Category: Peter Hayward

The field of foresight has always employed instruments to aid our ability to make wise future-focussed decisions. The entrails of the sheep, the crystal ball, the Monte Carlo simulation, the scenario and the agent-based model are all examples of the development of better foresight instruments.

As the numbers  of the foresight Greek chorus grow and their lamentations of the coming of “Peak Oil”, “Peak Debt”, “Peak Calories” and “Peak Water”, to name a few, grow stronger than what instruments can help us? If we are arriving at a new epoch of limits, both climate and resource based, then what do we build as the next foresight instrument?  It is ourselves that has to become the best foresight instrument it can be.

For what else is there than can rationally consider the tragedy of our societies seemingly ‘head-in-the sand’ or ‘duck and hope’ strategies to our many serious challenges we face and not despair?  What else is there that can seemingly stand on the abyss and find hope, humour and motivation? It is just ourselves.

I see them in the classroom and the workshop. Often they are there to gain knowledge and to sharpen their thinking by gaining a critical, and not cynical, edge. They come to play, to practice and to listen to each other. They seek companionship and some measure of legitimation while they are on this difficult journey.  Certainly developing your cognitive, creative and emotional intelligences does improve the foresight instrument.

But the biggest single improvement in the foresight instrument that we can make is to add that feature that energises it – to add to it a battery that seems to not need recharging. What is this source of inspiration and spirit – it is love. For within all of us, often buried a long way down, is that core of who we all are together. It transcends reason and logic because when we get back to that place it is just so clear as to ‘Why’. When that is clear then What and How are much closer to hand.

There is no shortage to ways to make this improvement. I just encourage everyone to just find time to find a practice and a way that works for them. You will be so glad you made the effort and investment and importantly all of us will be so happy as well because we need everyone on this. We need everyone because like Ernest Shackleton on ice – no one can be left behind.

Amongst those people who are alert to the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change coupled with peak oil frustration is building as political debates seem to discuss everything else except this, the UN Copenhagen fiasco portends further international talk fests that accomplish little and the tiny steps attempted towards reform (“we might put a price on carbon”) are quickly tossed out of the balloon when some group complains. To many people actual progress is proceeding at a pre-global warming glacial pace. To those people the need to move to a low carbon or even carbon free energy future is critical if we are to prevent runaway global warming. Yet around them they see almost nothing is changing. In Australia we are digging the black and brown coal up as fast as we can and either sending it off to China or burning it to meet or urban energy needs to run our plasma televisions,  and air conditioners. Any entrepreneur who proposes a wind turbine farm is certainly going to be opposed by group objecting to the ruination of the landscape, the danger to wildlife or the impact on property prices. Meanwhile state governments invest in freeways rather than public transport and the proliferation of low cost airlines and the growth in per capita air miles is seen as an unproblematic ‘good’.

It is opportune that Vaclav Smil’s latest offering, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, has just landed. Smil is required, if uncomfortable reading, for anyone who professes a concern in matters to do with energy transition. In his previous writings Smil has outlined in forensic detail all aspects of our current energy system. In his previous books Smil has destroyed the optimistic claims proffered by alternative energy proponents that we can maintain our current economic and social systems by just changing from carbon-based systems to something else. The numbers just do not add up. So is Smil also impatient for change? No he is not.

In this book Smil outlines how the energy transformation that we must make, and we will make it, is a generational exercise. The history of energy system transformations show us that anything up to four generations would be needed to accomplish the bulk of the economic, political, scientific and social unwinding and rewinding that will have to take place. When we change how we get our energy, and especially if the energy that is coming gives a lower energy return on its investment then everything must change –  by everything he means how we live, work, feed ourselves, educate our children, form communities, relate to other people, form our geopolitical relationships, fight our wars, entertain ourselves and create art. Everything.

Smil’s latest warning is that people are underestimating the extent of change and overestimating how quickly the changes can occur. When things move slowly, as Smil says they must, then people will get frustrated, will toss out their political leaders because they are not ‘doing anything’, and then toss out the ones after that because they are no better. What will follow is decline in institutional respect, suspicion that others are ‘free riding’ on the backs of others who are trying to do the ‘right things’ and commercial enterprises will flee from investing in the necessary innovations.

