Forest Futures: Drones in the forest

How are drones being used to help manage forests? Is it local or world-wide?

First, let’s distinguish between drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or whether they can be used interchangeably. UAVs, while the term currently used most frequently, is not the official term used by many countries’ aviation agencies so most likely will eventually disappear from common usage in favor of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System, RPAS. Drone is the term used by many french speaking countries, who are the pioneers in setting regulations for commercial unmanned aerial vehicles. Often used in a military context, ‘drone’ is also ubiquitous in day-to-day common usage. While drone and UAV describe the aircraft itself, UAS is used by the US and UK to describe the system—the aircraft, the control station and the data link. Acknowledging that there are also differences between the various types of drones, for simplicity, this blog will use the generic term ‘drone’ to include quad-, octo-, tri- and hexacopters, Micro Air Vehicles, small UAS, etc.

So, how can we use drones in forestry? Grind Drone lists uses of drones, such as for:

  • forest mapping and biodiversity
  • extent of canopy cover and gaps therein
  • estimating number of trees
  • depth of snow in forest
  • extent of carbon storage within a forest
  • aerial surveys of fire damaged areas and rainforests
  • monitoring illegal quarrying and logging.

SmartPlanes adds:

  • detecting and managing outbreaks of pests and diseases
  • mapping weeds and other growth.

The U.S. Forest Service has been exploring the use of drones for several years and has tested different platforms during controlled burns and non-fire situations. Since drones are considered the same as manned aircraft, U.S. Forest Service must abide by the same FAA regulations to fly these drones. Members of the U.S. Forest Service have obviously considered drone usage, as their FAQ page delineates, for forest management, watershed, soil and air management, forest health protection, fish and wildlife, research, and others. The Service also owns at least three small platforms, but has no plans to operate them, even though the usefulness was shown in 2013 to provide real time information during the Rim Fire in Northern California.

Drones are also being used overseas, for instance in helping save Myanmar’s Mangrove Forests; in Portugal, Brazil and possibly world-wide for biomass mapping; studying tropical forests; and managing the financial incentive of carbon offsets. While regulations to ensure drones do not hamper traditional flying craft (airplanes, helicopters), interfere with emergency responders, or affect personal privacy are still being developed, it is clear that drones could be of much use to forest services around the world to help with managing health and well-being, mapping, and detecting illegal uses of the world’s forests. — Lloyd Chesley

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Book Review: Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright

Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright is a book about conceptualizing and creating a post capitalist society. Rather than a strong advocation for any single particular system to replace it, Wright gives a pragmatic evaluation of several. He devotes about 50 pages to a basic view of where capitalism falls short, which is helpful, although most of its readers will likely already be aware of most of them. Even if that’s not the case, the book is still a quality introduction to post capitalist thought. It makes a point to distinguish between capitalism, statism, and socialism, and the fact that all 3 are hybrids of the other two to some extent. If that was all the book had to offer it would still be a marked improvement to political economic discourse.

As far as specific systems Wright’s evaluations include but are not limited to; social democratic regulation, associational democracy, social capitalism, cooperative market economy, and social economy.  Common themes are words like social, democratic, association, cooperation etc. and true many of these systems are similar and are not mutually exclusive, but they are still different, and Wright does a good job of laying out the specifics. Each system has differing origins, and varying levels of historical precedence.

Probably the most interesting parts of the book were the sections on real life empirical evaluations of present and historical anti capitalist systems. Standouts include; Quebec’s social economy for child and eldercare, solidarity funds to invest in small businesses that train and treat employees properly, and the Mondragon Worker Co-op in Spain.

Once we accept the premise that capitalism presents very dire and more importantly very avoidable problems and that there are viable alternatives to be realized then comes the hard part. How do we successfully and sustainably change the system for the better?

Wright addresses the fact that capitalism despite what Marx predicted has ostensibly not become weaker over time, but in fact has become stronger, deeper rooted, and more adaptable than expected.  In fact even movements that start as havens to protect people from the harsh realities of capitalism are often simply co-opted by capitalists and used to gain profit and to increase capitalism’s ideological hold. For example the Fair Trade movement was started in order to improve standards and trading conditions for developing nations.  As time has passed some organizations have dropped the label due to a perceived dilution of standards, pulling the movement further from its initial goals and closer to a marketing ploy.

