that awful, inescapable future. And, in the process, and in the meantime, help many, many other similarly-handicapped people further ahead than her along that same bleak, remorseless timeline.
That’s what real futurists do: they build tools to help people better survive the future.
(If possible, help them thrive there, too – but just surviving at all in the future is probably a good start…)
That’s one of the key distinctions between prediction and futures. The purpose of prediction is to provide a form of pseudo-certainty in a context where, by definition, no true certainty can ever be had. And prediction is easy: all you need do is make some kind of WAG (wild-assed guess), perhaps even do a survey or two to link the WAG to some kind of trend-line or opinion-poll (aka MOOWAG, or massively-open online wild-assed guess), and wrap it up in some suitably-palatable guise – that’s it, done, ready for sale to a gullible public. In that sense, there’s not much real difference between astrologers and their ilk, versus ‘advisory-consultancies’ like Forrester or Gartner, other than a small amount of extra effort, better marketing, and a much higher price-tag.
By contrast, futures is radically different. For a start, notice the plural: futures, not the supposedly-singular ‘the future’. The purpose of futures is to help people work with the uncertainties of the future – not pretend that those uncertainties don’t exist. And futures-work is hard – not least because, again, it doesn’t pretend that those uncertainties don’t exist.
[As an aside, notice how often someone will ask you for an opinion or prediction about the future, and then issue some kind of demand for ‘proof’ that that putative future is ‘the truth’? All that they’ve proved is that they just don’t get it: the only way to ‘prove’ a future is to be there, experiencing it. At which point, of course, it isn’t ‘the future’: it’s ‘now’…]
Hence, in part, the focus on tools: we create ‘the future’ by literally creating it. From nowhere, from nothing, from out of thin air, whilst standing on top of what we already have. Tricky…
The other huge complication here is that there’s a fundamental difference between futures-work for far-future versus near-future. We can perhaps see this best in the Five Elements cycle, though it’s also highlighted in the distinction between the ‘Forming’ and ‘Norming’ stages in Bruce Tuckman’s ‘Group-Dynamics‘ project-lifecycle:
Near-futures work is well within the normal timescales of whatever-it-is that we’re working with: it’s just preparation for the next stage of action, Tuckman’s ‘norming’. The timescales can vary quite a lot, depending on what it is that we’re doing – the ‘preparation’ timescale for a forest or a vast energy-infrastructure project would be what many technology-businesses would consider so long-term as to be way out of sensible out of scope. But in essence, in each case, it’s actually quite easy, because it’s mostly just projection forward from ‘the now’ – kind of like prediction, in a way, but with a lot more honesty and without all the marketing-hype, the bells and whistles and razzamatazz.
Far-futures work is more about purpose – the purpose of the enterprise, in its broadest sense. It sometimes looks much the same as near-futures work, and does use some of the same techniques, but in practice it’s a very different beast – not least because, unlike near-futures work, it must somehow pass through the often-hellish gauntlet of the ‘Storming’ phase before it can be put to practical use. Another difference is that it deals with every timescale, all interleaving through each other in the same nominal space. And to give some idea of what that looks like in practice, the shortest timescales I deal with go down into the sub-microsecond level, whilst the longest timescale I’ve had to deal with, as a real, live, business-problem of regulatory-compliance, was a quarter of a million years – ten times longer than recorded human history – in the quest for some viable means to label nuclear and similar hazardous-waste “Do Not Touch – and yeah, we really do mean ‘Do Not Touch’!”.
