Friday, May 22, 2015

Futurist Friday: Wandering

Much of the time futures work is about foreseeing, and avoiding, the worst possible outcomes. Rising seas lap at the toes of our communities (and sometimes our front steps), technology spawns ever more sophisticated ways to invade our privacy, the economic premise of nonprofit status seems increasingly shaky.

Sometimes dark (and depressingly plausible) scenarios of the future are just too much.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that futuring is about seeing the best possibilities, and working to make them true. This week's inspiration was yesterday's successful completion of a cargo run to the International Space Station by the SpaceX Dragon--a commercial spacecraft that SpaceX founder Elon Musk sees as one step in the road to a human Mars colony.

So, your Futurist Friday assignment: watch--full screen--3 min and 50 seconds of awesome.

And if you think this film envisions the impossible, remember that Musk named the SpaceX craft after Puff the Magic Dragon--because sometimes fairy tales can come true, especially if we use them to inspire children. 

(BTW, I will award points to anyone who identifies the film narrator before the credits roll. :)

Have you got a go-to shot of optimistic inspiration about the future (video clip, quote, film, short story, pic)? Please share. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Sustainability "Myth"

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about: are social service and cultural nonprofits really the same species? Sure, we're united by our 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, but beyond that, what's our family resemblance, and is it enough to unite us behind shared values for our sector?

We do come together over certain issues. For example, the Overhead Myth Campaign launched by GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance. That PR and advocacy project is trying to undermine the conventional wisdom operating budget spent on “overhead” (e.g., administration, fundraising) is somehow wasteful, and the lower that spending is, the better. Ironically, this benchmark originated in the same watchdog community now fighting it, but over time wise leaders like Jacob Harold recognized that demonizing overhead crippled the ability of an organization to build the capacity it needs to thrive. Minimizing overhead can be the economic equivalent of anorexia—too few calories devoted to basic maintenance and an organization can starve itself to death. (Or, at least, into perpetual exhaustion.)

The immense respect I have for the Overhead Myth Campaign made me perk up and take notice when Jacob Harold, CEO of Guidestar, tweeted a link to a post by Vu Le titled Why the Sustainability Myth is Just as Destructive as the Overhead Myth on his blog Nonprofit With Balls (NWB). But reading Le’s post just revived my doubts about whether social and cultural nonprofits are fundamentally different in their basic economic underpinnings

Le, (who slyly insists the “balls” referred to in his blog title are the ones we juggle as we try to keep a nonprofit afloat) first popped up on my radar as a humor columnist for Blue Avocado, an online magazine for community nonprofits. (Like this post in which he imagines rewriting popular children’s books to be about nonprofit work.) This irreverent approach shapes the post Harold tweeted about, in which Le uses stories about a customer at a fictional “Happy Chicken” fast food restaurant to illustrate how ridiculous it is for donors to care about the sustainability of the organizations they support. He mockingly imagines a customer declaring “I only eat at restaurants where I know they have a strong plan to diversify their customer base so they can keep cooking after I have paid for my meal and am gone.” Isn't this standard just as ridiculous for nonprofits as it is for for-profits?

“Many funders and donors seem to define “sustainability” as “self-sufficiency,” writes Le, “and have this romantic notion of a world where nonprofits don’t depend on them at all.”  After some thought, I disagree, at least for museums. For me, the current focus on sustainability is about making sure that a program into which an organization has invested a lot of time, money, creativity, and communications bandwidth isn’t going to disappear just because a particular funder shifts focus or a new program officer comes on board. And it is entirely reasonable for me as a donor, or funder, to want a fair amount of assurance that a museum has a long term plan for supporting their core functions of “collect, preserve, interpret” beyond “people will keep dumping money on us.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tracked down a great program or service referenced in an article or session description, only to hear “oh we discontinued that after [x] years, because the funding ran out.” So yes, in the short term maybe the funders got what they wanted, but in the long term...there is no long term. Often there isn't even any permanent, accessible record of how the program was built and what we learned from it. There are legitimate reasons to end a program—its charm depended on novelty; the problem the program addressed was solved (best case, by the program itself); the needs of the community changed. “It was great but we ran out of money” shouldn’t be one of those reasons.