Wright is also somewhat of a rare case in that he simultaneously recognizes three non conflicting concepts. First the desirability of a post capitalist system, second the viability of such a system and third, the high level of difficulty in transitioning to such a system. “capitalism is sufficiently secure and flexible in its basic structures that there is no strategy possible that immediately threatens it.  The strategic problem is to imagine things we can do now which have a reasonable chance of opening up possibilities under contingent conditions in the future.” (327) There are gaps in the social reproduction of capitalism, but they have to become wide enough for alternatives to fill them.  The three main strategies of threatening capitalism are ruptural, interstitial and symbiotic.

Ruptural strategy is the traditional revolutionary anti capitalist strategy. A direct confrontation with the bourgeoisie that would likely end poorly. Wright suggests they may have their place periodically on small scales, but he sees it as a largely outdated and ineffective strategy.

Interstitial strategy is more oriented towards providing alternatives to capitalism around the fringes of society.  Ignore the bourgeoisie for the most part with direct confrontation only on a small scale when necessary. A benefit of interstitial is that these alternatives show potential changes and could gain support steadily for more democratic egalitarian solutions in larger and larger portions of society. This strategy seems slower than ruptural of course, but could actually be quicker than intuitively expected due to the possibility of tipping points in public opinion that create positive feedback loops and rapid social change.

Symbiotic is the most common strategy. Collaborate with the Bourgeoisie and try to find common ground or positive sum games with capitalist class.  I would argue this was achieved in the post war decades of Keynesian Economics. High consumer demand and minimal economic crises are in the interest of all, but thus far history has shown that social democratic gains are largely temporary as the capitalist class must always seek to increase their share at any cost.

All in all whether skeptical or fanatical, new or experienced I’d recommend the book to anyone curious about post capitalism. The book is available at Amazon. –Collin Sledge

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Student Work: Crossroads for Opportunity in Front of Nations with Declining Populations

Image Source: Jo Di Graphics (using United Nations data)

Declining populations have become the norm in a number of countries in the last few decades. There are of course the occasional cases of war, disasters, and other extraordinary drivers, but there is a number of countries, mostly in Eastern Europe the demographics of which have a systemic decline. Other cases include Japan, which is the front runner among the most developed nations and started experiencing the phenomenon quite early. If the current trends continue, it will be joined by Germany and other Western European nations in the next decades.

Many of these countries share similar drivers and current dynamics. So what are the common potential futures ahead of them and what are the decisions they can make to influence which path on the crossroads they take? Before we answer that, let us look at the common factors and drivers.

There are two immediate drivers in this domain – lower birth rates and migration outflow. What typically stands behind the first are economic and socio-cultural factors. What typically stands behind the second are again economic, but then more open border control and lower immigration/emigration barriers globally. The cases where both drivers are in full force experience the most negative growth (the Baltics and the Balkans). Some of these early cases of population decline can serve as laboratories for countries expected to register declining populations in the future (even China is expected to experience that starting in the 2030s).

There are four typical scenarios (based on the Houston Foresight archetype approach adapted from Jim Dator). Taking Bulgaria as a concrete example, these are:

The Ongoing Slide Down (Baseline/Status-quo): The population of Bulgaria continues to decline with stable or slight smaller rate, with the economy continuing on its current slow but stable convergence path with Europe. This includes a variety of sub-fields such as healthcare, education, and technology sector.

The Irish Scenario (Transformation): The population of Bulgaria reverses the on-going decline and enters a prolonged and continuing increase, with the economy experiencing a similar expansion and boom period, quickly converging and surpassing the EU average. A booming tech sector, remote workers, healthcare and social system immigrants from more developed nation in charter cities prop up the population.

The Stable Populous (New Equilibrium): The population of Bulgaria reverses the on-going decline and enters a stable phase, albeit below the maximum it had in the late 1980s, with the economy experiencing a healthy growth significantly above the EU average. However, long term age pyramid structure problems remain.

The Demographic Catastrophe (Collapse Scenario): The decline of the population of Bulgaria enters into overdrive, with significant additional emigration outflow, deteriorating economy and social systems (healthcare and social security) as well as compounding negative effects of shrinking populous (lower tax base, economic drag).

