Early in my PhD studies I reviewed the literature on so-called ‘foresight’ practices such as on scenario-building, scenario-based planning, and techno-economic modelling. What came through clearly is that there is a dominant set of ideas about these practices. These ideas can be termed the received wisdom. These ideas include that foresight methods and practices are principally used to help decision-makers to cope with uncertainty (e.g. helping managers to cope with uncertainty during strategy making), that the main goal is to support decision-making, and that scenarios and related scenario practices are “cognitive devices”. The notion of a cognitive device refers to the claim that these practices stimulate reflection about causal processes in the external environment and about decision-makers’ underlying assumptions (mental models), thereby informing or supporting action. Rip and Parandian (2013) term such cognitive outcomes the “enlightenment” function of scenarios, asserting that “[a]s is well known, scenarios sensitize and enlighten their users to think more broadly about futures”.
One of the surprising things about this literature is that most papers are fairly apolitical. That is, the social context in which a foresight method or practice is being used isn’t considered in much depth or detail, such as the political dimensions to this context. In contrast, management scientists argue that strategy making is often political and, consequently, strategies are decided in (or shaped by) political processes. Other aspects of the literature should also be critically considered by practitioners.
What’s especially missing is any critical analysis of the ways that groups attempt to mobilise the future as part of attempts to generate institutional change or reduce inertia. For example, scenarios or scenario practices may play political functions more than a cognitive/enlightenment function.
Related to this we need to focus more of our thinking, practice and research on the following five areas/topics:
- How actors seek to initiate or resist change in situations of high/increasing uncertainty (e.g. institutional change);
- Agency processes, such as the management of expectations (see Beckert 2013), and related strategies that are used (e.g. to increase the sense of uncertainty or level of perceived risk);
- The causes and consequences of “compressed” foresight;
- The broader social constitution of expectations; and
- Economic and political behaviour under uncertainty, especially in the context of fundamental uncertainty (i.e. which cannot be reduced by gaining more information).
These areas / topics are briefly considered below:
1) Initiating or resisting change in situations of high/increasing uncertainty (e.g. institutional change): in addition to making strategic decisions under conditions of high/increasing uncertainty, actors often also seek to initiate forms of collective strategic action as part of efforts to bring about desired changes such as institutional change (or reduced institutional inertia). The use of foresight practices could be part of efforts to seed or further such collective action. Furthermore, actors can strategically use increasing uncertainty when initiating change. For example, some sociologists argue that increasing ‘environmental’ uncertainty can temporarily grant ‘challenger’ groups greater leverage (Fligstein & McAdam 2012).
2) Agency processes such as the management of expectations: the management of expectations refers to efforts to directly influence expectations in order to influence present action. Such actions could be done as part of efforts to seek political leverage and/or shape interpretations of the situation. A topical example in Australia is that the current Federal Government has tried to define the current situation as a “budget emergency” in order to justify its policies. As part of this the government has articulated a range of future scenarios based on different possible policy settings and related assumptions (e.g. assumptions about economic growth, the economy more broadly, etc). The management of expectations can also be a strategy used to initiate change (as per the above theme). For example, some social scientists studying sustainability transition processes have begun to theorise the ‘expectations work’ that’s done as part of efforts to try to accelerate transitions (e.g. low-carbon transitions).
An example from my own PhD research is the expectations work done by advocates of alternative transport fuels (eg. advocates of greater local production of biofuels, waste-to-oil programs, or electricity as a transport ‘fuel’). For example, these advocates have used scenario analysis and modelling as part of their efforts to influence policy-makers expectations in particular their perception of vulnerability and risk. Related to this, advocates use the cultural frame of liquid fuel security to try to build support.
This sort of expectations work is less about examining one’s own underlying assumptions (or mental models), and more about influencing others’ expectations in order to influence their choices.
Consider the original Limits to Growth study. Many people think the study proved that physical limits to growth exist and, linked with this, that proving this was a core goal of the study. Instead, the researchers assumed the existence of such limits, presented information “in order to make the idea of limits plausible” (as outlined here), and then sought to explore the implications of these limits
3) The causes and consequences of “compressed” foresight: Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar Robin Williams developed the concept of compressed foresight to describe the ways that “attempts at foresight, at anticipation of the future” are often “compacted and compressed” when attempts are made “to resolve from the outset debates about the future prospects and implications of new technology”. (Consider current debates about genetic engineering technologies, 3D printing, and/or about new forms of energy storage). Responding to foresight-related trends Williams writes:
There seems to be an attempt to look further into the future and map the technical and social outcomes in greater detail than previously, which can make these futures appear as largely determinate and imminent; as if the future is already assured, already here. Attempts at foresight are thus foreshortened; the future is compressed into the present. These accounts breach some of the key tenets of contemporary sociology of S&T [Science and Technology], which criticizes reified treatments of emerging technologies as though they were coherent bundles of capabilities, exhibiting rather predictable innovation trajectories and determinate sets of impacts. [The argument is elaborated in this paper]
I think he’s spot-on. Furthermore, I think this can be seen in many environmental debates in which attempts are increasingly made “to look further into the future” and to “resolve from the outset” debates about many new technologies (ranging from energy storage technologies, to new forms of additive manufacturing, through to possible new climate engineering technologies). There are also attempts to look further into the future regarding biophysical changes and related potential issues. Whilst greater future-orientation is often very important, we need to be wary of the potential for foresight to be “compressed” not enhanced (as may be the objective) and the consequences of this. The broader point is that use of foresight practices may actually result in compressed foresight.
4) The social constitution of expectations: sociologists argue that peoples’ expectations about the future are based on both individual interpretations and, to some extent, prevailing institutional structures, cultural templates and so on that they draw on and are “enmeshed” in. The existing foresight literature emphasises cognitive aspects (e.g. information processing, cognitive reflection, etc), not the ways that expectations are, in part, socially constituted. Something that fascinates me is the way that people often form strong expectations despite the indeterminacy of the situations they frequently face. How can we explain this? How do people form strong expectations under such conditions?
For example, some people like Dennis Meadows (who led the Limits to Growth study) argue that what lies ahead is “a period of uncontrolled decline” that will “bring us to some new equilibrium”. How did Meadows reach such a view, and how did he become some confident that his view is correct? Modeling doesn’t prove that the future will be characterised by “uncontrolled decline”. Something else is going on.
5) Economic and political behaviour under uncertainty, especially in the context of fundamental uncertainty: one major challenge for managers making strategy is dealing with the uncertainties that they often face (e.g. about markets, new technologies, the ‘environment’). One type of behaviour is strategic efforts to control or reduce uncertainty. As economic sociologists like Neil Fligstein have shown, the reduction of uncertainty (not simply coping with uncertainty) is often important for the formation of new markets. This often requires the creation of market institutions. Consequently, a participatory foresight activity – such as a collaborative industry roadmapping exercise – may, in part, need to help negotiate such means of reducing uncertainty. This is only one example. Other behaviours also need to be considered, e.g. the “temporal work” done by decision-makers in order to agree on new strategic actions/directions during periods of high uncertainty (e.g. during an industry crisis).
Further examining these areas / topics can assist us with rethinking the received wisdom on ‘foresight’. My view is that this can assist with (i) better understanding the ways that such tools and approaches are used in-practice (versus the received wisdom), and (ii) enabling more effective/influential practice.
More broadly, I also think that such inquiry can provide important new insights into environmental politics such as further exploring the ways that groups attempt to mobilise the future and related contestation. We also need to better understand the expectations work involved in sustainability-related innovation. Foresight methods and practices are increasingly used as part of such work.