Into this unpleasant scenario I inject myself and all the other like-minded souls who are concerned about the future. What should we do, given Smil’s prediction? I suggest we need to practice patience and purpose.

If Smil is right, and I think he is pretty close, then I think preaching and practicing patience is a good first step. We need to realise that we are unlikely to see the desired transition in our lifetimes. Rather than blame others for failing to do more we should adopt the philosophy of the people who built the great cathedrals and their like. Begin a monumental building process that will be completed and enjoyed by those who come after us. Ours is not the key generation, not the group who will save the world. It merely is the generation that realises that a lot needs to be done and so starting work is far more important that thinking about the end. Adopting and living to that purpose might be the best thing we can do.

Patience and purpose together. The necessary changes will be made quickest when someone starts, so we are the ones who can start now. We need the patience to realise that our individual actions will be largely invisible, like the actions of the person who lays one stone in a wall are largely invisible when the wall is completed.  We need the purpose to stay at the task while others are not doing likewise. Someone needs to start, I think it needs to be us.

There is a pair of questions about the future that when people are asked, no matter where in the world and when it was asked, they evoke the same set of answers.

The questions?

  1. Do you think you will have a good future?
  2. Do you think the world will have a good future?

The answers?

  1. Yes
  2. No

It seems a curious pair of answers when you first see them. We have an answer why we see that pair. You see people are confident about “I” futures – the ones that I control by my own actions – while people are less confident about “We” futures – the ones where a bunch of I’s need to act in a way that supports their mutual interest.

Thus we come to one of the most critical goals of doing foresight work – working with groups to help them create shared futures – “We” futures. While it is important that individuals feel hopeful about their own futures it is critical that we also develop hope in our shared futures too. These are the big ones that occupy a lot of our thoughts.

So can we do it? Yes we can (Doesn’t that sound familiar)?

We know how to do this by visiting a theory of moral reasoning – a philosophical approach called The Social Contract. In this theory of moral reasoning we should make decisions as if each and every one of us had contracted to act in our collective interest. Sounds cool doesn’t it?  The core of this theory is contained in a game of logic called The Prisoner’s Dilemma – if we can make the correct call in the game then we can always make moral decisions.

The game goes like this.

“You are in a totalitarian country and you are arrested by the police and charged with a crime you did not commit. You know that there is no group that is going to get you out of this situation; you have to get yourself out. You learn from your captors that someone else, someone called Smith, has also been arrested and is currently being interrogated along with you. Your captors tell you they must have some to charge with the crime. They don’t care who it is, either you or Smith will do. They offer you this deal. If you cooperate and give evidence against Smith and he refuses to cooperate then he goes to jail for 10 years. If Smith cooperates and gives evidence against you while you refuse to cooperate then you get the 10 years. If you both cooperate and give evidence against one another then you will each get 5 years. If you both refuse to cooperate, well they will have to release you both and then go and get another couple of people and start again.”

You don’t know Smith and will never meet Smith. So what do you say to your captor? Your best decision from your “I” perspective is to cooperate – either you get out if Smith doesn’t or you get 5 years if he does. The best outcome for both of you is a “We” future – both refuse and both go free. But here is the clincher – Do you trust Smith? If you act in such a way as to get both of you out, refuse, then Smith is out no matter what he decides. Because you acted in such a way as to expose yourself to hazard then a good future is possible for both of you. If you trust Smith then that is the only decision you can make. But can you trust someone that you have never met?

And that is what goes to the core of “We” futures – building ideas of good futures based on trusting the other party, even if we don’t know them and never will know them. The big car and house, the round the world holidays – If we both take it all then we both are in trouble. However, If I don’t cooperate and I trust you to do the same then we have a good future together – I trust you notwithstanding that you might betray me and take the holiday, car and house anyway. If I act in any other way then I’m consigning myself to a bad future.

But can I trust you …

From time to time we find ourselves speaking to the next generation of leaders about leading for the future. And not surprisingly we speak about, and place a premium, on the quality of people’s thinking. We extol to people that “the level of thinking that creates a problem is rarely about to solve it” (with apologies to Albert Einstein or whoever is supposed to have said that). Without fail when you listen to and analyse the way that these proto-leaders are thinking, you hear and see how they are trying mightily to transcend the narrowness of previous modes of thought.