None of these are a priori good or bad – even the Demographic Catastrophe one could be a desired preferred future if it brings economic prosperity, renewal of arts and entrepreneurship (as in the case of Detroit, MI in the US), or as part of a global sustainability and matching the carrying capacity of the planet. The question in front of decision makers and the general public is how do we prepare for and work towards the most desired future and its alternatives. Answering it is beyond the ambition of this post, but here are several topics that can serve as starting points:

  • How can openness and readiness for charter cities impact the scenarios? How will that in turn impact the education needs as well as the construction and housing industry?
  • Is it possible to generate an inflow of Foreign Retirees from wealthier to less wealthy countries? How will that in turn impact investment needs in public healthcare institutions, facilities and technology or stimulate private healthcare, and what security and liability policies to regulate a supporting robotic industry would be needed?
  • Can a focus on a third-child family policy generate the desired output? How will that in turn impact the population pyramid over time, and what with the be the interplay with potential negative tax and basic income programs?

Efforts of all nations – emerging and developed, poor or wealthy, with declining or growing (but in the future declining) population – should be directed towards exploring this rising trend and how to deal with it in a sustainable manner, while optimizing the wellbeing of the populous. These early cases present a great opportunity to examine that and pioneer solutions on how to manage the process. This will show which path on the crossroads will lead where and ideally inform nations on which one to take. — Ruslan Skomorohov


Student Work: Are we all futurists?

After reading Navigating Into the Future or Driven by the Past, I am convinced to believe that we all have a futurist side in us and we tend to think of the future much more than we realize.

In the psychology world, it has been widely believed that the past and present must be understood to predict what people would do in the future.  Traditional behavioral therapy dives deep on what happened to you in the past and why you felt that way. We often see this method embedded in the corporate system as well. For instance, our job interviews are mostly based on an evaluation of the achievements and challenges applicants have faced in prior jobs. Management tends to make the business decision informed by insights that are fueled by historical data.  As a futurist, we agree that the future is unknown and cannot be predicted. However, it is evident that we often tend to make decisions and judgment based on what we know from our experience.  This makes me question, does our memory really reflect what actually happened in the past?

Professor Seligman, a so-called father of contemporary psychology, argues more than 50% of the time, we tend to think about future scenarios. This doesn’t mean studying the past shouldn’t be conducted; however, it is fair to point out that we tend to give so much credit to what we remember.  Elizabeth Loft points out many of us assume that our memory works like “a recording machine,” when in fact, it works more like a “Wikipedia page” where you and others can go and edit your story. For example, when trauma occurs in our lives, our cortex can stimulate us to reframe the historical event, sparking motivation for a better future.  Perhaps, therefore we often say, “Time will heal.” It is crucial to recognize studying past is about understanding what we remember. And our episodic memories provide details that trigger our current perceptions and motivation which ultimately construct prospective scenarios of future events.

As you are reading this blog,  Seligman would say, your current thoughts are mostly about how this information at this moment is going to be valuable for you in the future.  To add final value to your future, I would like to share some of the futures thinking tips that you could adapt. These are inspired by Seligman’s prospection-based therapy.

  1. Think of alternative future scenarios instead of going straight to one preferred future. This will help you be more equipped for different future outcomes.
  2. If the future is highly valued, you may quickly feel discouraged. It is okay to shoot fall the moon; however, you still want it to be relevant, something you can take action on.
  3. Evaluate your current systems and structure to see if they are aligned with the incentive for the future you want.

— Hannah Kim

Things to Consider if You Want to be a Futurist

So you have a friend who is thinking about undertaking a graduate degree in strategic foresight, maybe at the University of Houston’s program. It’s important that time is taken to make this important decision and that the following three considerations are made.

