Current Focus & 'Thought Bubbles'
For a Futurist, Focus is a Key Issue
What you look at, how you look at it and where you find your information are critical elements for developing far more effective strategy. Futures work is about removing the organisational blinkers to increase awareness of risks and emerging opportunities often through Environmental Scanning (ES). ES comes in all sorts of guises and the key to turning data into information or better yet, 'knowledge' requires an effective analysis framework.
Much of my current activity is geared around my co-founding of the Centre for Australian Foresight, a multi sector, cross functional research consultancy. We founded CFAF last year and kicked it off with an AsiaPacific Foresight Conference at the Perth Zoo
The book 'Killing Trends - the Graceful Art of Innovation' has been taken out of the freezer and is finally nearing completion! It's taken me waaaaay longer than expected to finish this one and fingers crossed it'll be just a few more months. I think :-)
I've put my mind to: How GM Foods can be made to work and How to Stop Japanese Whaling in its Tracks (see articles below); Water Theft Increases - how society is likely to respond to increasing water restrictions, private storage capacity and opportunism; and Customer Service in a time of highly active consumers. I'm still yet to finish the book 'Killing Trends - the Graceful Art of Innovation' and have two others in development, so things are heating up!
My focus as a Futurist is also seeing me closely involved with The Australian Strategic Planning Institute which I have founded recently to help enhance the way in which organisations drive Strategic Planning and extract benefits from the process. The link between futures thinking and strategic planning ought to be explicit and unfortunately for most organisations, it isn't. Other serious issues for strategic planning efforts include poor planning processes and a lack of accountability to the strategic plan the organisation develops. Hopefully TASPI will go some way to developing Strategic Planning into a much more effective discipline. Check out The Australian Strategic Planning Institute for further details. Remember if you're looking to Find a Futurist, email us here
Over the past year I've been part of an advisory board for the Australian Bill of Rights Initiative and recently our group co-authored and submitted a small thought piece on the use of WIKIs as a means of engaging with stakeholders. You can find out more by visiting the 'Re Public' website link here Just recently I was asked to join the futures advisory board of the Lifeboat Foundation, a group looking to answer some of the existential problems for the species Homo Sapiens.
A Carbon Free Electricity generator idea is still developing bit by bit. The generator concept is much more fully developed than it was and I've met with a business advisor for suggestions and ideas for getting this thing to the market. This includes some very interesting opportunities for capital investment, Venture capital or a sell off/licensing of the IP. And with a chance to present at both the World Future Society in Vancouver in July and the Stockholm International Water Institute in Sweden in August, it's already an active year
Can GM Foods rescue the planet? - the Only way GM food can come to our rescue
There's a little problem with food production in the world that not many people want to talk about. About half the world is being starved to death whilst we are seeing a spike in obesity due to over-consumption of food.
The strange thing about that issue is that both ends of the food consumption divide either die from preventable diseases or live lives of pain and suffering due to the complications caused by their diets.
And let's not beat around the bush any longer. People are eating themselves to death at a time when a great proportion of the planet still struggles to gain access to even the barest needs for sustenance. The 'starving' are faced with a 'sub-existence' life - barely surviving. Whilst at the other end of the scale, costs associated with diabetes, heart disease and vascular problems are draining Government funds away from more worthy causes because people are being gluttons.
Now I'll leave the supposed triggers for over-eating to the psychologists to explain, adding only that it is often touted that a lack of self esteem is often a trigger for food consumption. So because people 'feel bad' about themselves, they shove their faces full of food. Maybe if they want something to feel bad about they should spend six months living on the rations of a family who face death almost every day. The key difference of course is choice. Starving people have NO choice
But I digress
It is suggested that enough good food is thrown out in the US each month to feed most of Africa. Australia also throws out a high percentage of perfectly good food. So whilst we know that an increase in population is likely to drive an increasing need for more food production, we also know that right now we waste a good chunk of perfectly good food
In assessing the way we as a species behave it'd be an unlikely call to suggest that we'll be changing our habits any time soon. Gluttons will continue to shove food down their throats and the rest of us will throw out perfectly edible food whilst many of the planet without access to needed resources and support starve. So that is not likely to change in a hurry.