But fact is, many funders aren’t interested in becoming step-parents. They are unlikely to adopt the wonderful projects started with some other funder’s money. They want to put their imprimatur on something new and shiny, something they can claim as their own.

That’s why I think museums should see grants and foundation funding as investments—start-up cash to launch, test and refine programs that are, yes, sustainable—that have a plan for continuing their great work after the original influx of cash dries up. Le concludes that “Sustainability is about making sure nonprofits are not going to be dependent on funders forever,” which he sees as a chimerical goal. I see sustainability as buffering programs, and organizations, from the vagaries of trends in philanthropy, and ensuring that “found money” in the form of gifts and grants, are invested in improvements that can be sustained over the long term.

Here’s a museum example: Digitization of collections is all the rage right now. Lots of grants being are being awarded to museums to digitize their collections and get them up on the web. But once digitization becomes routine, will foundations hand out grants to support this humdrum basic function with the same abandon? Probably not any more often than they support the purchase of basic archival storage materials, or pay the salaries of people cataloging the collection. Which is to say, rarely or not at all. And (this thought really worries me) who will fund migrating all those millions of digital files to new platforms and formats over time? An inevitable need, totally necessary and (I’m afraid) completely un-sexy. That’s why I believe museums need to create sustainable income streams, including earned income, into their business plan when they tackle digitization. That doesn’t necessarily mean charging for access to digitizing collections. (As I discussed in TrendsWatch 2015, museums would be well advised to jump onto the Open Data train.) But it does mean having a plan that uses open digitized data to build audiences, connect with new partners and (in the long run) generate revenue to support their own existence.  

I have no personal experienced with social service nonprofits. Maybe Vu Le’s criticism is apt for organizations that deliver essential services we ought to provide as part of the basic social contract: food, shelter, medical care. Though as a citizen, I happen to believe these essential services should be supported via my taxes, rather than through depending on the largesse of a subset of the population that both cares and has disposable income. Given that this is not the case, what do I, as a donor, expect from the nonprofits that step in where the government does not? Maybe I don’t care whether the soup kitchen will be around next week—because I know people have to get fed TONIGHT. But given the time, effort and money needed to build a successful infrastructure for food (or housing, health care or legal services) I might care after all. Why not invest my charitable dollars in a nonprofit with a sustainability plan that makes it resilient to the ups and downs of donor funding? 

So my thought is, either the Sustainability Myth is real, but distinguishes two branches of the nonprofit tree—cultural and social nonprofits, or museums are actually ahead of their social brethren in adapting to the new economic realities of their shared nonprofit world.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Bio-Bodice

#WearableTech #3DPrinting #EEG #EKG #BioResponsiveFashion
Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Summer Reading: What’s on my iPad

I never have enough time for long-form reading, but every summer I queue up a few things and make time to dive into them. Preferably sitting on the porch. With lemonade. And cats. Here are the next four on my list—these summaries are based on the preliminary nosing around that led me to conclude they were worth a long read. (All of these are available as free PDF downloads via the links provided.)

Bounce Forward: Urban Resilience in the Era of Climate Change. (The Island Press, 2015, 366 pp.) The Kresge Foundation is devoted to creating opportunities for low-income communities, is keenly aware of the disproportionate impact climate change will have on those vulnerable populations. So the foundation partnered with Island Press on the Urban Resilience Project—a combination of literature review, interviews with diverse experts and a convening of advisors to work out a unifying framework. The resulting report presents a holistic framework for creating resilient cities—adaptable systems for energy, transportation, food, water and housing that can anticipate, plan for and mitigate the impact of change.
Why Read This? The principles of resilient design summarized in this report can help museums with their own risk mitigation planning. I also hope it encourages staff to think about how their museum can contribute to the resilience of its own community.

A Visual History of the Future (UK Government Office for Science, 2014,142 pp). This report was commissioned by the UK Government’s Foresight Future of Cities Project. The authors did their best to make one of the coolest topics ever as dry and academic as possible—maybe because they think it makes the report more credible? But even slinging around terms like “dominant paradigm” and “heuristic visualizations” can’t smother the awesomeness of the content. These drawings, prints, paintings, screenshots from the past 100 years—by artists, film makers, architects, futurists—deal with enduring challenges. See, for example, Studio Linfors’ 2009 “Cloud Skippers,” a design for lifting housing away from coastal disasters via helium balloons; or Oscar Newman’s 1969 proposal for burying Manhattan to protect it from nuclear attack. If those seem too far out, you might prefer Shimzu Corporation’s “Green Float” concept for floating cities designed to be carbon-negative (carbon absorbing) in its operations.
Why Read This? The point isn’t the realism or practicality of these visualizations (many are surreal and totally impractical) but their ability to free up our thinking to play with radically different ideas for urban planning. (As a bonus, the text and images often reference futurist films and novels, which then go onto my reading/viewing list.)

