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SXSW 2018: The Year of the Mayor as a Futurist?

How playing a game helped train over a dozen U.S. mayors on how to think like a futurist.

For the past three years, mayors from around the country have gathered in Austin, Texas, during SXSW for an exclusive, dedicated track called Civic I/O. The theme for this year’s gathering is the mayor as futurist, or those who are equipped to plan for and act with a future orientation, and futurists were on hand to help them identify where to start.

“Mayors are being handed the reins to the future … and they have a responsibility to craft a future in a more direct and impactful way than they have ever had,” Jake Dunagan, director of the Governance Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future, explained. 
Dunagan also explained that their goal in training mayors was to “provide the scaffolding, handrails, to think systematically … and to govern their cities in a more effective way.” 
So how do you turn a mayor into a futurist?
Dunagan stressed thinking like a futurist required mayors and other city officials to understand there is not a single future — meaning, there are lots of possibilities that must be explored and defined.
Joining Dunagan to help accomplish this was Stuart Candy, director of the Situation Lab and associate professor of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. Candy believes that “foresight is a leadership competency and every leader in every organization needs to be thinking ahead - but not everybody is trained in that or experienced in it.”
In order to train the mayors to think like futurists, Dunagan and Candy taught them how to play a game called The Thing From The Future. He describes it as “a card game that enables people to talk about all kinds of possible future states for their cities.” In this game, the mayors were presented with a scenario represented by the combination of three different suits of cards — types of cities, types of things and overall themes. For example, in an ambitious city (type) there is a store (thing) related to agriculture (theme). 
Next, each mayor had to sketch or define a thing from the future that corresponded to the prompt. The winning mayor’s concept won the cards for that scenario and after all the cards were exhausted the mayor with the most cards won the game. 
So how did the mayors do?
 “We expected that they would take to this process [of thinking like a futurist] because they are close to the ground … and they really picked up and ran with the tools that we brought to the table for them,” Candy said.
For those interested in learning more about the methods and tools taught to each mayor this year at SXSW, you can find more information online at Institute for the Future and Situation Lab
Eyragon Eidam is the managing editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the daily news editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.