Communicating Complexity

Complex things are hard to communicate. But it’s nevertheless important to do it. Here are some of my reflections on how to communicate futures thinking or foresight – the rather complex field I’m working in.

You might find some advice on how to communicate the complexities of your field. The post appeared first at the APF Emerging Fellows website.

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Communicating Foresight

One of the ongoing discussions in the futurist community is about how to communicate foresight. Recently a whole issue in Journal of Futures Studies was dedicated to this, and over the last year some excellent posts by my fellow emerging APF fellows have been written on this.

This is the last post in a series on my reflections about communicating foresight. In the first I wrote about how mixed metaphors can be used to illustrate the increased complexity in our organisations and lives. In the second I rapidly prototyped a website for a new imagined start-up; Futurizers: A Guerrilla Network that Injects the Future in Organizations.

I don’t know how well I communicated foresight in these two posts (in its first month the Futurizers website had 114 hits – so not exactly a revolutionary impact…), but they gave me some new insights which lead me to think further on a good article by Richard Rowe (2005).

The challenge of the upside-down pyramid 

Rowe uses Slaughter’s framework for layered futures.  He illustrates the amount of contact with the general public each type of futures work has. As you see in the figure, the second pyramid is turned upside-down, i.e. the more “deep” and important futures work is, the less contact with the general public it has.   

Image by author based on Rowe (2005)

Rowe writes: “The problem is that highest level, being pop, is the level that has the most interaction with the general population. It is also the level that the futures practitioners tend to disown because it tends to be shallow, misleading, shortsighted and marketing driven. The deeper you descend into the layers of foresight studies, the less contact there is with the general public and the fewer messages of depth and richness filter into the broader population.”

I’ve noticed recently that futurists increasingly post in open forums like Facebook and Google+. In doing this it’s tempting to fall for the Facebook “like” hysteria, i.e. aim to attract more “likes” for that which we communicate. But how do we make sure that we don’t slip up towards the pop futures and litany layer when doing this? Sure, we can use “litany hooks” to attract attention for our posts, but we must communicate deeper layers too if we want to do our job properly.

A service to our readers

Some bloggers write how many minutes it takes to read a blog as a service to their busy readers. I thought about a similar service for my blog regarding the difficulty of my posts, for example some sort of colour coding to indicate how theory-heavy or deep my posts are. Then my parents and non-futurist friends wouldn’t have to bother with some posts – such as the networked spiral dynamics post I posted recently (maybe the title itself scared them off).

Would a colour-coding system be handy to make it clearer for everyone or does this go against the idea of engaging the general public deeply?

For a colour coding structure from easy to hard, I thought about using Inayatullah’s (1998) Causal Layered Analysis (CLA), and the same colour scheme ski resorts use to show the various difficulties of downhill runs.


Image by author based on Inayatullah (1998)

Here, the articles would be coded from green litany (sensational posts based on recent issues) to more challenging posts exploring underlying systemic causes (blue – systems). Further down to thoughts and reflections containing worldviews (red – here you lose most readers!) and lastly even deeper to the black myths and metaphor layer, where (surprise!) you can actually attract your readers back.

So even if this deepest level is seemingly the most difficult one to understand, the communicating power here is very strong.

And this is what I find so beautiful in the CLA; the deepest, most unattainable layer is paradoxically also the most universal. Myths, metaphors and archetypal patterns and stories are understood by, and give opportunity to identification across worldviews and cultures. This is the planetary layer. I’m no expert on CLA, but I think this is what Inayatullah aims to do. To safely bring people down to the deepest layer, where we momentarily can feel and play with the essence of ourselves again. Past the litany, systems and worldviews and back to the original human myth and its evolution.

In reflection on my futures-heavy Facebook posts, I consider that some of the most thoughtful responses I’ve had are not from futurists or academics. They are from old school friends, people I’ve met when travelling or at the pub. Amazing, everyday people you meet in life. This makes me think that perhaps the general public is ready for deep futures past the litany of self-driving cars and drones? So, while the analysis of CLA is worthwhile, perhaps colour coding is counter productive. If the general public are ready to access the myths and metaphors of the black layer they should not be deterred by any colour coding advice – that would serve only to underestimate my readers.

Perhaps the challenge of Rowe’s upside-down pyramid can actually be tackled with some simple tricks, such as story telling, metaphor and images?

The Hourglass

I imagine the process of deepening foresight communication as grains of sand running through an hourglass. The gravity originating from the myth / metaphor level pulls down the grain of sand towards the depths.


Image by author based on Inayatullah (1998)

The litany layer contains thousands of grains of sand, quite happily sitting there comfortably, without noticing that they are being pulled down towards the vortex by the gravity from the depths. Superficial, simplistic chitchat and diversions act at this layer to make grains here unaware of the evolutionary forces bringing them deeper. Perhaps someone is pumping in helium in this section of the hourglass to make the grains stay longer? 

But the grains are eventually drawn deeper down the vortex to the systems level, which is complex, faster and more turbulent. Here, grains can bump into each other fight a lot. The bottleneck between the systems and worldviews layers is blocking much progress – not many grains can pass through. But once a grain of sand falls through the narrow gap into the worldviews and values level, the mind opens again, and there’s more space. This expanded section contains many grains of sand but they don’t know where to go. However, they sink deeper and deeper as more grains of sand land. And here, they become part of the deep, bottomless foundation that is humanity and all life.


Photo by author. Painting by Rothko (1958)

 

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I spent some time in the Rothko room at London’s Tate Modern on Sunday morning. Being there made me realise that great artists communicate across all levels from the litany to the deep unconscious levels simultaneously. In the calming room, a group of drawing teenagers, a retired old lady and family with a pram were all absorbed in the massive Seagram Murals.

Who knows what these people thought and felt – what layer or depth they experienced?

I only know what I thought and felt about:

What can we learn from great artists to better communicate foresight?

 

References

Inayatullah, S 1998, ‘Causal layered analysis: poststructuralism as method’, Futures, vol. 30, no. 8, pp. 815-29.

Ramos, J 2012, ‘ Special Edition on the Communication of Foresight’, Journal of Futures Studies, September, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 91-98.

Rothko, M 1958, The Seagram Murals, Tate Modern Gallery, London. 

Rowe, R 2005, ‘Sticky foresight: finding the future’s tipping point’, in Slaughter, RA (ed), The knowledge base of futures studies, 5 vols, CD-ROM, Professional edn, Foresight International, Brisbane.

Slaughter, RA 2004, Futures beyond dystopia: creating social foresight, Routledge, London.

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