The Futures Cone and The Engagement Pyramid

The third part of our magical diagram of a machine for calling forth futures.
Part I: Theory of Change and the Futures Cone
Part II: Theory of Change and the Golden Circle
Part IIa: Back to the Futures Cone

The Engagement Pyramid

If you’ve ever done any kind of social-media strategy – or strategy work for any organisation that counts on it’s supporters to operate – you should be familiar with this diagram. At least something very similar. If you’ve not seen an engagement pyramid before or if you’d like a quick refresher, we’ll wait here for a minute while you read all about it.

The Engagement Pyramid as illustrated by Groundwire

In short the diagram is designed to illustrate the levels of participation you might have around a cause or organisation. Low-key support from a large base, with roles higher up the pyramid requiring increasing levels of (possibly ongoing) effort and coordination.

If you have a cause (which is to say, there is a Preferred Future that you wish to manifest), you’re going to need support. Especially if the change you would like to see in the world requires any amount of legislative action, money, blood, sweat or tears. And what doesn’t.

But you know all that already, you’re here to see another diagram get smashed! Let’s bloody get on with it then.

The Engagement Lens

Ok! Scroll back up and have another look at that diagram real quick. Got it? Great. Now, first we’re going to slice down the middle of this (conical) pyramid. This reveals the important insight that leadership is in fact not a little hat that sits on top of your organisation, but goes all the way to its core. At least it should anyway.

Then we flip the pyramid on it’s side! I know you’ve seen this done before. Finally, we squish it together from either side, compressing it into a lens.


Slice, rotate and squish. So easy!
Slice, rotate and squish. So easy!

What? Why would we do this? Recall that in Part 1 we briefly discussed the origin point of the Futures Cone. As was later clarified, the origin is in fact a lens. Our newly moulded engagement lens, through which your organisation can project its agency into the future.

It’s the eye of the cone!

Don’t get too hung up on the actual physics of lenses now, but humour me in entertaining the correlation; The bigger your lens, the more light you can shine on an issue, but if that light isn’t focused not a lot will get done. It’s the roles closer to the centre of the lens (or top of the pyramid if you prefer), that determine how powerful, and how focused that light is.

Go back to Part 1 again, where we stuffed a Theory of Change into a Futures Cone. Now with our engagement lens as the origin of the cone, the light shining through becomes the force you can bring to bear in dragging your future objectives out from the Possible edge towards the Probable centre of the cone. A capable organisation will be able to flex that lens, mobilising supporters with a compelling ‘Why‘-driven narrative when key milestones need to be hit and providing clear paths through the actions that must be taken. Hopefully, with sustained effort(s) over time, the final objective (the why) can be achieved.

Uhm ok, great.

Yes. I might tie all this stuff together a little more strongly with a rewrite and some nicer pictures at some point. Then again I might not.

If you’ve been able to follow this whole thing along, congratulations! I’m not sure what we have made but it may be any of;

  • A kind of magic flowchart/spreadsheet for you to run sigils through,
  • A crude social ARG achievement system design,
  • A party policy building machine,
  • A massive pile of wonky gibberish.

In short, YMMV. If you have questions, you can find me out here on the internet. See ya!

Some bits of fiction…

It’s been a while, but I’ve started cranking out some short bits of fiction again. Actually finishing and publishing them as well even. Just short pieces of speculative work, going straight to medium:

Happy Independence Day!  – 2 min read.
Small mistakes and large consequences.

Roti Capy, No Sambal. – 4 min read
A delicious meal served with a hot chilli condiment. Prepared with care in an anonymous kitchen, delivered by a shouty robot.

Feel the Taste of Freedom!– 6 min read
E-citizenship on-boarding for the modern state that understands the needs of it’s subscribers.

There’s likely to be more of these on the way, hope you enjoy. Back to diagram mashing soon, at least once more. Promise.

Back To The Futures Cone

An interstitial post between the mashings of diagrams to look at some comments I’ve had about the Futures Cone before I go back to abusing it again. There is a lot less swearing in this post than the last one, I promise. If you have no idea what this is about, you might want to check out parts 1 & 2 in this series, Theory of Change and the Futures Cone, and Theory of Change and The Golden Circle.

Preposterous Futures

Dr. Joseph Voros got in touch to let me know about ‘Preposterous Futures‘. To be honest I was aware they were around, but I had just left them out of my model because they were inconvenient to reconcile at the time. That’s how that works, right? Anyway, here’s a updated diagram:


An interesting difference pops up here. In Dr Voros’ cone Preposterous Futures lie outside the ring of the possible, beyond what he calls the Clarke-Dator Boundary. His border for ‘Possible’ is at what we believe to be possible. Personally I’ve always seen the outer edge of the cone as the limits of physics, not of imagination, as such I’ve let Preposterous fall on both sides of Possible.