One mode of ‘prior’ thinking that gets a thorough caning is the thinking underlying most of our institutions. Like the famous Monty Python sketch about “what have the Romans done for us?”

Institutional thinking is seen as outmoded, slow, narrow, restrictive and totally unsuited to our modern times and thoroughly modern challenges. So naturally our problems require thinking that is un-institutional. This all seems perfectly obvious so where exactly is the problem?

The problem is that large scale change requires institutional steps to change the laws, rules, boundaries, agreements in order for those changes to become widely adopted. Without institutions then change is always just a matter of individual personal choice. Garret Hardin showed in his archetype, ‘the tragedy of the commons’, that well thought out individual action can maximise the personal and bring down the collective very well. At some stage rules are going to have to be established and enforced that compel the bulk of people to conform to a set of agreed social agreements. And along with these social agreements we will also need a whole bunch of people to enforce and possibly even punish people who will not conform. Climate change is one such change that is only going to managed at a planetary level when a planet full of individuals begin to cede their individualism to the rights of institutions.

Yet the post-modern way, the post-conventional way, is to see the institutional as always being shallow and prior to their way of seeing the world. So as a person’s perspective grows then the institutional is left behind, not for them, not for their leadership. Who, therefore, is left to do institutional leadership? Who would want to be a plodder, to do the long and hard yards that are necessary to get laws changed, to fight for new rules? Who would want to sacrifice their efforts to support an institution, somewhere were their individual efforts are subsumed into the collective? In our world in the thrall of change, innovation, and creativity then those who push knowledge forward are seen as the leaders; the creators. Someone nameless and faceless has to follow behind and institutionalise the best of those innovations otherwise they never really change the world. Ideas don’t change the world; they need to be institutionalised to do that. The idea of women voting didn’t change the world; the fight to get women the vote did that. The concern about the environment did not change the world; the new rules around environment protection did that. And as soon as something is institutionalised it is out of date, now part of the problem not part of the solution. Who wants to be that?

The funny thing about knowledge is that it is always provisional. An idea is only as current as it is, until a better idea comes along. Thus we see the ceaseless growth of knowledge as progress. Institutions are different. Find the error in an idea and we get a new, better idea. Find the flaw in an institution then we get a weakened institution, we don’t automatically get a better one. Diminish the institutions of politics, of education, of commerce and you get a weaker, less effective institution because it is less respected, less authoritative. Someone else has to come along afterwards and build the new institution, do the hard yards, make all the new deals, create the new agreements.

So when we talk to the new leaders about the future, those who grasp the need for new ideas, we ask them are you prepared to build the new institutions that we need? Because if you don’t who will? Someone has to. But it will take time, maybe more than your lifetime to do. And if you do commit yourself to building the new institutions then you know that there is someone who was like you who now sees you as part of the past, too slow, too reactive, the problem and not the solution.

What kind of leader will you be? What kind of leader does the future need you to be?

An interesting report has just popped out from America. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has just published their Projection of Jobs and Education requirements through 2018. And it is a very interesting read. The report, called Help Wanted, is scathing in its criticism of previous job and education forecasts pointing out that the data is available to make better forecasts but the data is not used.

“Unfortunately, the poor quality of the official projections cascades downward through state and local data systems into the hands of policy makers . .. Ultimately, the official data misinform the educational choices and career plans of individuals. These are the wrong times for inadequate information on jobs and skill requirements… Educational and career planning need to catch up and adjust to this new reality.”

I agree completely with the above sentiments of the report authors but, as a foresight thinker, I disagree with their conclusions. Let me explain.

The report writers find that the historical data back to the 1970s (correctly) shows that jobs requiring post high school education have grown quicker than forecast and that jobs requiring only high school education have disappeared faster than forecast.  Their projection based on this is, of course:

“By 2018, about two-thirds of all employment will require some college education or better “ (in 1973 it was 28%).

The report goes on to say that recessions have been where this shake-out is most stark, because the jobs that disappear do not always return.

