I just attended a fascinating meeting of futurists and experts of strategic foresight, who the International Civil Society Centre brought together in Nairobi, Kenya from 19-21 June. Here are a few points I took away, which may be relevant to others in our sector:
On the first day, Jackie Cilliers and Zachary Donnenfeld from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa presented their model for scenario planning on “African Futures – Key Trends to 2035”. We learned how to use big data for modelling and forecasting and then tested the presented model by developing different scenarios for Africa’s future. There was wide agreement among participants that big data will play an important role in shaping our sector’s work and that this model would be a helpful tool when using big data to (re-) shape their programmes. Models like the one ISS uses can help our sector find concrete ways to use big data towards achieving our mission.
Day two of the meeting started with Irungu Houghton, the Director of Amnesty Kenya, who provided an overview on key challenges facing civil society organisations. Two of the most critical points he mentioned were:
The subsequent discussion focused on the question: Why does our sector changes so slowly, even though we mostly know what has to be changed? Lack of flexibility in organisational structures, inappropriate governance, and lack of personal courage were some of the answers mentioned.
I was invited to contribute to the discussion based on my work on new business models for Plan International’s work in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is one of over 50 countries that have recently lost their “developing country” status and now need to finance their further development by relying mainly on their own resources. For ICSOs, this means that many of their funding sources dry up and they need to either find new money or close down their programmes and leave the country. If they decide to stay, ICSOs need to raise the bulk of their funds in-country, which requires them to take a much more entrepreneurial approach. The main bottleneck for such strategic foresight at present is the lack of overall direction. Many ICSOs have not yet decided whether they will stay or leave when countries lose their “developing” status. This decision is urgently required in order to provide a solid basis and direction for scanning the horizon.
The subsequent discussion on “Populism and Politics of Demonization” was informed by presentations from Mercy Corps’ Anna Young and Amnesty’s Irungu Houghton. Both shared situations of political persecution faced by themselves personally and by their organisations. The trend which has clearly emerged is that ICSOs are no longer “automatically” seen as neutral and well-intentioned actors. Even service-providing organisations that stay clear of contentious advocacy work can no longer be certain that their work will be tolerated, let alone supported. This situation will probably get worse before it will eventually improve again. Therefore, political developments have to be very much at the top of every organisation’s scanning agenda.
Day three looked at different scanning approaches as a basis for joint learning. Piero Fontalan from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) provided an overview on how scanning is being done in his organisation, and Jason Taylor from Plan International explained how he and his team implement strategic foresight. What fascinated me most was Jason’s story about how the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park changed the course of rivers in the park. When wolves reappeared, elks changed their grazing habits by migrating out of the valleys. Overgrazing near the rivers stopped and the rivers became narrower and more stable in their course. For our topic of foresight, this means: take great care to analyse the complexities of future developments – one aspect rarely changes without affecting many others.
This was the first time the Centre’s foresight community met outside Europe. As a consequence, we had a much more diverse group of participants. A visit to Nairobi’s tech community in “Silicon Savannah” closed a very lively and productive conference. In a globalising world, Scanning the Horizon can only be a global affair. Moving our community’s 2018 meeting to Africa acknowledges the growing importance this continent has in shaping the future of all of us.
Cause-driven organisations in this era of content overload must use artistic storytelling to powerfully stand out and move hearts to action.
Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” tells the horrific story of a massacre in a frozen moment, a timeless, terrifying rendering of human pain and mortality. A thousand short news pieces, while containing more information, could rarely connect to the same degree with a viewer’s emotions. Artistic storytelling enables a connection that the content industry usually fails to engender. The word “content” can be a misnomer, often representing something full, and yet empty. That’s not to do any disservice to the many passionate and talented people working in journalism and marketing – and the expanding frontier land where the two worlds cross over.
Cause-driven organisations must do things differently to capture hearts amid this cacophonic content overload. A more artistic form of storytelling is the only way to infuse both the form and the content with the right values and power. Art-based storytelling responds to the recent erosion of trust in journalistic objectivity: if no stories can be believed in the era of “fake news”, then it’s better not to pretend objectivity. Rather, we should embrace subjectivity, as art has always unashamedly done.
At Good Point we work with cause-driven organisations to hone their internal messaging, what we call their “brand DNA”, so they can create unified and consistent communication that has more impact. We’ve found that many such organisations have no time or resources to focus on strategic storytelling: that communication is often an afterthought when it should be an integral part of their entire strategy. While there’s often talk of “disruption”, “innovation” and “creativity” – these values can be conspicuously absent from videos, websites, brochures, articles, event design, and other outward manifestations of the brand’s personality. For example, we worked closely with the International Civil Society Centre on this very website: exploring the values and mission of the team and bringing core qualities like innovation, creativity and approachability to life on the digital platform.
Earlier this year, our team launched a Berlin-based arts collective called Angles. The collective now encompasses more than 35 artists, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and other creative people representing countries as diverse as Germany, the US, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel and Vietnam, among others. These artists employ diverse media to tell stories about Berlin that celebrate urban inclusion and give voices to unchampioned individuals and communities: to humanise the Other, smash silos, and build bridges.
Ethical organisations would often love to work with artists: they explore similar concepts of humanity, identity and empathy, while celebrating creativity and inspiration. Yet such actors tend to lack the resources to seek out the right creative partners. There’s also a risk of hiring an individual who though a great talent, might be unable to offer the project management and delivery a trusted agency could bring.