An update on the origin point of the Futures Cone

Open or closed?  Dr. Voros was also generous enough to provide his view on the origin point of the cone, and let me know that in his current model it is in fact a pupil/iris, implying an interior consciousness behind the eye. Stay tuned to The Voroscope for more on this idea.

I don’t want to have to mess with consciousness for purposes of these posts, but I like the idea of the origin being a lens. That’ll almost certainly come back in a later diagram mashup.

The self-respecting futures cone

any self-respecting futures cone should include mirror image cone of alternate pasts funnelling into any given second of perceived now” – Wendy Schultz

I was mildly taken aback by this comment from Wendy Schultz. Having spent a small amount of time looking at futures cones now I am here to tell you they do not have a lot of self-respect. The Light Cone on the other hand has dignity and integrity to spare.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with this yet. Rest assured that in time I will unnecessarily overthink the matter, but for now I’m just going to continue to use a self-deprecating Futures Cone.


Thank you for your continued interest in these cones. My most tenuous and cludgy work is yet to come, please maintain high levels of excitement while waiting for the next post!



Theory of Change and The Golden Circle.

The second part in our series of diagram mashups, following on from Part 1, Theory of Change and The Futures Cone. This one has another cone in it because I know you all love the cone.

The Golden Circle

Sinek 2013
The Golden Circle ©2013 Simon Sinek, Inc.

Here we have Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. If you can stomach another TED talk, you can watch him explain it here. It’s a handy diagram with which to work out the essence of your message or mission. The basic principle is that effective communication of ideas is done by thinking and communicating from the inside of the circle out. Start with ‘Why’. As Sinek is fond of saying; “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

Speaking from the ‘why’ would have you using concepts that appeal to the limbic system (old lizard brain, or ‘gut feeling’). People can then rationalise their decisions on the basis of those feelings. You may recognise the approach as deployed by Apple’s marketing department, or your local populist demagogue. This as opposed to barraging your audience with facts & figures and making them do the hard work of figuring out why they should care.

The Golden Cone

A fun thing to do with the Golden Circle is to extrude it out into a cone;

2013 Sinek
2013 Sinek

At center-top is the basic version of how this may appear. An unfortunate consequence of this form is that it taken to correlate to top-down organisational structure. The top of the cone or ‘why’ becomes the position of the Leader, ‘how’ is the domain of top-level executives following the vision of the leader and ‘what’ is supposed to be the things a company says and does.

The bottom-left version of this top-down Golden Circle is explicitly labelled as an organisational hierarchy. The Golden Cone becomes an exhaust blowing your organisation’s products and services out of its rear-end into a bleak marketplace chaos-void filled only with dollar signs and charred skeletons.

Finally the bottom-right variant depicts the cone as a megaphone to enhance the volume with which your company’s marketing is shouted at the world, and because you have a highly refined message formulated specifically to target the limbic systems of puny humans trapped by capitalism, it’s super effective.

 “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

Too bad “do business with” has to mean “sell shit to”.

But don’t think that I’m shitting on the basic idea of the Golden Circle, it’s a nice, simple little model that can be used to great effect. It’s just a shame that everything useful for thinking about communication ends up being about fucking marketing. That or weird corporate leadership personality cults where all power must flow from the vision of the exalted one at the top of the pyramid.

Theory of Change and The Golden Cone

So what do I like better as a use for this cone shape? Recall from the first instalment of this series our basic model of a Theory of Change. Instead of mapping the Golden Cone to a corporate structure, how about we cram one of those in there instead?

SMASH. Golden Change Cone/Partyhat!

Now the tip of the cone, the ‘Why’, correlates to your long-term vision. ‘How’ you intend to achieve this vision maps to your outcomes, and ‘What’ to your activities, the actions that must be undertaken in order to achieve the desired outcomes.

Tip it over to the right, and instead of a megaphone blaring marketing out into the world you have an arrowhead driving with intent towards the realisation of a future goal. A vision that can maybe be organised around in ways other than follow-the-leader hierarchies. More on that in a next instalment, when we will go back… Back To The Futures Cone.

Pewpewpewpew! Yup, it’s all going to get even worse.

Theory of Change and the Futures Cone.

The first in maybe a series of posts mashing together and overcomplicating some simple diagrams. Today’s victims; Theory of Change and The Futures Cone. I will briefly introduce The Futures Cone, make a critical note on its depiction, and propose a new ‘P’. Then a brief introduction of Theory of Change before we mash some diagrams together and see what happens.

Our friend the Futures Cone


I assume you’re familiar with the Futures Cone, and its concept of ‘P’ futures (Possible, Plausible, Probable, and Preferred). You may also know it as the Plausibility Cone, or the Futures Vuvuzela. The attribution decay is strong with this image, this particular example is just the first that comes up in a Google Image search. If you’re not familiar with the Futures Cone at all, maybe take a moment to read at least the first few pages of this brief primer on Futures Studies (Voros, 2001), otherwise the rest of this post will make even less sense.

