Verge: a General Practice Framework for Futures Work

Note: this post was originally published on 8/1/2014.

[Note: this piece was previously published in the April edition of the APF Compass, the monthly membership publication of the Association of Professional Futurists]

Introduction
Put simply, Verge is a way to frame and explore changes in the world.  Originally intended as an alternative taxonomy for environmental scanning, it has evolved through use into a general practice framework that is used today by foresight professionals at virtually every stage of futures research.  The framework is composed of six domains of human experience: Define, Related, Connect, Create, Consume, and Destroy.  These domains can most easily be understood as questions that researchers and process participants ask about how people are experiencing the world.  How do we Define things?  How do we Relate to one another?  How do we Connect to each other?

I developed Verge with Michele Bowman in 2004, as part of a corporate environmental scanning service that we had planned to offer (which never quite got off the ground).  Both she and I were understandably weary of STEEP; intuitive and with a simple organizing value for most organizations new to foresight work, the schema often feels “flat” and unsophisticated to experienced practitioners.  Thus, the original desire was to have a fresh set of lenses through which to perceive and understand change, and specifically to provide categories for environmental scanning.

My answer to this was to attempt to come up with a new set of categories, ones that would “anthropomorphize” scanning.  Anthropomorphize was not the right term, but the idea was to look out through someone’s eyes, to generate categories that got closer to some basic ways that people experience and understand life.  Frankly, I have never been convinced that I got all that close to my original goal, but the six domains seem to work reasonably well in practice.

So, the Verge domains were never really intended for more than scanning.  What resulted, however, is that practitioners found the framework useful not just for scanning, but for various forms of forecasting, analysis, and general group process.  To date, Verge has been used in a variety of projects in the EU (particularly in the UK), Africa, Asia, and the United States.  It has been used for clients as diverse as Nissan Motor Company, PepsiCo, Eurostar, and the Singapore Civic Service College.

As mentioned above, the framework is currently composed of six domains.  I initially wanted to have clearly differentiated categories, but in practice people interpret the domains differently and sometimes loosely, resulting in a somewhat fluid and overlapping set of definitions. I suspect this tendency of practitioners to redefine or reinterpret the domains is what helps to make it seem such a versatile framework.  At the same time, there are a multitude of issues that could logically be placed in more than one domain.  For instance, law-making could be seen as an act of Define just as much as it is an act of Create.  Additionally, the perspective of the observer is paramount: what is clearly Destroy to one person (attempts to undermine rules and norms) could be Define or Create (a new order) to another.

I think the most important reason why the framework has provided so much value to practitioners is that the domains generate much richer and more vivid details of actual life as lived by real people than the traditional categories like STEEP, which have a greater tendency to make people think in large, structural, and abstract terms.  For instance, in a workshop setting, asking participants to either critique or to imagine how they will relate to another or how they will create value for others immediately evokes imagery of daily life, imagery that helps make the future more real.

The Six Domains:
Define: The Define domain speaks to the concepts, ideas, and paradigms we use to define ourselves and the world around us.  This includes things like worldview, paradigms, and social values and attitudes.

Relate: Deals with the social structures and relationships that organize people and create organizations.  Here we look at things like family structures, business models, and governance structures.

Connect: Encompasses the technologies and practices used to connect people, places, and things.  Connect looks for things like information technology, urban design, and language.

Create: Concerned with the technology and processes through which we produce goods and services.  This is all about things like manufacturing, efficiency, and rule-making.

Consume: About the ways in which we acquire and use the goods and services we create.  This domain is about issues like modes of exchange, consumer preferences, and marketing.

Destroy: About the ways in which we destroy value and the reasons for doing so.  Here we are concerned with phenomena like violence and killing, waste, and attempts to undermine rules and norms.

Table 1: Examples of issues falling within each Verge domain

VergeTable

Using the Framework
Verge is a general practice framework in the sense that it can be used in just about any aspect of futures work.  As a set of lenses, it can be used to filter or search.  As a categorization scheme it can be used to organize results.  To date, I think the most common types of use have been in activities like implications discussions and “incasting.”  For our purposes here, let us group typical applications into three basic activities: scanning, forecasting, and analysis.

Scanning
The most straightforward use of the framework is to use the Verge domains as an alternative to the traditional STEEP categories for research.  Used in this, its original application, the Verge domains are used to organize an environmental scanning research effort, using the domains as research areas, within which researchers hunt for weak signals.  Similarly, the Verge domains can be used to “bucket” the results of scanning and research, regardless of the organization of the research effort.

Forecasting
Verge is often used in various ways during forecasting exercises.  Two methods include emerging issues analysis and interaction analysis.  Often related to a scanning effort, the Verge framework has been used to direct efforts to identify and forecast potential emerging issues.  Verge interaction analysis involves forecasting the impact of changes in one domain as they cascade across other domains. This method can be used to generate entire scenarios.

Analysis
The Verge domains are often used to look at the implications of trends, emerging issues, scenarios, and other forecasts.  To do this practitioners will modify an implications wheel to use the Verge domains to “slice the pie” rather than using the traditional STEEP categories.  Alternatively they might build a matrix with the Verge domains to explore implications.  Interaction analysis, mentioned earlier, can also be used to reconsider an existing scenario or forecast by exploring logical cross-domain impacts that might alter the basic trajectory of the forecast.

Combining Frameworks
As shown in the discussion above about Analysis, the general practice framework can also be used in conjunction with other futures methods and concepts.  By combining Verge with an additional framework, we are often able to use multiple perspectives of change at the same time.  My favorite combinations at present include using some form of layered analysis with Verge and using three horizons with Verge.

threehorizonsplusverge
Some Thoughts for Its Future
Looking forward I expect that practitioners will continue to employ the framework in innovative ways with clients.  It would be particularly interesting to see how individuals can employ the framework to do normative futures work.  Such an application might involve having different stakeholders describe their preferred futures through the domains and then having them describe what they think is the preferred future of competing stakeholders.  Such an exercise would not only help participants generate nuanced, human-level details related to people’s hopes for the future, it might also set up a very useful context for engaging one another in discourse, compromise, and the creation of shared vision.

*Note: it is typically known as “Verge” in the United States while UK practitioners may know it better as the “ethnographic futures framework”
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One comment

  1. […] frameworks, such as Verge, specifically ask the researcher/group to explore relationships within society, but part of what […]

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