At the same time, there is an ongoing debate between Genetically Modified foods (GM) and natural foods. The debate hinges as much over fears of lack of bio-diversity as it does of a huge level of mistrust over large multinationals dictating what food can be grown by whom using what products. And given the track record of multinationals in pursuing farmers whose crops have become infected by GM foods or who may have tried to by-pass the usual licensing procedures, those fears are more than justified.
But the food production problem is not going to go away. The world is going to need to produce more food and the multinational GM makers want to make more money. At the same time, large parts of the planet starve to death, whilst farmers using traditional means attempt to turn back to the more organic farming methods to avoid the pesticide and fertiliser pains of large scale farming.
And then there's climate change with all the vagaries the planet is throwing at us.
So what to do, what to do.
Assuming that the gluttons on the planet won't be changing their habits and will continue to seek solace by eating, that the rest of us will waste perfectly good food and assuming that there will be a continued backlash against GM food being grown in farms around the planet, and assuming that the GM companies will want to profit from their research and assuming that the world will still need more food, I'm of the opinion that GM food IS the answer to more food production.
Provided that the production of those crops takes place inside enclosed environments and the key place for that to be done on a large enough scale to make a difference will be inside vertical farms.
Vertical farming sees whole office complexes (or purpose built buildings) turned into 24/7 farming locations. Take a look at this website here at what Vertical Farming is all about
GM food can indeed save the planet from itself. And if the Bayer and Monsantos of the world want so desperately to grow their crops, and if the world so desperately needs that food to be grown and if the bio-farmers are so keen for that not to happen in the field, then Vertical Farming of GM foods is what those multinationals will need to build.
There's no more need for debate or for organisations like the the EU Health Commission to force EU Agriculture Ministers to accept or approve GM crops. All that is required is for these GM Ag. Companies to build or create vertical farms where their GM food can grow in an enclosed space, on mass, to feed the starving masses.
Every now and again what sounds like a really good idea turns out to be less beneficial than what was hoped for. Strategic Futurist Marcus Barber wonders whether or not the Victorian Government’s ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea is a current example?
For those of you that have read my paper ‘A Drop in the Ocean’ you’ll know that I am greatly interested in the issue of fresh water, water management and the way societies around the world approach how they handle the water they have available to them. If you haven’t read the piece and are interested, here’s the link.
In that paper I proposed a few key ideas, two of which were the ‘Global’ – an international currency unit equivalent to one litre of fresh water; and the ‘Global Currency map’ which showed how some societies are better off with regard to water access and use and what we could learn from the way in which we introduce new ideas to help save the planet from a disaster based on a lack of fresh water.
So you’d probably think that I’d be a fan of the Victorian Government’s ‘4 Minute Shower’ initiative. And up to a point I am. I’m a fan of any initiative that reduces the amount of water we use and how we use it - but there is something about the ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea that has me greatly concerned –I sense that it is a well intentioned but misplaced notion for water use.
In considering the ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea I am taking a counter-instinctive approach to it. Negotiators know that counter instinctive behaviour can be very useful at changing the direction of a negotiating process that seems to be headed to a foregone conclusion. They also know that it can be difficult to do, especially when habits of ingrained behaviours are in play.
In taking a counter instinctive approach I’m going to break down the intention behind the four minute shower idea and see if looking at it from a different perspective provides an improved level of understanding about what the problem is and whether the idea will actually solve the challenge.
Right now it appears that the Victorian Government is concerned that we are running out of water; that we need to reduce our usage of the water; that steps need to be as simple as can be possible and ideally that the concept can appeal to as many people as possible. That all sounds like a good thing doesn’t it? And the key concept that the Victorian Government have embraced is the ‘4 minute shower’. This idea, on the surface, looks like a no-brainer – easy enough for everyone to do, reduces the amount of water being consumed, can be done by just about anyone.
So what’s the issue? In counter instinctive terms I’m suggesting that the ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea is entrenching the notion that it is okay to waste water. Just so long as you do it in smaller amounts.
