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Planning for a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous Future

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Image by Ameer Basheer (@24ameer),  used under the Unsplash License
Image by Ameer Basheer (@24ameer), used under the Unsplash License

Why is foresight an essential skill for museum people in coming decades?

Last week I had the pleasure of making that case at the ICOM 2022 Triennial Conference, and today I’m happy to share the presentation with you. It’s a 7 minute watch—I hope you can use it as a palate cleanser between work assignments this week. I’ve included the transcript, below, if you would rather read than watch. Enjoy!


Hello, I’m Elizabeth Merritt, and I’m so pleased to join you today from my home office in Washington, DC, to share a few thoughts about planning for the future with a foresight mindset.

My job at the American Alliance of Museums is to be a futurist for the museum field, helping our sector apply strategic foresight to how we understand and navigate the world.

Foresight is necessary because the time-frame of the uncertain future has shifted. We always knew the world could be radically different a century from now. But the time-frame for the uncertain future has shifted from 100 years to as little as 100 days. This has been dramatized over the past two and a half years, as we have all watched COVID case counts and hospitalization rates, week to week, and tracked orders to mask, close our institutions, reopen, and in some cases, reclose, but it is not exclusive to the pandemic.

In this rapidly changing environment, strategic foresight—the ability to think skillfully about the future—is an essential tool, enabling museums to identify and track change, the trends and events that shaping our path into the future, recognize the multiple futures that could be possible, at any point in time, and foster agile, adaptive responses.

Strategic foresight is a way to deal with a the highly uncertain short-term future we face in coming decades, what some have called the VUCA world, an acronym for:

  • Volatility
  • Uncertainty
  • Complexity, and
  • Ambiguity

In a VUCA world, there is a continual need to foresee multiple possible outcomes, and create resilient, adaptive, agile strategies to respond to incoming information. Let’s look at some examples of challenges faced by museums in this VUCA environment

First, volatility, which refers to the speed of change. This pace of change is driven, in part, by technology. In the 21st century we have the potential for near-instantaneous, global transmission of knowledge to huge numbers of people.

For example, on May 25th, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota—an action that was caught on video and widely circulated on social media. From May 26 to June 7, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, was used nearly 50 million times on Twitter—an average of just under 3.7 million times per day. Within a week, museums in Minneapolis, across the United States, and across the world were confronted with the need to respond to this terrible act of racist violence.

I am sure not one of those museums had, in their strategic plan, a bullet point that read “prepare to respond to police violence and mass protests.”

But museums that were already engaged with their communities, that were aware of and had begun to address the tensions arising from racism and police violence, were better positioned to respond in ways that were meaningful and authentic.

In a volatile world, museums have to be poised to navigate rapid, near instantaneous change, by being aware of the forces shaping our world, forces that may accelerate with little warning.

Our ability to navigate the future is made more complicated by uncertainty—areas of knowledge where we lack confidence in predictions about how things will play out

As we contemplate what the post-pandemic world may be like, it’s clear those areas of uncertainty are vast. To name just one: What are the implications for the future of work? During 2020, telework increased by a factor of ten. And you know what? It turned out that for many jobs, remote work was very effective, and resulted in no decline in productivity. Even some museums volunteers found they could perform their jobs remotely. (This picture shows the Virtual Docent Program at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which allowed volunteers to converse with visitors via a screen.)

So will this continue, creating a future in which much of the museum workforce never or rarely enters the museum, or will it fade away?

Because we don’t know, and won’t know for some time, museums need to create strategies that will work under either or both scenarios.

Museums also face a world that is increasingly complex (involving multiple, interrelated connections influencing change).

For example, the current rise of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, and the creation and trading of NFTs—non-fungible tokens—digital collectables based on the blockchain. (Pictured here are “cryptokitties—some of the earliest NFTs, that allow users to collect, breed, and sell virtual cats.)

Are blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and NFTs fads that will flame out in a few years, or are they here to stay? That depends on many, complex, interrelated factors including:

  • The stability of the technology
  • Concern over the environmental impact of blockchain, and the ability of blockchain companies to reduce that impact
  • Regulation of the industry
  • Public appetite. Will NFTs be the next Van Goghs, or will they be ephemeral?

Museums considering whether to accept or solicit payments and donations via cryptocurrencies, or to create and issue their own NFTs, have to take these complexities into consideration as they make decisions about investment, cost, and reputational risk.

Finally, museums live in a world filled with ambiguity (which is to say, a lack of clarity about how to interpret something). Maybe our information is incomplete, contradictory, or inaccurate.

For example, my colleagues and I at the American Alliance of Museums like to cite data—our own and from other researchers—showing that museums are the most trusted organizations, second only to friends and family in overall trust. But when the more I dig into this data with colleagues, the murkier it becomes:

  • Why are museums trusted?
  • Trusted about what?
  • What would endanger that trust?

Just as one illustration of the complexity, our data shows that nearly half of the American public thinks that museums should always be “neutral”—not taking a position on issues. So are we trusted about “facts” but not about interpretation of what those facts mean, and what they imply for appropriate action on issues like racism, or climate change? By understanding the nature of this trust, museums can use their influence to create a better world.

Strategic foresight helps museums successfully navigate a VUCA world, by a structured process of:

  • Monitoring what is going on in the world, outside our institutions, taking note of trends and significant events
  • Assessing what those changes mean
  • Exploring implications for museums and their communities
  • Expanding our understanding of the many potential futures we face, at any given time (illustrated here with the futurist’s Cone of Plausibility)
  • Engaging in agile, iterative adaptation to the rapidly changing world.

Thank you for the opportunity to present a very brief introduction to the foresight approach to museum planning. I encourage you to access more resources about foresight, trends, and museum futures on the Alliance website, and you can follow me on Twitter at futureofmuseums.

This talk was prepared for the ICOM 2022 Triennial Conference in Prague and presented in the ‘ Leadership and Change’ session on August 23. My thanks to the conference organizers, to Dr. Carol Ann Scott, of ICOM’s Executive Board, for the invitation to speak, and to Lizzy Moriarty, Non Executive Director at Cultural Innovations Ltd, chair of this panel.

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