Friday, May 29, 2015

Futurist Friday: The Digital Panopticon

Who saw you on your way to work today? 

Even if you didn't see a soul, chances are, no matter where you live and work, someone did, or could, spot you, via one or more cameras monitoring intersections, store fronts, schools (not to mention your museum's own video feeds). 

London probably takes the prize for most closely surveilled city, with 1 camera for every 14 people (422,000 total). On my way to work this morning (via foot & Metro), I counted 26 cameras positioned to catch my smiling face--and those are only the ones I could spot. Here in Washington, DC, police only have about 90 cameras themselves, but they have access to video from over 300 private cameras belonging to local businesses. Metro has about 6,000 cameras and there are an additional  30,000 in DC public schools,  

Welcome to the surveillance society, one in which you will have no reasonable expectation of remaining unseen outside your home. (Where Google's street view camera might catch you in your front yard. Hopefully they remember to blur the image later.) 

Until recently we were granted at least a thin veil of privacy by the sheer volume to data one would have to sift through to actually track anyone in particular. Enter Jenq-Neng Hwang, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington. His algorithms can recognize people by general shape, pattern and appearance, matching images across separate video feeds to track an individual from place to place. With this technology, only legislative barriers to mining those feeds (and perhaps Adam Harvey's Stealth Wear) stand between us and a "digital panopticon" of ubiquitous observation.

Your Futurist Friday assignment: watch this video about Hwang's work (3 1/2 minutes) and consider:

  • How do you feel about the trade-offs between security and privacy if Hwang's algorithms are put to widespread use?
  • Should technology like this only be used forensically (to investigate after a crime is committed) or does it have a legitimate place in crime prevention as well? (Shades of Minority Report.)
  • What private (non-governmental) applications can you imagine for this technology?
  • How could the ability to track individuals throughout museum space (indoors or out) assist your work, and what concerns does would this raise? (I threw you a softball there for that last question--perhaps a better Q would be, how long before people don't even notice, or care?)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Mission Impossible Engineering

#FutureArchitecture #London #UrbanDensity

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 26, 2015

Podcasting about Digital Learning

I love museum podcasts. I love assembling Dispatches from the Future of Museums each week. So I was very pleased to be invited to combine these passions by contributing a segment to a new podcast exploring digital learning in museums. Especially as the invite came from Barry Joseph (aka Mooshme), my go-to blog source for commentary on the use of Minecraft, augmented reality, digital badging, games design and 3D printing in museum education.  Here’s an introduction to "Object-Oriented" from Barry and his co-hosts, Rik Panganiban and Eve Gaus. Enjoy!

There’s a bit of a not-so-secret, secret when attending professional development conferences: the best conversations happen outside the formal panels and presentations. Instead, they take place in those uncomfortable giant armchairs in the hotel lobby, or in the lingering moments after a panel has wrapped up. The question always is, how to meaningfully continue these conversations after the conference has finished and everyone has returned home. Launching this week is Object-Oriented, a new podcast that explores museums as innovation spaces for digital learning. Born out of a desire to continue those armchair conversations, Object-Oriented is a space to think, argue and converse with each other on what the future digital learning in museums looks like.

We three museum educators—Rik Panganiban (Senior Manager of Digital Learning at the California Academy of Sciences), Eve Gaus (Digital Learning Manager at The Field Museum), and Barry Joseph (Associate Director of Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History)—launched this podcast to examine emerged and emerging issues in digital learning and discusses how museums function in this digital space, particularly in regard to youth programming. In the first episode, we explore the idea of the digital lens and whether it distracts from a visitor’s learning experience at the museum or whether it extends the experience and allows the visitor to engage on a deeper level. Using examples from educational programs run at our own museums and others, we debate what, if any, role the digital lens has in museums.

Don’t miss the concluding segment of the podcast where we have a “News From The Future” segment, with guest Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums, where we explore future trends in digital learning. Future episodes of the show will include an exploration of game based learning and teaching with scientists.

Keep up-to-date with our latest news on our blog, Object Oriented, or by following us on Twitter at @ooriented. Have a question for one of us? Tweet us at, @riktheranger, @mmmooshme, and @gauseve.

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?