"If the times feel more out of joint, threatening, uncertain and chaotic than normal, it is because they are. Our institutions and our societies are over-managed and under-led. For Canada, becoming a better version of what we were yesterday, will no longer serve us tomorrow. Yet, Canada is the best positioned country to become the world’s first truly 21st Century nation." - Ruben Nelson

Ruben Nelson

Governance, Future and Foresight Expert

Ruben Nelson is an author, speaker, visionary thought-leader, public commentator, consultant, international advisor and Canada’s foremost practitioner and teacher of strategic foresight. He is a reliable guide in these perilous times to more deeply desirable futures.

Ruben is a remarkable big picture visionary and strategic thinker. He has spent his life digging under the surface of everyday events to see more clearly what is really going on and then thinking through what a deeper understanding of the past and present might mean for our future. Ruben Nelson has delivered over 750 speeches, board briefings and workshops in Canada, the USA and Europe. He will engage you and your people in an intelligent, passionate and often humorous manner. He will inspire you to make wiser and more context-aware decisions today – decisions that will shape your future and influence that of your society.

Ruben challenges those with whom he works not only to raise their game, but to learn to see, embrace and cooperate with the most profound transformation we are in – the long decline of our Modern/Industrial civilization and the emergence of a truly new and more promising Co-creative civilization. At its heart, then, Ruben’s message is transformational. Rather than continuing to aspire to succeed as a Modern/Industrial culture, our new work is to embrace the new and breathtaking task of consciously evolving beyond it.

Nelson says, “Of course, as communities and whole societies we are not very good at meeting this new challenge. This is historically new work.” “But the only way to grow, is UP!” “Becoming more innovative versions of what we in the Modern/Industrial world already are, will no longer do. Rather, we need the courageous creativity that enables us to learn to cooperate with our ongoing evolution as persons, families, communities, organizations and whole cultures, while there is still time to make historic differences. The clock is ticking!” Ruben’s message is grounded in decades of research into long-term personal, societal and civilization change and the personal, organizational and societal practice that flows from it. This background makes a unique Canadian voice.

Ruben Nelson studied at Queen’s University, Queen’s Theological College, United Theological College (Bangalore, India) and the University of Calgary. He taught at Queen’s, QTC and U of C. Ruben has been honoured by Queen’s University, The Calgary Alumni of Queen’s, the Calgary Rotary Club and the Chinook Region of Scouts Canada.

As a result of Ruben Nelson’s qualifications and unique perspectives, he is the only Canadian who has been elected as President of the International Association of Humanistic Psychology. He is a Fellow of the World Business Academy, the World Academy of Art and Science and the Meridian International Institute for Leadership, Governance, Change and the Future. Ruben Nelson is currently Executive Director of Foresight Canada.

For over forty years, organizations have turned to Ruben as a source of strength and stability in times of crisis. Accordingly, he has conceived and led new organizations and revived dying ones. Ruben Nelson has offered strategic advice to Prime Ministers, Premiers, Cabinet Ministers, Board Members and senior executives in every sector of Canadian society. He has also advised senior European public servants. Ruben is currently strategic foresight strategies for the next generation. He is equally at home in conference rooms, board rooms and church basements. Above all, Ruben does a comprehensive assessment of any social or current state to advise on what is in store for their future. His presentations are content rich, full of practical insights and help develop strategic foresight for any industry or organization.

Topic Presentations

The view that Europeans have mostly treated Canada as a get rich project is well-supported by evidence.  Unfortunately for younger Canadians, the emerging global conditions are making it harder to be optimistic about the long-term viability of this orientation.  Yet, most leaders are urging us to just add creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship to our Modern aspirations.  Ruben Nelson advocates a fundamentally different aspiration.

Ruben will explore the predispositions and lessons long taught by Canadian landscapes and history.  Using these he will sketch how we have emerged as a 20th Century great middle power.  He will then outline the emerging requirements for thriving in the 21st Century – a century of profound civilizational transformations.  He will conclude that today’s dominant project – becoming a better version of what we were yesterday – will no longer serve us tomorrow.  What to do?

Ruben will make the case that Canada is the best positioned country to become the world’s first truly 21st Century nation.

This question is beginning to haunt us, at least in private thoughts and conversations in both back yards and boardrooms.  In public, our official cultural optimism steers us away from dark thoughts.  We whistle past graveyards.  Yet, this fact is worrying:  those who are most knowledgeable about the systemic challenges of the 21st Century are also the most worried about the world we are leaving our grandchildren. 

Since 1960, Ruben Nelson has been a participant in the now-global research-based debate about the reality of cultural crises and the need for civilizational transformations. Ruben will review the evidence that supports the concern and even the growing cynicism that has moved many beyond a cheerful and superficial optimism.  He will argue that cynicism is not enough; that we need reasons for hope that lie the other side of despair and cynicism.  He will also explore the grounds for such hope and the challenges of living by it.

