Houston Foresight Spring 2017 Newsletter

Just realized that I neglected to post the Spring Newsletter put out by our Department. This issue includes:

  • Foresight: A Description of the Field, by student Joe Murphy
  • Foresight Student Bes Baldwin to Intern at Evonik Creavis
  • Reflecting On Futurists In Media 2016
  • Congratulations to Our Fall 2016 Graduates: Gandhi Bhakthavachalam, Maria Romero, and Johann Schutte.
  • Hines Graduates from Cougar Chairs Leadership Academy
  • The Foresight Spring Gathering – 2017

— Andy Hines

Forest Futures: Economic Growth or Degrowth?

Since the 1972 publication of Donella Meadow’s Limit to Growth, many proponents of long-term future sustainability and the survival of man given the steady depletion of finite resources yet the exponential growth of populations, the deterioration of our natural environment as well as economic stagnation, among other things, have advocated for a global response that includes population control, income or wealth redistribution and/or a “fair share” consumption of available resources. Then there’s the more recent debate as to whether societies should shift to a new economic paradigm, whereby strategic ideas and political actions intersect at a point of degrowth as opposed to economic growth in order to reverse man’s plight towards an uncertain future, which in some scenarios involves economic collapse. That there now is an expanding movement in favor of a successor-system to capitalism, commonly referred to as “after capitalism“, brings to mind the thought of an alternative, perhaps, evolutionary social order that not only is preferable to some as compared to the current one shaped by industrial development, but also may conceivably be the better system if societies are to be characterized by sustainable living —arguably the outcome of a “steady-state economy“.

Those oriented towards “a political commitment to growth“, with expectations of limitless continuing economic growth well into the future, may someday find this existing capitalistic-influenced paradigm to be unsustainable. As historical trends suggest, global economic growth stimulated by increasing natural resource use, both renewable and nonrenewable, as well as over-consumption has been linked to widespread environmental and social impacts. Moreover, from a purely economic standpoint, the future of economic growth seems somewhat bleak, given forecasts that suggest that on a global scale, future growth rates will not come close to what they had been in the past, but instead, will “diminish and, presumably, come to an end.” Thus, ideas are emerging of convival and participatory societies, where reduced harmful environmental and unjust social impacts engender environmental sustainability and social equity. Some believe  a degrowth economy can be designed so that there are compensation-based livelihoods and opportunities for those who want them, and decentralized, democratic cooperatives for sharing resources.

What is an important implication of a degrowth economy relative to forests futures?  A sustainable degrowth economy will lead to improved ecological conditions over time, given the reduction in consumption of certain natural resources. The reduced consumption of fossil fuels, for example, will mean less carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, and therefore less reliance on forest carbon sinks as a climate-change mitigator, as “forests can never cancel out or ‘offset’ emissions from fossil sources.” Rather, forest carbon sinks tend to increase the concentrations of carbon dioxide emissions that are released in the atmosphere, thereby causing further planetary warming. — Kimberly Daniels


Photo 1 source: http://degrowth.weebly.com/index.html

Photo 2 secondary source: https://entitleblog.org/2017/02/07/beyond-the-limits-of-nature-a-social-ecological-view-of-growth-and-degrowth/


After Capitalism: Post Growth Economy

In the 1921 Czech play called “R.U.R.”, a scientist decries that his robots are used as war machines. The scientist envisioned robots as emancipating humans from the hardship of labor. His colleague replies that their company’s shareholders gave them no choice because the “[Shareholders] dreamed of the dividends. And on those dividends humanity will perish.”

Is this 400 year old bond to blame for inequality and environmental destruction? The Dutch East Indies Company was the first multinational company to issue bonds and shares to the public. (Source: Wikipedia)

Ninety years after R.U.R’s warning about shareholder greed, the Post Growth Institute has sought to move away from an economy drive by the “dreams of shareholders.” For the institute, the current economy is not sustainable, in terms of dwindling natural resources and increasing social inequality.

Not-for-Profit Companies

The institute’s post-growth economy concept borrows on many discussed economic ideas, such as the circular economy and the commons economy, as means to shift humanity to live within its means. Its more concept is that of the non-profit corporation, which differs from cooperatives, benefit corporations, and traditional non-profit organizations. The Post Growth Institute defines the non-for-profit companies as:

“100% of any profits these businesses make must be reinvested into the business or community. So, not-for-profit really means not-for-private-profit; no more incentivising selfish behaviour.”