“In the past two recessions, the typical job loser was a high school-educated male in a blue collar job, such as manufacturing or construction, working in the middle of the country. In the past two recoveries, the typical job gainer was a female with a postsecondary education who lived on either coast and worked in a service occupation—particularly healthcare, education, or business services. That picture is not changing.”

In that single finding are a world future pain in areas like social cohesion and health outcomes. A future where a previously dominant group lose power, income and social standing is one fraught with turmoil and upset. That is not news. But the clincher for me is that last sentence.  What has happened over the past 40 years will continue into the future. But will it?

As you dig further into the report you find findings like these:

Hundreds of thousands of low-skill jobs in manufacturing, farming, fishing, and forestry have been permanently destroyed because the recession has further prompted employers to either automate those positions or ship them offshore to take advantage of cheap labor. Overall, we project 637,000 jobs in the Manufacturing and Natural Resources industries will meet such fates by 2018.

And where will the new jobs be appearing?  “The most intense concentrations of postsecondary workers are in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Education, Healthcare, Community Services, Arts, Managerial and Professional Office Occupations.”

In the 21st century, computers and related inventions are transforming the U.S. economic landscape—boosting productivity so companies can produce more with less and spurring an economic shift from Manufacturing to Services. That is why, when old-line Manufacturing and Natural Resources jobs disappear, they often don’t come back.

So the thrust of the report in simple terms is Primary and Secondary sectors jobs will continue to disappearing and the growth will be in the Tertiary sector. The historical data supports this, the logic says that this is valid and thus our future projection is a certainty.  This is about the place that a foresight thinker is looking for the exit from the theatre.

This is an utterly safe, logical, rigorous and evidence-based piece of policy analysis that makes perfect sense … and wait for it … only if the assumptions of the single scenario world of 2018 come true. And what are those (unstated) assumptions? They are quite simple really – in the future we won’t need to worry about growing, digging and chopping things up and then turning those resources into physical things because in the future it will be cheaper for someone else to do that for us. It’s all about cheap energy stupid, we have had lots in the past 40 years and we will continue to have lots into the future.

I’ve looked long and hard to find those assumptions stated in the report but I can’t see them. I guess the writers and the readers don’t need to be aware that other scenarios are possible.  It’s safe to assume that things will remain the same.

The future doesn’t always cooperate with those who play it safe. Billy Joel’s song Allentown described the young of Pennsylvania whose predecessors’ ‘safe’ future didn’t actually work out

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown

For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved.

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real

If you are looking for a contemporary image of how the future might play out when the ‘safe’ scenario doesn’t work out then check out Howard Kunstler’s post peak oil novel – The World Made by Hand which includes this memorable exchange between a young ‘tertiary  educated’ male whose education didn’t fit a low energy world that needed primary and secondary sectors skills rather than the safe future tertiary ones  and an older male whose life had spanned both worlds – pre- peak  energy and post-peak energy.

Shawn limped slightly.

“Did you hurt yourself?” I said.

“I fell off Mr. Schmidt’s barn roof.”

“What were you doing up there?”

“Fixing it. What do you think?”

We walked a ways in silence. I hadn’t known him to be so irritable before.

“It’s been might hot lately,” I said.

“It’s not just the heat . Jesus, Robert, look how we live? I’m practically a serf. You know what a serf is?”

“Of course I do. I went to college,” I said and regretted it right away. “You know, Shawn, even back in normal time’s people got down and depressed. In fact, you could argue that people are generally better off now mentally that back then. We follow the natural cycles. We eat real food instead of processed crap full of chemicals. We’re not jacked up on coffee and television and sexy advertising all the time. No more anxiety about credit card bills –“

“I don’t want to debate.”

“I bet its true, though.”

“Find someone else if you want to have a debate.”

“It’s just conversation.”

“Whatever you call it, quit trying to persuade me that everything is great okay” he said and stopped in his tracks. I stopped too. His face was red and tendons stood out in his neck. He was a large young man, and he looked a little scary.

“You frustrate the hell out of me son,” I said.

“Do I? I work like a dog. Harder than this dog. From sun up to sundown, like a medieval peasant.  I do it with hardly any sense of a future, and the last thing I need is a lecture from the generation that screwed up the world.”

