Futures thinking and my job in 10 years

Thinking about the future is very hard.

You’d think I’d know just how hard it is, having engaged in it on numerous occasions during my blogging career and even writing a book about it. But the more I think about the future — of the climate, of society, of the economy, of information, of publishing, of libraries and, ultimately, of librarians like me — the harder it is to pin down what I really think is going to happen. The future has a nasty way of sneaking up on you and actually happening in the past. Some things happen faster than you thought, some slower. Some things you thought were going to happen never do, and others are like a bolt out of the blue.

I think back to when I started my career in libraries back in 1998, the year I started library school at McGill. Google didn’t even exist yet.

When I started work at York University in 2000, we seemed on the verge of an incredible digital transformation, out with the old, in with the new, print is dead, everything will be online in a couple of years.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Progress towards the digital utopia has been slower than I thought, uneven and halting. I’m somewhat surprise by how many print books I still buy and often surprisingly gratified that they’re still getting used. Even if everything we had in print was also online, would people be ready to completely abandon print? Journals yes, books, give it another few years.

Now, nearing the end of 2009, we seem on the verge of an incredible digital transformation. But this time I think it’ll happen faster than we expect and will be more all-encompassing and transformative.

Unless I’m wrong about that, of course, just like last time.

Which brings me to an exercise in futures thinking. Or at least, a beginning of an outline on how to approach thinking about the future.

Jamais Casico is a futurist. He writes a column for for Fast Company where he often talks about the structured thinking about the future. It’s been quite the experience for me to follow along and I thought I’d share some of the insights from some of his recent columns and how they’ve helped me formulate my own thoughts about the future.

Why Thinking about the future matters

The first of Cascio’s articles that I’ll look at is Tomorrow Matters: Ignoring the Future Is Undermining the Present.

Thinking about the future is fundamentally important to dealing with the challenges of today. In order to confront these problems successfully, we have to think carefully about the implications and results of the steps we might take, not just in the immediate moment, but as conditions continue to evolve. As we’ve seen time and again, it’s all too easy for actions that seem reflexively correct to lead to far greater crises down the road.

He outlines three ways that we can put our futures thinking in a broader context:

  • It expands our understanding of the scope of the situation

  • It expands our understanding of the horizon of the situation
  • It expands our understanding of the kind of world we want

It’s vital to think about what might be in order to prepare ourselves for any eventuality, even those we didn’t originally think were likely. Science fiction fans like to think of themselves as this kind of thinker — exploring the future through fiction can help us be prepared for a range of possible futures, to be mentally equipped to deal with the reality of constant change, to create the mental pathways that can map to a range of possible futures.

But the process of creating the maps will give us a more detailed look and clearer perspective on where we are today. Even being completely wrong has value: figuring out why we were wrong, what we missed, can sometimes be even more illuminating than being right.

*snip*

Futures thinking is perhaps better understood as an immune system for our civilization. By examining and testing different possible outcomes–potential threats, emerging ideas, exciting opportunities–we strengthen our collective capacity to deal with what really does transpire … But without a sense of what’s next, a capacity for understanding connections and horizons, and a vision of what kind of world we want, our efforts to deal with today’s problems will inevitably leave us weakened, vulnerable, and blind to challenges to come.

Let’s get started

What are some of the basics of futures thinking?

Most of all, it’s a process, something that can be approached step by step:

Futures Thinking – A Process Overview

Most futures projects, whether informal or professional, follow a similar pattern: Asking the Question; Scanning the World; Mapping the Possibilities; and Asking the Next Question.

*snip*

Thinking it Through: Finally, ask yourself how you get from today to the futures you’ve laid out. What kinds of choices, what kinds of changes do you need to make now to lead to the outcomes you’d prefer? What can you do to avoid the futures you don’t want to see? Often one of the key insights from many futures projects is the simple realization that the future is in our hands–that our choices matter.

That’s the process I want to begin to map through here. Cascio has published articles describing the first couple of steps and I’ll go through them in the rest of this post. In fact, what he outlines is more or less the way I want to approach my whole futurological project — in essence, My Job in 10 Years is really about Mapping the Possibilities and Asking the Next Question.

But first, I need to start with some framing questions.

Querying the future: Finding the right questions

Why do I need to ask questions as part of my futurological imaginings?

Remember, the goal of structured futures thinking is to come up with a picture of possible futures that will help to inform strategic decisions. The answers you’ll get from a futures exercise are rarely cut-and-dried, but ideally will help you make your decision more thoughtfully. Futures thinking isn’t a Magic 8-Ball, a process where all you need to ask is “Should we do X?” (and getting “Ask Again Later” as a result is neither useful nor surprising).

*snip*

That’s because what you’re doing with a futures exercise is trying to draw out the range of conditions in which your choices play out–the internal and (especially) external factors that will shape outcomes.

As Cascio says later in the piece, what you want the questioning exercise to do is to help you draw out not only a range of possibilities, but to hopefully come up with a list of two or three (or more) key drivers for change. In other words, the forces that will potentially be driving disruptive change.

Some questions I have about my job in 10 years:

  • Will the dollar value of all digital content tend to zero?

