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Hawai’i’s Shared Futures By Vision Foresight Strategy

Rethinking the visitor experience

Aloha kakahiaka, everyone.  Hope Wednesday morning is treating everyone well!  This morning we’re working further on the Reboot and our presentation for it.  Working with some futures colleagues, Day 2 of the Reboot is shaping up to be a very cool experience, one that will likely really shake up participant assumptions about how Hawai’i works and about how it could work.  Very cool stuff.

Later this morning we’ll be working on some pieces to build a new foresight framework for workforce and workforce development for Hawaii, an interesting challenge given many of the assumptions and the focus currently found in that arena.  Choosing a particular approach when constructing a new framework is always fun but also tricky: will ‘reframing’ history set them free to think new thoughts?; will a collection of emerging possibilities energize them?; or do you have to completely deconstruct their ‘worldview’ to effectively shake them up?

The Visitor Experience

A couple of weeks ago we helped with a discussion hosted by NaHHA about the visitor industry, culture, and opportunities.  Attended by some very cool folks, it was an interesting discussion about what, among other things, the visitor industry could look like in the future.  Just afterward, I was on Maui and had a range of experiences that had me reflect even further on the earlier discussions.  From staying at a resort in Makena, to camping in Ke’anae and hanging out at the Hana Taro Festival, to staying in Kahului and eating at IHOP (and vacillating on picking up Krispy Kremes [will power won the day]), it was an interesting compare/contrast.

It occurred to me that, among the many ways people and professionals frame the visitor/hospitality industry, one way is to simply consider the amount of content of the ‘everyday’ that makes up the visitor experience (via their accommodations).  It’s a question of how much the visitor accommodations (the hotel) is interwoven into the lives of local communities and thus how much the real, everyday culture of local communities is intended to shape and make the visitor experience.

At its most basic, a hotel is just a place to sleep when traveling away from home, apartments for the traveler.  Motels are the best examples, designed for people to drive up, sleep, get up, and drive on.  No frills, little mess.  There’s always a need for basic hotels, and given some of the possible futures for Hawai’i around developing new industries and becoming a global center for emerging technologies, we may need a reinvestment in this basic infrastructure.  Here, the content of the everyday within the hotel is minimal, or at best unconscious.  The everyday life and culture of the local community is picked up when they walk out the door and into the community, which they are expected to be doing, whether to attend business meetings, visit relatives, or explore.  Visitors are not meant to stay inside.

But things change, and over the years people have built resorts, which are increasingly self-contained experiences, providing a prepackaged, complete range of services.  The resort in this sense is actually a retreat, it’s intended to be an unusual, unreal place, that is, a place that doesn’t exist in everyday life.  It’s designed for people to escape from the mundane and everyday, and thus they’re typically located in environmentally unusual and beautiful places.  The retreat is intentionally walled off from the content of the everyday that is found in neighboring local communities.  And this why, when such retreats want to expose their visitors to this local content, whatever it might be, they have to import it into the retreat, staging it in ways that are typically unusual and unnatural, ways that typically don’t manifest in the everyday of local life.  And retreats, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily bad.  In fact, all cultures and peoples feature variations of retreats, often in physical form.  But today’s retreats as found in the visitor industry take on an industrial scale and commercial character that reverberates through localities with unintentional and undesirable results.

Given this, it’s possible to see how the content of the everyday, that is, the everyday real culture of a place can be a fundamental part of of the visitor experience, and specifically through the physical reality of their very accommodations.  Back in 1999, we wrote a short piece called “Experience Hawai’i” which was a thought piece on what a new type of hotel would look like and how it would operate.  While parts of it are certainly dated (the idea of pervasive high speed internet access was novel back then!), much of it retains its relevance for our current discussions about the visitor industry and the visitor experience.  One of the things that made it an exciting piece to work on was that it placed the physical environment and the local community in the position as the primary ‘customer,’ with the visitors as a secondary component.

“Experience Hawai’i” is merely an example of what can be seen as a different set of interactions and experiences between visitors and local everyday culture.  In essence, you have to look at the challenge as one of designing a structure that is built around the everyday, a place that is interwoven into and is a functioning part of local communities.  It is a place that is intended to support living culture, the everyday activities and priorities of people.  And into this you design the capacity for visitors and the accomodation for them to move through and participate in the living, everday culture of the place.  While perhaps an inelegant analogy, such places would be like very vibrant community centers that are designed with the hospitality to accept eager and sincere visitors.

It might not be simple to create such places, but the rewards and benefits of successfully building them would be manifold and ripple across generations.  If the real culture of our communities here is really what visitors want to experience, and not just the beaches and warm weather, then this would seem to be a good new framework to discuss.

Think about tomorrow.

Filed under: Built Environment, Culture, Hawai'i

Culture and the Futures of Hawai’i

Aloha kakahiaka, everyone.  I hope everyone had a great weekend; we certainly did!  Today we’re catching up on updating some tactical plans for a client and then we’ll be working on more original writing and presentations, namely the nonprofit futures project and working further on a Summit presentation.

