Archive for December, 2008

Our Books of the Year: part 3


Rebecca Nash, London
Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) is as much about his mother as his father’s life. Obama narrates his mother’s story, which he knew well – her significant intellect, her idealistic but often disappointed father, her hardworking mother (Obama’s now famed grandmother, ‘Toot’) – alongside a more literal search for his father’s identity within a vast Kenyan kinship network that, by the end of the story, makes Obama its new centrepiece. Of course, it is impossible to read this book now without thinking about historical destinies. Obama’s supporters, myself included, often felt during the long campaign that they themselves ‘discovered’ him. Some were then surprised, in fact, to witness his gift for politics. Much of this must be due to Dreams from My Father, written in a complex and honest voice, and of a time when the President-elect was not yet a public being.


Josh Treuhaft, New York
“It’s a truism of the age of globalization that where we live doesn’t matter – we can work just as easily from a ski chalet in Aspen as in a house in Provence or an office in Chicago.” At least that’s what Thomas Friedman and a host of other globalization pundits have been touting since the world became ‘flat.’ According to Richard Florida, however, the world is doing the exact opposite of flattening – it’s getting spikier as more talent co-locates in the world’s ‘mega-regions’ and fuels innovation and economic growth. Technology is making us more mobile, and today’s creative global nomads are taking advantage by moving to the places which provide the best opportunities and the right personality fit. So how do you choose the right place? What makes one location ‘better’ or ‘righter’ than another?

In Who’s Your City, Florida makes the point that where we live is quite possibly the most important decision of our lives. It determines our potential to find a mate and start a family. It determines the range of our employment opportunities, our networks, our friends, and to some extent our values. And not all cities are created equal. Who’s Your City compiles almost 20 years of data on geographic preference, personality and attitudes, census data and a host of other resources to paint a picture of what makes certain cities attractive to certain types of people…and what may contribute to the eventual economic success or failure of a number of great American places. The data is rich and compelling, his storytelling is captivating, and he adds some great personal anecdotes.

Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in urban planning and the forces driving urbanization. And if you’re considering making a big move and need some insight into where you might be most happy and successful, the book may help. Be warned though, the end of the book turns into a ‘self-help’ reader and is sort of flimsy and obvious.


Sarah DelliGatti, Chapel Hill
The Twilight Series
by Stephenie Meyer is my book of the year. I wasn’t a huge Harry Potter fan so I hesitated when my friend and colleague Stephanie McDonald told me I should read these books about vampires and werewolves. Twilight is a love story between the two main characters, Edward (vampire) and Bella (human). Their love and relationship should be impossible, but yet it ends up overcoming all of the obstacles that Meyer creates throughout the four novels.

I know these books are marketed to teens and tweens, but I think it’s fair to say that they have crossed age barriers. In these tough economic times, it’s important to step away from the headlines and just get away for a little while. Twilight is the perfect way to do this. I can say that for the two weeks that it took me to read the 500-700 plus pages in each of the four books in the series, I was totally engrossed in Bella and Edward’s world.

31 December 2008 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Our Books of the Year: part 2


Peter Rose, Los Angeles
The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooking in the Age of Celebrity
is the third in a series of books by author Michael Ruhlman as he digs deep into the world of the professional chef. For any foodies or aspiring cooks, this series (which began in 1999 with The Making of a Chef) is an extraordinary look at the world of the chef. From a consumer insights perspective, however, Ruhlman lends tremendous insight into things we focus on at The Futures Company on an everyday basis. From the impact that the coddled Millennial generation has on the professors/chefs at the Culinary Institute of America (where this new generation of students bristles at the old-school ways of teaching, and has their parents calling the school to complain) to chefs who pursue Responsibility through organic, sustainable, and local food purchases and practices, The Reach of a Chef is in fact a microcosm of many of the macro consumer trends we see today.


Joe Ballantyne, London
Everyone agrees that China is the great economic success story of the past decade and that adapting to its rise will pose a challenge to the political, economic and even moral bases of the current international order. The way in which China evolves will have a profound effect on all of us and, according to Will Hutton, it isn’t going to be an easy ride. The Writing on the Wall argues that Chinese growth is built on an unsustainable model – impossibly high levels of export growth which can’t continue (this much is already coming to pass: Chinese exports have been falling in recent months), state-driven capital accumulation and cheap labour with very low productivity, little technical innovation and the absence of an appropriate business culture or legal structure.