The trouble with having a shower is that every litre you use – whether you have a long shower or a short one, whether you use a water gobbling shower head or one of the (ought to be compulsory) best bar none ‘diamond’ heads like we use, goes down the drain as waste water. EVERY single litre. And you only use that litre of water ONCE per event – it skims past your body and disappears, despite the vast majority of it being arguably drinkable by standards experienced in many parts of the world (and even parts of Australia)
For me the ‘4 Minute Shower’ idea misses the mark – it is a permission slip for people to keep wasting water (just like carbon credits are permission slips for people to keep polluting the planet). Taking a counter instinctive approach, I suggest that what we need to encourage is for people to INCREASE water usage and to use anything other than showers!
Yes you read that right and to support my counter-instinctive position I am going to use a real life example – my own.
I live in an inner suburban house with a large backyard. Our family consists of two kids, the good lady wife and myself. We have a free range rabbit, a couple of chickens, three goldfish in the water feature and a reasonable sized vegie patch. In the backyard we have an orange tree, large cherry tree, an apple tree, some delightful lemon centred melaleuca (Gum Trees) over 80 feet tall and a backyard big enough to have a hit of cricket, or for the kids to ride their bikes around, or to have a bounce on the trampoline. We have a small 4wd and a small two door car in the drive. There’s a grape vine out the front that produces wonderful eating grapes as well as keeping the front ‘lawn’ area shaded during summer. We live in an suburban enclave that has the highest level of water usage per capita in Victoria. Or perhaps we’ve dropped back to number two recently – either way people in our suburb are ‘up there’ with regard their level of water use. We should be using a truckload of water everyday.
Yet according to the comparative graph provided to us by South East Water, usually our four person large garden home uses less water that the average one person home with just a medium sized garden!
And here’s how we did it – we stopped the kids having a shower and made them take a bath instead.
In fact our kids would have about one shower to every ten baths. I hate baths and I either have the tap running at the veritable trickle, or I shower outside in the garden using the garden hose (though less frequently in winter). And let me tell you that when you are outside using a cold garden hose during winter – you learn to shower pretty efficiently and quickly!
We also have three smaller water tanks capturing rainfall with a total capacity of about 2500 litres. We’ve had them installed for about seven years, way before any idea of ‘water tank rebates’ were in play and in all that time we have NEVER experienced a time when all three tanks were empty at the same time. In fact we’ve only had two occasions when two tanks were empty because I’d let one of them run dry watering the orange tree and forgot to turn the tap off!
By the way the water tank rebate is also a flawed idea because it allows people to compare the cost of the water tank to the value of the rebate (which doesn’t even pay for the cost of plumbing) and many choose not to install one. The Victorian Government should instead make it compulsory for EVERY household undergoing a renovation of any description to install a minimum of 5000 litre capacity. At the same time we should introduce a ‘moratorium’ similar to the one being used for the switching off of the analogue TV signal, and give households in Victoria three years to install a tank or face a levy.
Now back to this counter instinctive water saving approach. The ‘4 minute Shower’ though well intentioned, does nothing more than to slow down the rate at which water is wasted. It also ensures that people lower their water usage at a time when we should encourage them to increase it. And that is why the bath works so well – EVERY SINGLE drop that is used in the bath by my kids is reused and bucketed onto some part of our garden. We have doubled the usage of water – first as a bath, second as a watering element for our garden. We have kept alive some lovely shade trees and native shrubs; we have increased the production from our fruit trees and vegetable patch; we keep the vine well watered during summer so that the table grapes are plump and juicy.
The same goes for the showers I have in the backyard – every single drop lands on some needed part of the garden. We still let our lawn brown in summer but still manage to keep it alive so that the backyard does not turn into a dust bowl. Simply put, by looking at how we use the water we are using we decided to increase usage but lower consumption. It is important to understand that usage and consumption are not the same things. Next step will be hooking one of the tanks up to one of the toilets (another water saving activity with more to tell on another occasion)
By comparison the 4 Minute Shower suggests that so long as you let it go down the drain in shorter bursts, all will be okay. It isn’t going to be okay – Victoria and most of Australia are facing a social disaster at a level not on most people’s radar!
So I wonder whether or not Victoria is headed down the drain with the 4 Minute Shower?