Visual semantics of depicting the ‘now’ in Futures Cones


While searching through images of the cone I’ve noticed two styles in the depiction of the origin point of the cone, the ‘Now’. First is the open circle as shown in the first figure in this post, second the single point as shown above.

As these diagrams are widely stolen & re-appropriated it’s unlikely that most people are using either variant with specific design intent, though I know some (e.g. Changeist), have consciously chosen the single point in order to reflect an individual’s point of view.

It may be a useful convention for the open circle to specifically represent a larger set, say perhaps about 7 billion of those points. This distinction may be beyond the scope of the intended use of the Futures Cone, but it helps serve as a reminder that one person’s future is not necessarily the other’s, and it’s something I intend to return to in a later post abusing another diagram. If you think I’m overthinking this then strap yourself in or eject now, because it’s about to get a lot more overwrought.

Introducing Premeditated Futures

Now I’d like to introduce a new capital ‘P’ Future, because lol why the fuck not. Please meet the set of ‘Premeditated Futures’; the set of all futures people have previously thought about. ‘Considered Futures’ would be a better name but P’s tho innit. Here’s the idea illustrated in a cross-section of the Voros Cone.

Why yes, I have been drinking.

The zone outside of the Premeditated Futures but within the realm of the possible constitute Rumsfeld’s ‘Unknown Unknowns’. If an event manages to travel all the way down the cone of possible futures into the Present without ever crossing into the zone of Premeditated Futures, you’ve got yourself a real Black Swan. Premeditated Futures outside the zone of the possible are where Science Fantasy lives. Are these useful distinctions in any way? YMMV.

Theory of Change

The phrase ‘Theory of Change’ gets thrown around a bit a various contexts, here we’re talking specifically about the structured backcasting method for strategic planning described on A long-term future goal is identified, and the steps necessary to achieve that goal are then visually mapped into an ‘outcomes framework’. This graphic model is accompanied by a written narrative that explains the logic of the framework, with as QA that it is plausible, doable and testable. Here’s a basic primer on Theory of Change if you’d like to know more.

This graphic stolen from I think their arrows are pointing in the wrong direction but whatever, you get the idea.
This graphic stolen & cropped from I think their arrows are pointing in the wrong direction but whatever, you get the idea.

The image shown above is a heavily simplified representation of a ToC (for a much thicker example with accompanying narrative I’d suggest checking out this assessment from the SC4CCM project). The basic principle isn’t hard to get your head around. Now let’s see what happens if we try to stuff this diagram into a futures cone…

Theory of Change and The Futures Cone

Here’s one diagram squashed into the other. Colours from the previous diagrams, hopefully this makes some sense.

So what a Theory of Change does is it maps out the steps that need to be taken in order to drag a Preferred Future out from the periphery of borderline Plausible/Possible Futures into the Probable.

Some time later…

As time passes, if your planned activities are successfully executed your outcomes should be moving closer & closer to the Probable Future. The victory condition for a Theory of Change is having the Long-term Vision locked in dead-center of the cone, as such having become inevitable.

What’s the point of all this?

Just spitballing at the intersection of my interests in futures, and the more directly practical strategic work we do at Bureau Bolster. With any luck these explorations can contribute in some useful way to the broader conversations around these kinds of work. There will be more diagrams mashed together in the near future.

If you’d like to give me notes on my terrible ideas you can find me on twitter. And remember kids, don’t drink & diagram.

Instagram roundup – Fruit & Oil

Since having moved to Rotterdam I have a whole new area to recon, so about once a week I’ll pick an area to go wander around in. This week just some random spots in town & a first foray out to the more industrial areas.

Boats, buildings, and the looming eye of the participatory panopticon.
Boats, buildings, and the looming eye of the participatory panopticon. – Jan 11, 2016 @ 13:03
Jan 17, 2016 @ 15:31
Top floor of the Rotterdam Fruit Exchange building has 10 phone booths built into its facade looking out over the harbour.

Top floor of the Rotterdam Fruit Exchange building has 10 phone booths built into its facade looking out over the harbour. #legacyarchitectures – Jan 17, 2016 @ 15:38

The Rotterdam Fruit Exchange building is a local favorite. The building has monument status now, and with 10 phone booths built into it, it should. Interior photos of the place here. You can rent it out for events, seats 400.

A week later I looped out into the harbour & through the Benelux tunnel. Not pictured below due to insuffiecient levels of instagrammability (pretty heavy fog out that day); 2 cable-laying ships, the MAMMOET hq, container repair/storage yards, crude oil storage tanks. There’s stuff.