1.  The reasons for doing it.

A foresight graduate program is a major time commitment that involves a good deal of project-based work. For some extra practice in the University of Houston Master of Science in Strategic Foresight’s special forecasting technique, framework foresight, you might also consider engaging in an outside project (of which, the program offers a number of options). All of this to say, it isn’t a walk in the park (but it is super interesting and you will learn a lot). You’ll definitely want to consider what you’re long-term career and academic goals are and how you might apply the skills you learn in the degree program

2.  Futurists don’t predict the future.

You might have taken a cursory glance at the program’s title and thought, “gee predicting the future would be really awesome.” Sorry to disappoint. Although futurists help nonprofit organizations, governments and businesses sort through the noise to figure out possibilities for the future, a futurist who makes a “prediction” waves a red flag indicating she or he is not a futurist or foresight professional. Through highly structured methods of organizing huge amounts of data, futurists develop scenarios around specific important questions that clients ask. These scenarios allow clients to make plans that help avoid catastrophes, maximize the potential of advantageous situations or work toward a preferred future.

3. An Aspiring Futurist Will Find a Community of Inquisitive, Analytical Thinkers of the Impossible

That goes without saying. Individuals who want to go along a career path that focuses on thinking about sometimes unthinkable possibilities for the future march to the beats of their own drummers. Being a little different might be a prerequisite (and definitely an asset) for choosing a career as a consulting or organizational futurist.

These are just a few of the considerations to take when thinking about your possible future as a futurist. You also can also look at the website of the Association of Professional Futurists for more information about your potential journey toward becoming a foresight professional.

What is the logical conclusion of freely abundant virtual consumption?

A former facebook executive went viral for saying “the short term dopamine driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”  Now the idea that phones and social media are bad is about the most pseudo-woke take out there. I think it’s worth considering anyway. It is not an issue limited to social media. Really any virtual consumption applies. I am certainly no exception. The first thing I do in the morning and last thing I do before bed is check twitter or reddit for whatever hot takes I can find in the world of sports, politics, or anything else.  I’d like to think that I’m just modern god of random information thanks to the internet, but more than likely I’m just addicted to pretty colors. In fact turning your phone to grayscale is the easiest way to break addiction.  I might be reading and absorbing information, but as far as why I’m doing it I’m not much different than the literal 2 year old playing a game on their heavily armored ipad.

So we have a world where our caveman or even primate DNA is being exploited to addict us to technology for an ever increasing portion of our day literally from the time we’re in diapers.  At the same time we can see real life long term milestones are becoming more and more uncertain for young people. 

Generation Z in particular is set to be more impoverished, more stressed, more isolated, and shockingly more anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. To blame all this on smartphones would be an irresponsibly lazy take.  Generation Z is understandably anxious to live in a world where tuition is at record levels, automation is supposed to take their job anyway, and the world has 12 years to prevent irreversible climate catastrophe.  Oh and by the way no matter how hard you work, the kid with rich parents is getting your spot at Yale. If long term prospects appear… less than ideal short term satisfaction will obviously be favored to the point that a more accurate term would be escapism. In the interest of at least a little optimism I would like to point out virtual consumption is likely still a step up from physical consumption which is addictive in its own right, more destructive to the planet, and exclusionary to a majority of the world’s population. To be fair the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I guess my point is virtual consumption is not just a cause of misery.  It is also a symptom. So what is the solution? I do not see a silver bullet, but there are ways to balance the scales a bit. Using grayscale and limiting screen use can take the edge off, but improving long term personal outlook would probably help more. (This would be achieved by substantive improvements not positive vibes.) In the meantime we should find ways to encourage kids from a young age to pursue more intrinsically motivated long term goals as well.  Individual interests will vary, but some pretty universal ideas could be learning new languages or to play an instrument, both of which have long term positive feedback loops and require minimal resource investments to pursue. As futurists we should recognize that these issues are nuanced and complex and be prepared to offer systemic solutions. –Collin Sledge

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DPC: Weak Signals for Health Care in the United States

Healthcare in the United States is an incredibly polarizing issue. The politics have been gridlocked for a decades. President Obama forced movement in the mechanics of health care in the United States with the ACA. But politics are not the sole driver of how health care works in the USA. The root of healthcare is people: Patients and Doctors. And these basic stakeholders are the key drivers in possible change to the American Healthcare system.

In Future Studies, a weak signal is an indicator of change that only exists in the fringe. By definition, it is not yet visible in the main stream. But it’s bubbling up in a way that may impact future. Today’s weak signal of change may be tomorrow’s celebrated triumph.

