Ruben NELSON's Interview

Ruben NELSON, Square One Management Ltd, Canada
Mini CV

 Capitalizing on Change Project Ruben Nelson, Executive Director of the Capitalizing on Change Project ( and president of Square One Management Ltd. He is also a fellow of the World Business Academy, the World Academy of Art and Science, and the Meridian Institute for Leadership, Governance and Change. A native Calgarian, Ruben Nelson lives in Lac des Arcs and has explored our changing world for over 30 years. He is considered a Canadian pioneer of serious thinking about the future.

Interview result

 What do you think of wild cards and weak signals?
We don’t use wild cards in our work, for two reasons. Our first objection is the definition being used. It confuses probability with plausibility, or at least is not clear. It is not quite sure what it is measuring, where the fence is that lets you in or out of that class. The classic definition of wild card, as you have used it, is something that is improbable, but if it did happen it would be highly significant. Oliver Markley led an interesting conversation around weak signals. He said we need to distinguish between probability and improbability, plausibility and implausibility. He made the point that many of the weak signals people talk about are actually quite probable. Many of the weak signals you have posted on your website seem quite probable, particularly in the science and technology area. So they don’t meet the classic definition of a weak signal, which is about improbability, whereas plausibility picks up the question of whether it will be a surprise to people. Will people understand it, not because it is improbable, but because it is scientific or some other sort of event or development that they simply do not pay any attention to? If we were going to use the concept of weak signals, we would clarify weak signals that are improbable, that have high degrees of probability, very high impacts, reasonable degrees of probability, that is enough that they are not science fiction, but they are implausible. What you are really judging is whether opinion leaders wrap their heads around these things or whether they will be shocked by them. Nine/11 was one of those things, highly probable if you look into the research. The second reason is that we do futures in a holistic or integral way, and therefore good work requires that you force your clients to think about things that they don’t want to think about. This is like raising children: you have to learn to be responsible. We insist that our clients learn and that they consider things that are highly implausible to them. One of the greatest sources of weakness in the foresight field and in human endeavours is that people do not do thorough enough work to consider the things that they find offensive. We are outliers in this regard. We are one or two percent of people in the field of futures research. We think it will grow in time, and in the meantime it’s the view we take in Foresight Canada. We don’t think there is any such thing as weak signals. A weak signal is a signal in the mind of the perceiver. There is a whole literature around weak signals, as if a certain kind of signal is a weak signal; as if there are certain places you can look for a signal. A signal of any sort is a weak signal in the mind of the perceiver. Our apparatus is not very sensitive, so many of the things on your website, for example, are things I have thought of. They are the kind of things that, given my background, are the signals I pay attention to. If you are new to the field, you may have not thought of them or may not think of them in this way. So weak signals are in the mind of the beholder. When you are new to something, for example if you are in first year at university and you have never taken a course in psychology, then most of the things you talked about are weak signals. They are relevant weak signals, because you have no idea how to string them together and why are they important. If you learn to think like a psychologist, then the things that used to be irrelevant and weak become part of your daily life, they are robust, living, and so we tend to understand. This is how we use weak signals. I am trying to be clear about how we use language. We no longer talk about science, technology and innovation. This language has become so ubiquitous that it is taken for granted, but we think it gets in the way of understanding the future and not being surprised. There is a smaller group in the field, which we think is growing, that instead of talking about science, technology and innovation, believes one can only talk about manifestations of human consciousness, cultures and forms of civilizations. One of the things all civilizations do is technology. We find some way to separate more reliable knowledge from less reliable knowledge. What we call ‘science’ is probably the most powerful way yet devised to do that, but every culture needs to know which knowledge is reliable and which is not, because if you don’t it could cost you your life. We do think about science and technology, but only as something societies do apart from human psychology. We try to think in more integrated ways and that too is coming. There is an emerging conversation in the futures field about integral futures or holistic futures. There is not a common single language yet, but we categorize it as ‘Foresight 2.0’. I have an article called Extending Foresight 2.0, in the May 2010 issue of Futures. That gives you a sense of the way we think about things here. As in any field, professionals differ and so can engage in good conversation with each other to stretch each others’ minds.
Do you have any favourite or interesting wild cards, taking into account that you are not a fan of using wild card as we design it?