The institute argues that not-for-profit companies are the ideal hybrid between innovative, but private profit-driven, businesses and socially-focused, but charity dependent, non-profit foundations.

The Not-For-Profit concept differs from co-ops and triple bottom lines organizations. Source: Slideshare.net

The institute believes that such a not-for-profit structure can transform corporations into vehicles for wealth distribution. Profits, instead of going to shareholders or the top management, would circulated back into the economy.  The lack of shareholders and private owners distinguishes the Post-Growth Institute’s concept of not-for-profit companies from social enterprises, B-corps, and C3 companies.

Without private profits, the institute believes that corporations would not be as incentivized for profit maximization.The assumption is that without profit maximization the push for increased material consumption would decrease, thus improving quality of life and improve the environment.

Shifting Social Values

Jennifer Hinton and Donnie Maclurcan, co-founders of the Post-Growth Institute, identified several trends that they say make non-profit businesses timely and critical: the decline of equitable growth due to inequality created by the current growth-focused economy, a generational shift towards purpose-driven work, and increasing social sensitivity to social and environmental issues.

Hinton and Maclurcan argue that a shift from for-profit to not-for-profit businesses will generate a profound shift in humanity’s well-being, as the culture of “ubiquitous marketing and the culture of consumerism” will lose its luster when companies do not need to push for profit maximization to keep shareholders happy.

Rethinking Corporate Charters

The Post-Growth Institute’s view of rethinking the corporate charter, that is, the purpose and structure of a company is not a novel concept.  In Indonesia, companies in the natural resources industry are required to perform CSR. While in Germany, companies over 2000 employees are required to allocate labor representatives to over half of its board of directors.

Closer to Post Growth Institute’s concept, countries from Thailand to the United Kingdom have established laws allow for social enterprise-focused businesses, ones that are not focused on either non-profit nor shareholder-return maximization. The corporation is, of course, an arbitrary legal concept and can be changed. The not-for-profit company concept could be the next step.

What other key socio-economic concepts should we re-examine to shift from a unsustainable, growth-based economy to one of abundance and sustainability? — Daniel Riveong

Forest Futures Newsletter, vol. 1, no. 1

As part of a collaborative research project between the University of Houston’s Foresight program and the US Forest Service in setting up a Horizon Scanning system for the latter, we’ve published our first Forest Futures newsletter. Horizon scanning involves identifying emerging trends in the internal and external environment relative to an organization or an issue of concern, with the goal being to understand the driving forces that give insight to the most probable future, and forces of change suggestive of alternative future outcomes.

The newsletter is just one of a number of action steps identified by the US Forest Service Strategic Foresight Group toward using communications and science delivery tools to engage interested stakeholders as to relevant futures research with respect to forests, and features “emerging trends of importance to natural resource planners, managers and policy makers“.

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Alum Morgan Kauffman on North Korea

“North Korea is a failing state and could fall apart at any moment,” says alum Morgan Kauffman in an article he wrote for the EC Journal in May titled “North Korea and the Art of the Deal.” He goes on to suggest several ways it could happen:

  • disintegration and anarchy, with widespread rioting and starvation
  • a bloody civil war between factions of the North Korean army
  • a nuclear attack on foreign forces or cities and/or an all-out assault on South Korea in a desperate attempt to gain resources (through conquest or tribute) to stave off internal collapse
  • any combination of the above
  • a peaceful and orderly reunion with the South, as happened with East Germany

Given the current situation in North Korea, this piece provides valuable context. It’s good to see our alums sharing their views on the future! – Andy Hines

Visualizing Forest Futures: Linking Traditional Knowledge with Modeling and Visualization

When it comes to forest futures, perhaps the uncertainty relative to climate change is better understood by a new approach that “links human values, projections and visualization to decision-making” for sustainably managing forests. VIsualizing Forest Futures (VIFF) is an interdisciplinary research project conducted by Pennsylvania State University and funded in part by the NSF, which seeks to examine the impacts of human values on people’s thoughts towards natural systems and how the choice between alternative decisions influences trade-offs in practices with respect to forest resources and sustainability. Focusing on two overarching themes, the importance of human feedback processes and the importance of value systems as well as more traditional human practices that extend beyond knowledge systems alone, the VIFF project combines traditional knowledge (TK) from indigenous cultures with “cutting-edge modeling and visualization techniques“, which includes experiences created within the realm of immersive virtual reality (iVR).