Are Interest Rate Levers too Clumsy for a Teetering Economy?
I've been having a think lately about whether the use of Interest Rate movements by the Reserve Bank is actually too clumsy an instrument for effective economic management. The potential weakness has emerged only in recent times as the signs of a world-wide economic melt down have begun to expose one of the limitations of the GST as an interest mechanism that taxes consumption.
When the economy is booming and everyone feels rosy, the key requirement is to reduce paperwork and simplify processes to maximise effectiveness. There is little doubt that the GST method is a far more effective system when things are booming.
But I am starting to think that going for a one size fits all approach through a flat consumption tax may not be as great when the only measure left to slow spending is interest rates. Lifting interest rates invariably hits those who can least afford it the hardest. Already pressed to the wall to pay home loans or rents, there is often little discretionary spending left in poorer income families. Interest rate rises are a heavy punishment that in the end, capture many people who are sensible managers of their limited budgets. And frankly I think it is a clumsy and unfair approach.
Which is where I think there might be some benefit in re-visting the old 'sales-tax' model that the GST replaced. Not for the purposes of reinstating it but for the purposes of seeing if there is anything of value in the way it worked that could provide a more precise instrument to manage the economy.
The key attribute was the wild variation in taxation rates. That was also its downfall as things became too onerous for what tax level applied to what aspect of a product or service. But that variation could be something that a revamped approach to a GST ought to be considered. Consider then higher rates of GST applied on certain consumer goods. If a Government could act to decrease the incentive on CERTAIN types of consumer goods (i.e the highly discretionary ones) then an increase in a GST rate for that type of product would be a precise instrument for detering spending, slowing economic activity in that sphere.
Significantly, it means that the 'treat everything as a nail' approach that hammer-like Interest rate adjustments are, do not need to penalise those who can least afford it. There are a vast number of people who are going to lose their homes, not because they bought a plasma TV or splashed out on a holiday, but because some decisions made by very wealthy senior bankers elsewhere in the world meant that prudent risk management processes were ignored in the search for higher executive bonuses. Yes there were many executives who were prudent, just as there are some households whose priorities were less than switched on to commercial realities. But unfortunately the heavy handed interest rate rises approach is clumsy and penalises those who can least afford the change.
In the paper 'A Blueprint to Advance Australia Collectively' which was sent to all major polticial parties in 2000, I suggested that temporary Superannuation incentives might also be a lever. To some extent that idea was picked up but not as fully as it could have been. So more flexibility is required and the flexibility that might be afforded Governments in considering short term increases in GST on certain consumer goods might be just the lever to help.
Just a thought...
Saving the Polar Ice Caps
Okay I admit that on the first take this idea might sound a little crazy. I reminded myself however of that saying that 'all great ideas must at first sound crazy to the existing paradigm...' or some such thing. You might know who said it (please send me an email if you do). So I am throwing this idea out as one that might need you to stop your knee from giving a habitual 'jerk' thus preventing you from immediately proclaiming to all and sundry 'Ridiculous!'.
'Let's cover the polar caps in a massive white reflective blanket!'
Yes you read right. The good oil on the bad outcome is that the polar caps are melting, that as they do so less heat will be reflected and more will be absorbed into the now (exposed) darker areas of the artic land mass, thus accelerating the problem.
So let's cover the polar ice caps (the Arctic in particular). Lord knows for the sake of 'art' the entire white cliffs of Dover were covered in a material shroud. Lord knows that the average advertising panel n a giant Billboard promoting perfume, cars, weightloss and fast food is big enough to cover a netball court and we thrown thousands of those into the tip every year. So why can't we just cover the most exposed areas in a solar blanket to reflect sunlight, keep the ground cover white and hopefully delay or avert the melting?
Yes, yes I know it's a big ask requiring lots of effort and more consideration of potential adverse impacts. But surely those potential impacts would be less adverse than the ones coming when the caps melt?
Whilst I appreciate the efforts that Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and the various Australian Governments have given regarding their aims to have the Japanese cease their annual whale harvests, I'm not quite sure they are tackling the issue through the best means available.