  • What kind of information will be scarce enough such that people will be willing to pay for it?
  • What does a post media singularity/Open Access revolution collection look like? Is there anything left to “collect?”
  • What happens to the collections budget in the post media singularity/OA revolution scenario? Back to central admin or to transform other aspects of the library mission: library funded author fees, renovations to obsolete physical spaces, developing virtual collaborative/research spaces. Or do we have to return it to central admin for other needs?
  • What are the collections implications of information becoming more social and distributed? Is preservation a missing function in a social and distributed world?
  • If in the past our collections were defined by their relationship to scarsity (of money & space, primarily), in the future will they be defined by their relationship to abundance?
  • What will be the last print book I buy
  • If law and medical school libraries are the canaries in the coal mine, which of them are going to go completely mobile first?
  • Will any abstracting & indexing database be left standing? Can the existing players find a way to add enough value to make their products worth buying in face of competition from free services.
  • What will be the role of librarians in online learning environments — whatever those turn out to be?
  • What will reference become and how will it balance between f2f and online/mobile?
  • Will we finally have top to bottom, cradle to grave research support environments? Those would more or less combine the functionality of Facebook, research notebook/wiki, Zotero, Google Docs, Wolfram Alpha/Matlab/SPSS, institutional/disciplinary repositories and data repositories. Does this happen with libraries or around them?
  • What’s the least publishable unit?
  • What will the business model be for large digitized collections in the wake of Google Book Search / Google Editions. For example, large music, image or film collections.
  • Will libraries continue to host and create their own digital content — journal hosting and digitization projects being prime examples.
  • As collections space is retired and repurposed, how successful will we be in maintaining control over that space for library purposes — learning commons, study halls, collaborative cafes, function space? How much of the space do we end up having to give back to the central administration.
  • In the post-OA tipping point world, what happens to the money previously in our journal budget?
  • What wins? Smart phone, laptop, netbook, desktop? Two out of three?
  • Answer that question again in a world with very substantially higher energy costs.
  • There are also a lot of questions about shifts in the higher education environment — casualization vs tenure, online vs f2f, research vs. teaching, education vs training, technology in the classroom (this is one area that may not change that fast), lecture vs. active learning, individual vs team & collaborative learning, the growth of the open education movement.
  • Just like the Web is disrupting most other knowledge and information industries, will competition from online education providers render universities nearly completely unrecognizable?
  • Or will the forces of inertia mean that things will remain almost shockingly similar to the current situation?
  • Why do people pursue higher education? And are bricks and mortal institutions the best way to meet those needs?
  • What do I teach in IL sessions? what do I not teach anymore?
  • Are my il efforts more integrated into the mainstream of courses and programs?
  • Will the president of my institution know my name? Any of the deans? An assortment of department heads? Student government? In other words, am I more or less involved in campus life and governance?
  • In a bottom-line world, what role will the practice of assessing our collections and services play in justifying our investment in them?
  • What’s our role in brand promotion — our personal brands, our libraries’ brands, our universities’ brands and our profession’s brand.

Wow, do I ever have a lot of questions. Not that I think most of them have definitive answers, but in identifying and attempting to come to grips with their implications, I can be prepared for what actually does happen. Even if it’s not quite what I tried to envisage through the questioning process.

Scanning the World: The Future Arises from the Present

There are basically two things you have to do to scan the world:

  • You need to expand the horizons of your exploration, because the factors shaping how the future of the dilemma in question will manifest go far beyond the narrow confines of that issue.

  • You need to focus your attention on the elements critical to the dilemma, and not get lost in the overwhelming amount of information out there.

So what are the things that require a kind of expand and focus, with some clues from the questions above:

  • The impact of mobile and ubiquitous computing and the convergence and divergence of hardware platforms

  • Changes in the higher education landscape such as increased accountability, casualization of labour and increasing online educational options.
  • Changes in the media landscape including business models and the increasingly social and distributed aspects of information.
  • Changes in the scholarly publishing landscape including the probability of an open access tipping point and the transformation of what actually represents scholarly output.
  • Demographic and generational forces.
  • Environmental factors such as increasing energy costs.

Cascio breaks those two overriding ideas of expanding and focusing into a few strategies:

Look Backwards: “In many ways, the best training for futures work is the study of history…The reason you want to find different perspectives is that you’re looking for patterns not answers.”

Ask Around: “The next step in scanning is to find other people who may have useful insights into your dilemma. Some of these may be experts in the field, or people with a good grasp of the history of your organization…But make a point of talking to outsiders, too. ”

Follow Your Nose: “Simply put, this is the process of gathering information and looking for items that stand out as interesting…This will mean drinking from a firehose of information…”

So how do these strategies manifest themselves in scanning the world?

Looking backwards reflects my own experiences as a librarian but it also means looking at parts of the library world that have already undergone disruptive change — sectors we can consider canaries in the coal mine. These sectors include corporate libraries, many of which have been closed or radically downsized, as well as subject-specific branch libraries, many of which have experienced the same fates as some corporate libraries.

On the other hand, the canaries that have adapted and thrived in fast-changing times and that can be looked to for positive reinforcement include many law and medical school libraries.
Asking around and following your nose are about embracing the present and using the ideas and opinions out there to try and get a glimpse of the future. In other words, the task here is to read and listen as widely as possible. And the most important thing is to range far and wide outside the library literature. It seems that the media world is undergoing incredible disruptive change right now. Who are the winners and losers and what can the library world learn from those experiences?

What are some of the examples of looking outside the library literature to get a glimpse of the future? As you can imagine, I’m reading a lot of different things to help me formulate my ideas for this project. Books and reports play a huge role in that — here, here, here, here, here and here. In fact, here’s a bit of a list of the last bunch of books I’ve read, most of them not yet reviewed on the blog:

Scanning the world and asking questions about the future are about watching for the light at the end of the tunnel and being prepared for it to be a train. More importantly, if it is a train, we have to make sure we’re not flattened by it but rather to reposition ourselves and our profession to hop into one of the cars and tag along for the ride.

Remember, we’re doing this imagining together. What are your questions? What do you see as the key drivers? What have I totally missed? And how did a futurist end up with a name that means “never?”

(Consider this an excerpt from a possible version of chapter 1.)

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