I can imagine all the safe reports that preceded that exchange between the past and the future. All the rigorous and evidence based data that was used to create a better future. Safe and sorry.

One of the most easily understood ways of evoking foresight when you are part of a decision-making process is to utter the phrase “what is the worst case scenario?” Almost everyone understands when that phrase is asked then they have to imagine things not working out as they expect/hope and then to decide whether the ‘risk/opportunity’ arising from the decision outweighs that non-preferred future. This is one way to test the Goal Commitment of decision-makers.

The worst case scenario is also used when a person is trapped in a low-hope circumstance and they believe that a recommended course of action will only make things more hopeless. When the worst case is closely examined and does not seem so disastrous then a low hope person can find the self agency to take the course of action and hope can be restored.

The attraction for practitioners is to think that such a commonly understood use of the foresight can be deliberately employed to open up a foresight space in decision-making processes. Further it could be imagined that evoking ‘worst case’ will lead to better, more foresightful decision-making. But will it? I have just read a very useful book on this very topic. Called, not surprisingly, Worst Case Scenarios by Cass Sunstein (2007), and it takes a serious look at the strengths and weaknesses in this foresight approach. The book does makes for uncomfortable reading at one level as it clearly concludes that the serious consideration of the ‘worst case’ is a bridge too far for most people. Still within it I did find some hopeful signs.

While there are a few examples of the social capacity to consider the worst case scenario (e.g. CFC gas bans, Y2K, Swine Flu) history, at the present, is replete with examples of policy and leadership trainwrecks in this regard (Hurricane Katrina, global warming, 2009 Victorian bushfires) and few issues that keep some of us awake at night (GM food, nannotech). Sunstein’s hypothesis is that we can’t use worst case scenarios about futures that people don’t have a current referent for. So domestic airline security was not a referent for a worst case scenario on 10 September and it was on September 11. This is quite depressing as it does suggest that we will need to experience something like the worst case before we will be able to think about the worst case. Bugger.

Some more joyful points from Sunstein; he found that the shibboleth of the futures community, the Precautionary Principle (having no evidence that something won’t go wrong is not a basis for doing something anyway), is basically useless in situations of significant complexity because the principle prevents all actions and inactions because whichever way you move you will offend it. After trashing the much-loved Precautionary Principle, Sunstein then found favour in the much-hated ‘future discounting’ approach to the worst case. While futurists hate the idea that the future is less ‘valuable’ than the present, Sunstein found that it is an effective way to consider worst case scenarios. If consequences can be monetarised then decision-makers do have a basis of making preventative and precautionary decisions. Importantly though Sunstein also found that future discounting did not work in worst cases that involve the loss of human life.

I’m very glad to say that Sunstein did find a need for worst cases to consider Intergenerational Neutrality to be fully effective as a decision-making tool. He favours processes that explicitly draw back the “veil of ignorance to the intergenerational question.”  Rather than avoid the question of whether our actions (or inactions) suit us and our choices, he favours worst cases that consider the impact on those not present now who will live in a worst case that they did not choose. He also favours processes that make decision-makers explicitly declare their view that a life today is worth more than a life in the future as part of their cost-benefit approach – what he calls the ‘morally objectionable’ viewpoint.

Ultimately I think that managing worst cases is at the core of our purpose as practitioners. Being better able to navigate such treacherous waters must be one of our core competencies that we can offer to our clients and organisations to assist them.  It appears that technique will only get you so far and that ultimately it is our ability to reason and act morally in considering the worst case that will determine whether we are a help or a hinderance.

As we learn to see the constructed-ness   of what we commonly call ‘reality’ then we begin to glimpse that very few things can be thought as truly enduring. When we put down our preferred ways of seeing our environment and, perhaps for the first time, start seeing things as they really then we start to sense the tremendous uncertainties that are around us. After we sit with this awareness for some time then we being to sense that uncertainty and change open up new fields of opportunity. Eventually we realise that seeing, sensing and sitting are ‘necessary but not sufficient’ conditions – we have to act – somehow.

Ekhart Tolle has a neat way of describing this eventual realisation.

