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Spend Some Time Daydreaming the Future

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Humans are natural storytellers. That should make my work easy, because the apex of strategic foresight is using storytelling to plan for the future. Futurists call these stories “scenarios,” and while they have a very serious purpose, they work best when they are also compelling, entertaining (and believable) fiction.

This kind of storytelling isn’t a fringe activity either, it is completely mainstream. Many organizations, notably large corporations in industries such as energy, health care or transportation, commission custom sets of scenarios to guide their own planning. Shell has a 40 year history of developing scenarios to guide their decision making. (You can access the Shell scenarios here.) Sometimes external players create scenarios to forecast the future of a major company and its potential impact on their marketplace. See, for example, this set of scenarios created in 2006 about potential futures of Google.
Reading stories of the future helps get you in the habit of thinking on a longer time frame, scanning for information and identifying important trends and events as you read the news. Spending a little of your important daydreaming time inhabiting potential futures equips you to create plans that:

  • Encompass an appropriate vision for what the organization wants to accomplish
  • Identify appropriate long term goals
  • Don’t rely on vulnerable assumptions
  • Are flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and embed appropriate contingencies

Exploring scenarios helps you to understand the potential consequences of crucial decisions. Stories, for example, might help you discover the downside to creating a 10-year master plan for an expensive new building on a site that will be flooded with increasing frequency, as sea levels rise and storms increase in frequency and severity.Stories might help you understand what kinds of collections, the museum needs to build to serve the needs of a community with rapidly changing demographics.
Some people are beginning to recognize that strategic foresight, including scenarios, may be the future of planning.  I’ve compiled a small but growing list of museums that used forecasting as a basis for planning at their museums, for example,

These organizations have, for the most part, used CFM’s trends forecasting, notably the TrendsWatch reports, to frame their discussions. There is a small, but growing literature of museum-specific scenarios (You can find some in CFM’s Tomorrow in the Golden State: Museums and the Future of California, and others in the archives of the CFM Blog.)

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However, there are some excellent scenarios created for sectors tangentially related to museums that have offer lessons for our field.
Scenarios for the Future  of the Book  (2012) was created for the Association of College and Research Libraries. It presents four potential futures:

Consensus (meaning their forecasters thought  this is the most probable future) in which books have largely been digitized, tablet readers rule, and printed books are legacy objects valued by scholars and collectors.

Nostalgic (meaning their forecasters preferred this future, but thought  it unlikely to happen) in which e- books turn out to have  been a fad, printed books are less expensive and more popular than their digital equivalents, and print-on-demand technology empowers self-publication. “Books are the new business card;  to be taken  seriously, clients want to be given a copy of the book you’ve written.”

Privatization of the Book: in which personal libraries of physical books are status objects for collectors and the social and economic elite. While digital works are more readily accessible, print copies are preferred.

Printed Books Thrive: a future in which digital and print publications amicably share the market.
These scenarios give the staff of libraries very specific, plausible visions of what the future might be, and context in which to make strategic decisions about space, staff, time and resources. That, in turn, can help overturn assumptions about what “library” means, and opens the door to envisioning new roles. (Such as the role outlined in this great post about a library pushing the boundaries of “library” identity.)
Another very well-done set of scenarios is Learning in 2025 by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. This forecast presents a variety of resources (including some very well-done videos interviewing education professionals of the future). At the bottom of the main web page you will find a set of scenarios grouped together as “The Learning System of 2025,” presenting 4 stories of potential futures:

  • A Vibrant Learning Grid
  • A National System for Global Competitiveness
  • Learners Forage for Resources
  • Schools are Centers of Resilience

You may recognize these scenarios as the inspiration for my own riffing on the museums and the future of education. I highly recommend you read these stories of potential futures, and see how they may lead you to question your assumptions about the what “museum” means, and open the door to envisioning new roles. Enjoy.

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