Four questions guide the VIFF project, based in north-central Wisconsin among the Menominee Nation, an indigenous tribal group:

  1. How are landscape patterns of forest disturbances and ecosystem services (e.g., biodiversity and carbon storage) shaped by variability in future climate conditions?
  2. What are the human values and customary practices that influence preferences in sustainable forest structure and function and how do they differ among members of the community?
  3. How do climate-drive changes in forest species composition, productivity and disturbance dynamics influence human perceptions of forest condition?
  4. How do changes in forest management influence future landscape structure and function?

The hope is that scenario analyses consisting of the four interacting facets of “social/economic values, climate change science, visualization and decision-making” (as depicted in the diagram below) will provide greater understanding as to preferences of indigenous tribal communities in sustainably managing future forest conditions.

One question concerning this project is whether iVR experiences can in fact heighten “emotive and cognitive perceptions of environmental changes” such that they shape human values, as reflected by robust decision-making for sustainable forest futures. Another question is whether there is greater application of this research and its outcomes to non-indigenous or tribal communities. — Kimberly Daniles

(images source: https://sites.google.com/a/pdx.edu/visualizing-forest-futures/research)


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After Capitalism: The Circular Economy

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! Most of us have memorized this phrase to heart in our quest to be better to the environment. In Cradle-to-Cradle, architect William McDonough and former-Greenpeace activist Michael Braungart questions its efficacy. They argue that the 3Rs can at best reduce environmental harm, but not eliminate it. In a world that will peak over 9 billion people by 2050, simply doing “less harm” makes for an inadequate environmental strategy.

What is our alternative? Cradle-to-Cradle’s advocates for environmental policies to design out waste, rather than just reducing them. The authors take inspiration from the natural system; nature has no waste. They remind that waste in nature, such as oxygen from plants or dung from deer, in actuality nourishes other parts of the ecosystem. The natural system is a circular economy. It is an economy of zero waste.

Rather than outlining specific policies, Cradle-to-Cradle is a call to arms for environmentalist to reexamine our relationship with waste, our environmental policies, and approach to manufacturing. In contrast, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation follows-up on Cradle-to-Cradle by outlining the financial, business models and policies to create a circular economy in their report: The Circular Economy: Economic and Business Rationale for an Accelerated Transition. 

The report, written by McKinsey & Company, outlines a plan for transitioning to the circular economy through modular-based manufacturing, enabling access over ownership, and investing in creating environmentally beneficial materials.

For the washing machine industry, they recommend manufacturers should provide home-installed washing machines on a pay-per-wash model rather than being bought outright. Instead of being thrown away at the end of its lifecycle, the washing machine would be redesigned to be effortlessly refurbished or recovered for its metals and plastics at a remanufacturing factory. More radically, the report imagines that the detergent will also be designed to be recoverable and reusable.

As with Cradle-to-Cradle, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation argues for investment in new materials that can benefit the environment. Packaging for consumer goods, instead of being discarded as waste, could provide nutrients for the soil, just like the way a cow’s “waste” fertilizes a field.

Closing the Loop

The circular economy provides for an interesting reframing of the capitalist economy, by asking the capitalist system – specifically manufactures and consumers – to borrow nature’s approach to sustainability and design out waste. The challenge with applying the Circular Economy is that it is contingent on so many other pieces working together seamlessly. New non-toxic, recyclable and even “environmentally beneficial” materials need to be invented. A product’s lifecycle must shift from linear to circular, requiring reassessing its design, manufacturing process, and logistical needs to skip the landfill entirely. And finally, the consumers must shift from preferring to have access (rent) rather than own products.

Fortunately, we have real-world case study in action. Since 2015, the European Union has been discussing placing the Circular Economy ideas into practice to improve the environment and potentially save cost via recovered material. Indeed, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that select EU-based industries could attain “annual net material cost savings opportunity of up to USD 380 billion.” As the EU is expected to implement more circular economy based policies, we will be able to better assess the practicality and efficacy of the circular economy. — Daniel Riveong


Foresight Certificate Boot Camp Registration for 2018 now open

We are pleased to announce that registration for the 2018 UH Foresight Certificate is now open!