Sure the confrontational approach of ramming ships, climbing aboard vessels, getting in the way of harpoons and all of that makes for great TV and dynamic press coverage. Who hasn't thought 'gee that'd be something I could get passionate about' as you see the pint sized rubber duck take on a giant slice and dice whale factory in the middle of the ocean?
But the challenge with this approach is that whilst media sexy, it misses the glaring gap in the Japanese push for whaling. I'll come to that a bit later.
First up though we have to consider just why the Japanese are so 'passionate' about whaling. I say 'passionate' because the number of Japanese who are in fact 'passionate' is quite small. Is it the historical factor? No - plenty of research shows that quite few Japanese eat whale meat, fewer still are aware of any historical links and there's certainly little real evidence to support whaling by Japan along the lines of the Inuit peoples. So if it isn't about history, how valid are the claims of scientific research? This is the multi-million dollar question that also provides the clue as to How to Stop Japanese Whaling in its Tracks. Without going into too much detail let me expose my own values and say 'I don't buy the scientifc research' claims as anything other than a myth. There's plenty of others who feel the same way, hence the anti-whaling ships hunting the Japanese whaling vessels this year and in past years.
So why then do the Japanese want to pursue whaling? The answer lies in economics, population growth and geography. Without putting it too simply, Japan lacks room. Because Japan lacks room it does not have the ability to farm cattle. That means it must import cattle and that means it spends money in places like Australia and the United States - countries with an abundance of room to grow cattle. If Japan wants to increase the protein consumption of its population it has but a handful of choices: Import beef/lamb etc which costs the Japanese economically; increase the amount of fish on the diet yet international fisheries are under extreme pressure (and the tastes of Japanese are evolving which means fish though dominant is no longer deemed sufficient); and increase chicken consumption (and also egg consumption) but in order to do that it has to import appropriate forms of feed stocks at a time when China is absorbing a goodly portion of the world's grain output.
Which leads to the obvious conclusion: No room for cattle, fish stocks under pressure and no desire to increase imports at the same time as there exists a desire to increase the available amounts of protein means one thing - Farm the Oceans for Protein.
And one of the best sources for protein in massive amounts that is easy to 'harvest' is whale meat. The real reason the Japanese want to maintain and increase their whale numbers has nothing to do with scientific research and has everything to do with accessing cheap sources of protein. The Japanese wish to use the oceans as their 'farms' and to treat whales as their 'cattle'. A low cost, self feeding, no maintenance farmland with the ship crews acting as the cowhands, the Antarctic ocean as their stockyards, and their ships acting as the slaughterhouse. And they get all of that for free, plundering a resource that belongs to the world for their own benefit.
So what can be done?
The answer to the challenge lies in the very reason Japans offer as to why they 'whale' - scientific research. We know it's rubbish, the Japanese Government knows it's rubbish; the Japanese whalers know it's rubbish. So the answer to 'How to Stop Japanese Whaling in its Tracks' lies within the very heart of what it means to be Japanese:
The Japanese are big on 'Honour'. REALLY BIG. In fact culturally it has been and continues to be a key driver in how they negotiate with the world and with each other. The need to save 'kao' (face) is critical. Attacking their ships does not allow them to save face and so they will rally against it. Boarding their ships only enables a relatively disinterested Japanese public to stand behind their own. Attacking them in whaling commissions also won't do it - we know that because the loophole that is 'scientific research' was offered up because a total ban was not going to be approved or accepted.
What must happen for us to be able to Stop Japanese Whaling in its Tracks is to get the Japanese people to question the 'honour' of hiding behind 'scientific research' as the reason for whaling and bring their own pressue to bear on their Government.
And to do so, the place to start is to question the ability of Japanese Scientists. Which means the messages that are sent out work something like this:
- 'Japanese Whaling Scientists are the worst and most inept scientists in the world. We know this because no where else do scientists make so many blunders, require so much base stock and make so many errors in the research process'
- 'How stupid are Japanese Whaling Scientists? In other parts of the world we can harvest stems cells from scrapes of human tissue but in Japan they need not only whole whales, but thousands of them each year just to work out what whales eat'
- 'Only the poorest of scientists would work for the whaling industry - how else could they do so little with so much?'
- 'To be a whale scientist in Japan is to have no honour - how else could they hide behind the facade?'
