Management professor Richard Rumelt has made the following interesting argument:
Many writers on strategy seem to suggest that the more dynamic the situation, the farther ahead a leader must look [i.e. into the future]. This is illogical. The more dynamic the situation, the poorer your foresight will be. Therefore, the more uncertain and dynamic the situation, the more proximate a strategic objective must be (Rumelt 2011).
One of the reasons why this is an interesting argument is because increasingly we see the opposite. We see this regarding new and emerging technologies and their potential social and environmental implications. As Robin Williams, who is a leading Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar, noted back in 2006 regarding nanotechnology and biotechnology “there seems to be an attempt to look further into the future and map the technical and social outcomes in greater detail than previously”. It has continued to grow since then. We see this regarding future energy production and usage, such as regarding the potential for major low-carbon transitions and the potential forms such transitions could take. And, of course, we also see this regarding future biophysical changes and their potential implications (e.g. by developing detailed computer-based models and future projections).
In their book Worlds in Transition Camilleri and Falk make the related argument that a major normative readjustment in human governance is developing via which “the future is ethically telescoped into the present” (p. 549). They argue that:
Policies and institutions are no longer viewed purely from the vantage point of their immediate or relatively short-term ramifications. The future, stretching over centuries and even millennia, is being telescoped into present-day social and political discourse by scientists, lawyers, public intellectuals, a large and growing public and significant policy networks. This is the function of foresight” (pp. 547-548).
Camilleri and Falk further observe that “the capacity to produce complex models which can predict the future consequences of human actions, itself a product of higher levels of reflexivity, translates future consequences into current ethical dilemmas, not least in the sphere of governance (p. 548).
So are such efforts to look far ahead and related arguments fundamentally mistaken?
In some cases, yes they are. For instance it may be better to focus on proximate objectives (i.e. in the near-future) given the barriers to foresight regarding the far future. Modelling that attempts to look out to 2040 or to 2050 may be so uncertain and full of suspect assumptions as to provide little or no useful information. If you’re facing a dynamic and uncertain situation it may be wiser to be responsive.
Rumelt further argues that strategy isn’t about the far future. That is, he argues that strategy should focus on proximate objectives, something critical which can be accomplished in the near-future.
Connecting this with bigger picture sustainability issues, some of Rumelt’s arguments reminded me of the perspective Ruth DeFries expresses in her book The Big Ratchet which emphasises ongoing adaptation and learning, and the frequent development of what she terms “pivots” to address current problems. In an uncertain, complex world “muddling through” is often wise and the norm.
In other cases, no. The long view can have value and be of strategic importance despite the barriers to foresight when facing dynamic and uncertain situations. For example, research on the longer-term risks posed by the building greenhouse effect (e.g. James Hansen’s latest paper) is useful for risk management, such as regarding potential sea-level rise by 2100 (e.g. due to ice sheet disintegration) and its potential implications for current policy. This can also prompt further debate about mitigation requirements, considering or balancing both the demands of the future and the demands of the present. Additionally, attempts to look far ahead can be useful for a range of non-informational purposes. Scenarios, modelling practices, and so on, are used for a range of reasons, many of which are highly political (see Richard Denniss’ great essays in The Monthly). Perhaps there is no better example than the Intergenerational Report: Australia in 2055 released by the Australian Government which prominently features scenarios and modelling that the Federal government used to try to justify its budget and related policies focussed on ending the so-called “age of entitlement”.
Particularly when non-informational purposes are primary, methods or strategies that seek to increase the focus on the far future may be strategically useful despite barriers to achieving foresight. Although this can be risky, as Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey found when the Intergenerational Report was critiqued and consequently more people questioned claims about a “budget emergency”.
More broadly in environmental politics the spectre of the future is often central despite our often poor foresight. Is this a good or a bad thing? There is perhaps no better example to consider than the emergence of the population control movement in the 20th century and related fears of “overshoot” and collapse. On the one hand we shouldn’t sleepwalk into the future and not consider population growth and its potential future implications. On the other hand, this experience does suggest that efforts to look far ahead are often mistaken and need to be critically considered, given the often disastrous social consequences of this movement and the fact that many related predictions never came to pass. Historian Matthew Connelly provocatively argues in Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population that “the greatest threat of the future, now as ever, is that focussing only on what may be will lead us to overlook the lessons, and legacies, of the past” (Connelly, 2008, p. 371). In this sense the long view often should equally consider the past as well as the emerging future.
Additionally, we also cannot discount the possibility that in a world ever-more characterised by dynamic, uncertain situations there may be declining returns from investments in attempts to look far ahead.
Camilleri, J.A. & Falk, J. 2009, Worlds in Transition: Evolving Governance Across a Stressed Planet, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK; Northhampton, MA, USA.
Connelly, M. 2008, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England.
DeFries, R. 2014, The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis, Basic Books.
Rumelt, R.P. 2011, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters, Crown Business, New York.
Williams, R. 2006, ‘Compressed Foresight and Narrative Bias: Pitfalls in Assessing High Technology Futures’, Science as Culture, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 327-48.