A number of priorities – and associated opportunities – for sustainability-oriented foresight need to be better understood and addressed. Each also requires successfully addressing related barriers and challenges. The following are four areas where ‘foresight methods’ can assist:
1) Enabling greater ‘anticipatory learning’. The opposite of anticipatory learning is ‘learning-by-shock’ (see this paper which defines anticipatory learning as forward-looking learning that is based on anticipatory thinking). A great example of learning-by-shock is the sudden collapse of fisheries, such as the collapse of Atlantic northwest cod fishery which led to a sudden moratorium due to the slow response. Anticipatory learning may have prevented this by enabling earlier responses. Arguably the European heatwave in 2003 (estimated to have resulted in ~30-50,000 deaths), and Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria are examples of this for climate change risks. Clearly, we regularly encounter major unforeseen problems. Additionally, as Australian Climate Commissioner Will Steffen similarly notes, it often takes institutions too long to respond to clear signals from the environment. Anticipatory approaches would “buy time” for formulating responses. Key questions: can we develop ways of avoiding some of those major ‘shocks’ – and the human, economic, and environmental impacts they cause – through more anticipatory learning? How can anticipatory learning improve adaptation to environmental changes?
- Issues/challenges include: non-linearity (dynamics of complex systems) confounding attempts at anticipation; accommodating surprise, discontinuities, and often ambiguous ‘weak signals’ in planning and policy-making processes; often requires the balancing of quantitative knowledge (data) and qualitative insights; institutional barriers.
- Opportunities include: improved horizon scanning systems aided by the latest information and communications technologies; community-level scenario thinking and building exercises (e.g. to improve climate change adaptation activities).
2) Assisting problem reframing, where there is deep, persistent conflict over sustainability problems. An example situation which could be significantly improved through reframing is the conflict over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which the Australian Government wishes to introduce to better enable sustainable management of this river system and wider ecosystem but has drawn sharp criticism from farming interests, and from environmental groups for being too incremental a policy response. A recent paper that discusses breaking sustainability ‘impasses’ also highlights the importance of problem frames. Similarly, Erik Knight’s book Reframe emphasises the power of framing, highlighting the often problematic tendency to fixate on a singular way of thinking about a problem and/or looking at the world (what he terms the ‘magnifying glass trap’) and associated opportunity of changing the frameworks that we apply. Key questions: what sustainability problems are ‘stuck’ (i.e. an impasse has been reached preventing progress to address it)? What unquestioned (or implicit) assumptions might be contributing to such impasses and how can they be better surfaced and deliberated on? What approaches can enable new, more pluralistic ways of thinking about such problems?
- Issues/challenges include: preexisting cultural meanings limiting and shaping recognition of ‘environment-society problems’ and the amount of perceived risk; persistent ‘lock-in’ (e.g. due to sunk costs); conflicting interests and values. Effective reframing often necessitates greater inter-disciplinarity – even transdisciplinary processes.
- Opportunities include: participatory futures processes (e.g. scenario-building exercise, which articulate – and set alongside one another – alternative understandings for reflective comparison), participatory ‘backcasting’. Less traditional methods such as Inayatullah’s causal layered analysis can be used to ‘unpack’ issues and then reframe them.
Additionally, many writers have emphasised the related important roles of ‘representations of the future’ (e.g. of scenarios, visions). They can be a means of agreement e.g. via persuasive storytelling which achieves agreement on a particular vision. The creation of visions of possible futures can also help to stimulate reflection and broaden the scope of strategic choices.
3) Improving inter-organisational learning and innovation where goals are relatively clear but the road ahead to achieve them is uncertain, or change is radical. An important example is decarbonising the economy (or the energy system) or the related policy goal of long-term energy security. In these circumstances – and when seeking radical changes, more generally – traditional ‘command-and-control’ approaches are typically problematic (see paper). A pioneering example of this was conducted by the Sustainable Technology Development programme, which worked with relevant networks of actors that have the capacity to help address particular problems and co-create ideas for initiating ‘trend-breaking change’. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s “E-lab” project is using similar collaborative innovation approaches to try to “accelerate the transformation of the U.S. electricity system to a more efficient, renewable, and affordable future”. Key questions: what new innovation models are needed to enable major innovations for sustainability? What new approaches – that better address the uncertainty in complex human-environmental problems – can be enabled by futures research methods?
- Issues/challenges include: limitation of traditional planning in such circumstances; the role of social power; limitations of markets (e.g. potential for market failure); ‘lock-in’ problems; actors playing strategic ‘expectations games’ (e.g. promoting competing visions).
- Opportunities include: enabling new joint ‘search processes’, e.g. via vision-building and backcasting exercises, amongst influential or innovating actors (the latter are termed ‘frontrunners’ in the transition management approach); ‘roadmapping’ exercises; harness the role of expectations (about the future) for guiding transition processes.
Linked with this Angela Wilkinson from Oxford University Smith School of Enterprise and Environment has written about how innovative forms of scenario-building can contribute to collaborative action. Thus futures methods can provide new tools for facilitating change in multi-stakeholder situations. Linked with this, some scholars have argued that scenarios can be better harnessed as ‘boundary objects’ that support deliberative processes/governance.
4) Developing corporate sustainability strategies (or ‘corporate sustainability foresight’). Some recent examples, such as Nike’s innovative use of scenario planning, indicate that futures methods can help with forming and agreeing major sustainability commitments, supporting strategies, and new product/service development. Other firms have adopted futures analysis to assist in the creation of robust climate strategies. Key questions: how – at the firm level – can innovation be enabled by integrating stategic foresight and susainability strategy?
- Issues/challenges include: short-termism; need for management buy-in (ideally CEO-led)
- Opportunities include: scenario planning, climate change strategy
Greater progress in these areas would help to enable significant change and innovation – indeed reactive learning is currently dominant in many (if not most) contexts, and there are many important sustainability impasses that need to be overcome (as noted in an earlier post). Feedback and additional thoughts and ideas are welcomed – see the form below!