Of good shows, essential word-smithing, and a snowmobile for the future

some notes from an exciting get-together of CSO horizon scanners

Dieter Zinnbauer
6 min readJul 2, 2017

I just spent a wonderful three days with great people who work on foresight, future trends for some of the larger NGO networks (thanks to ICSC for convening this!). Now as is the case with many truly inspiring workshops, the formal proceedings or group work outputs may be great, but it is first and foremost the people one meets and the free-wheeling, little think-bites that they seed and that often only germinate into more coherent ideas in one’s head much later on. So here a few such quibbles and nibbles that this really good workshop triggered — hopelessly inchoate and entirely subjective

not just, but also for show: the under-explored dimension of future scans

The warm-up was nicely focused on a bit of introspection on why we are here and why we are horizon scanning. We came up with lots of good uses and benefits. Yet, what remained peculiarly un-mentioned was the more performative side of future-scans, their inherent function for NGOs to signal to volunteers that we are cool, to donors that their investments area future-proof, and to everyone that we are pretty much on top of things — competent, agile adapters to and as much as possible influencers of the things to come. There is nothing wrong with any of these signalling functions and all stakeholders should benefit from an organisation that carefully makes itself sensitive to current and possible future trends.

Yet, I also think it is pretty useful to be aware of such performative momentum, since the desire to signal prudent stewardship of mission and resources can easily turn into a competitive race to glossy trendiness and feigned prescience. Such over-signalling might also sub-consciously delude ourselves into a false confidence that we and our brand new five-year strategy have pretty much figured it all out re. the things to come. As a volunteer, donor and employee I truly appreciate organisations that do not ride the hype curve and do not give in to a tendency to overplay their great strategic foresight, yet retain a sense of confident humbleness in the face of futures inevitably uncertain, yet not un-malleable.

don’t talk inequality

Inequality. It is real. It is really big and bad. And it is unfortunately boring.

Inequality is perhaps one of the most vexing and consequential problems of our times that threatens to corrode our democracies, economies and communities, a message that a great keynote (sorry Chatham House rules, so I leave out names) bolstered by lots of startling empirics drove home once more with much verve and candor. Yet we all struggled with the question on how to build those new movements and cross-border solidarities that are required to generate the passion and action for change. Fighting inequality in my view is itself perhaps not the right tent for this type of mobilization. Inequality often connotes a zero sum-game, makes it easy to play different groups off against each other and reeks (for some) of odorous, dusted communist fantasies that render it politically toxic. Yet, most importantly, it feels too anodyne, too abstract to really resonate (beyond a circle of policy wonks) with people’s identities, interests and passions.

Samuel Johnson once noted: “people are more kind and less just than I thought“ and I strongly believe that we need to tap into the kindness that comes with emotional connection and empathy, rather than rely on the appeal of a somewhat abstract ethical principle, when thinking about building solidaristic movements across borders to tackle inequalities.

I have come to a similar conclusion in a somewhat different context, a recent meta-stocktake of social accountability initiatives that often underplay the social and seek to appeal to civic pride and people as citizens, alas a rather abstract, unexciting category that often fails to create high energy engagement.

So perhaps we can bake a politically activate-able concern for fairness, equal opportunity and solidarity into cross-border allegiances around faith or football, youth or yogurt lovers and the other gazillion small and larger identities that people live in, connect for and derive purpose from. The emphasis would be on “baking into” rather than seeking to pull and fuse these communities of practice and passion into a unified movement against inequality. Young people shut out of education, labor and housing markets, football fans deprived of fair games and local allegiance when big money enters the fray, yogurt lovers loosing their local craft producers because only big box stores can afford the rent. And yes, this could also include to re-conquer identities that seem to have drifted off into the wrong direction. Why shouldn’t Making Zamonia Great Again really mean that my country excels in league tables on social mobility, on opportunities for all, in tackling obesity, in having clean water for everyone and taking best care of our global commons? I would want my country to win this race to the top and would certainly feel a bit proud if we are doing well on those indicators.

retire populism

A very fascinating session focused on the dynamics of populism and what this could mean now and portend for CSO programming. Only one, perhaps controversial, concern: I feel we should scrap the label populism. It is too nice of a word for many bad things (racism, extreme nationalism, demagoguery, authoritarianism, lying…) and too bad of a word for many possibly good things (speaking in a language that people understand, showing regard for the ones left behind, envisioning re-distribution as a sensible policy option…). Populism is thus very unhelpful. At best any meaningful debate about this concept spends too much precious time on clearing this definitional haze before entering more productive territory. At worst the many broad-brush surveys that claim to speak to trends in populism are inviting confirmation-bias tinged cherry-picking, misleading conclusions and ineffective tactical responses. So let’s scrap the label and zoom in more directly on which traits, trends or assumptions we would like to examine in detail and then look carefully at the evidence at hand.

(not so ) weak signals: long live the snowmobile!

Finally, my all-time favorite in future scans and during our meeting: talking about weak signals, the little counter-intuitive, surprising factoids that helps one re-think one’s own assumptions and spin new associations and imaginations about stuff on the horizon. Many such interesting weak signals bubbled up during our three days— and focusing on weak signals as a technique came also highly recommended by an eminently practical and useful presentation delivered by a seasoned foresight practitioners from a large intergovernmental organisation.

Just for the fun of it here one of my current favorites that I snapped up a couple of days ago, just after the workshop.

The current state (and likely future?) of big data?

What looks like the vestiges of a Jurassic transportation past is intimately linked up with the future of the digital world. With data volumes exploding in the context of the internet of things and the highly quantified self, the most efficient and cutting-edge way to move huge data volumes is not some futuristic new fiber network, but — you guessed it? — the good old truck. Amazon, the leader of many things digital, just put into service a fleet of highly customized trucks, such as the one pictured above that it calls Snowmobile, in order to move vast amount of data into and between its cloud computing centers. The trailers are choke full of storage devices that pack 100 PB (that is 10 to the power of 15) of data. And you would still need four of these to haul around only the close to 1 trillion images that FB was holding by 2013, a mere blip of the upcoming new data world. Or as a BMW executive responsible for autonomous vehicle development dryly noted for this highly data-intensive endeavor: “A large part of the data center has to be on premises…the amount is so huge it doesn’t work in the cloud.”A compelling reminder about the often overlooked and highly consequential physicality of all things digital. Amidst all things cloud and virtual we should not loose sight of this physicality that will make its mark on the emerging geography of the data economy with big implications for where jobs and profits materialise and what geographically-tethered rules and regulation will still find traction.

And with this we are already in the very important thicket of things, the much needed efforts to link weak signals, in this case the surprising persistent physicality of the cloud-shaped digital economy, to futures plausible and desirable. Only in such more informed contexts can we start devising the very ideas, policy asks and experiments that might help us shape what comes for a better future for all.

Thanks again for a wonderful workshop to ICSC and all colleagues that participated. See you hopefully next year!



Dieter Zinnbauer

governance, innovation, justice, tech and cities — copenhagen business school — views all mine