“If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it or accept it totally.” (Power of Now (1999) Chapter 4).

The way Ekhart puts it is quite straightforward – continue, leave, change it. But is straightforward easy?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that we really do not want our choices to be this straightforward. I’m suggesting that all those things that we had to bring within our apprehension were originally ‘hidden’ because we did not want to really to bring them into awareness in the first place. What we actually put down were our psychological defences – we took off our protective clothing and so here we are – naked so to speak – with three simple choices – continue, leave or change it. Why would we do this? Why would we not want to know that our choices are clear? Because if our choices are so clear and all we have to do is choose one then to do none of those things means that we are cowards. We would rather run away and hide from having to make a choice.

Which leads me to my thoughts on courage for I believe it takes courage to commit to one of Ekhart’s three choices. What type of courage am I talking about? Is it Dutch courage that we need? Dutch courage is when you find courage through something that suppresses your fear – giving soldiers alcohol so they will choose something (put their life on the line) that they would not choose if they were sober. Does that sound like an ethical goal commitment process to make one of Ekhart’s choices – I don’t think so.

I have found a type of courage that I think is applicable to Ekhart’s choices. It is called 2-o’clock in the morning courage and it is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.

“As to moral courage, I have very rarely met with the two o’clock in the morning kind. I mean unprepared courage, that is necessary on an unexpected occasion, and which, in spite of the most unforeseen events, leaves full freedom of judgement and decision.”

That I think is why we do what we do. We extol to our clients and ourselves that we want/need to see things as they truly are in order to spot hazard and sense opportunity. We tell ourselves that we want to get to the deepest level, that we wish to make fundamental change in order to create our preferred futures. We push closer and closer to that point in time when we actually realise what our choices are – do we continue with this life, do we leave and create a new life or do we try to make this life better – and then we find out how brave we really are … at 2 o’clock in the morning.

When I meet someone who calls themselves a ‘strategist’ I often remark “then we are in the same business, I help them work out where they want to go and you help them work out how to get there”. Sadly, my attempt at bonhomie often fails and I often get a blank look and then a short time later I’m not talking to anyone at all.

As a futurist I am not impressed by strategy that fails to make an explicit link with the intended future that the strategy is meant to bring about. Strategy that fails to make such a link I call ‘cookbook strategy’.  Do this first, then this next and finally this and bingo, there is your future.

Now cookbooks are very useful and when you discover a favourite recipe then you just know that when you apply the correct ingredients in the correct sequence that the yummy future your desire will eventuate. And even if you haven’t cooked the dish concerned for a long time you know that you can always go back to those favourite cookbooks again, repeat all the steps and the desired future emerges again.  If only real life worked liked a cookbook.

In real life if you follow a strategy cookbook – whether it be diamond shaped or involve 5 forces – add all the recipe ingredients to get your favourite banana cake and while you were not looking the future adds some minced steak and a kilo of hot chillies and it also changes the oven to run 100 degrees hotter or colder than the dial says. And when you get to the future you get the shock of your life; “I didn’t order this!”

Imagine my delight when I went to a recent presentation by the writer of a leading strategy text book, Bob de Wit (Strategy Synthesis), and in his opening he described strategy as a “dialectic approach between two irresolvable paradoxes”.  Now that sounds like a strategy approach that is nothing like using a cookbook.

Bob de Wit sees strategy as managing rival tensions with there being a multitude of positions that offer distinct resolutions but never a perfect answer. One such tension is the strategic balance between shareholder value (profitability) and stakeholder value (responsibility). Whatever strategic response is chosen (maximise profit) has consequence upon the other dimension of the paradox (minimise responsibility). This is not a simple binary opposition but there are an unlimited range of synthetic options available – hence the dialectic. His book outlines ten such paradoxes that organisations face.

This did seem like an interesting approach to strategy and one that seemed to integrate with our ideas about ‘using the idea of the future’. I began to wonder how we could use the future to assist organisation’s manage their paradoxes?

The first obvious way is to use the future as the design space within which to prototype future synthetic resolutions of the paradox. Create a synthetic future model that maximises both dimensions of the paradox (responsibility and profit) and thus you have your desired future and hence your strategic direction.

