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Getting to Know Rebecca Ryan: Featured Speaker at MRSC's Future of Government Forum

September 22, 2015 by Josh Mahar
Category: Management

We here at MRSC can't tell you how excited we are to bring futurist, economist, and all-around local government hero, Rebecca Ryan, to our Government Performance Training Forum: The Future of Government, on October 6. Ryan, one of the most dynamic and progressive thought leaders in America, basically lives in the future. Through her role as the Alliance for Innovation’s resident futurist, she tracks the trends and shifts that will shape local government over the next twenty to fifty years. Her work and ideas provide incredible insights into what the future holds and we can’t wait to engage her in a discussion about how we, the local government leaders of Washington, can start to prepare.

In anticipation of her upcoming visit to the Evergreen State, we asked Ryan to give us a little insight into what it means to be a futurist and what we types of things we should be looking for on the horizon.

You talk a lot about “futuring.” Can you give us a quick overview of what that is and why it is important for governments?

It’s easiest to explain futuring by comparing it to planning.

Most people know strategic planning, a process where you look at the next budget cycle, or a one to five year time frame and ask, “What’s the plan?” For local governments, this can be incremental (e.g. decreasing emergency response times) or project related (e.g. fixing buildings). Strategic planning starts with today and projects forward.

Strategic foresight, also called futuring, is different. It doesn’t start with today’s reality. It starts at a point in the future, let’s say, 20 years. Then we ask, “What trends will impact our community in the next 20 years?” Then, we prioritize the trends, and build stories about the community’s possible future based on the trends. Then, finally, we do planning.

The big advantage of doing strategic foresight is that it forces people to think beyond their normal, comfortable time frames, and raises issues that traditional strategic planning wouldn’t. Often, planning allows us to “kick the can” down the road and put off uncomfortable issues for someone else to solve. Futuring forces us to confront what our future could be if we don’t address the trends that we know will impact our communities.

What strategies do you use to identify trends and emerging issues?

Most futurists use some derivative of STEEP to identify trends. STEEP is an acronym that stands for Society, Technology, Economy, Environment and Politics.

For The Next Big Things project, an Alliance for Innovation project to identify the trends facing local governments in the next 20 years, we had so many trends to investigate that we used Cecily Sommers’ four forces model to sort and organize trends. The four forces are Resources, Technology, Demographics, and Governance. Sommers argues that the four forces are hierarchical, i.e. Resource trends are most important, followed by technology trends, and so on.

What is the day in the life of a futurist like?

I really want to give a sexy answer to this…but the truth is, it’s a lot of scanning, analysis, and discussions. I scan over 1,100 sources regularly to stay current on STEEP trends. And I also stay connected to a diverse group of people who have different points of view than I do. I refine my point of view about the future by writing about it (books, blogs, research projects) and speaking and teaching.

What projects are you currently working on that you’re excited about?

On September 23 (tomorrow!) we’re releasing The Next Big Things. I’m really proud of it because it included so much stakeholder input. We had international big shots from around the world offering their input on the next 20 years in local government. For me, and hopefully for readers, this project is a graduate degree in the future of communities. And I hope it will serve the profession for years to come.

In November I’m giving a TED talk. (Kinda nervous).  And in January 2016, I start as a Senior Advisor to the Governing Institute, the sibling of Governing Magazine. Julia Burrows is their new Executive Director. I’ve respected Julia’s work in California for a long time and am looking forward to working with her amazing team, to help our elected officials govern in a more future ready way.

Quick – give us five issues that you think will dramatically change local government.

Unfair! That’s like being asked to pick my favorite children! In the next 20 years, I think every community should be thinking about:

  • Digital citizenship – How to truly engage people via technology.
  • Climate change, water access, and the drought and mass migration that could ensue.
  • Millennials – what happens when folks raised in the “sharing economy” are running local government?
  • Corporate influence – Citizens United is trickling down and influencing state and local elections, and with the loss of tax income in many communities (and the large pensions that have to be paid)…
  • Innovation – How to bake this into the culture of local government. It’s the best vitamin to deal with change.

How would you sum up the state of local government right now?

Under-confident. Local government is where so much happens, yet the people who work in local government are suffering from a major bout of low self-esteem. They get beaten up all the time by the public and elected officials, but at their best they are innovation laboratories. And the data shows that trust in local government is back to within a few percentage points of its all-time highs, so now is the time for local government to lead.

Have you ever been to Seattle? Excited about anything in particular?

I’ve been to Seattle several times. I’m looking forward to a great cup of coffee, reading The Stranger, visiting the Elliot Bay Book Company, and walking the city. And if anyone can recommend a terrific day hike, I’m all ears.

About Josh Mahar

Josh joined MRSC in September 2013 as the organization’s first Communications Coordinator. His professional experience includes strategic communications work for the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), Portland State University, and the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Josh has also been heavily involved with local government, working on urban policy issues with Forterra and the Seattle P-Patch program, along with a stint on the Capitol Hill Community Council. Josh has two degrees from the University of Washington, a bachelor’s degree from the Jackson School of International Studies and a master’s degree from the Evans School of Public Affairs.



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