Earthscan has published a thought-provoking book entitled Foresight in Action: Developing Policy-Oriented Scenarios which attempts to answer the question: how do experts assess the future? The authors report on their study of Dutch futurists who serve public policy clients. The book is part of the ‘Risk in Society’ series, which features the likes of Paul Slovic on risk perception, and various other examinations of risk governance, associated ethical issues, risk management and so on.
What makes Foresight in Practice a notable book is that most of researchers have also been practitioners, and they decided to “step out” from their foresight practice and conduct ethnographic research (participant observation) as part of a wider critical study of how ‘foresight’ is done in practice. They describe this as “natives stepping out”. The focus is on the ‘real-time’ activities, pitfalls, and challenges that – they argue – “usually become concealed or are overlooked in stylized [practitioner] self-accounts and methodological-epistemological discussions” (p.3). The analysis draws heavily on Science and Technology Studies (STS) theory and concepts.
The major thrusts of the book contents and arguments can be briefly summarised as follows:
- Foresight practice is “messier and more complex than is suggested in futurists’ [self] accounts” (p.11)
- Foresight practice is at odds with the way it is presented in textbooks. For example, their analysis of dozens of scenarios indicated that they rarely live up to the stated focus on potential discontinuities, surprises/shocks, etc, and tend towards more business-as-usual or trend-based assessments. Moreover, during projects futurists were observed to diverge from these stated aims and to shift towards emphasising continuity and stability. Seeking to produce ‘plausible’ and ‘credible’ assessments resulted in historical determinism creeping into their work.
- The authors hypothesise that the identified divergences from theory can be partly explained by the academic ambitions of futurists (i.e., wanting their work to be seen as scholarly, rigorous), and the perceived needs and attitudes of the policy audiences (i.e. clients). Regarding the latter, the uncertainty intolerance of policy audiences could shape the work of futurists.
I found the analysis fascinating. Much of it rings true to me. Various implications for sustainability-oriented foresight come to mind too, such as the questions it raises about the use of scenario analysis (e.g., if discontinuities tend to be omitted from scenarios then their value for anticipating and enabling proactive or ‘preactive’ responses to environmental risks is likely to be compromised) and foresight practices in general (e.g. any tendency towards historical determinism is likely to constrain consideration of sustainability-focused alternative futures and visions). Of course, research could also seek to try to address these issues and improve practice.
A further contribution of the book is the argument for foresight having a constructivist epistemology. They further suggest that many of the identified tensions are caused by futurists adopting a traditional positivist paradigm as part of their academic ambitions.
One criticism of the book is I thought it could have drawn on a wider range of ideas in the STS field. For example, Sociology of Expectations research also provides explanations for why foresight exercises can fail to produce new perspectives or to engage with discontinuities.
The book potentially provides a model for other researchers to follow and extend. The authors contend that few ethnographic studies of foresight have been done (they know of only two others – a PhD done on the US-based Institute for the Future, and another Dutch study). The book suggests ethnography can greatly contribute to a richer understanding of foresight practice, reveal “black boxed” aspects (i.e., what’s taken-for-granted and/or not consciously considered) or problematic aspects, and in this way serve practitioners by helping them to reflect on and improve their work.