The five-day courses will take place January 15-19 and April 30-May 4, 2018 at the Hilton hotel right on the campus of the University of Houston. We’ve been teaching the future in Houston since 1975. Peter Bishop kicked off the certificate program in 2009 and we’ve had over 600 aspiring futurists graduate. It is affectionately known as “boot camp,” as we cover an abridged version of our “Introduction to Foresight” course in 5 jam-packed days. Participants come from a wide range of constituencies: corporations, government agencies, NGOS, non-profits, education, consultancies….pretty much from anywhere. Most participants have some type of foresight role – or are about to begin one — and need an immersion in the basics.That’s just what you’ll get! Hope you can join us!

Sign up here

Email Andy (ahines@uh.edu) with questions about registration or content of the course.







Certificate Alum Rebecca Ryan Hosts Futurist Camp

When do you do your best thinking about the future? In the shower? During your commute to work?

Every summer, Rebecca Ryan hosts Futurist Camp at a lake in the woods of Wisconsin. There’s no internet, no slides. Just forward thinking people gathered to help each other apply foresight to their big, hairy challenges.

Past attendees include engineers and city planners, association executives, IT directors, budget analysts, college students, economic development professionals, workforce development managers, and leadership development specialists.

And yes, it’s camp. There’s archery. And canoe races. And hammocks. And bonfires. And the food is amazing: Camp has its own chef to keep you fueled. And each night there’s a signature cocktail to help you unwind so your brain doesn’t explode.

Learn more here: http://www.rebeccaryan.com/futurist-camp

You can contact Rebecca or her camp director, Stephanie Ricketts directly: rr@rebeccaryan.com or sr@rebeccaryan.com.

NOTE: You can also save the date for the week-long Houston Foresight Certificate Seminar dates, which are set for January 15-19, 2018 and April 30-May 4, 2018. Registration will open soon.



Field Report: Summer of Futures by Bes Baldwin

Greetings from across the pond!  This summer I’m working as an intern in the Corporate Foresight team at Evonik Creavis in Marl, Germany, a location that provided me a wonderful opportunity to attend the Design, Develop, Transform (DDT) futures conference, co-sponsored by the Erasmus University College Brussels and the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA), held 15-17 June in Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium.  This was one of a group of three futures conferences in Europe during early June called the Summer of Futures, with additional conferences in Jondal, Norway, sponsored by the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF), and in Turku, Finland, sponsored by the Finland Futures Research Centre (FFRC).

The DDT meeting was organized by Maya Van Leemput and others with presentations and discussions of innovative ideas about the future structured around the three main themes of Design, Develop, and Transform. During the first day in Brussels, Jim Dator, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies, delivered the plenary lecture, followed by presentations in the three tracks aligned with the Design, Develop, and Transform themes. After the opening day, the conference moved to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, where a temporary art installation of visions of futures is exhibited – and the final days of the program were held.

Here is a link to the program, including presentations by a couple of familiar faces to the University of Houston Foresight program:

  • Peter Bishop, retired Director of the UH Foresight program, presented an update on Teach the Future, an organization he founded and directs with the mission to encourage and support educators who want to include futures thinking in their classes and schools at all levels.
  • Wendy Schultz, UH Foresight Instructor and principal at Infinite Futures, led the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) Professional Development workshop, along with Andrew Curry, where teams worked collaboratively to create scenarios describing museums of the future. It was a fun exercise using a variety of images, media, and manipulatives (Legos!) to inspire and encourage creativity and futures thinking that would lead to scenarios that might push the boundaries of Dator’s Second Law: Any useful statement about the future should seem to be ridiculous.

The conference provided a good mix of theoretical and practical ideas on scenario building and gave me greater insights into the four Manoa scenario archetypes. Best of all, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet and spend time with this group of brilliant futurists and to hear of the work they are doing using foresight and futures thinking to design, develop, and transform the future. A young futurist from Toronto commented to me, “I’m new to this community and have met most of these people for the first time at this meeting, but I’m awestruck with how affirming it feels finally to have found my tribe!”  How true! — Bes Baldwin