On the other hand, while many artists might be concerned with similar values as cause-driven organisations—and often also seek to earn money from creating—they lack the right network, sales skills, or project-management capacity to offer work to the right partner.
Good Point functions as a bridge between these artists and ethical organisations: not just making the connection but managing and directing the project. Our team offers brand-strategy experience alongside artistic production from the film, TV and editorial worlds.
Artists of the Angles collective include Nikhil Chaudhary, an architect and urbanist from India who also draws cartoons to chronicle the pressures of urban development. This is an original animated video he made about the problem of pedestrian traffic deaths in Mumbai. Others include fine artists like Annelisa Leinbach and Peter Wood. Many other members work innovatively together using other media in fresh combinations: more details can be seen on the Angles Instagram page.
Current stories the collective is working on include the production of a map showing the diversity of Kottbusser Tor through audio interviews and photography; an illustrated audio piece on sex work in Berlin; and a series of multimedia works exploring the street musicians of the city. These approaches can all be employed to tell stories for cause-driven organisations, especially as the causes tend to so fully cross over with our own. The values of humanity, identity, empathy and a more cohesive society are best served by creative multimedia storytelling that can express the creativity and innovation so many organisations have in their mission statement.
If ethical organisations are to stand out and capture the current passion for purpose, they can only do it through fresh, original storytelling. That’s why we are connecting artists with humanitarian partners, to help capture hearts with their powerful, urgent messages.
Given the strident advance of some trends, especially technological, the pressure to anticipate and react to change early on has grown considerably. Where do ICSOs stand in terms of future preparedness? Members of the civil society foresight community Scanning the Horizon requested a mapping of how ICSOs prepare for change. The assessment sought to provide an overview of what ICSOs do to identify and explore trends and potential disruption in the mid- to long-term, and how they plan to respond (see also the key findings).
Indeed, all organisations surveyed are undertaking steps to identify and assess trends and disruptors. However, levels of intensity – as measured by the number of activities, diversity of stakeholders involved and envisaged actions – vary greatly. Scanning is mostly carried out by senior management at the international headquarters, followed by those at the country or regional level, international and country-level senior leadership, and to a very limited degree by other groups in the organisation. Anecdotal evidence, e.g. from more participatory organisational restructuration processes, suggests that wider engagement helps organisations become more open to change.
Further, few organisations appear to have a clear-cut mandate or plan for their scanning work specifying a set timeline, goals and responsibilities and dedicated funds – a finding that corroborates an earlier review of ICSOs’ scanning approaches from 2016. Instead, much of the engagement tends to be ad-hoc, partly building on work on top of people’s daily jobs, in evolving, not clearly defined processes. That likely makes them more dependent on the motivation of a few champions and limits the leverage of such processes with internal stakeholders, including the executive management and Board. That being said, about a fourth have some regular – if at times embryonic – engagement with trends at the senior leadership or other levels in place, and a couple of organisations look to joining up hitherto distributed practices into a more coherent approach.
Respondents focus mostly on mega-trends and trends in their own sector, building on an analysis of existing trend reports for either. While this is an efficient approach, spotting disruption will inadvertently remain a weak spot. Little seems to be done in the sense of true horizon scanning, like an internal seismograph to spot emerging issues and potential disruptors. A look at the so-called S-curve is useful to understand the implications:
When drawing information on trends from sector reports or the mainstream media, these developments have typically reached the mainstream, what is called the “reactive zone”. Screening relevant scientific and fringe sources of information, including thought leaders, helps raise awareness of trends much earlier, giving the organisation more time to take strategic action and assume a pioneer role or watch the trend unfold for a while.
However, it also seems that a number of trends ICSOs mention as significant remain by and large unacted upon at the moment. These include continued closing of civic space in countries of operation, urbanisation and climate change. Few seem to be taking concrete
action or to have developed a systematic response beyond spurring innovation and agility more broadly. By comparison, most developments relating to funding or modes of delivery of development and humanitarian aid seem to induce more, and more targeted responses.
A couple of interviewees mention that the scope of change organisations can assess and deal with is limited: “We are now more attuned to trends, but it can be distracting – after all, you have to actually do something in the present. …The big question is, of course, have we done enough to remain relevant to our target group as an INGO, have we changed radically”. This is a valid and critical issue.
Adaptation capacities are limited (and always will be), which requires two complementary approaches: for one, honing those capacities, and second, a sound mechanism to detect and scope new challenges and opportunities, so as to be able to prioritise quickly and not be caught out cold.
So where do ICSOs stand in terms of future preparedness? The picture is highly heterogeneous, but a number of organisations might benefit from a more conscious and systematic approach to spotting and assessing change. Some key questions are:
We will carry these discussions forward in the Scanning the Horizon community.
 This was done via an online survey from December 2017 through February 2018 and a series of complementing interviews in February with select survey respondents, both targeting senior ICSO staff charged with strategy, trend analysis and organisational adaptation to change. We reached out to 31 ICSOs with an invitation to take the survey and shared the invitation via social media. We received 18 responses from ICSOs. A workshop co-hosted by ODI, Plan International and Scanning the Horizon on 6 March 2018 served to present and discuss the findings with members of ICSOs’ senior management, thereby complementing and corroborating the desk work.
 Internal questionnaire-based review of scanning approaches among Scanning the Horizon members, with 12 respondents.
 Such as the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends (2016) report, the UK Ministry of Defence Global Strategic Trends Out to 2045 report (2014) for mega-trends, and Bond’s Tomorrows’ World (2015) and Scanning the Horizon’s “Exploring the Future” (2016) reports for development sector trends.