A weak signal of change in the United States Healthcare system that should be paid attention to is Direct Primary Care. Direct Primary Care, or DPC, is a rising movement in the healthcare system that rejects the United States Insurance based fee for service system and replaces it with a subscription model. A modest monthly fee gives patients 24/7 access to a physician that is focused on building relationships with their patients. The seed of Direct Primary Care was planted in the 1990’s as expensive Concierge doctors in dense urban areas providing personal physician access to the elite. By the mid 2000’s Direct Primary Care was beginning to sprout up, catering to younger patients, with monthly access subscriptions starting in the $25 a month range. Because the overhead of managing claims reimbursements is removed the average Direct Primary Care physician has about 350 patients, with a target of just under 600 patients to be very profitable. In contrast, the average Insurance based PPO primary care physician carries around 2000 patients, and sometimes more, to support their claims overhead and make a profit. Today the Direct Primary Care trend is undeniable, with DPC practices growing by more than 500% between 2014 and 2017, and total patients served increasing from just less than 6000 to over 173,000 in the same time frame.

Another weak signal is that there are Employers in the United States experimenting with reducing costs and increasing employee satisfaction with healthcare by adding DPC to their employer sponsored health plans. These employers’ DPC options are offered to employees paired with catastrophic insurance stop loss plans. Employees still have the protection and coverage available in case of a major illness while enjoying day to day care with a DPC doctor that has time to build a personal relationship with them and their families.

Futurists building Scenarios about the Future of Health Care in the United States should pay attention to these weak signals. Direct Primary Care may be in the Future for many more Americans’ Health Care.

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Student Work: Is My Reality Real

In our Social Change class taught by Cindy Frewen, we discussed many types of social change.  One of the ones I thought was most interesting was around ideation and cultural change.  I read an article by Berger & Luckmann which discusses realities and what makes things real.  In this article, they state “others become real in the fullest sense only when we meet face to face.”  While I do think this premise is valid, as we look to our social connections changing with technology and more of our interactions not in a face to face setting, will we find another way for others to become real in the fullest sense?  Or will we lose that realness?  If we do, what happens to us?  They state it is easier to keep preconceived notions of others when we don’t have the face to face interaction.

When thinking about preconceived notions, we all have our own world views and that raises the question of a shared sense of realities.  If we can’t even agree on climate change or the rights women have regarding our own bodies, how will we agree on what is real?  My reality is very real to me, and while I acknowledge there are other realities that are just as real to others, it is hard for me to say they are real to me.  I don’t have the same experiences and worldview that another person has and for me to say I understand where they are coming from (as much as I may want to) seems ingenuine. Homogeneity, in my opinion, is boring and I think we would need to be more homogeneous for us to share the same fluid sense of reality. So, will we ever get there and still be a species that can appreciate constructive conflict and new ideas?  Maybe.

When thinking about what is real and my reality, I came upon the video “Is Reality Real? The Simulation Argument”, which asks the question – are we real or simulated?  Is the chair we sit in real?  Is it really filled with wood or it is empty until you open it up?  Food for thought…Is Reality Real? The Simulation Argument 

We all have different world views, and we all have different realities – and that’s ok.  We just need to appreciate the other person’s perspective and understand that their thoughts and interpretations are just as valid as ours, even if they aren’t the same. — Hilary Hetzel

Student Work: EnerArt

A painting of Venus rising from the sea on a Shell fuel pump, a sheet of steel “played” in a symphony and tiny oil pump jacks made of Legos – pictures of these finds form part of my quirky personal collection of energy references in art or pop culture.

In retrospect several of these images embedded hints about the future – a windmill looms over an oil well in a 1970s modern art painting that was part of singer David Bowie’s collection. I recently drove through West Texas, where the scene is not an abstract painting — but a reality. Massive wind turbines line ridges behind fields still dotted with oil and natural gas infrastructure. Even the plastic figures hint at 3D printing and modular manufacturing equipment that can be replaced “like Legos.”

Foresight studies includes the practice of scanning for weak signals about trends that might emerge, and are worth considering. These are one type of input for our methodologies of thinking about the future, often in the form of articles or scientific papers.

My casual picture-collecting hobby, however, made me wonder if more attention art could help make the less artsy better aware of potentially disruptive new technologies – and boost creative thinking.