Fundamentally we don’t use wild cards, because classically when work is done for a client, if something is called a wild card you don’t have to think about it. Wild card has been used to classi a whole range of events that just sound strange. It has been used as an excuse by professionals to not have to confront fee-paying lay people with more difficult or challenging possibilities. So we work with a category of things that, if they happen, will be highly significant and are implausible but we think highly probable – often hard to know how probable. We work with these things, but by not calling them wild cards. Our clients cannot say to us that their board does not want to think about wild cards. We think it leads to shoddy work, you talk to people about the things that are easy for them and not the things that are hard, and you just keep getting surprised by life. I will give you four or five wild cards. One would be that a major government – this could be the UK or Iceland – will break with the now normal practice that a country’s money is all interest-bearing debt money, and move to some sort of fiat money. Weak signals of this would be: talk about fiat money; and places that are strong, but so challenged economically that they need to make a fundamental change in their economic system or be totally owned by the hedge funds. We think that is far more likely. If you ask 1,000 economists that question today, they will give it a zero to one percent probability. We think it is much higher than that and needs to be watched. There would be huge implications if things developed so that the Euro became fiat money and not debt money. Europe is big enough for that to have a global effect. Another is volcanic activity in Yellowstone National Park, central western planes in America. It is a place with geezers, hot pools and lots of manifestations of water being driven up to the surface under pressure. One of the largest explosions in the Earth’s history happened there millions of years ago. If this blew again, it would take out much of the population and economy of west central North America. Inside the volcano is a huge semi-circular dome the size of Yellowstone park, and for 100 years geologists have known it is moving up the cone of the volcano, lifting the whole landscape. They know at some point it will go up again, but they don’t know when. This is hugely implausible, because only one in 10,000 people in North America know that is the case. It would be utterly surprising and a game changer. The third wild card is an India/Pakistan nuclear exchange, which is a function of climate change and the pressing issue of water. There could be several wars out of climate change and India/Pakistan is high on the lists of strategic analysts. The rivers on which Pakistan relies all start in India and the legal agreements in place favour India. India can abide by them, but if it came to this, the world and India would be watching millions of Pakistanis die. A country and regime as unstable as Pakistan would not allow that to happen without punishing India. The use of nuclear weapons in that theatre triggered by climate change is based on a fairly long logic chain. It presupposes that we are not able to deal with climate change, but the kind of signals we would look for are fairly obvious. That is the nature of what is normally called a weak signal: once you have seen it, it is not weak any more. A fourth example is a societal development that triggers something. It is simply a realization of a critical mass of opinion leaders, who make up roughly 15 percent of a society. If you take a critical mass as 20 percent of a society, it means that when a critical mass of opinion leaders change their mind about something, the public agenda begins to change. Once a critical mass of women in the 1960s wanted to talk about the place of women in North American society, it went viral pretty quickly. Once a critical mass of opinion leaders in Scotland wanted to talk about greater independence in Scotland, then it was unavoidable. A critical mass of opinion leaders is one of the touchstones that we look for as a fundamental shift in the dynamic, because an item then goes public and the public conversation begins. If it is a shocking item, the public’s response can mean they behave badly. You can be lucky if you have wise and stable leaders, but you can’t rely on it. Mostly our leaders are not much different from the rest of us, e.g. enough pressure and we all go a bit crazy. In the next five to 15 years, it is entirely likely that a self-reinforcing escape of CO2, i.e. runaway climate change, is what we face as a human species. That changes the game. All the normal plans of life get put on hold in an even more dramatic way than in wartime, because in a war people have some sense of what to do, e.g. stop doing your job, get first aid training, etc. Since no one is doing serious work about how a whole jurisdiction should respond to this kind of thing, we have been looking for places; the American military is doing some, but not in the integrated way we would like. We think when this happens, all hell breaks loose. We have identified several things that are dawning realizations. That is the way human consciousness works – it takes us a while to work things out. Among the things we look for are issues that, if they happen, are very dramatic and impactful and are far more probable than people give credit for, but still implausible, and which are not even on our research agenda. Another one is the realization, again by a critical mass of opinion leaders, that the only way for modern western industrial society – and therefore increasingly the dominant form of civilization on the planet – to become sustainable is either through death or a fundamental transformation that would be as different as from preindustrial to industrial. In other words, we have to stop talking as if modern industrial society can be made sustainable. There is a root assumption among CEOs, politicians and in the literature that we can make modern industrial society sustainable. Through decades of research, we have come to the view that that is not possible. We are arguing that it is a fundamental change of character. It is so fundamental that it qualifies as a different form of civilization. Until we know that, we will continue to play a game that we cannot succeed at. The longer you delay it, as with runaway climate change, the more difficult the task and the higher the odds that you will fail. We have found no research centre dedicated to this proposition. We ask the empirical question: ‘Is it really the case, and if so what is your rationale for saying that?’ ‘What evidence do you point to?’ ‘How do you string it together logically that modern industrial culture can only be sustainable if it has a fundamental change, fundamental enough to transform to a new civilization?’ Then you look around for weak signals – what evidence is there that this has already begun? Are we further into this than we know?We want all the perks of a modern industrial civilization, but we are unwilling to pay any of the serious prices to become sustainable. We are the only group in Canada that has done serious research on this question. Our research suggests that people doing foresight should add this to their agenda and we are a bit distressed that is not happening.