[We couldn’t work out how to do it, by the way: in the end, we just gave up, tagged the requirement as ‘non-compliant’, and had to leave it as a hope that someone in some none-too-distant future can find a way to make it work. In our defence, what we did do was mark it explicitly as ‘Needs Future Attention’: we didn’t just shove it into the ‘too-hard basket’ and pretend that the problem no longer exists, as near-futures futurists are wont to do. Thus, however, we build up more and more debt for future generations to handle on our behalf – an all-too-literal form of theft from the future…]
On occasion, the timelines may well stretch as far into the past as into the future: for example, some recent work of mine on viable socioeconomics – ‘enterprise’ at a literally global scale – needed to look back into crucial sociocultural transitions that occurred at least five thousand years ago, and in some contexts almost twice as far back again. Whilst, yes, also looking at how the same concerns play out right now, right down to the sub-microsecond level. In other words, not as easy as it looks…
Some things are predictable, in a way: you can argue with people, but you can’t argue with physics, however inexorable and ‘unfair’ it might seem at times, and trees will always take time to grow. There’s an old farmer’s adage that the best time to plant a fruit-tree is twenty years ago; the second-best time is now. In creating tools and techniques, futurists plant metaphoric fruit-trees to feed people in the future.
But again, remember the timescales: different trees take different times before they’re mature enough to bear fruit. A blueberry-bush may be productive in as little as a couple of years, but a peach-tree takes more like twenty, and a walnut-tree closer to a hundred, whilst an oak-tree, for timber, the time is measured not even in decades, but in centuries. Much the same applies to the tools that futurists create.
For example, take my sensemaking/decision-making framework SCAN. It’s usable right now: it’s a powerful tool to help make sense of any context, at any timescale – hence at timescales that even the most short-termist of business-folk can understand. And it’s now also linked into the more academic end of futures, or ‘strategic foresight’: in fact I’ve just completed a paper for inclusion in the upcoming next edition of the CLA Reader, the ‘bible’ on causal layered analysis, a long-established and much-proven futures-technique developed by Sohail Inayatullah and others, crowdsourced in much the same way as for Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation.
Overall, the development of SCAN has taken about two years of my time, on and off, including more than fifty blog-posts on its themes. From what I hear, there are a lot of people using SCAN already: hundreds, certainly, maybe thousands. But so far, just fourteen people have bothered to pay a minimum of $4.99 to buy the book. Even after Leanpub’s generously-minimal deductions, that still adds up to barely £30, for a sizeable chunk of two years’ hard work, that other people use every day in their highly-paid daily work. Yeah, it’s easy to get a bit bitter about that…
At the next timescale, it doesn’t take much of a futurist’s eye to realise that enterprise-architecture, however mired it may be in IT-centrism at present, eventually must expand out to at least a whole-of-organisation scope at some stage, and ultimately all the way out to a true whole-of-enterprise or enterprise-of-enterprises scope. That’s inevitable, inescapable: the blunt fact is that even at the lowest, most technical level of an IT-infrastructure, it’s still an inherent part of a larger system, within a larger system, within a larger system, hence there’s no way to get even the IT-infrastructure to work properly unless we do acknowledge the literally all-inclusive nature of that system-of-systems. Hence, again, it doesn’t take much of a futurist’s eye to realise that the existing structure of the TOGAF ADM – particularly its so-called ‘three architectures’ of IT-infrastructure, Information-systems and Business, with ‘Business-Architecture’ pretty much defined as ‘anything not_IT that might affect IT’ – is inherently inadequate for anything other than a narrow IT-centric view of ‘the enterprise’. To make it usable, we need to generalise it, so that it can cope with any scope; and also make it fully-recursive, so that it can be used at any timescale, from years right down to hours.
Rewriting the entirety of the ADM from scratch, to make it usable beyond IT, took maybe six months or so of full-time work, including writing the book and stripping it down again as a two-page summary-sheet. I personally know people who are using it in live enterprise-architecture work, and in teaching TOGAF training-courses, and the summary-sheet has been downloaded from my website many thousands of times. Yet maybe fewer than fifty people have bought the book. Which means, at best, rather less than £500 in income, for six months full-time work. Work that many other people, again, use every day as a key tool in their highly-paid daily work. Would you be happy with that?
Then take the ‘XaaS’ trend – just about anything ‘as a service’. Again, it doesn’t take much of a futurist’s eye – or an architect’s eye, for that matter – to realise that there’d be a very real need for some kind of framework that can work at literally an ‘anything as a service’ level. Which, in essence, is what I’d created with my Enterprise Canvas framework, consistent at every level from web-service protocol up to the enterprise as a whole, and with checklists that cover management, coordination, quality-concerns, work-flows, transactions and interactions, service-content and vastly more – all in one conceptually-simple, consistent, fully-recursive framework. In other words, a lot of work: again, overall, some two years’-worth of work, on and off, more than eighty blog-posts, two books, and a heck of a lot of research, development and testing.