You get the picture. By and large Japan has produced some of the smartest and greatest scientists in the world and still do. But to have all of Japan's scientists tarred with the brush of ineptitude, stupidity and lack of honour would be something that culturally would be too painful for the Japanese community to bear. In a very short time the facade of scientific research would end and that is How to Stop Japanese Whaling in its Tracks.
What the Weather Bureau can do to help this Drought
I'm going to come back to an idea I first floated back in 2004. By and large it is hard to change societal perceptions. Doing so requires on going effort, time and often resources like money to create marketing campaigns of some description. Unless you have a crisis. And right now it might be fair to say that we have a crisis regarding water availability in Australia. It is NOT a new crisis. It is many, many centuries old. Yet for some, lack of water seems to be a shock so it is clear that perception and reality are not in agreement for a lot of people.
So what can the Weather Bureau do to help? Well it is surpringly simple. And that is to get rid of the word 'fine' to describe the weather. Fine means 'okay' or 'pretty much the same' or 'not much will change'. But in Australia, things are NOT fine and they certainly are NOT 'okay'!. They are 'dry'. What I would like the Weather Bureau (along with all of the TV, Newspaper and Radio weather persons) to do is begin to use the word DRY as a replacement for the innocuous sounding 'Fine'.
DRY is a habit forming word that will help the wider society recognise the seriousness of our predicament in Australia. DRY is a word that talks about the reality of the situation. The day is not so much '26 degrees with slight north easterly winds and mainly fine'. It IS 'Dry, 26 degrees with slight north easterly breezes'. Even when there is a sprinkle of water, the day would be "...MAINLY DRY, with..."
You get the picture. It is time the Weather Bureau ditched Fine for a touch of helpful perception creating realism. DRY it is!
Inverting the City/Country Dynamic
At a recent session with the Gen Y group working on the 'Future Melbourne' project for the City of Melbourne I suggested that the group consider what the result might be if they could 'invert' the way the State of Victoria operates. What would you be likely to see if more of the functions of the city occured outside of the CBD and more of the functions of the country occured in the City?
In pushing them to think further than they originally did, I suggested that there is no reason why these monolithic edifices called office buildings would be used for temporary storage of workers. After all, I reasoned, the function of the CBD would be conducted elsewhere which means workers would begin to gain benefits from the broadband access now denied to them and the required management techniques that fostered remote working. One element of the CBD inverted to the country.
But what to do with the existing infrastructure? That of course is a no brainer - the city office blocks would become our farms. More predictable and controllable weather patterns and water use, we'd have Wheat growing on floors 3-9; Corn on 10-16 and Rice on 17-20. In the underground carpark right to the ground floor we'd run cattle and other stock. The methane captured would be used to power the 24 hours a day hydroponic lamps that grow the crops. There'd be a reduction in transport costs as local farm sites began popping up right where they are need - next to the actual population that needs to be fed. In Austraia with our relatively poor soils and ever increasing periods of drought we have a real boon in food production.
And think of what all that new city space could lead to in terms of community engagement projects. That's not to mention the drop in stress levels as hundreds of thousands of work hours lost in traffic crawls to and from the city get converted into usable and highly productive time. And just think of the air quality in town! A case of the rural activity inverted to occur in the city.
It's no pipe dream. Just one that requires some serious thinking.
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Monday 27 February 2017
It's been a significantly busy couple of months looking at how Industries and Government Agencies are preparing for change. The Companies versus Climate Change conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in November/December, and a meeting with the Political Science Department at the University of Hawaii (Manoa) in January show that positive action is happening, despite some of the headlines
Saturday 31 December 2016
Many of you know that each year I make an observation about what I think the year will bring. The track record suggests I'm usually a couple of years ahead of the curve. With that said I'm calling 2017
Monday 12 December 2016
In Ft. Lauderdale USA I recently attending a delightful provocatively named 'Companies Versus Climate Change' conference. And the message is clear - companies, BIG well known companies are tackling the issues of climate change, sustainability and their carbon footprints and both making and saving VAST sums of dollars. The simple take away message from the presentations over the three days could not have been more explicit - tackling climate change pays off big time!