Eugene Henard, The Cities of the Future, 1911

Living Tomorrow (Intel Corporation, 2015, 139 pp.) This is the latest installment of submissions to The Future Powered by Fiction competition sponsored by Intel, the Society for Science and the Public and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination in 2014. (The challenge invited 13-25 year olds around the world to contribute science fiction stories, essays, comics and videos.) This collection presents eleven entries focusing on futures shaped by biological and environmental challenges, a nice change from our usual monolithic focus on digital technology. You can find the winning entries from the competition here, along with an earlier anthology of additional entries (Dark Futures). Later this summer Intel will release the final installment—Journeys through Time and Space.
Why Read This? The trends that provide the basis for these stories—manipulation of the human genome, radical longevity, food scarcity and increasingly sophisticated pharmaceuticals—are quite real. Stories on each of them pop up in my scanning on a regular basis, (and often find their way into Dispatches from the Future of Museums). These young authors help us imagine where these trends may take us, before the consequences take us by surprise.

Certifying Skill and Knowledge: 4 Scenarios on the Future of Credentials (KnowledgeWorks Foundation, 2015, 17 pp.) I’ll read pretty much anything put out by KnowledgeWorks, CFM’s sister organization that conducts forecasts around education. As we explored in TrendsWatch2013, credentialing is a major barrier to the widespread adoption of some of the most promising educational innovations. How do you prove to a college that you are ready to matriculate even if you didn’t go to high school? How do you convince an employer you have the skills and knowledge needed for a job when much of your training drew on non-traditional sources? But slowly, slowly, alternative methods of credentialing are gaining credibility. This forecast looks at four potential futures: the baseline (business as usual with some variation around the edges); two alternative futures (one dominated by alternative credentialing, one in which technology tracks and catalogs all that you do), and one wild card in which we can read the brain directly to measure cognitive, social and emotional skills.
Why Read This? In Building the Future of Education: Museumsand the Learning Ecosystem, we envision a future in which museums play a major role in mainstream education, rather than being relegated to the edges as “nice but not necessary” resources. This future is premised on finding ways of credentialing that go beyond standardized testing, grades and transcripts, so museums have a vested interest in helping to test and implement alternative systems.

(And if you want the futurist equivalent of a summer horror flick, Global Challenges: 12 Risks that Threaten Human Civilization.)

So, that’s my summer reading. I would love to hear what’s on your desk pile, bedside table or iPad. Share?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Monday Musing: When Free is Not Enough

Monday musings are my way of sharing brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

Three recent articles are colliding in my brain:

First, coverage of Michelle Obama’s speech at the opening of the new Whitney Museum, at which she said

“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.  And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.” (Here is the transcript of the whole talk.)

Second, an article on Blouin Art Info on “The Price of Admission: The New Whitney and Museum Tickets in New York,” in which Mostafa Heddaya does some nice work tracking the history of admission fees at some major New York museums, and calculating change over time in real dollars. (It blew me away to learn the Whitney charged $1 for admission in 1971, and the Met $1.75. Those prices are $22 and $25 respectively, today.) The article profiled the views of a number of prominent arts leaders (including Alliance Board Chair Kaywin Feldman) who advocate making admission to museums free. ““Accessibility is our most important value here — the only way to be truly accessible is to be free” Ms. Feldman is quoted, “When the price barriers are moved people can make visiting a museum a regular habit.”

If you just read these two articles together, your mind might make the logical leap that it is financial barriers that suppress diversity in museum attendance. If museums were free, we would be equally accessible to people from all socioeconomic classes, right?

