September 21st, 2012
Okay, so this week it’s back to Ottawa. The good news is that those air miles keep stacking up. The Social Sciences Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) had a terrific idea—invite about 40 participants from academic, public, private, and not-for-profit sectors to engage in an open discussion “Imagining Canada’s Future” –for the next five, ten, and twenty years. I was more than happy to accept the invitation and play a bit of futurism, and so high ho, high ho, off to the Capital I go…or went.
Motivating me to attend was the promise that the exercise would be facilitated by Michael ‘Mike’ Harcourt, former premier of BC, mayor of Vancouver, and trauma survivor. I digress, for a moment, but I am sure I am not alone when I say that many Canadians have been deeply moved by Harcourt’s astonishing recovery from a near fatal accident. About ten years ago he literally fell off the face of the earth while out hiking. No one thought he’d live, let alone walk, especially since the injury to his spinal cord was so severe. But he made it back to life through perseverance and a hard-working, optimistic support team. His book about his ordeal and recovery is appropriately called Plan B. I had never met Mike Harcourt before and so I was keen to work with someone who had not only been a formidable progressive political leader but who had also come through something so physically and psychologically catastrophic.
I wasn’t disappointed. Harcourt has a discernible limp and evidence of the strain on his body is evident, but his mind is as alert and sharp and attentive to ideas and people as ever. You would never really know what he had gone through if you didn’t know better. Humbling, really. It was a privilege working with him, imagining the Canada we hoped for, expected, and, at times, feared.
Never having been through what is called a ’scenario-building’ exercise, and the appeal of Harcourt’s presence notwithstanding, I admit I was sceptical. Facilitated group discussions can be so deadly and contrived. But live and learn. This construct, although not without some minor weak elements, really worked. How to have a coherent discussion with 40 or so strong-willed leaders and thinkers? You need a mechanism to keep the focus and engagement and this ritual process did most of the trick.
On Day One we threw ourselves into general discussion about what factors or variables would play into our imagined stories of the future. The discussion was wide-ranging and pretty free-flowing. Ultimately the bits and bites of ideas were categorized under a dozen themes or driving forces, such as Labour/Workforce, Environmental Resources, Global Influences, Social Values, Governance and Politics, Education Systems, Technology, and so on. Informing all of this was a central question: what changes could occur over the next 15-20 years that could significantly shape the nation? A big question, but it was fun to start imaging various scenarios for Canada along a spectrum that might be described as Armageddon on the one end and everyone singing Kumbaya on the other.
I won’t detail the complexities of the game as we narrowed down to refining the four scenarios, but suffice to say that we were asked to keep in mind the two critical uncertainties that we felt would most shape the future of the nation. It was pretty easy to agree on one of these: Global Influences. In the big global picture, forces working on Canada were seen to be even more important than those working within. I doubt a US-based room of players would have come to that conclusion. But we harboured no illusions about the role of Canada on the world map now or in the future. The second uncertainty was harder to agree on but we ultimately gave into a qualified consensus on the Governance and Politics, a kind of grab-bag of possibilities involving questions of leadership and engaged or disengaged citizenry.
The result of all this? A rich Day Two conversation aimed at imagining Canada in 2030. As the humanist in me pointed out, of the four scenarios we developed only one was deemed to be wholly unattractive—an unstable, low-growth, authoritarian world that made 1984 look like Shangri-La. Our inclination, as we worked together to shape a future, was towards a romantic fictionalizing of possibility—towards a kinder, gentler, more collaborative Canada, one in which after a period of conflict and instability (say, the next ten years?), we would emerge much wiser about how to govern and vote for what is good for us—all of us. It is pretty to think so.
For the SSHRC officials who hosted and presided in the two-day event, the conversation shaped possible directions for where investment in research might take us. If we all agree we need a more responsible national and global response to climate change, for example, what kind of research investment now will get us there then? If we value less big government and more regional autonomy, better redistribution of wealth, an informed and educated citizenry, better networking capacity, and so on, the same question applies.
It’s not every day we get to play Utopia and so I am grateful for having had the chance to step out of the diurnal grind to do so. The imagining scenario game might well be applied to many aspects of one’s diurnal life, for that matter. Good on SSHRC for hosting some dead-serious fun.