The paradox set up in the book is that while the current system may be economically unsustainable, doing anything to put it right is politically unacceptable – since it will involve weakening the political power of the Communist party, an option which is undesirable to the country’s elite. Hutton’s suggestion is that the Chinese will have to import what he calls the ‘soft infrastructure of capitalism’: essentially enlightened institutions and attitudes such as representative government, security of property, an independent civil society, a commitment to political rights.

One of the challenges of futures work is stretching thinking beyond current trends – since the temptation is always to just extrapolate existing trends ad infinitum. The Writing on the Wall is a useful reminder that in some cases, we need to be a whole lot more imaginative about our potential futures.


Jo Phillips, London
In the year that the global balance tipped to urban (for in 2008 for the first time over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities), I was drawn to an account of the dwindling days of rural life in an English village at the end of the nineteenth century. Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise is a charming portrait of a very particular place and time – the observations of the minute details of customs, culture and behaviour, from how a pot roast was cooked on a fire, to the lyrics of drinking songs, are glorious. As someone who was born at a similar point in the following century, aware of the fact that people of my age will be some of the last to say ‘I remember before the internet’, I find myself similarly nostalgic for some of the language and customs of my country childhood.

30 December 2008 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Our Books of the Year: part 1


Marjorie Goldstein, New York
Parallel Lives, written by Phyllis Rose, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1983. I picked up my copy in a second-hand bookstore in Vermont, and once started I couldn’t put it down. The book, sub-titled ‘Five Victorian Marriages,’ is an extremely well-done account of the machinations, intrigues, infidelities and happinesses (as defined by the protagonists and fairly rare) of five very well-known literary couples: Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle; Effie Gray and John Ruskin (fairly shocking); Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill; Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens (quite a guy!) and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. In some ways the lives we lead now are extremely different; in others quite the same. It reminded me of the French expression, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose’


Andy Stubbings, London
Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely, is another pop-economics book and the latest in a line of books debunking ‘Traditional Economics’. Ariely takes us through various experiments that demonstrate that people act in much less rational ways than we might expect, with results that are intuitive but illuminatory. For instance, it is easier to get lawyers to provide their services for needy causes for free than it is for $30 an hour, because they will assess the deal in terms of social norms and not market norms (i.e. “I’m worth much more than $30” vs “it’s good to volunteer). The book is stuffed with anecdotes and factoids like that, which is why it makes for great reading.


Andrew Curry, London
We live on the blue planet, and 60% of our bodies are water. But one of the great conundrums of the future is whether we’ll have enough water – or too much. Poets sometimes have an antenna for such things, and the first poems in Sean O’Brien’s The Drowned Book are suffused with water. In ‘The Water Gardens’, for example, he writes, ‘Water looked up through the lawn/ Like a half-buried mirror/ Left out by the people before’. The language captures a sense of water as a deep history – and a deep sense of foreboding.

29 December 2008 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Wishing you…


With thanks to Tom Warren for the graphic

23 December 2008 at 5:55 pm 1 comment

The end-of-the-year quiz

The Futures Company traditionally has a quiz at its Christmas party. These are the questions for this year – unfortunately without the music round, which we can’t share here for copyright reasons. We’ll publish the answers in the New Year.

Round 1: Connections:


There are four sets of four objects in the above table – each object is in only one set. So if you have got the right answer, all the sixteen objects in the table will have been accounted for.

You get one point for each correct set, and one point for identifying correctly what the set is – plus 2 bonus points if you get all the sets and all the explanations correct.

Round 2: In 2008 … (one point per right answer):

  1. Who said: ‘I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms’.
  2. Who said at the London School of Economics: “Why did nobody notice it?”
  3. What is the address (the street name) of the Bank of England?
  4. Norway topped the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report, having the smallest gender gap. Which country came bottom?
  5. Which pianist died in Stockholm Harbour?
  6. Which Moses (who also died this year) was a supporter of both the Civil Rights Movement and the National Rifle Association?
  7. Who was the first competitor to get a ten in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing competition?
  8. Who won the Man-Booker prize this year?
  9. Which record won the Nationwide mercury music prize?
  10. Which two films received the most nominations at this year’s Oscar awards?
  11. In 1908, what opened on the west London site which now hosts Westfield?
  12. In 1958, what was invented by Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductors?
  13. How long was a single lap of the velodrome at this year’s summer Olympics?
  14. Rebecca Adlington won two golds at the Olympics. In what events?
  15. Which sportsman made it to a hundred after a bit of a wait – but his team still got relegated?
  16. The new British coin design makes a jigsaw out of the Royal Arms. How many coins is the royal crest split across?
  17. What is Sarah Palin’s home town?
  18. What went off with a big bang under the Alps in September?
  19. In 2008, why might it have been dangerous to be in Tskhinvali?
  20. Who is the reigning world chess champion?