LUX TUNNEL – Jan 24, 2016 @ 15:23

Jonge – Jan 24, 2016 @ 15:32

The ground is soft underfoot along the side of the road out here. Hasn’t settled back down yet from having the pipes buried underneath it that pump the oil across the network of refinery facilities. There’s no footpath here, but it’s not an area designed for humans to be strolling around.

Hier melden.

Hier melden. – Jan 24, 2016 @ 15:42

‘REPORT HERE’ the sign says.

Pristine landscape.

Pristine landscape. – Jan 24, 2016 @ 15:45

SAME. – Jan 24, 2016 @ 15:49

Importing the Instagram Archive

A few words on how & why I’ve imported my content from Instagram. We’ll get the technicals out of the way real quick and then move on to stories & content strategy.

I’ve pulled in roughly 4 years of content from Instagram (just over 1000 images & videos) using Instagrate Pro, which offers a solid range of features for integration of Instagram accounts into WordPress. Had this been a client job, I’d most likely have used a Custom Post Type and automatically imported each image or video individually, maintaining as much of the original meta-data as possible (location data, tags in their own custom taxonomy, etc) and integrating into the site from there.

This being a personal blog I’ve taken a slightly different approach, importing the images & videos manually in batches to be regular blog posts back-dated to their time. The images run per post in chronological order, old to new, instead of the reverse-chronology native to Instagram’s own browsing experience. In this manner the posts take on an episodic nature, scrolling through and consuming the images & captions in the order they were posted provides a much smoother narrative experience. The stories feel like they’re unfolding much more as they were lived.

You may have caught Kyle Chayka’s recent piece; ‘Why Instagram Captions Are the New Blogging‘, and I’ve been enjoying a number of people’s recent Instagram writing. Jay Owens in particular, who sold a 3000-word travel feature off the back of her Instagram writing while travelling in the USA. Personally I don’t have the mind to write several hundred words of caption while I’m on the go or comitting a day’s highlights to Instagram. The proper long form is a whole other game entirely, but I think there’s a viable intermediate form to be found which I’d like to explore. So for the future I’ll be setting up Instagrate to partially automate creating periodic roundup posts of my Instagram content, and writing extra commentary around that.

Capturing & captioning in the moment through Instagram, but adding an extra layer of background narrative later, with better tools for the job, to be re-published into an archive with an interface I control, that is more suited to episodic storytelling. Besides fitting in with the present cultural undercurrents of early 00’s (blogging) nostalgia & withdrawal from the noisy ad-ridden feeds of major platforms, I also get to keep a nice archive of all my Instagram content in case of outages. Or for the day their owner commits an act so egregious that I feel I need to delete my account altogether.

You can peruse my Insta-bla here.

A couple of posts that have made nice little chapters:
Tokyo 06 – Toriton Tower
Tanegashima – H-IIA F28
Tanegashima – Fly to the Future
Shady Nook

Updates & stuff…

Things are gonna stay a bit vanilla & borky around these parts for some time while much needed upgrades are done. The old-ass plugins that broke due to my recently switching to PHP 7 have been thrown out, and the theme I hadn’t updated since early 2011 went as well.

In line with my official stance on advertising (‘fuck your ads’), and broader views on privacy & data-ownership I’ve also ditched Google Analytics, and switched to the Open Source Piwik instead. Do-Not-Track headers are respected here.

The next chore (currently in progress), is importing my entire history from Instagram and setting up to automate periodic roundup posts. As for the site theme, I think I might actually stick with the WordPress Twenty-Sixteen default & just load a barebones child theme over the top for minor customisations.

Yeah that’s right, blogging. The early 00’s nostalgia is real.

Hello 2016

Alright cool, after neglecting this blog on the internet super hard for the entire last half of 2015, a new year has ticked over again. Hello 2016.

Quick re-cap of some stuff if you weren’t following along on twitter or instagram for the previous 6 months;

Things that didn’t happen; personal projects you may have heard me talking about during that period have mostly been put on ice for the time being. One large-ish piece of writing that was commissioned got canned, doubtful I’ll resurrect that.

Still getting used to having a place where I don’t live with someone else’s stuff, or the knowledge that I have to leave within a couple of months. Buying furniture feels stupid & wrong but having a decent bed and a real desk is some pretty amazing shit. Bookshelves, OMG.

First day of the year I managed to severely aggravate an iliotibial band walking down a mountain track, making 2016 the year I start taking injury prevention exercises seriously. The ability to walk up & down any old hill I feel like is something I want to preserve, as I do intend for this year to have some expeditions in it.

Structure & Narrative still lives, though as ever nobody is really sure what I’m doing. This blog will probably get an overhaul soon and there might even be content again. But y’know, don’t hold your breath. Not all year.

My occasional signs of life are best monitored via:

Hi Mum.