There are at least three reasons why it is time to review Canada’s multiculturalism policies.  (1) The world has changed dramatically since 1971 when multicultural policies were first articulated.  What changes ought we to make?  (2) Kellie Leitch, a Conservative MP and a party leadership candidate, is urging us to vet immigrants in order to “defend Canadian values.”  Some agree.  Others see her ideas as an invitation to legitimize bigotry and prejudice.  How should we see this issue and how far should we go?  (3) We need to prepare Canadians to accommodate or reject the growing number of refugees, survival migrants and immigrants who, over the coming decades, will be seeking a new home here.  How might we do this?

Ruben Nelson is well positioned to explore the significant issues of multiculturalism with us.  He was among only a handful of people who crafted Canada’s first Multicultural policy in 1971.  He has also advised several European senior public servants on multiculturalism.

The future used to be so easy.  We knew it would be challenging, essentially familiar and better.  For a generation (1950 – 1980) this seemed to be true.  Over the last generation, as things got harder, we still stuck with our optimism and those who professed it.  With them, we said, “Someday soon, we will get back on track.”

Today, this is still our official belief.  Every politician, Industry Association and Chamber of Commerce still sells it.  But even they are wavering and increasingly nervous.  Among citizens, doubts grow about the trustworthiness of our leaders and the institutions they lead.  Fears grow that our Modern corporate and cultural systems are unsustainable.

Worse, as we look around us, as well as into the future, we see little that looks like the safety, security and community prosperity that we have long been promised and still take to be the marks of a well-run normal world.  These questions emerge as a heartfelt cry, “What is going on?”  “Can our dream of a better version of Modernity still be realized?”  “Do we really face a post-normal future?”

These are questions that Ruben Nelson has been wrestling with virtually all of his adult life.  He will use a simple map to locate and explain (a) what is really going on, (b) the major responses to the above questions, (c) how each response appears to be reasonable within its own frame of reference and (d) why facing up to a post-normal and co-creative future offers the sanest path to a future that is far more deeply satisfying.

We know that as things become more complex, history raises the bar we must clear in order to sustain success.  Those who can come to see, explore, understand and meet the new standards survive.  Those who do not, don’t.

We also know that there is increasing anxiety about the future our descendants will inherit from us.

In the light of such knowledge, Ruben Nelson will focus on, explain and explore a new requirement in human history – the development of the capacity of a people to exercise whole-of-society and even civilizational leadership and governance.

As things stand today, we lead and govern many discrete parts of our cultures.  However, we have no capacity to govern and lead the strategic directions of our societies as a whole, much less of the form of civilization they manifest.  By and large we are happy to not even think of such matters.  We leave the shape of our long-term evolution to some mix of the market, inherited cultural habits, raw power and the gods.

However, we now live in a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene.  For good and ill, as a species, we are now governors of evolution.  At least this will be the case in the 21st Century; possibly longer if we learn enough fast enough. Ruben will also set out the strategic directions to which we must now commit and some steps that will move us along a pathway to a more deeply desirable future.

Strategic Foresight, the new cognitive work of leadership, enables us to make reliable sense of a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) – the new normal of the 21st Century.  Exploring and understanding alternative futures that lie beyond our now normal understandings is the key to avoiding the surprise and tragedy of overshoot – being run over by the trends and events to which we are not paying attention.

Typically, strategic foresight errors cost billions, while strategic planning errors cost only hundreds of millions and operational planning errors cost only millions.  Yet we tend to invest our attention and money in the reverse order of these costs.  For example, The Global Credit Crisis cost several trillion.  Alberta missed BSE.  It cost us well over $2b.  TransCanada missed virtually all of the potential opposition to its XL pipeline.  They are claiming costs of over $8b.  Trans Alta missed the abandonment of coal.  Costs yet to be determined.  In every case, leaders said that they were blindsided; that no one could have imagined the way the world would change.  While this claim is comforting for the executives involved, it is nonsense.  In each of these cases and hundreds of others there were people who foresaw what was coming, but such persons were neither seen nor listened to in the C suites of those in charge.

Ruben Nelson will explain what strategic foresight is, what it isn’t, why it is now necessary, how it can be best practiced and what it will cost if you commit to it (and if you don’t).

Strategic Foresight is a powerful perspective (lens) that can be used to look at and explore virtually any question, topic, sector or organization.  If you wish Ruben Nelson to turn his mind and heart onto your chosen topic or organization, just ask him to do so.  He will tell you if the scope of his competence includes your chosen focus. Ruben tailors this topic for any industry, topic and organization.

Aphorisms are short statements packed with practical wisdom, e.g. “Be Prepared.”  Each is best unpacked and savoured by telling stories in which the aphorism makes a positive difference to the outcome of the story. Ruben Nelson will talk briefly about the role of aphorisms in human life.  Then he will explore and illuminate several aphorisms that are embedded in his life in an insightful and humorous manner.