So how’s that one doing? Again, a lot of interest: I know of one company that’s based its entire enterprise-architecture on that model. Thousands of downloads of the three-page summary-sheet. Thousands of views and hundreds of downloads of the respective slidedecks on Slideshare. But actual income? – not so much. Book-sales are a bit better than for SCAN or Silos, but even over the years it still adds up to a lot less than £1000. For a significant chunk of two years’ work.
Which is why I have to admit that I just can’t afford to do this any more. Not this way.
No-one could – not indefinitely, anyway, and not in this insane ‘economics’ that we all suffer…
To my knowledge, I’ve been the only independent futurist and tool-builder working on the futures of enterprise-architecture – certainly to this level of detail and rigour. So, if you find my work valuable to you, then yes, I need your help. Or, to put it another way round, that might make more direct and pertinent sense, you need your help to help me to help you, in creating tools that you can use for the futures of enterprise-architecture and beyond.
That’s the easy bit: the part of far-futures work that seems close enough to near-futures work such that it makes more direct and immediate sense. Those are the ones for which merely some people – okay, maybe most people – in ‘the trade’ dismiss me as ‘a crank’ or ‘an eccentric’ or worse. Until they find out I was right all along, at which point they’re quite certain they always knew it was true anyway. Sigh… But from now on, it gets a lot more difficult, because we can’t sidestep that ‘People/Storming’ phase any more.
But let’s start with a relatively straightforward example: helium. It’s pretty important: yes, it’s used in toy-balloons, but that’s only one or two percent of its usage. Beyond that, at present it’s all but essential in all electronics manufacture; it’s also used in supercooling the electromagnets for MRI scanners and the like. No helium equals no electronics-as-we-know-it, no advanced medical-diagnostics, and a whole lot of other similarly-serious impacts – many of which we don’t even know about as yet. In other words, not trivial.
Remember what I said above about “you can’t argue with physics”? Well, here comes the scary bit: all of our available supplies of helium are rapidly running out. Maybe within the next decade; almost certainly within two decades. The world’s only known major reserve is held by the US Navy, to keep its airships flying – and even they haven’t got much left, either. And that’s it: once it’s out in the air, it’s gone – there’s no way to capture it, no way to recycle it, it’s lighter than air, it drifts to the top of the atmosphere, and gets blasted away in the solar wind. Gone, forever. No more helium, ever, unless and until we can get fusion-reactors working well enough to create some via nuclear-fusion – a process that almost literally involves creating our own star inside a magnetic bottle, and which, as per the whole of the past sixty years, is at present still at least three decades away from any kind of commercial viability.
In short, ouch…
Also in short, what the heck happens to any business-model that depends on helium in any way at all, even indirectly? Such as, for example, almost the entire IT-industry?
And helium just one of the serious number of key materials that’s running out Real Soon Now. Okay, most of those others we can perhaps recycle from somewhere. In principle, anyway. But whichever way we do it, it’s gonna get a whole lot harder – much harder, and much, much sooner than most people seem to realise. So hard that if we’re not darn careful, the chances of global-scale resource-wars are a way higher than anyone would like. And even that won’t delay the inevitable more than a few more years at most.
Which is where we get to the really scary stuff that I’ve been spending a lot of my time on over the past few years – stuff such as the ‘Four principles for a sane society’ series. The kind of stuff that gets me dismissed as a nutcase by both the left and right of current politics. And yet, when we look at it with anything other than a suicidally-myopic eye, is, in terms of whole-of-enterprise architectures is both about as extreme and as essential as it gets.
As with everything else above, it’s planting fruit-trees right now, with the intent that they’ll be fully ripe and ready when they’re needed. In the case of the ‘Four principles’ series, it’s useful even now, but it’s probable that we won’t really need it for perhaps thirty years, maybe forty, maybe fifty years at best. But when it comes to the crunch, at that future time, we will really need it, right here, right now – otherwise we’re dead. It really is as simple as that.
