After nearly ten years of foresight practice, I still get a slight sinking feeling in my stomach when someone asks ‘what is foresight?’ This is not because I have lost the fire, or I don’t believe foresight is useful, rather it is an indication that a) the term still has little currency and b) I have to come up with a persuasive sounding explanation. I gave up long ago trying for a ‘one size fits all’ elevator pitch, my most successful interactions have been where I match the message to the receiver. I have also learned to match my explanation to the situation, I am often asked the question on the side of sports grounds watching kids hitting/kicking/throwing an air filled bladder around early on a weekend morning, so a full blown pitch at civilizational foresight does not seem warranted. The main issue with explaining foresight is that it is a broad church of worldviews, methods and tools. It can be applied to most problems, in most situations and whilst this generalisability is a core strength, it is also a weakness in a world that rewards specialisation.
So, what do I reply?
If the person asking has come from an organisational background, I link it to strategic planning – ‘answering the why and which way questions before we plan’ this usually gets me across the line, with follow-up questions about the process, how long it takes, who does it, where it is taught etc. If the person comes from an education/design/advertising/marketing background I answer something about the thinking capacities of adult humans and making the usual everyday foresight we practice institutionalised and useful to organisations, follow-up questions include why, who does this, where do you learn it, where can I read about it etc. Sometimes, especially if I have had a week of reading about sea ice levels, increasingly restricted resources and our political failure to act, I may lean towards answering with reference to descent, energy transitions and soft vs hard landings – there are usually no follow-up questions and people back away slowly. During these weeks, I try very hard not to draw attention to myself at dinner parties, having the experience of it all suddenly becoming about my work and what I ‘see’ in the future is not relaxing on a Saturday night, especially as I sometimes end up with a group of people ‘depressed’ about the future that is approaching.
Over time, I find I am getting worse at hiding my eye rolling when people reference crystal balls, stock market predictions and the newest technology. I think my response, while juvenile, is the embodiment of a view that the time for short-termism is over, we require long-term thinking at all levels of society.
Of course, foresight starts with some assumptions: there is no such thing as a future fact, there are only views of what might happen as no-one ‘knows’ the future, and we can shape or create the future we want through planning, navigation and flexibility. The type of foresight I utilise comes from an integral systems perspective – everything is connected to everything else, moving into complexity – looking for emergent properties. I don’t generate trends or undertake forecasting, I focus on capacity building and engagement in projects that leave the client able to think strategically and with foresight, so most of the time I am facilitating people through a process. I want to engage people in thinking differently about their world, I enjoy the challenge of creating new ways of assisting that process, using tools and methods from a wide range of sources.
At a high level, there are generally four phases to a foresight project/process:
– input/analysis – what do we think is coming down the pipeline from the future – how far out you look is a function of the type of work you are doing, try to look as broadly as possible.
– interpretation – why do we think one thing and not another is important? what might really be happening? what are our assumptions in this? try to deepen where/how we are looking.
– prospection – based on what we have analysed and the sense we have made of it – what are the forward views that we can construct – normally there will be more than one but it could be that a group wants to create a preferred future
– action – what will the action be in response to the future views we have created? So a strategic positioning activity of some type – depending on the output required
Foresight has an infinite number of tools and processes that can be utilised, the art comes in matching the need with the tool, and developing the capacity to think broadly, deeply and long-term. In my opinion, a good foresight process should connect to strategy, lay the complexity of a situation bare for all to see and empower people to act in the face of it. If a group is finding easy answers, I’d be checking the questions being asked.