Two classic articles related to this area indicate this could be the case. In “Disruptive Technology: Catching the Wave,” from 1995 by Christensen & Bower, the authors argued that companies must stay engaged with groups beyond their normal customer base to be attuned to “important new technologies in emerging markets.”

James Bailey in “The Leonardo Loop: Science Returns to Art” in 1998 promotes the idea of art education as the key to raising “high achievers of science and industry in the next century.” Putting these two things together – should the suits spend more time hanging out with vanguard artists? Or at least looking at their art?

Bailey even argued that people need to return to viewing particularly emerging issues as three-dimensional rather than sequential – such as in art. There has been some advancement in this space – such as in systems thinking – but most organizational thought processes are still linear (step 1, step 2 …).

This area seems ripe for investigation, but in the meantime, maybe venture out more to look at street art, visit your local markets, or keep tabs on shows or new exhibits that relate to your area of expertise. As a journalist, I would sometimes find inspiration for stories in rotating exhibits of modern art in the building where I used to work – even when the art wasn’t to my taste.

After all, even schools have added back the “art.” My 12-year-old son attends a S.T.E.A.M. school – for science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. A few years ago, it was just S.T.E.M. Maybe we should consider making the A in MBA stand for “art.” — Carla Bass

Student Work: The Road Ahead for Professional Services

My lovely wife, Hilary, and I used to take “jellyfish vacations” where we would jump in the car and just hit the road.  We would let fate decide which way to turn at each crossroad and curiosity determine where we stopped.  This proved to be a welcome respite from our busy and structured lives.  In the world of business, strategic planning is the equivalent of making sure we had enough gas to get to the next stop (and nobody had to go to the restroom!).  Future planning is the process of envisioning multiple possible futures and then identifying actions that increase the probability of achieving one’s “preferred future.”  To strain my analogy, it is the equivalent of saying our jellyfish tour could land us anywhere in America (since we didn’t have a boat), but I prefer to wind up in California…and should therefore turn west whenever given the choice.

The transition from a transaction-based model to a service one has been taking place in the professional service industries for quite some time.  People will always value honesty, transparency, efficiency, responsiveness, reliability, and personalized relationships.  We also know people are most afraid of that which they do not understand or control.  Our collective success in the professional services industry is a result of our ability to effectively address these concerns in a pleasing and trustworthy manner. Why do firms continually come and go?  What causes disruption across industries?  If professional services want to remain relevant for decades to come, then we need complete answers those questions….and many more.

We could all paint a rather clear picture of  professional services 10 – 15 years into the future, but how realistic is that vision?  We would probably continue the components we like/value and overlay a number of the trends we see evolving around us.  That is how most forecasting and strategic planning is done today. However, just because the odds of rolling seven when playing craps is the most probable outcome, since there are six combinations that add to seven (1-6, 2-5, 3-4, etc…), that does not make rolling a seven probable (only happens 16.67% of the time).  We can make better decisions about our businesses of tomorrow by incorporating more of the probable futures into our decision making.  Foresight is a scientific method for doing just this.

A futurist approaches this situation by setting the “limits of plausibility”.  Let’s consider solutions that helps clients feel secure.  We can narrow down the range of “plausible futures” to “probable futures” by further specifying it would need to help them better understand their unknowns and identify how much they really do control (i.e. the recipe for reducing fear).  It would also be fair to say market forces would give an advantage to any solution that delivered that in a cost-effective and timely/transparent manner…with a personal touch.  The final consideration is our “preferred future”…which is the one where all stay gainfully employed delivering on the goal above.

We are more familiar with planning for uncertainty than most.  We tell clients they are not powerless over the future and can influence it far more than they know.  We separate the known from the unknown, the controllable from the uncontrollable, and on and on.  I think the Serenity Prayers sums up what we do best, “(grant clients) the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, courage to change the things they can, and wisdom to know the difference.”  If we step back and accept that as our ultimate value proposition, the options become limitless and future prospects very exciting.

Simon Sinek may say to “Start with Why,” but it is equally important to continue asking why.  Technology advances, new ideas emerge, and social norms evolve.  What was once truth, may no longer be the case.  If you are not continually asking, listening, and evaluating, then be prepared to let the waves of change carry you forward like the jellyfish.  Said another way, the Foresight process will help us better create the futures we want, rather than being forced to live with the futures we get. — John Hetzel