What should a futures project look like? We held a FOEcast event at an unconference to find out.

Last week I participated in an unconference hosted by Arizona State University.  A key part of the event was continuing to develop the FOEcast project (website; my blog posts) through presentations, conversations, and group work.  That was very successful and interesting, and is the focus of this blog post.

A bit of background: an unconference is an event shaped, organized, and staffed by participants.  Rather than having a preset agenda with speakers, workshops, etc., people arrive at an unconference with the intent of figuring out what they want to accomplish. That includes offering content themselves, on the fly. It’s a fascinating approach to running meetings, one that both challenges and empowers participants.

THATcamps are good examples of unconferences.  One of my favorite methods for doing this is “open space technology“.

ASU unconference opening

The opening minutes.

The ASU event wasn’t exactly a pure unconference, in that there was a preset agenda. More, while participants could surface topics ahead of time through an online tool (Ideation360), they couldn’t drive event structures, nor shape the timeline, nor collectively organize, neither ahead of time nor on site.  That said, the event was a remarkable breath of fresh air in contrast to the usual conference experience.  Participants enjoyed an unusual amount of agency for a professional meeting. It introduced many people to the unconference idea, and deserves sequels and our applause.

Moving on to this post’s topic: what does this have to do with FOEcast?  Ahead of time several of us pushed for people to address a FOEcast theme via Ideation360.  This elicited some interest.  Two of the organizers set up a series of “lighting talks” (very short presentations), and we landed a spot for FOEcast.  During the event’s opening morning I gave a quick sketch of the project’s progress so far, taking time to share findings from the February-March ideation week:

Speaking of sketches, the event was ably enhanced by visual facilitator Karina Branson, who added graphics and design to our conversations.  Here’s how she visualized my 4 minute talk, along with audience responses:

ASU Unconference_Lightning Talks FOEcast -Karina's visualization

Note the points in that drawing’s bottom half.  People celebrated our international aspect (“USA… we need to burst our bubble”), wanted stories, urged more collaboration (“constellations” with organizations and institutions), requested more student participation (yes!), and added creative literacies as a topic.  Others remarked that we were exploring a “post-industrial… decentralized professional organization.”

(The cartoon of me holding books, up on the top left?  Earlier in the day I held aloft a 50-pound stack of cookbooks, which were being given away as a prize.  I did so with one arm, using the other to gesticulate, and thereby shamelessly showing off my weightlifting skills to the awe and terror of the audience.)

This presentation and the engaged response sparked some interest in FOEcast, which was our intent.  Next the unconference broke into subgroups, dubbed “neighborhoods”, and one combined FOEcast with “organizational models”, which included some other ideas and projects.  After breaking into subgroups an hour-long FOEcast discussion ensued, with plenty of ideas and questions flowing.  We followed up on this with another round on the event’s last day.

We were asked to organize the discussion through a matrix based on time (horizons of 1, 3, and 5 years ahead) and actions (“Dream”: what we’d like to see; “Do”: what concrete actions would occur; “Drive”: I’m not sure exactly, but it sounded like collaboration and assessment, I think).  Here’s what I, Karina, and others produced:

Click to enlarge.

Clear?  Not perfectly?  Well, let me break it down.  People saw the “Dream” as FOEcast creating a forecasting service, a think tank or “predictive engine”, as one put it.  It would draw on certain values from the late New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report, namely its playfulness and community nature. Within a year it would host conversations and an active network of participants.  Three years out its work would extend to sectors previously unexplored, and the whole effort would be sustainable.  Five years and FOEcast would spin off and/or connect with more organizations.

“Do”: in the first year FOEcast should conduct serious strategic planning, including generating mission, vision, and values statements.  It should built up a social network of interested parties, and explore Creative Commons licenses.  Why the latter?  Because by years 2-3 FOEcast would produce a conversation kit (how about “FOEkit”?), one that helps organizations hold excellent discussions exploring the future of education and technology; certain licenses, like CC-BY, would encourage users to share their results with the FOEcast network, enriching the general conversation.  Five years out and we might see the appearance of FOEcast-related groups, broken out by particular geographical, population, or sectoral niches.

“Drive”: people insisted – rightly – that FOEcast reach out to diverse populations.  Students were seen as especially important to include.  One way of looking at this was in terms of “focused chaos”, embracing the uncertainty, complexity, and diversity of broad-ranging populations in conversation. And we’d document the whole thing.

ASU AJ and Bryan_Board_Kim Flintoff

Again, this wasn’t me pontificating.  This was me frantically writing things on a whiteboard and asking clarifying questions, while 10-30 people took the floor to offer their ideas.  Remember, FOEcast is about crowdsourcing, community sourcing, and networking.

Let me sum up, given a few day’s distance and reflection.

  1. People generally liked the FOEcast idea.  There’s a hunger for forecasting work concerning education and technology.  There’s also a desire to experiment with new approaches.
  2. The consensus was overwhelmingly in favor of an open, transparent, and networked approach.  Nobody argued for a project that runs dark, or works in isolation.  Many people insisted on a project that includes multiple populations, educational sectors, and nations.
  3. I think this was the first time we’ve heard requests to involve students.
  4. Some of FOEcast’s questions remained unaddressed.  Beyond one or two mutterings about Delphi, there were no suggestions as to futuring methodology.  There wasn’t a sense of what a product or services should look like, beyond the discussion kit.
  5. One of the most interesting findings was the sense that FOEcast should partner with organizations, be they universities, nonprofits, or companies.  People from each of these approached me, by the way.

So that’s where we ended up.  Next up: we have another face to face event coming up soon, which I’ll say more about.  We should do at least one more online ideation exercise; ditto.

I’d like to thank ASU for hosting, Lev for leading, the FOEcast team for making this happen, and many participants for so generously sharing their thinking and inspiration.

(thanks to Karina Branson for letting me reproduce her visual facilitation work; thanks to Kim Flintoff for the photo of AJ and I at the board; a version of this post will appear on the FOEcast blog)

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2 Responses to What should a futures project look like? We held a FOEcast event at an unconference to find out.

  1. Karen says:

    When I hear “dream” — I also think there is a place to imagine what *could* be for these trends. Not only what is likely (3, 5, 10 year timeline) but also some free-form, blue sky imagining what could be done with new techniques/technologies by instructional designers, faculty, and so on if they had the time/money/space to manage it.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a great idea, Karen.
      What would be a good way to do that – say, a wiki or Google Doc to gather up ideas?

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