Ruben Nelson says that if the times feel more out of joint, threatening, uncertain and chaotic than normal, it is because they are.  He will explain that we live in a period that is “between dreams.”  On the one hand, our thoroughly familiar Modern/Industrial dream, while still officially pursued, is slowly dying.  On the other hand, the next form of civilization – the Co-creative form – is still so weakly present that we find it hard to see the new deep patterns that are emerging.

Ruben will offer evidence for this interpretation of our times.

He will also suggest that his is a far more challenging and hopeful perspective than that which still dominates our culture – we can hold on to Modernity forever.  This means that we do not have an economic/environmental problem that can be fixed.  Rather, we are beginning to feel and face up to a new human condition – the need to consciously understand and navigate our way through the long transition in our root form of civilization to a truly new form.

He will note that this is new work for humanity; that all previous transitions to a new form of civilization have been slow, optional, unconscious and local or regional.  Now, our challenge is to nurture the birth of a new form of civilization in a manner that is fast by any historical standard, recognized as required and conscious and embodying patterns that are ultimately scalable to the whole inhabited Earth.

Ruben will offer several specific steps we can take now, as persons, communities, corporations and a society to prepare for and commit to this historic journey.

One does not have to be an official atheist to feel dissatisfied with much that is offered to us in the name of the Hebrew/Christian tradition.  So much of it feels like a call to live in the past, rather than a proclamation of the challenge to consciously co-create a deeply humane future as citizens of the newly recognized geological epoch – the Anthropocene.

This presentation is a personal reflection by Ruben Nelson on his own journey towards a faith that is fit for the 21st Century.  This is not a “merely personal” matter.  Ruben has come to the view that as things get tougher the superficial optimism of our culture will collapse.  The profound challenges of the 21st Century require the resilience of a 21st Century faith.  Ruben’s hope is that his experience may be of some use to others who are struggling to be faithful as 21st Century persons and institutions in the midst of the confusion that marks our time.

Panasonic used to say that it was, “Just slightly ahead of our time.” It understood that in any culture there is more praise for failing at a project that everyone agrees should be undertaken than by succeeding with a project that few see the point of. Yes, we cheer innovation and creativity. But the results have to make sense to the vast majority. The message is: don’t step too far out of line.
In stable times this is all well and good: a better version of yesterday will still serve us well tomorrow. But it is increasingly obvious that ours are not stable times. VUCA rules – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Today, paradigm-bursting insights, thoughts and actions are required. And, yet, one must be accepted enough to be seen as a trusted member of the society.

Walking this thin line is like walking a knife-edge. Ruben Nelson knows this experience well. As a pioneer of serious futures work in Canada, he has often been more than slightly ahead of his time. Accordingly, he is well-suited to share stories of his life – both successes and failures – that illuminate the tension between being one of the gang and being an authentic future-creating leader.

It is not news to us that, by and large, our institutions and our societies are over-managed and under-led.  This is clear, particularly when considered in the light of all three characteristics that are the mark of a true leader.  One must be:  (a) psychologically attractive enough that actual people will follow you; (b) morally integrated enough to be trustworthy; and (c) cognitively alert and sound enough to figure out what strategic commitments and actions the situation actually calls for.

Ruben Nelson suggests that as we aspire to such leadership we face two major hurdles.  First, our world is more disoriented and disorienting than it used to be.  In the face of today’s global, dynamic complexity it is simply harder today to become a well-rounded and insightful leader than it used to be.  Second, our model of what it is to be cognitively alert and sound reflects yesterday and not tomorrow.  We are still stuck in the management model that emerged after WWII.  Then, for leaders, we added strategic planning and policy formulation to operational oversight.  The CEO was no longer the chief administrator. He was the most senior manager.

This is still the case today for most Boards and C Suites.  Strategic planning is still the outer edge of the leadership/management model.  Tragically, a strategic planning mindset cannot begin to cope with a globalized VUCA world – one that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

In this presentation, Ruben makes the case that in order to become well-led again, we must now expand our C Suite and Board horizons yet again.  Just as we added what today we call management in the 1950's, ‘60s and ‘70s as work that provides a context for our operations, so today we have a duty to add the new work of strategic foresight as that which provides a coherent context for our management.

Ruben will explain that if we are to survive the emerging character and requirements of the 21st Century, this move is no longer optional.  Strategic Foresight is now a requirement for civilizational, societal and organizational success.  He will include steps that can be taken to develop this still novel capacity both within and among organizations and sectors.

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The Illusions of Urban Man

The author challenges us to question our fundamental values: how we relate to people and things ; how we define our personal and societal priorities . And we should do this not merely because it is good for us, but because the survival of our society is at stake. The line of argument is thorough an d rigorous , and demand s continuous attention and concentration.

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