Actionable Foresight operates from the premise that in order to usefully use foresight we need to:

  1. Understand as best we can what is the fundamental issue we face;
  2. Find new pathways of thinking about the situation, the circumstances and ourselves in order to expand the future option space;
  3. Generate working models of those future options – including what happens to the fundamental issue, what happens to the circumstances, what else emerges and, very importantly, what is the pathway to that option; and finally
  4. We need to choose an option and then commit to its future pathway.

This approach is consistent with our understanding of how people utilise ‘hope’ in order to transcend difficult circumstances and to find purpose. It is also a process that creates the favourable conditions for also ‘finding’ hope and purpose. So our approach bootstraps itself onto our innate capacities and also develops those capacities. Yet this approach is quite different to what most people would understand as the most useful way to use the future – making a forecast and then acting on the basis of what the forecast says. Does this mean that we don’t think forecasting is useful?

To answer this it is best that we ensure what it is we mean when we use the term forecast.  A forecast does attempt to make use of the future (like foresight does). A forecast:

  1. Starts with a question or problem about the future – “will it rain tomorrow?” “how many people are going to need a hospital bed in ten years time?” “how much food are we going to need to produce on the planet to feed the estimated population a hundred years from now?”
  2. Next you collect data that you think is relevant to the question you are asking;
  3. Then you build a model of how the future will work itself out based on the data you are using. This model can be as simple as how you think the world works (“Give people more education and they will become more responsible citizens”) or as complex as a detailed computer simulation (The World3 simulation used in the Limits to Growth, the Climate Change models used by the IPCC or the Meteorological models used to forecast tomorrows weather);
  4. Next you test your model on the only hard data you have of how the world really works – the past. You run your computer simulations time and time again, changing variables and weightings to reduce your forecast error or you use your memories of what happened in the past in order to test your ideas about how the future works;
  5. Now you reach the big decision point – “Is my model valid based on all my testing against the past?”  If you answer “yes” then your answer to your initial question is what your model tells you the future will be based on the most current data you have. You have faith in your model – faith in your judgement of the past, faith in the past as a reliable predictor of the future – and so you act accordingly. If you say “No” then you doubt your model – you doubt your judgement or you doubt the past as a reliable predictor of the future – and so you need to do something else. Build a new model or try something different.

So, do we think forecasting is useful?

Employing a forecasting approach to the future gets you to a clear decision point. It closes down the potential future option space to a single point – “this will probably happen, so you should do this”. For issues that employ solutions that have very long development times – (the new Hong Kong International airport took 17 years to be fully built) a forecast is very useful otherwise how does it every get started. For issues that do not have a huge consequence effect if they are wrong (it will be fine tomorrow so I won’t take an umbrella) then a forecast is good enough. The most useful point about forecasts is that they are deeply compatible with conventional thinking. You don’t need to explain to most people how to use a forecast. Give a person a forecast then if they have faith in it (and you) then they may well act accordingly.

So forecasts are useful. Sometimes, but we believe they are also fraught. Everything up to step 5 in a forecast is a mechanical, logical process that is as good as the person doing it and the process being used. But the 5th step is the critical one. “Do you have faith in your model – faith in your judgement of the past, faith in the past as a reliable predictor of the future?” If you have faith, then forecasts will be useful. If you have doubt, however, then we would suggest that Actionable Foresight might be useful. We do not say that Actionable Foresight will necessarily cause you to rediscover faith in your judgement or faith in the past as a reliable predictor of the future. But you might discover hope or purpose and we think they are very useful.

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