 Do you see any weak signals for the first one, the economic system change?
There are several videos on YouTube about the destructiveness of the debt money system and the rise of fiat money. If you Google fiat money or lett money you will find that conversation goes back 40 years. This is true of most weak signals – you will find it has a very long tail once it goes critical. One of the triggers of going critical is when a critical mass of opinion leaders changes their view. Once it goes critical, the angle of the steepness of the curve turns from a very slow slope into a hockey stick curve, where you begin to move in a different direction and velocity. Whilst it is not yet part of Economics 101 or chambers of commerce, because the vested interests in the current system are huge, I would assume that there is some conversation, for example the work of Hazel Henderson1 or James Robertson.2 I would think there was some conversation in Iceland after the economic catastrophe. I have no idea if any formal research has been done, or whether the government has been asked to write a research paper on how fiat money works. If they have, one of the places they would look is North Dakota. In the US, states as well as the federal government can issue money, so for 90 years the Bank of North Dakota has run a debt-free money system. It is the only state in the Union that is not in debt.
What do you think would happen if a major state or major government was to take up this debt-free economy?
I tried to choose things for this conversation that do not have to be the way they are. You don’t have to be a futures person to know that things don’t have to be the way they are. Most people take things as if they are God-given. Meaning trumps everything else, so when meaning changes, you challenge the very meaning of life. At the moment, in the modern industrial world, debt money is so woven into the meaning structure that if you challenge it, you are not just challenging the market system, you challenge the ‘good life’ of production and consumption. These things tend to happen only in extremis, under great pain. An example was the understandable desire to never have a war like the First World War. It was so bloody and pointless, that the commitment to peace in the 1920 and 1930s made perfect sense, except that it kept people from realizing that Hitler was rearming his army and preparing for war. It took the invasion of Czechoslovakia – the fourth country to be invaded – for the British people to get it. Under what conditions do we change our minds profoundly enough to gravitate towards a view that is grounded in evidence? How is it possible that a species as smart as we are can live in the face of evidence that, once you have seen it, is so obvious? Yet that can be done by whole forms of civilizations, whole cultures, whole institutions. 1 2 is one project in Birmingham which is trying to identify things that are so important that our future may hang on them, and which at the moment we are probably missing. That for us is the heart of futures work. It is like people who are planning for the inheritance for their children, but who neglect the moral character of their children. That is the kind of trade-off you don’t want to make. It is better to have a poor child with character than a rich kid with no character. As a civilization, we seem to be hellbent on abolishing character in order to make money.
Do you think we can prepare and understand by doing research on these wild cards that you have mentioned?
Yes, if this is about the dawning realization of very daunting things. If one can say that most people at street level don’t seem to understand how their own minds or how civilizations work – that is a fairly arrogant proposition. In order to avoid other accusations of arrogance, I have to include myself in that and so do those who do futures work – and that reflectivity is not yet securely at the heart of futures. Let me tell you how we work here. Our fundamental project has been to first identify wicked problems. This is the language we use, it is out there in the futures literature: complex and swampy problems that function through the dynamics of complexity theory, rather than quantum mechanics. This means that small things can make big differences and big things can make no difference at all. Complexity theory says you can go along and everything is fine and then you fall off a cliff and you say ‘how can that happen?’ because in a quantum world that can’t happen. But we now know that quantum does not account for the very small in the world, or for the way that living ecologies work, so there is a different model behind it. So our societies are at risk in ways that they don’t even know about. They are not bad societies for being at risk in these ways, because we have not lived with complexity theory that a critical mass of opinion leaders even understand. Among the leaders of the G20, what are the chances that even two of them understand complexity theory or could write a decent paper on it? What are the chances that two percent of their advisors understand it? A critical mass would mean between eight percent and 20 percent of the most critical advisors at the last G20 in Toronto actually understanding complexity theory and its implications for how they understand big issues. This is nobody’s fault. Until now in human history when new ideas have emerged, it has been enough to let those ideas work their way through society through cultural osmosis. Part of what the sociology of knowledge does is ask questions about how long this takes; and how do technologies, transportation or other communication patterns change that? Part of the nature of foresight is to identify and raise the issues, as you are doing in this project. I hope you are identifying a small group that you might invite to a small conference, to think about the next step in this kind of work. Those kinds of thoughtful, reflective questions don’t get asked much, not just in sociology but in the futures field as well. One way to