Well, but. Here’s where the third article plays in, a long and thoughtful piece titled “Why Don’t They Come?” by Ian David Moss, Louise Geraghty, Clara Schuhmacher and Talia Gibas at CreateEquity. (If you don’t follow their work, I recommend you do, starting with this article.) Ian et al. mined data from the latest NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (as well as comparable studies from other countries), the NEA analysis of data from the General Social Survey, and consumer spending surveys. These various data sources look at arts participation and barriers to participation, leisure time and use of leisure time, all parsed by socioeconomic status.

Their conclusion? If every exhibit and performance in the US could be attended for free, it would only bridge 7% of the gap in attendance between rich and poor, and between those who attended college and those who did not. Even eliminating transportation barriers leaves a chasm between arts participation between people with low socioeconomic status (SAS) and the rest of the population. This despite the fact that low-SAS people have more leisure time, on average, than people with higher incomes and more education. So what does keep low-SAS people away? “Lack of explicit interest is far and away the dominant factor” the authors conclude. And what are they doing with the time they don’t spend on arts-related activities? Watching TV—with hours spent on the tube correlating with lack of expressed interest in attending exhibits or performances.

Source: National Endowment for the Arts, “When Going Gets Tough”

Which leaves museums wondering, as the article asks, why low SES individuals “just aren’t into us.” Perhaps because TV satisfies their desire for content (in which case—deal with it. If we can’t provide a more compelling experience than TV, it’s on us to up our game). But maybe in part because going to museums, or not going to museums, is something deeply embedded in self-image. The CreateEquity authors point to data showing that even within the same income range, people who self-identify as middle or upper class are much more likely to attend exhibits or performances than people who identify as working class. So, back to Mrs. Obama’s remarks, many people may feel that museums are just “not a place for me.” That’s a much harder barrier to tear down than price. Free admission may well facilitate repeat visitation by non-members who already fit our core demographic, which is also a good thing. The real economic issue for museums that want their audiences to reflect the socioeconomic diversity of our country, however, may not be abolishing admission fees but figuring out how much we have to spend, and on what, to become institutions where people feel they “belong.”

Friday, May 15, 2015

Futurist Friday: "Us/Here" Augmented Reality

I've been mentioning Microsoft's HoloLens quite a bit in my speaking and writing--bur often I'm not sure I'm getting across what makes it so exciting.

HoloLens is an example of what Barry Joseph has dubbed "Us/Here" technology--a way of sharing holographic augments to the space you are actually in. Or, as one of my more successful attempts at synopsing the technology: it lets you and other users all interact with the same imaginary object sitting in real space. See? Hard to describe.

Until you get hold of a HoloLens to try for yourself (maybe CFM can snag one to share at next year's annual meeting!) the best way to understand its capabilities is to what videos. So that's your Futurist Friday assignment this week, watch this 2 minute video 

And start thinking about the opportunities "Us/Here" technology presents both as a tool for museum staff to use in their jobs, and to enhance the ways visitors can interact with our "here." Me, it makes my imagination race...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Noodling on the Future of Conferences

May I just say, for the record, that I love love love the AAM annual meeting staff. They do a glorious job each year of pulling off the near impossible—decamping for a distant city to host a few thousand of our besties, orchestrating content, transportation, signage, A/V, food, drink and the logistics of getting a couple hundred vendors in and out of a massive exhibit hall. They totally rock.

But I’m a futurist. However good something is now, I wake up every morning wondering how it might be different in the future. Maybe better, at least better suited for the world that exists in five, ten, twenty years. Almost certainly different, however much we love what we have now.

Lively discussion at #AAM2105
At the extreme end of the spectrum, we already have associations experimenting with radical integration of technology into their meetings: outfitting staff with Google Glass to live stream proceedings; or saturating the conference center with hundreds of sensors to track the behavior of attendees in real time.

On the more mundane level, there are many forces disrupting the conventional model for conferences bit by bit. For example: Airbnb is eating into hotel room blocks, giving organizers less leverage to negotiate lower rates and fewer free rooms to assign staff (which helps keep costs down).

Perhaps most profoundly, digital communications, from email to social media, foster what Lonny Bunch, director of the National African American Museum of History and Culture, has dubbed “rump parliaments”—gatherings that spring up around the “official” agenda, taking advantage of the critical mass of people and energy that converge on the conference. My informal count of these independent offshoots tallies well over a dozen, from convenings organized by consulting and research firms such as the Museum Group and Reach Advisors to provide content and face time with their clients, to reunions like the one organized by the Getty Leadership Institute for its alumni.

