Last night I attended a discussion that was notionally about a possible national foresight ‘Community of Practice’, under the auspices of the Centre for Australian Foresight (CfAF). Chris Stewart from CfAF said that CfAF hoped to play an industry building role, as well as doing consulting work. At the same time over in the United States, Andy Hines argues momentum is building for professionalisation (a topic that he frequently addresses on his blog – e.g. here, here, here). I was only vaguely interested, and so attended mainly as an observer to better understand what CfAF is doing and see what transpired.
It might disappoint others to hear me say this, but I increasingly see all this being as a distraction. I think Josh Floyd from CfAF hit the proverbial nail on the head when he reflected on the “folk theory” nature of inquiry into the future and associated difficulties that are faced in claiming expertise. I’ve heard that the Association of Professional Futurists (APF) can’t agree on much other than that their members focus on – and like to discuss – the future, which, if this is an accurate assessment, is quite worrying for a professional body and I think broadly consistent with Josh Floyd’s observation.
Andy Hines acknowledges little progress has been made on core professionalisation challenges over the past 10 years, e.g. regarding key questions: what is our tool kit? Does “foresight” have a unique value proposition (e.g. distinct from other consultants)? Who are “we”? What is our role?
To me the crux of the issue is this: I no longer see “foresight practice” as being a domain with a clear, unique set of skills and competencies or having the likely prospect of standardisation (compare this with, say, accounting and its shared standards, clear purpose, certification processes and so on). I therefore think professionalisation is unlikely to be viable. Similar forms of inquiry are used and adopted in many fields and – as Floyd observed – the underlying theory is more like “folk theory”: general guiding ideas and skills that are widely used but without rigorous theory or much empirical validation. Without a clear ‘profession’ how can a professional community or an industry be established?
I saw similar dynamics in my research on nanotechnology (in my Master’s thesis research). Initially, increasing effort was made during a “hype phase” to establish a distinct nanotechnology industry which largely failed, and then a shift towards recognising that ‘nanotechnology’ is an aspect of many existing domains and far less new than was being claimed. Efforts are still made to promote an industry and establish industry associations but the evidence indicates that they tend to struggle.
There seemed to be a foresight “hype phase” in early-mid 2000s, perhaps up until the global financial crisis, and a shift afterwards. It was interesting to see Oliver Freeman (of leading Australian consultancy the Neville Freeman Agency) report a shift from “four or five client projects a year each worth $150,000 to $200,000” (pre-GFC) to “one or two a year with average spending of $30,000 to $100,000” (post-GFC). This may not be representative, but my sense is that it’s not as easy as it once was to make a living in this space. I’d be interested in hearing other peoples’ experiences. Richard Slaughter points to the impacts of economic rationalism (see commentary here), but I would suggest that there are deeper issues.
Overall, and in summary, if a practitioner-oriented group was established around the use of particular forward-looking methods of inquiry – without obsessing over establishing a profession, building an industry, and so on – I would welcome that. That sounds like a “Community of Practice” to me. However, I’m no longer really interested in calling myself a “foresight practitioner”, a “futures practitioner” (whatever that means), nor in using the term “futurist” (although for a long time I’ve tried to steer well clear of this problematic label); hence, I’m not very interested in broader efforts to establish a distinct industry or profession. Pardon the pun, but I increasingly don’t think there is a future in it.
That’s my general take on things. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I was still a full-time consultant, and not focused on my PhD. But increasingly I doubt that I would see it differently. I’d be interested in hearing people thoughts on these issues, including assessments that challenge my own analysis.