Turning Signals into Scenarios: That’s Science Fiction

Nan Nelson, Envision Board Member

As you explore creating scenarios to introduce possible, plausible futures to your organization, consider how award-winning professionals — science fiction writers — do this. Not the folks who write Star Wars-type space operas or the sword and sorcery fiction of novels like Game of Thrones. Rather, consider Horizon 3, near-future “hard” science fiction like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future or Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock (both about climate change). These “world-building” science fiction writers take trends you are following in areas such as artificial intelligence, gene therapy or cybersecurity and create mind-expanding scenarios that are entertaining and sometimes alarming. 


Our Workforce Needs Visual Thinkers

Nan Nelson, Envision Board member and Economic Transformation Signals Team

Envision’s Economic Transformation Signals Team has been looking for signals related to the future of our local economy.  Among the issues on our domain map are:

  • the changing demographics of the workforce and organization leaders
  • technological developments affecting our main economic sectors
  • the local entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem
  • changing work/life patterns

We’re finding a great many signals of big change on the far horizon!  In fact, so many that the team has decided to narrow our search focus for the time being to technological developments, while still keeping an eye on other areas of interest.

One such “other” intriguing signal recently surfaced in the area of workforce diversity and skill sets needed in the future: a new book by the famous animal-handling expert Temple Grandin called Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns and Abstractions.

Grandin, herself a visual (and autistic) thinker, makes the case for widening the neurodiversity of all work teams by recognizing the value of visual thinkers. Science writer Steve Silberman calls the book “a powerful and provocative testament to the diverse coalition of minds we’ll need to face the mounting challenges of the twenty-first century.”

Many large firms are beginning to recruit autistic individuals for their ability to concentrate and master detailed work such as computer coding.  Other organizations have long valued those who can think in patterns of abstraction described by mathematics. 

But Grandin contends that our increasingly verbal education system sidelines not only these thinkers, but also screens out “object visualizers” like herself.  Young visual thinkers like drawing, building with toys like Legos, and are “good with their hands.” But today, hands-on learning has been scrubbed from the school curriculum—no more shop, home ec, art, theater, welding, auto mechanics, etc. Grandin, herself a PhD professor of animal science, said she was screened out of college initially by an inability to master algebra and calculus, something typical of visual thinkers. As a result, America, she contends, is losing technical skills essential to the future of manufacturing, construction, design and engineering.

Grandin’s book goes on to detail studies that show how diverse thinkers advantage teams and how real-world disasters like Fukushima and the Boeing 747 MAX result from the absence of visual thinkers on work teams.

How can you tell if you’re a visual thinker? She suggests an interesting shortcut to determining where you fall on the visual-verbal spectrum: You buy a piece of furniture and are ready to put it together.  Do you read the instructions or follow the pictures?

Shouldn’t your organization’s employee recruitment program include a neurodiversity element? 

Looking Back at the Future

Jim Golembeski, Envision Board member

It started in the paper industry, a mainstay of the northeast Wisconsin economy. In 1996, the Scott paper company in Oconto Falls closed. That was followed by closings and mass layoffs at many area paper companies. The number of affected workers was soon in the thousands. Then the layoffs hit the manufacturing sector as well.

I remember well, because it was my job to provide employment and retraining services to those workers. I spent many hours in sessions full of middle-aged, gravitationally- challenged men whose world had turned upside down.  My poster child was Mirro Aluminum in Manitowoc, which closed in 2003, leaving 1300 men and women idle, a third of them at reading and math levels below fourth grade. It was an ugly time.

Two trends were developing, and we didn’t see them coming. First, sectors of our economy were entering a global marketplace. Countries that were finally recovering from the devastation of World War II and the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought tens of millions of workers into that global supply chain. Secondly, and equally important, was technological advancement: Computer applications and the Internet brought new tools into the workplace.  It was going to take more than a high school education to operate a $200 million paper machine.

We did not see those trends coming. It was also the beginning of the Baby Boom retirement movement, and our workplaces were becoming more generationally diverse.  We discovered that Gen X and the young Millennials had work and life values different from Boomers.

Nancy Armbrust, VP of Community Relations at Schreiber, had given my board chair, Paul Linzmeyer, a book entitled The Rise of the Creative Class by Dr. Richard Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Paul read it, brought it to me a week later, and said, “Get him here.”

Dr. Florida had begun to articulate the seismic economic changes facing the American workforce; he was becoming a nationally recognized guru on adapting to those new realities.  In 2002, Senator Herb Kohl had secured a $1.2 million federal Earmark Grant for my organization, Bay Area Workforce Development Board.  That gave us some resources to start looking at the future. I also partnered with Wendy Seronko at Employers Workforce Development Network, a business-led group we had brought together.

On September 18, 2003, Dr. Florida and his team led a day-long “Creative Future Economy” workshop with three hundred business and community leaders at the brand new Lambeau Field Atrium. He addressed the trends we were experiencing around the overall theme of becoming a “Community of Choice” for talent. He gave us a new vocabulary and insight into our new economic realities.

Following up on the workshop, my colleague in the Fox Valley, Cheryl Welch, and I sponsored a major study, the NEW Economic Opportunity Study, conducted by Northstar Economics; it became our game plan for moving forward. An implementation committee led by Kathi Seifert (Kimberly Clark) and Bob DeKoch (Boldt) focused on bringing together the resources to implement the study recommendations.

That effort resulted in the creation of NEW North in 2005, which became the model for similar regional efforts in the state and remains the most successful of those efforts. It also led to a partnership between Bay Area WDB and NWTC to create NEW Manufacturing Alliance, an industry partnership that has won national and international awards for successfully promoting manufacturing careers.

In 2013, Bay Area WDB helped NWTC purchase the first of a fleet of mobile training labs to make technical skill training available throughout northeast Wisconsin. We soon integrated the first mobile lab, containing a CNC mill and CNC lathe, with our prison re-entry programs, giving 120 men and women at the Oshkosh and Taycheedah facilities a hands-on demonstration of manufacturing careers. Today, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has its own fleet of five mobile manufacturing labs.

We were late getting into the game, failing to recognize the economic trends that should have been apparent at the end of the twentieth century. Once those trends became painfully obvious, we brought in Richard Florida and got buy-in from community and business leadership. We caught up quickly and are enjoying the fruits of our efforts in 2023. 

But what trends are developing now? What should we be planning for today?