Walking backwards into the future

Marshall McLuhan once said that “We look at the present through a rear view mirror; we walk backwards into the future.”

I was reminded of this quote as I was drafting a guest blog post for the Canada Council website.

The post highlights a tension I felt at both Jacob Zimmer’s Unconference on Change and the Future(s) of Toronto Performance and the Canada Council’s Inter-Arts Office’s consultations I helped to frame  – a tension between an arts organization’s reliance on the past (i.e. an organization’s past practices and performance, so-called best practices based on other organizations’ past experiences, etc) and the inherent ability of many artists to sense and play with emerging ideas/issues – issues that are not yet on the average person’s radar. Often their explorations can give us glimpses into possible futures.

For those of us who help organizations think about the future so they can make better decisions today, artists are often considered an important source of information about emerging issues. When we scan for information about our current operating environment and hints about emerging issues that may shape our futures, many of us keep an eye on what artists are doing, saying, thinking, exploring.

emerging issues

In this graphic adapted by Australian foresight consultant, Maree Conway, from the work of Wendy Schultz, Graham Molitor and Everett Rogers, you can see how artists fall into the innovators group. Like scientists who are engaged in R&D work, artists are often playing with ideas that haven’t fully emerged and where their significance isn’t quite yet understood. This is much like those folks who aren’t content to wait until a new technology or service is fully fleshed out, tested and ready for the market.  These are the folks who can see potential uses and directions based on the barest information and functionality.

Tug of War

Arts organizations are not alone in their focus on the tried and true of the past. All organizations do this at some point. A few decades ago, rigorous analysis of the past could provide organizations with valuable information about future performance. Today, extrapolating from the past and projecting into the future is a less useful endeavour. The circumstances of the past are most likely nothing like what we face today or what we will face tomorrow. The arts sector now faces an uncertain future where public funding is not increasing with demand, the economic climate has negatively affected subscriptions and donations, rents are increasing, access to loans have diminished (where they were existent), old business models are being challenged, and new untested models are being proposed. Not to mention how audiences are changing and demanding to play a different role in the arts experience.

So imagine how interesting it might be for artists who work for arts organizations.