[I say ‘we’, though the chances of my still being alive by then are pretty remote. But that doesn’t matter, of course: good farmers don’t think solely of their own benefit, but also of those before them, and those still to come. If any, in this context…]
It takes time for things to come to fruition. Which is why it matters that we work on this, in this ‘right here, right now’. Even if – in fact almost because – it doesn’t ‘make sense’ right here, right now.
Which, unfortunately, is where we hit up against the deadliest trap for all futures-work: thinking that near-futures and far-futures are the same – not least because that seemingly allows to sidestep the ‘Storming’ bit.
We see this trap in almost every business – especially those driven by the so-called ‘need’ to satisfy the seriously-insane short-termism of the stock-market. We see this trap in almost every ‘democratic’ politician, who does not – or dare not – think any further beyond the next election. And we see it throughout the whole society and its so-called ‘economics’, dominated as it is by ‘the worst possible system‘: short-termism everywhere.
Whenever we pretend that near-futures is far-futures – that the distant future must, by definition (or, more accurately, by wishful-thinking…), be exactly the same as today (only somehow ‘better’, in some carefully ill-described way…), what we end up with, automatically, is what we might describe as the ‘Quick-Profit Failure Cycle’:
In a business-context, it’s also known as ‘grab the money and run’: it looks like it works really well, in fact even more profitable because you don’t have the ‘overhead’ of anything that doesn’t contribute to immediate profit. But over the longer-term – which in some cases, especially with online-startups, is a ‘long-term’ that can be measured in mere weeks – it will always collapse into a non-recoverable heap of metaphoric rubble, and almost always apparently ‘without warning’.
Why? How? Very simple: and entirely predictable, too. If you cut the real cycle short, it runs faster, yes, but you lose trust, you lose purpose, you lose connection with vision and value, you lose connection with people, and eventually you even lose the policies, the short-term reason for doing anything. Just one glance at that diagram above should tell you that the whole thing will inevitably spiral into the ground, sooner or later – and more likely sooner than later.
And, yeah, this is where it kinda gets real scary: our entire economics, for the past five thousand years, has restructured itself around exactly that type of societal-scale suicide-pact. The only way it’s been able to prevent imploding is because of a myth of infinite-growth – literally consuming everything in its path, faster and faster and faster. But, again, you can’t argue with physics: it is not possible to have infinite growth on a finite planet. And despite the desires of space-enthusiasts and others, we’ve ‘consumed’ ourselves into a position where the few resources we have left are no longer sufficient to support any significant attempt to go out and grab a few spare planets. In the longer-term – but, again, a far shorter-term than most people seem to be willing to realise – we are right on the edge of consuming ourselves into oblivion.
Which is why we need to work on alternatives – right here, right now. They might not seem urgent, right here, right now: but it’ll take so long to get those alternatives into fruition that in practice it most definitely is urgent, right here, right now.
Yet notice that this becomes, well, obvious, as soon as we extend the implications of that diagram up to a global scale. One model, used recursively, describes the life-cycle of a project, and the lifecycle (and, if we’re not darn careful right now, the end of that lifecycle) of an entire planetary-scale species. One model. Just like that.
So how and why is that fact so obvious in this type of model, and not in any of the other models we see in enterprise-architecture and the like – the beloved ‘the three architectures’ of TOGAF, for example?
The answer is that it’s because I’ve done the futures-work properly – exactly as should have been done for this industry and disciplines right from the beginning. Doing the metaframeworks properly – exactly as should have been done right from the beginning. But wasn’t.
So perhaps – just perhaps – that might just give a bit more reason to realise just how big an enterprise-architecture really is; and why the work of much-ignored and much-derided people like me might just possibly be more important – a lot more important – to support than has been the case so far.
I’ll stop there for now.
That’s it. Unless something more realistic starts to happen, that’s all I can afford to give you.
“Goodbye and thanks for all the fish”, perhaps?
Over to you, if you wish…