Over the weekend we helped a client facilitate a session they had discussing culture, tourism, and ideas and issues related to marketing (with some emphasis on the visitor industry).  Coming away from the event, it got us thinking more about the broader issues surrounding ‘culture’ and different possible futures for Hawai’i.

Culture is a very interesting, and I think, challenging concept, particularly the way it is used in most conversations.  It is a contested and often ambiguous idea, and yet people often refer to ‘culture’ as an object, like the great black monolith in the classic movie “2001,” something that we are given and something that we point to as if it were a concrete, tangible thing.  It is also often referred to as a sacred, inviolate object, much like the monolith.

The problem is that the things that we are trying to reference with the term ‘culture’ are much more fluid than that.  From the also-ambiguous term ‘worldview’ to beliefs to practices to values, culture is always changing; and it’s supposed to.  Human life today is the result of a great co-evolution: that between biology and culture, each affecting the other.  Humans are the result of a long biological history on this planet.  That biological evolution has in essence primed us for a hunter-gather lifestyle, a mode of living which represents 99% of human history.  It is only in the last 1% of our shared history that we come into both agrarian and industrial lifestyles, where cities were born 5000 years ago, and where the cell phone emerges as a tool of communication.

In this context, the ‘culture’ that we all think of when we employ the term and the ‘cutlures’ that we normally revere, are what humans have been evolving in just the last few thousand years in order to innovate beyond our biology and adapt to a variety of habitats and situations for which our biology has not had time to adapt.  In comparison to biological evolution, which is usually very slow and largely undirected, our cultural evolution can happen very quickly and can spread very quickly.

Because culture (which for the moment we’ll look at as innovation we evolve to overcome what biology cannot) can evolve so quickly and spread across populations so quickly, we increasingly have a world in which the classic western academic notion of singular monolithic cultural identities is fading.  Increasingly we have individuals whose individual cultural fabric is composed of threads from many sources.  Humans adopt and adapt beliefs, outlooks, values, and practices from all of their experiences, and as globalization (read: integration) proceeds, more and more people are adopting those cultural ‘innovations’ that they feel will help them succeed ( in the broadest sense) in life.  Increasingly, people have multiple identities and complex, beautiful individual cultural fabrics, a uniquely tailored weave of innovations that allow them to move through the varied spaces of 21st century life and adapt to the expanding range of challenges confronting them on local, regional, and global levels.

Culture is innovation, it is an adaptation that allows us to overcome the limits of biology and to adapt to the world when it would otherwise take our biological evolution far too long to respond.  Classic monolithic culture and singular identities can be taken for granted when life and society presents us with a relatively stable and unchanging environment.  But in a world of interaction, exchange, and constant challenge, our strength will come from having both a diversity of cultures to draw upon as well as a much more nuanced view of individual culture and identity.

Think about tomorrow.

Filed under: Culture, Human Nature, Identity

Democracy in Moderation

An article posted today took a brief look at how Encyclopedia Britannica, that old quick-reference guide to world knowledge that we all relied on back in the day, is slowly modernizing itself.  And this means: how is it coming to grips with Wikipedia and the big trend in ‘collaborative’ sites and services (think blogs, wikis, and commentaries for everything) where the people at large contribute, edit, and argue.  Britannica is moving to some wiki platforms, but they have decided to maintain the key role of the expert in the production of their branded information.

This kicked off two things for us: 1) how this fits into the trends in information production and publishing; and 2) how this relates to the contemporary seizure with all things bottom-up

Publishing: A recent NY Magazine article looked at the changes in the massive book publishing industry, from the gradual change in publishers from small and artfully-run to the massive corporate media empires that are hit-driven just like Hollywood.  It mentioned Amazon.com and the Kindle, it’s e-reader, and the fears that physical publishers have about Amazon’s future ability to be the Microsoft of book publishing.  At the same time that e-readers continue to try to make inroads into our reading habits, web-based self-publishing and print-on-demand services have been expanding for everyday folks.  And then the blogs…

Certainly it’s clear that the technology is changing so that everyday folks have access to publishing their own thoughts, news, and stories.  Everyone can yammer away into the void with their own blogs, and they can pay to have their work printed (just like the old vanity press), but what’s the real impact to the idea of information, about what’s news-worthy and thus read-worthy?  What is the role of the expert in selecting ‘quality’ material?  And especially important as everyone begins to panic about the economy: what writing should we pay for?  When do we care about vetted material enough to pay for it, and when does instant gratification drive us to be satisfied with writing that might lack for quality or accuracy?

We also have to wonder about the potential for the Long Tail-type theories of business opportunities.  While Hawaii likes to argue over massive state programs to promote targeted economic growth in major industry clusters (one can hear the visitor industry growling in the background), there is probably a lot more that could be done at a much lower level of cost to promote the types of niche micro-businesses that the Long Tail suggests, which for Hawaii could very well include the evolution of new writing and publishing models.  Like most side-businesses, all it takes is to link up people’s passions with a little extra income to make a difference in their economic lives.

