By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
To invent something new and make change, you have to imagine how things can be different because saying “I want to make a difference” is useless if you don’t actually make something different.
So says Mary Doyle, Founder of Rural on Purpose who describes herself as a futurist and program developer with her social enterprise business taking on the global mission of changing the course of rural communities. She is based in Belleville and spoke at the Rural Talks to Rural (R2R) Conference held in Brussels in late October, encouraging attendees to develop foresight when facing the issues the rural community faces.
It starts with understanding your own beliefs on whether you have no power, limited power or have super powers to make change to deal with issues of loss of rural youth, population decline and disappearing industry.
“I call myself fearlessly optimistic which is why I started Rural on Purpose,” states Doyle. “I felt that rural people did not feel like they had agency and power to make a difference.”
She encouraged the audience to share and one lady commented she believes rural Ontario is in a bad spot but “is getting better.” She described herself as an optimistic realist. Another participant believed it’s all about taking that “first step” which leads to change. One person said they felt grateful and appreciative for what they had in rural Ontario. Another commented that via R2R, she realized how many challenges there are in rural Ontario and felt overwhelmed.
Peter Smith, organizer of R2R, then commented that he thinks feeling overwhelmed is an indulgence. “I have been hit by a wall of water but we have to take a deep breath and be like the mail person who delivers the mail in the hail, rain or sleet.”
Which led Doyle to share the tools she uses to make a difference.
It starts with recognizing what the core issues are and how the community feels about them. Questions will get you there and once the core issue is understood, then it’s time to rally a network.
Doyle said there are several groups of people to attract: The ‘Ready to Go’ people, the Future Collaborators, the Skeptics Worth Convincing and the Star Powers. “Cold call the Stars and ask for their help and advice. They will never say no because they are passionate about what they are doing,” says Doyle. Then work on the future collaborators and skeptics and keep your door open because you can change their minds. Or, they might change yours!
Then check your blind spots. Doyle remembers taking driver’s education when she was in high school. It was a different time and her instructor felt at liberty to smack her in the head when she forgot to check her blind spot. The phrase “check your blind spot” never left her but it wasn’t until a year later, when she turned and almost hit a car, that she realized “an entire car was hidden from view because it was in my blind spot.”
Futurists may be fearlessly optimistic and eager to change the world but they, like everyone else, need to check their blind spot to avoid potential collisions.
Doyle also referenced COVID-19 and said the whole pandemic was predicted via social simulation, futuristic games. In particular, one called Superstruct, a future simulator that came out in 2008, simulating a future threat called ReDS, a bacteria spread by airborne droplets that was immune to antibiotics. The game asked players how they would feel, what they would do, and what habits would change during a pandemic. Would they self-quarantine and under what restrictions would cause them to resist?’’
“When COVID-19 hit, people did exactly what the game said they would do,” said Doyle.
Social simulation games are being used by the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank to understand and collect data on how people would react to social situations. Doyle is currently playing one based on another pandemic caused by a tick that triggers a red-meat reaction. Information gleaned from these responses can help leaders build policy to prepare for future issues, believes Doyle.
It’s a weird thought and Doyle says we now live in a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. “That’s a term that was coined over three decades ago to train military leaders to make better decisions for the future,” says Doyle.
She also shared another acronym – BANI. This one stands for brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible. It’s a state many people feel they are in as long-time systems fail. News and too much information is making people anxious and leaves them unable to make decisions. When they do make decisions, the non-linear position means results could be widely out of balance as in the global response to the pandemic. The pandemic response was handled differently by every country, it seemed. Lastly, we are “in a state of information overload” which leads to incomprehensibility. “Big data and artificial intelligence is overwhelming and makes us unable to understand the world around us,” says Doyle.
Going back to “check your blindspot” Doyle says people can cope with BANI by scanning their environment and developing foresight.
Doyle explains that most governments and large corporations have foresight departments. For example, PepsiCO has a foresight department of directors and managers whose job is to investigate the future of snacks. Being ahead of the game is profitable.
Our own government has a “robust foresight department” says Doyle. Policy Horizons Canada uses foresight to help the federal government build stronger policies and programs in the face of an uncertain future.
Why is knowing all this important to rural Ontario? “It’s important because the future belongs to all of us,” says Doyle. She says rural is underrepresented at the table as policymakers predict the future. She urged attendees at R2R to be fearlessly optimistic and choose to sit at tables where urban planners, politicians and thinkers are making the decisions.
“If you are not building your own future, you are living in someone else’s,” says Doyle.◊