In Atlanta last month, some of these rumpuses were small scale and informal. Elise Granata and Nina Simon created a LinkedIn Group (Hack Your Hello’s At AAM) to facilitate connections between any size group of people with shared interests—one organizational step up from “we had this great spontaneous conversation in the bar last night.” At the other end of the spectrum, a “diverse group of emerging museum professionals” used Facebook and Twitter to flash-organize a gathering of over 70 people Tuesday night at Atlanta’s Ger Art museum to discuss labor issues in museums. (Here’s a resource list they compiled in case you, like I, regret missing their alt conf.)

I’m particularly interested in how social media empowers…well, anyone, to circumvent the limitations imposed by the formal selection process. Those limitations include both volume and timeliness. The National Program Committee has to winnow proposals down to a manageable number, which means many great ideas don’t make it onto the program. And since the call for proposals closes the previous fall, there’s no easy way for the meeting to respond to “of the moment” issues. However, folks engaged in #MuseumWorkersSpeak used their self-organized platform to promote discussion about #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson, and Baltimore, and other recent incidents inciting concern about justice and equity.

Most museum conferences today are hybrids of academic gatherings and trade shows. This creates so many tensions: between the established leadership that controls who gets on the program and emerging voices who don’t want to wait in line for their turn to present; between some people who view vendors as inherently suspect sources of information, and exhibitors who want to contribute content on an equal footing; between people looking for basic “101” sessions and people only interested in cutting edge ideas; and, frankly, between conference organizers trying to exert some measure of control over this unwieldy beast, and people who want to “hack the conference” (in the best, creative sense of the word) to create additional good.

I wonder if, in the future, these tensions aren’t going to fragment the conference as we know it into separate, independently viable pieces. Some possible forms I can imagine conferences taking in the future:
  • Mega “unconferences,” where organizers line up the space, housing, and supporting services, but rather than curating the content via a central program committee, concentrate on enabling attendees to self-organize in a multitude of ways (as illustrated above) to claim space, attract like-minded individuals and tackle topics of interest in ways that might range from presentations to working groups to workshops. Staff become air traffic controllers, tracking who is doing what, finding space on the fly, helping everybody find an appropriate seat. 
  • Conferences whose central and explicit purpose is networking via social events. I have friends who attend the AAM conference to hang out with folks in the evening and tour the local museums during the day—some don’t even register (they have the grace to be slightly embarrassed, when they admit that to me), others register but don’t attend sessions. There are so many places to find high quality content now—ranging from local convenings to videos, webinars, blogs and web archives of papers. Why listen to someone read a paper when you could be brainstorming with folks you only see once a year?
  • A distributed model, where the role of the national/central association is to create high-quality core content that is beamed out to satellite site that host local convenings. Local organizers build tailored on-site content to supplement the live-streamed events, and participants at all the distributed sites can interact over the share content in chat rooms and via social media.

I confess I pulled a little futurist sleight-of-hand there, characterizing this as the future. Fact is, all these things are happening, at least a little bit, now. And they are not entirely under the control of the organizations that run the official conferences. The question facing the Alliance, as well as the regional, state and discipline-specific associations, is how we will choose adapt to these changes, and take charge of our own futures before it gets reinvented for us. And the question for you (feel free to share your thoughts via comments, below) is what kind of conference you want, in the future.

Here are some summaries and analysis of #AAM2015, including the non-official events, that have appeared on the web. Insight into what people found memorable and rewarding!

Rogue Sessions and Conversations: Thoughts on AAM 2015 in Atlanta by Paul Orselli on ExhibiTricks blog. Paul shares his frustration with our "big and unwieldy" event, while celebrating the great conversations he had "most of which happened outside the confines of formal conference session." As I said... 

Museums as Change Agents? The AAM Meeting and Expo 2015 From Clara Rice, of Jack Rouse Associates, on Blooloop

Reflecting on AAM on the Incluseum, in which Rose Paquet Kinsley talks about how she and a co-presenter reworked their session on inclusive language and social value 2 hours before they went on stage, in order to respond to what they had heard of the conference so far. [Applause.] 

AAM Conference: Atlanta, GA from NewProject Think & Build