A few months ago I posted a fairly long essay on how I was approaching the challenge of thinking about the future. I modelled myself on a few articles by futurist Jamais Casico and focused on why thinking about the future matters, finding the right questions to ask about the future and recognizing that the future arises out of the present.

This time around, I’ll use a few more of Casico’s articles to explore further the challenges of thinking about the future, specifically mapping the possibilities (Parts I and II) and Writing Scenarios.

Mapping the Possibilities

As we scan the environment, as we ask questions, as we gather data, we begin to extrapolate the future from the present. We begin to map out possibilities and sketch out scenarios.

The goal of futures thinking isn’t to make predictions; the goal is to look for surprising implications. By crafting multiple futures (each focused on your core dilemma), you can look at your issues from differing perspectives, and try to dig out what happens when critical drivers collide in various ways.

Whatever you come up with, you’ll be wrong. (Mapping the possibilitie, part i)

What we have to do is consider a large number of possibilities and try and sort and classify, categorize and narrow down the ones that seem to make the most sense. The idea is to form clusters and patterns and use those to drive scenario building. Scenarios aren’t definitive answers to the questions we’ve been posing, rather a variety of scenarios sketch out a range of possible answers.

In the aftermath of your “scanning the world” work, you will have come up with at least dozens and probably hundreds of interesting and potentially relevant data points and potential drivers. It’s hard to work with hundreds, though; more useful would be about five or six. …

What you’ll then do is look for patterns and bigger picture categories that would encompass multiple topics. Try to focus the categories on subjects that are clearly important and hold a great deal of uncertainty. …

You will eventually have a smallish group of categories with lots of members, and a largish group of categories with just a few. The big categories will be your key scenario drivers, and should appear in all of your scenarios in some form. The smaller piles will be minor drivers, and should be included in at least one. (Mapping the possibilities, part i)

All the data, all the questions, all the possibilities, it comes out of the other end of the futures thinking process as all the scenarios we imagine. The major and minor drivers for academic libraries are large and various. Some are huge and effect all the work we do, such as the incredible shifts in media and publishing business models that are part and parcel of the shift to an online world. Others are more particular to the various areas we operate in. Areas such as scholarly communications, collections, reference and information literacy all have their own drivers.

Let’s Build Some Scenarios

The next step is actually taking all the information you have collected and the resulting lists of drivers and coming up with some ideas of how the future world will actually look.

Turning your drivers and data points into a sufficiently diverse set of multiple believable, internally-consistent worlds can be difficult, and most scenario developers rely on a set of heuristics to make sure that the worlds being built will both differ from each other in important ways and show clear and logical evolution from the present. (Mapping the possibilities, part ii)

Cascio has something he calls “futures architypes” that he uses to shape his scenario-building. He essentially takes four different takes on how the world will look (Mapping the possibilities, part ii):

  • The future is what I expect

  • The future is better than I expect
  • The future is worse than I expect
  • The future is weirder than I expect

For any given aspect of the world we’re extrapolating, it can be instructive to come up with a different scenario for each of those possibilities. We in the library business often somehow tend to concentrate on one of those two: either the future being pretty well “what we expect” or in other words, a lot like the present or the future being “worse than we expect.” I don’t follow either of those dogmatically or in fact any of the four. What I do try and do is pick from those four archetypes and imagine which among them is most likely. Sometimes I will present one scenario as the most likely and sometimes I’ll present one or more scenarios.

Writing Scenarios

But how can we actually present the scenarios? Cascio gives three main options for composing the description of the world that you imagine: “Scenario-as-Story,” “Scenario-as-Recollection,” and “Scenario-as-History.” The first is couching the scenario as a sort of science fiction story, with a plot and characters. The third as a dry, detached, mock historical presentation. (Writing scenarios.)

The second, “Scenario-as-Recollection,” seems to make the most sense for what I’m trying to accomplish with this project:

In Scenario-as-Recollection, the scenario narrative remains personal (usually done as a first-person perspective), but the structure is more linear and straightforward, with no pretense of a plot… The advantage of this approach is that you can easily add a bit of subjectivity to the scenario without making it all about the speaker. The reader can come away from the piece understanding that opinions may actually vary about some aspects of this world, just like in the real world. (Writing scenarios)

Which is more-or-less what I’m striving for in this project – personal but structured, subjective but grounded. It’s about what I think the future holds, what I see as the scenarios and possibilities.

Making Sense of the Future

The point of all of this talk of Futures Thinking is not to turn this exercise in a scientific experiment or to somehow imply that the future is deterministic. There is no formula, there are no right answers, there isn’t anything that I know that you or others don’t also know. But, by putting down some scenarios and possibilities on paper, by thinking them through in a somewhat organized and systematic way, we can be prepared, we can guide our careers, we can advise others.

The same, better, worse, weirder, it’s all there. It’s all here. What I hope to offer as part of this larger project is some of the right questions to ask, a range of possibilities for our profession and maybe even a few plausible scenarios.

Each post, each chapter and section, will provide exactly that: some questions, some possibilities and some scenarios, some vision of what the world might be like in 10 years. Some of my ideas will seem more plausible, some perhaps less so. Some will seem more inevitable, to me or to you. Some will seem fanciful. Some will seem naive or pollyannaish. Some will perhaps seem to negative or dystopian. Some will seem to open up our roles as academic librarians too wide, to some to abstract or diffuse, too far from our core. Some will perhaps seem to narrow or restrict what we do, to hive off parts of our past and discard them or to close doors that perhaps could be opened wide.

And so be it. You’ll all let me know when I’m wrong.

As usual, at this point I offer up the comments for comments and criticisms. Am I on track in the right ball park or just plain crazy?

(This will appear in slightly different form as part of chapter 1 of My Job in 10 Years: The Future of Academic Libraries)

Comments

  1. #1 bill
    July 27, 2010

    You’re completely squirrelbait, of course, even to attempt this — but who says that’s a bad thing? :-)

    Fwiw, I don’t usually care for the “mock history” style of scenario building. I prefer forward-looking writing to employ the future tense; it distracts me somehow when that gets turned around.

  2. #2 John Dupuis
    July 29, 2010

    Thanks, bill, I agree about the mock history thing. The future should seem like the future. I may just remove that whole section in further iterations and not talk about how I’m going to present the thing I’m in the middle of presenting.

    As for squirrelbait, well some days I think I’m a whole bag of trail mix.

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