The Institute for the Future is a firm that produces forecasts and hosts workshops and meetings for its clients (membership varies by service but can be $65K per year) from industry and governments. They have been particularly strong in technology, emerging markets, consumer issues, and are expanding into global health trends. Besides the employees there are affiliate researchers, writers, and developers who take part in a program called GlobalCommons. It is an effort by IFTF to open up some of its activities to the public.
Yesterday I attended a session in Palo Alto, after being invited by Howard Rheingold whom I had met on The Well almost twenty years ago. Howard is quite active in these monthly meetings as well as the Google Group for online interaction. There is also a Wiki which will serve as a repository of members' writings and personal profiles.
Each of us modified our name tags by adding pictures we cut out from a stack of magazines. It made me think of the side benefits of this kind of activity which I had not done since first grade: interaction with strangers (are you finished with the scissors? here's the glue stick. why did you choose that picture for your tag?)
After a half hour of meeting and talking around the open area at IFTF, Howard introduced us to the idea of the 5 minute university where he gave a short talk, handed out one sheet of paper with supporting information and URLs, and led a ten minute discussion. In subsequent meetings others will volunteer to do several sessions during the first hour. Howard spoke about an Economist article on the history and relevance of coffee houses in the development of political activism, stock exchanges, insurance industry, and even science. After that people added their own factoids about coffee or gathering places to consume other drugs (qat dens in Ethiopia and Yemen). I mentioned that in the Togolese village where I lived, the people who produced coffee and cacao never consumed it.
Following this, Jerry Michalski explained the concept of an Open Space, a type of meeting I have found to be very rewarding since I first encountered it at a meeting of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in 1992. Participants have the option of suggesting topics of discussion by writing a short summary on a sheet, reading it to the crowd, and after all are posted, the group takes five or ten minutes to look them over and sign up to attend two of the back-to-back 45 minute sessions. At this meeting there were discussions of:
-a journal for future commons;
-the San Francisco wireless plan proposed by the mayor
-tactile interfaces to touch someone at a distance
-the end of cyberspace: will the metaphor work in the future?
-great moments in your collaborative history
-how to do R&D for professionals
-Miki, a graphical wiki.
-modeling decision tools for small towns to plan their future.
I attended the wireless discussion which was led by Anthony Townsend who wanted to craft a vision to guide the city officials of San Francisco who might look at this project as just a utility service like electricity and water. He hopes that the design will be open enough to allow for neighborhood experimentation.
He and others are hoping that there will be an emphasis on the local information, ways to encourage local input, mapping, and the use of locative technology in mining existing information that pertains to San Francisco. A major benefit could be the development of "social capital." We talked about the hostility of the duopoly now providing Internet services: the telco and cable companies. I talked about some of the similar efforts during the dialup days of community networks and Free-Nets in Cleveland and Buffalo fifteen years ago and the problems of volunteer burn-out.
The second open space was run by Anselm Hook a game designer who has become interested in what kind of tools could be used to model the variable factors that affect the future of a small town: environment, transportation, industry, housing. He likened to a super version of SimCity and mentioned the case of a researcher working with Bali rice farmers and used a computer simulation to show the positive effects of traditional water allotment patterns that were being disrupted by introduction of Green Revolution rice varieties. I mentioned Neighborhood Knowledge Los Angeles run by UCLA's Advanced Policy Institute.
This was followed by a twenty minute wrap-up session that ended about 7 p.m. Some people stayed later and went to dinner to continue the conversations started during the sessions.