I then saw parallels in our approach called Actionable Foresight. The phase we call Present Need is where the paradox(es) are identified and Pathways Thinking and Option Generation are where the multitude of synthetic positions are explored. And finally Goal Commitment is where we settle on the best resolution of the strategic tension. Not a solution but the best tradeoff we can build commitment to. And as we move towards the commitment future then we scan the state of the paradox, where is the pressure building and where is it lessening, always seeking for new and innovative combinations that provide a synthetic resolution of the tension.

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.

As I sat through another remarkable week where more national governments throw almost unimaginably sized lumps of money at so called ‘crises’ (e.g. 10 May 2010 -European Central Banks create a 962 billion Euros to fix the ‘sovereign debt’ problem), I began to wonder what is it that is going on at the level of Present Need that these remarkable examples of Pathway Thinking are being employed?

One way we can stop ourselves falling into our traditional patterns of thought and hence missing emerging opportunities (and risks) is to not always start out by trying to work out what the ‘problem’ is. Once we think we understand a problem then we often simultaneously create the pathways where we will find the solutions. Instead we can look at the pathways that people are employing in order to find the problem they are seeing; using a medical metaphor instead of diagnosing from symptoms (Present Need) and then choosing the best treatment (Pathways Thinking) we could  look at treatments chosen to establish the probably diagnosis reached and to then think about that.

So back to my ruminations. Clearly it is a widely accepted pathway of thinking that the value of sovereign debt securities should not be allowed to go down in value. Likewise it is also clearly accepted that the value of bank stocks, housing prices, (name your asset here) should also not go down and so the accepted pathway of thought is to find ways to make them go back up again.

Why? Surely lots of things go down … don’t they? Or is down thought bad and is up thought good? Maybe we are happier with up and down makes us sad? I started to think about this some more and tried to look for examples of pathways that chose actions to promote down as good or at least not bad. And my results? Well there are lots of examples of down in the physical world – gravity is a good example – no point choosing pathways that want to fight gravity is there? (Note: Ignore flight and skyscrapers here). And friction which makes speed reduce – there is no point trying to find pathways towards increasing speed is there? (Note: ignore the boys on Top Gear here). I mean friction is not a problem is it? And heat which goes one way – well a pathway to make thermonuclear dynamics go the other way is about as silly as well – printing money out of nothing to replace the value of something that has gone down in value isn’t it (note: ignore quantitative easing here).  No, it’s quite clear that the physical world is full of down and that is perfectly natural (sic) thing and down isn’t thought bad there or doesn’t make us unhappy – does it?

Next I looked in the natural world, of living matter and down is everywhere there too. True things in the natural world do go up but then they tend to come back down again and then the pattern repeats. Organic matter tends to increase in complexity for a while (goes up) and then eventually it breaks down, decays, dies and returns to its simple organic form again only to rinse and repeat. And that process isn’t one that we feel necessary to choose pathways of thought to prevent is it? We are not bothered by down in the natural world are we (note: ignore Botox and Extropians here)? I quickly moved on.

Finally I got to our manufactured world, the world that we create from our dreams, plans and actions. Surely down is an accepted part of that world isn’t it? History teaches us that empires rise and fall so we down is clearly accepted as a normal part of cultural processes – isn’t it? And economic systems go up and down and so we don’t only choose pathways that promote up and refuse to admit down – do we (note: don’t go there)? My observation of technology was that it does seem to like up a lot (e.g. Moores Law) and whenever something went down (size) then it lets something else go up faster (e.g. enjoyment, functionality).

And then I remembered what Lewis Mumford wrote back in 1970 in his magisterial book “The Myth of the Machine”. His view was that our view of the world and our part in it were based upon some unchallenged beliefs.

“There is only one efficient speed: faster; only one attractive destination: farther away; only one desirable size: bigger; only one rational quantitative goal: bigger.” (p170)

There it was, as reiterated by the magisterial music combo Yazz – the Only way is Up.

If our Present Need is suggesting down then we must choose pathways that get us going back up again.  Now 982 Billion Euros made sense as a Pathway choice. Yazz must be on the playlist all the world’s politicians.