move forward is to take the opportunities to nudge people, by being supportive and cajoling as friends and colleagues, so the next time they do something it will be better designed than the last time.Europe is a testbed for legitimacy on foresight, but it is not getting good value for its money, based on the work that is being produced. So our strategy here is to somehow wiggle our way into the lives of a variety of people. Some are deliberately opinion leaders, and get to be trusted enough that we can push them. We try to identify the two or three most significant players in foresight in the province and then have quiet, off-the-record conversations with them, basically saying that if we don’t insist on good work being done, nobody else will. Somebody has to engage in conversations that are inherently moral and ethical, spiritual, grounded in being human, and then look at what we characterize as science, innovation, sociology, technology. It is ultimately an issue, as it was in Iceland, of a whole culture living in a such a way that nobody understood how much they were putting themselves at risk. It is not even risk in the normal sense; the degrees of uncertainty are so high that we cannot estimate the risk. We don’t know how much risk you are putting yourself at, but it may cost you your life or may cost you less than that. We are dealing with uncertainty, not risk analysis. At the moment, because of fiat money and the way we live as civilizations, there is not a place on the planet where there is a rich public conversation about these issues. Therefore the people who are impervious to them end up dominating the public space. I know of no country where they have honest and frank conversations with the young people, aged 15 to 35 years, about the way that we are now living as a culture and form of civilization, and what that means for their future. The World Health Organization talks of an epidemic of mental health issues amongst adolescence. We think it is a funding problem, but we don’t even understand the nature of the problem we are up against. It is not mysterious once you see it –that is the nature of weak signals. . Our fundamental strategy is worm our way into the confidence of people who we call ‘the warm ones’. They are people we can have a private conversation with and take risks and say things that we would not say publicly. So we find people who have some sort of openness to this. If the places of openness are multiple, it could be literally a phrase or conversation about things spiritual, ethical, technological or something else. We will try then to deepen that conversation, to have it move from the more trivial to the less trivial, from the narrow to the deep, and find ways to nurture that conversation as a series of episodes in friendship. The deepest conversations only take place in friendship. For example, we have been quietly looking for partners in a research project to ask the questions empirically: ‘How much trouble is modern industrial civilization in and what is the nature of those troubles? ’ ‘What are the root causes of it and what do we have to do to get out of it?’ ‘Is it even possible to get out of it?’ Fundamentally our strategy is to identify good issues, signals in a variety of settings. Foresight Canada has a reputation for people who are non-trivial, who have a depth of judgement and are willing to raise some of the more difficult questions as a field, as well as for our clients, because we think that is what we have to do. One of the things you might think of doing in the next round is an international project. There are many ‘warm ones’ in Europe, as well as China, Australia, Canada, America, etc., who would welcome a serious research project that was trying to get under the surface. There is at least one more level of what might be called ‘wicked issues’ or ‘meta issues’. These would be the issues that underlie even these issues. At the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, for example, there was virtually no public talk that climate change should be seen as a symptom of a much wider malady that is civilization-wide. Rather, climate change is seen as a problem that technology can fix, which is exactly how you would expect a modern industrialized civilization to think. The deeper question is: is this is a symptom of a deeper thing? I would encourage you to think about these in ways that are deeper, broader and wider. What are we learning here to add another research question to the current research? At what levels are we learning from all this? What is the next piece? Are we learning the kind of stuff that will allow us to do an international project to identify what are the problems? Not problems that the UN has to solve, as that is all within the thinking patterns of a modern industrial world. Let’s make a world list of wicked problems in an integrated way, in which character and science and technology are all factored into the identification of the kind of issues we are up against. We will create a set of issues that is not on anyone’s agenda today, and say to people: ‘Here is version 1.0 of what in effect is the agenda for the 21st century. If it does not become your agenda, you die.’ Twentyyear- olds already know that. Therefore there is some real time pressure to get on with this, and do the work. We have been at this for about 15 years. We have involved several thousand citizens in enough experiments to make us confident that the strategy of looking for the ‘warm ones’ is good. It needs to occur at the senior level and at the street level, including mothers, grandmothers, university students who are open to these things. They form a significant minority, and at the moment there are not many people providing settings for these conversations to happen as if they matter. Our experience shows us that if you do that, people will respond.

Interviewer (Institution)

Manchester Institute of Innovation Research

Manchester Institute of Innovation Research

Innovations - new products, services and ways of making or doing things - are fundamental to business success and to economic growth and development. Manchester is one of the founding centres for the study of science, technology and innovation. The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research builds on a forty year old tradition of study in the area. More...

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