Prominent areas of emerging technologies like nanotechnology and synthetic biology often get accused of essentially being “old wine in new bottles” – that is, of repackaging an old product as a new one, or more crudely put as just being spin (empty marketing terms). In contrast, others contend that something significantly new is happening which deserves a new label to distinguish it from past activities. Personally, I can see elements of truth in what both camps have to say. Lately, I’ve been pondering this in relation to the foresight field and ‘foresight practitioners’ – a term that I sometimes use. Again I can see elements of truth in both perspectives.
Future-orientation and ‘foresight’ is an important part of the mission or identity of many other fields. Obvious ones include strategic management, planning, and risk analysis/management. Indeed, futurist Stephen Millet asserts that “futuring [in a business context] is an aspect of due diligence and risk management”. Leadership programs also often incorporate visioning, and ‘sensemaking’ in a changing world. Similarly, intelligence and scanning systems – i.e. to spot and track change – are used in many fields like knowledge management, or in marketing which tracks change in consumer behaviour and attitudes (just like futurist Andy Hines) and utilises the latest in data mining and trend monitoring techniques. Others try to highlight the ‘shadow of the future’ that surround choices to improve decision-making (e.g. the environmental movement). Moreover, ‘foresight methods’ are ‘claimed’ by practitioners in other fields.
On the other hand, perhaps there are grounds for a new label. Right now five aspects of ‘foresight’ work stand out – some focus on process dimensions and a (potentially) unique orientation towards the future, others also touch on the content/knowledge that’s created…
1) Designing and leading anticipatory ‘learning processes’ (versus a focus on predictive accuracy). Rather than aiming for accurate views of the future, foresight work instead tends to emphasise new ways of considering and ‘using’ the future to enable learning. A good example is a backcasting process which enables new insights into how a long-term goal might be achieved. Another example is how scenario-building and analysis provides a ‘space’ in which new ideas and perspectives can be heard and enable important shifts in perception (e.g. turning a major risk into an opportunity, challenging the current framing of issues, etc) without there being any pretence of predicting the future. Said another way it’s often what is learnt in the process of constructing scenarios, and how this helps to enable action, that really matters.
Similarly, Angela Wilkinson (Oxford University Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment) positions futures methods as powerful ‘reframing technologies’. (I previously blogged on the related potential of futures techniques for overcoming ‘sustainability impasses’)
I’ve seen the potential of these sorts of learning processes. However, I’m also aware of a risk highlighted by Mike Hulme’s analysis of climate scenarios (see paper). Although he sees enabling learning and good decisions as the important outcomes, he argues that claims of the predictive powers of climate models increased engagement with the scenarios.
2) Transformation orientation – both the potential for this (e.g. due to technological disruption), and purposive transformation. Regarding the latter, the mapping and co-creation of major, long-term changes can assist e.g. ‘roadmapping’ exercises. In contrast to a predictive focus, here the main aim is to accelerate desired developments such as by co-creating new ideas, consensus-building, and through resource mobilisation. The UK government foresight program has, in part, adopted such an approach. In a sustainability context, the approach used by the Sustainable Technology Development programme indicates how this could be done.
Similarly, futurist Stuart Candy, drawing on Pierre Wack’s writing, frames foresight as “looking at the present in terms of the alternative potentials that it contains, to inform wiser action today… [Additionally] it’s a different philosophy from that of the guru who distributes pearls of wisdom. It’s intrinsically collaborative”. Personally, I think the latter is often contextual. Indeed, Pierre Wack was a guru distributing pearls of wisdom at Royal Dutch/Shell!
The other aspect of this is a renewed focus on vision, particularly in Europe. Most definitions related to policy-level work focus on this. For example, the EU-funded European Foresight Platform (EFP) defines foresight as a vision-building process to mobilise action (e.g. by developing networks between science and industry) and help build the future. (EFP differentiate this from “purely analytical studies of possible futures” [their definition of Futures Studies]).
This is an interesting one. In effect it positions ‘foresight’ as being more about shaping futures i.e. enabling alternatives to emerge (e.g. via innovation processes). Similarly, some definitions of foresight (e.g. here) focus on practices that enable us to arrive at a desired future state.
3) Spotting change outside current paradigms. I don’t think this is really ‘new’ or unique but foresight practitioners play emerging roles in conceptualising and promoting such changes. As others have noted, managers tend to not focus on change outside current business models (nor do policy-makers outside current policy foci) – often for understandable reasons. But this tends to mean they are often surprised, when unexpected change impacts these business models.
This dimension helps to explain the fact that many of the most successful practitioners I’ve met naturally adopt – or lean towards – provocative stances which (by definition) are outside current paradigms. I similarly recall Dr Peter Hayward’s from Swinburne University’s remark that “the art of futuring is taking provocative stances”. Leading scholar Prof Jim Dator’s famous argument that “any useful idea about the future must appear ridiculous”, is also consistent with this.
4) Practical knowledge of, and experience with, multiple futures tools and methods. Quite often a planner, or a strategist might have experience with one technique (e.g. scenarios); however, it is much rarer to understand many methods and tools, and to insightfully use mixed-methods approaches to enable the careful construction of futures and improved futures thinking. This can differentiate ‘foresight’ from others who rely on methods centred on naïve forecasting and trend extrapolation (although these can be very useful for shorter timeframes).
In my experience foresight practitioners are also willing to embrace more non-traditional approaches which aim to use the whole mind. So they’ll crunch the numbers (‘left’ brain), but they might also use collage construction or physical model-making activities (the ‘right’ brain). Some practitioners will even incorporate meditative processes (e.g. in a visioning process)! This also highlights what could be termed the ‘craft knowledge’ aspect to foresight work.
5) Fostering continual inquiry into multiple plausible futures. Experienced scenario planning practitioner Jay Ogilvy’s advocacy of the ‘scenaric stance’ is one expression of this. Similarly management professors Wright and Cairns in their recent book on scenario thinking describe scenarios as “a way of being” — whereby we routinely face up in the future in a more proactive way, and learn to more easily imagine the possibility of alternative futures beyond the current trajectory. (But note that these authors are management professors, not futurists!)
These are all important tasks/aspects. Clearly, the academic field of futures studies is also important, but it’s not respected in public policy or consulting as ‘foresight’ can be.
If others have comments and thoughts on this topic I’d love to hear them. I believe more thinking on the unique ‘value-add’ and what’s necessary to better deliver it is needed.
P.S. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s critique entitled “Why Futurists Suck: How the Future is Used to Change the Present” remains a good read. His core concern is that those ‘selling’ the future do so for their own gain. He writes, “the act of futurism itself, as practiced by today’s leading cyber pundits, is less predictive than it is propaganda.” In other words, the future may be a landscape of potentials but the processes by which particular potentials get emphasised (and by which others consequently are not) are often highly political. Moreover, as Renee Lertzman (a PhD student in ‘critical environmental psychology’ at Cardiff University) observes “how we speak of the future reveals and conceals what aspects of futurity we wish to recognize”.