Bottom-Up: And then there’s the bottom-up issue.  It’s all the rage today to disparage the expert, the official, and anything that smacks of top-down.  Collaborative software like wikis and blogs and social network technologies allow us to connect to each other and share and contribute without any of the types of social, economic, or political structures we’ve lived under throughout recorded history.  Everywhere people conflate this with democracy and hail a new age in which the ‘community’ (a word which no longer means the neighborhood but a collective of people), the grass-roots, the crowd trump any other process or authority.

But down through history thinkers and philosophers have made a distinction between the People (arranged in a deliberative process) and the Mob (simply a mass of individuals).  What’s important is the question: when is ‘the community’ the right process, and when are experts required to lead and produce?  Even the Athenians, those symbols of democracy, understood that sometimes the individual was needed to make a decision instead of the multitude.

And when we come back to the issues of publishing, writing, and sharing, the collaborative tools and the social networking technologies force us to contemplate changes in what we define as ‘news’ and as valid information.  When ‘the people’ are able to connect with one another, and if they are left to their own devices (as opposed to the interests of mass media that has traditionally defined and pumped the news to people), what do they define as news, and what are they actually interested in learning about and reading about?

As any review of services like Twitter indicate, what’s important news to people is often stuff that mass media can’t replicate: what’s going on with my friends, family, and colleagues?  When taken from the perspective of the individual, important news and information is nuanced into much more personal spheres than the nightly news or newspapers can address.  So, what new balance might emerge from the tension between the expert and the community in defining, producing, and ultimately selling news and information?

Filed under: Business, Culture, Democracy, Economics, Governance, Hawai'i

Our Long History as Context

I am by training and profession a ‘futurist.’ I’ll admit that it’s a fairly odd and ungainly title, but it’s really all that professionals in the field of futures studies (at least in the US) have come up with. What is futures studies? Not an unusual question. Definitions can be hard to come by, but the common one, that it studies the ‘future’ is wrong. The future doesn’t actually exist, so there’s nothing to study in that way.

People often call futurists to come tell them what the future will be like, what trends to watch out for, or what fad they should build their next product line around. But the fact is that neither futurists nor any other profession knows how to “know” what will happen before it actually happens.

But real futurists do deal a lot with change, with trying to understand change and trying to help others understand how and why things change. And one of the ways we come to this is by starting with context. If you want to gain a different perspective on something like, say, most of the modern social issues that we face, start by taking the futurist’s view and place these issues in the context of our long history on this planet.

It’s important to remember that so much of human behavior, cognition, and need is shaped by our long biological history on this planet, stretching back millions of years. Some 99% of our long history shaped us for hunter-gatherer living in small family groups of like 25 – 125 people. We’re talking before agriculture, before the lo‘i, before the cultivated fields of corn, before the local village. We’re talking about living in small, intimate related groups, not quite settled in one place, and without predictable meals.

By contrast, only like 1% of our history on this planet dealt with living in situations any of us, whether we would call ourselves ‘traditionalists’ or ‘modernists’, would find even remotely familiar. Tribes, harvest season, kingdoms, cities, traffic, and information overload… all of these are actually very recent things. The cultural history that most of us are familiar with, the last couple thousand years that most people bother to trace, deals with our attempts to reconcile our biological history with the unusual social, economic, and political forms we’ve created recently.

And so?

So, the cultural histories that we remember and tend to see as so sacred and eternal (and this includes the American set of cultural outlooks and practices), are in fact much, much shorter than our long biological history. We have a very long, shared biological history, and very, very short and divergent cultural histories.

So, when we’re are looking at and thinking about the modern issues that we face, from the stress of traffic jams, performance in modern schools, and unhappy or unhealthy lifestyles, it can be incredibly important to place these issues in the context of our Long History, beginning to ask how humans, because of that history, have been shaped to experience and respond to these modern and very unusual situations.

Sound a little too academic for you? Then the next time you’re suffering through the late afternoon in your cute little cubicle, which you inhabit for most of your waking hours, remember that no one was expected to sit through two hour-long PowerPoint presentations in a stuffy room for those several hundred thousand years on the savanna…

When professional futurists work with others to design future organizations, cities, or even economies, this is one of the ways they start the conversation: by putting it in context.

See, History is important for the future; just not the recent histories our high school teachers told us to memorize.

If you thought this was cool, check out some titles like Human Natures, On Human Nature, and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

And if you’d really like to learn more, we’ll cover this and much more provocative stuff at our Hawai‘i Futures Summit this October 3 and 4.

Filed under: Biology, Change, Culture, Forecasting, Hawai'i

Hawai’i: the Reboot

2 days. 200 innovators. A new future for Hawai'i.


The Hawai'i Futures Summit 2009 October 16 and 17, 2009


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