Opinion: To Prepare for Future Shocks, Austin Must Get Weirder
Becoming truly weird means becoming a futurist, argues Jake Dunagan
We've done our best to "Keep Austin Weird," but the world is trying its best to out-weird us. Disease, quarantines, protests against quarantines, health workers in scrubs protesting the protesters, no toilet paper, no meat, no justice. We're likely only at the beginning of a very long, disturbing era of continual shocks and disruptions. COVID-19 is not going to keep climate chaos, economic injustice, or the attacks on our institutions of democracy at bay. These shocks, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, can only prepare us to be shocked yet again. So what should we do? As a practicing futurist based in Austin, my advice is for us to stay weird, and get more wyrd.
The word "weird" comes from the old English – Wyrd, meaning signs and portents of things to come. To weird (the verb) meant to preordain, to set a path in motion. And a Wyrd (the noun) is someone who can read the winds of change and foretell or set in motion a path or destiny.
Becoming truly weird means becoming a futurist. It means committing to thinking and acting appropriately to protect, empower, and support people dealing with volatile and high-stakes futures. Austin should become a prepared, forward-looking city. It should become the "weirdest city in the world."
How do we get weird(er)?
This city is already full of visionaries, innovators, and long-term thinkers. Getting weird means that we have to institutionalize foresight in the practice of government, the function of business, and the spirit of culture. We need to conjure three weird sisters.
In government, the city of Austin should create an Office of the Weird. This office would be responsible for long-term visioning for the city and region. It would track emerging issues and trends and inform the mayor's office, city agencies, and the public on issues that could (negatively or positively) impact the city and its population. It would conduct research and hold regular convenings with Austin residents to inspire and gather visions of preferred futures. The chief weird would represent future generations in official Austin city business and provoke leaders with new ideas and alternative futures. With real teeth, all policies made by the city would need to consider long-term impacts before being enacted.
The second sister, the Chamber of the Weird, would foreground long-term economic threats and opportunities for local businesses. This early warning system would help businesses prepare and coordinate responses to emerging issues. Keep Austin Weird has been a rallying cry for local businesses against the incursion forces of national chains. Pooling research resources with the Office of the Weird, and engaging in customized work that focuses specifically on strategic business issues, the Chamber of the Weird would provide a competitive foresight-driven edge for local Austin businesses.
Dust off your tutu and meet the third sister: the Club of Weird. This cultural movement would rely on self-organizing creative energy of Austin residents to bring futures to the streets, bars, churches, Zoom meetings, and other gathering places. Imagine visioning sessions at Barton Springs Pool, meditations at the Ellsworth Kelly Chapel, future sing-alongs at the Willie statue, and facilitated foresight workshops in the line at Franklin Barbecue. Imagine future visions becoming our street art. These emergent social practices would build a citywide, ongoing conversation about the futures we want to see for Austin, and create the most futures-literate community in the world.
Long-term thinking is not partisan or ideological. It is about articulating shared values, understanding the landscape of change ahead, and acting in the present to make preferred futures happen. We can be victims of the future, or we can be architects of the future, as Bucky Fuller once said. If there's any place that has the capacity, creativity, and will to weirdness, it is Austin. As we surf from one shock to the next, ask yourself, what will we choose to become? I say we get weird!
Jake Dunagan is director of the Governance Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future, and adjunct professor of foresight in the School of Design and Creative Technologies at UT-Austin. His work focuses on social invention – the creation of new social and political systems for the world to come. He also designs experiences and artifacts from the future.
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