23 December 2008 at 5:50 pm Leave a comment

Repairing the material world


Emily Pitts writes:

Demos’s recently launched ‘It’s a material world’ argues for the social value of heritage conservation, at a time when budgets for conservation courses are being slashed and the future of the discipline seems threatened. It calls for a national conservation strategy that includes education in schools, involves local communities in preserving the public realm, more support from government and a call to arms directed at professionals in the conservation and cultural sectors. If we don’t make the effort to be inclusive in how we look after the public realm, they argue, and make choices collectively about what to conserve, then social capital also declines.

An increasing interest in preserving social capital and a renewed vigour in community life is something we have been tracking for a little while, and early signs are that the economic downturn is increasing the extent to which we think of collective good. According to Yankelovich Monitor, 41% of American consumers define being a good citizen as ‘Not buying a home that is larger than you really need to help reduce energy usage’ compared to 34% just a year ago. Our data from the UK, whilst not directly comparable, hints at a similar sense of personal empowerment and responsibility, with the majority of consumers agreeing with the statement ‘I feel that I can make a difference to the world around me through the choices I take and the actions I make’. Interest in community life is also strong; according to our Planning for Consumer Change survey, since 2005 more people agree that the quality of life is better improved by looking after the interests of the community than those of the individual.

With changing attitudes towards community in evidence, the time might be right for the cultural sector, and conservation in particular, to push away from the individualistic outlook of the early ’00s and emerge in the schoolrooms and town halls of every community as a mainstay of our society. But is it possible for conservators to be more professional and more inclusive of the public at the same time, as Demos asks? Resolving conflict between public priorities and those of the experts could prove tricky, but rather than seeing these clashes of opinion as either/or tradeoffs, can we instead look to them as latent energy areas for future innovation?

The image is of the filming of the final of the BBC series ‘Restoration’ Village‘at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. More images can be found on their Flickr site.

22 December 2008 at 8:30 am Leave a comment

Winning at cycling


Tom Ding writes:

At risk of sounding like a Christmas quiz, what do the pictures have in common? Answer: they all relate to the summer success of the British Olympic Cycling Team, marked so emphatically last Sunday when the cycling squad kept on winning, cleaning up all three main prizes at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Awards. (GB Cycling won team of the Year, Chris Hoy was voted Sports Personality of the Year, while Performance Director Dave Brailsford became Coach of the Year.)

As it happens, a couple of weeks earlier a few of us here at The Futures Company were fortunate enough to see Dave Brailsford speak. The evening was fascinating from start to finish, but four things stood out for me:

Only wanting half (Slim Pret)
When Brailsford first received lottery funding he was given a fixed budget to be split between forty athletes. He responded by saying that he would like all the money, but that he only had half that number of world-class (and potentially medal-winning) cyclists, and that he would split the cash between them instead. His belief that each of these athletes was a champion in the making allowed him to put them in charge of their own training regimes (marginalising some coaches in the process), and insist that internal targets would be emasured against controllable variables such as acceleration and time (the medals would take care of themselves). The single-mindedness of this approach seemed remarkable.

I have heard of sportsmen relying on ‘mental boxes’ and ‘triggers’ to control emotion before, but not of a whole team adopting a common approach and language. Brailsford employed a psychiatrist to work with the squad and together they developed the notion of the ‘chimp’ – a codeword for any sort of emotional barrier or mental block. Each cyclist’s ‘chimp’ is personal and different, and the techniques they use to control it are their own, yet critically, it is also accepted that they all have one. In this way, trackside arguments and training failures could be put down to ‘the inner monkey’ and brushed aside.

Door Handles
The concept of ‘aggregating marginal gains’ in sport has also been seen before, but it has never been employed with such conviction: sure, British Cycling hired  Formula One engineers to model the aerodynamics of helmets and bikes, but Brailsford also had someone to continuously clean the door handles in the Olympic village lest germs should get into the camp.

Al Pacino
After hearing one of the very best coaches in the world reveal the extraordinary measures it takes to be the best, there was one piece of comfort for this less accomplished sportsman: it is good to know that even the most successful team in the country use this speech from Any Given Sunday to motivate themselves before the big day. At least my rugby team has been doing something right.

19 December 2008 at 9:13 am Leave a comment

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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