Tag Archive: actionable foresight


“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” –Laurence J. Peter

One of my favourite parts of foresight work is the opportunity to work with wicked problems. When a client calls wanting to engage with an issue for which there are no easy answers, my heart soars. The level of difficulty in these assignments is high but the engagements (thus far) have been very positive. Foresight is useful when it comes to engaging with complex problems as it gives you space to consider what ‘better’ actually means in the context of the challenge at hand.

Having spent the best part of a day in the past week engaged in a conversation about a wicked problem, I had cause to reflect on why I enjoy it so much. Part of the attraction is the intellectual challenge, as the navigation of the complexity pushes us to think more broadly and deeply about the issue and the potential actions that could be undertaken. I think the other part of the attraction for me is that there really is no right answer.

To clarify what a wicked problem is the APSC provides a series of characteristics:

  • wicked problems are difficult to clearly define
  • wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
  • attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences
  • wicked problems are often not stable
  • wicked problems usually have no clear solution
  • wicked problems are socially complex
  • wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation
  • some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

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Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

As outlined in a previous post, to have hope is to be powerful. Many wonderful things are achieved by people simply acting from hope. Hope can be seen in foresight workshops when people have the opportunity to envision their preferred futures, when they are still in the ‘what if’ phase, invigorated and energised by what could be. From experience, it is clear that to have a vision is not enough. Leadership and change require individuals to act in the present to bring about the future that is desired. A theory of Hope was developed over 30 years ago that aims to explain the agentic and goal directional qualities of hope through cognitive psychology. Though probably not the whole answer, it has been rigorously studied and appears to hold up under a number of different scenarios. According to this theory, Hope can be learned and its qualities taught to those who do not already have them, and it can be passed on to children. It is this ability to be learned, and the positive correlations with psychological health and enhancement, that makes Hope Theory such an attractive framework for futurists.

Futures Studies, especially when developing images of preferred futures, inevitably falls across the concept of hope. Part of the work futurists do is facilitating people, both individually and in groups, to develop positive images of the future that then move them to action. The conventional view of positive images of the future is that it is the image itself which harbours the agentic qualities. The well-trained futurist is expected to work with a client to generate such a compelling vision that the client will move towards it of their own volition; however this may only be half of the story.

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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.

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.

We think of problems or challenges as issues that are presently impacting on us or on our organisations.  In our opinion something is not as it should be, we cannot achieve something that we wish or we need to do something to prepare or prevent a likely future event.  If we think we know what to do about the problem then we call that a solution. When we don’t have a solution or the solutions we have all tried don’t work then we are stuck. Foresight can help here – we have a process called Actionable Foresight that can lead to breakthroughs in thinking by individuals and organisations facing problems when they are stuck.  Here I want to elaborate on one of the elements in that process – Present Need.

Actionable Foresight employs the idea of the future in useful ways that discovers opportunities and new options. Present Need is our starting point for employing foresight and it is pretty important because where you start will significantly shape where you finish up. Sometimes our perception of the problem or challenge we face is faulty. If we start with the wrong idea of what our Present Need is then, not surprisingly, even foresight is not going to help much. The true or fundamental Present Need is always there, we may just not be aware of it. Sadly it is common for well intended groups to employ time, effort and resources in trying to address the Present Need they are aware of while the true Present Need is like the elephant in the room. That is why it is heartening to see one of those well intention groups actually point out the elephant that is our fundamental Present Need. The 27th Edition of the Worldwatch State of the World 2010 is one of the best examples of elephant pointing I have seen for a long while.

The title of the 27th edition is “Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability”. The Foreword to this edition is by Muhammad Yunis (Founder of the Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Prize winner) and in it he makes the observation that “culturally rooted fallacies are difficult to slay”. I would go a bit further and say that we cannot slay what we cannot see.  The invisible elephant in the room is these fallacies and the act of pointing them out is the necessary first step in dealing with them. These fallacies are actually our fundamental Present Need, if only we knew it.  Yunis goes on to say:

I am excited about State of the World 2010. It calls for one of the greatest cultural shifts imaginable: from culture of consumerism to culture of sustainability. The book goes well beyond standard prescriptions of clean technologies and enlightened policies. It advocates rethinking the foundations of modern consumerism – the practices and values regarded as “natural” which paradoxically undermine nature and jeopardise human prosperity.

Yunis goes straight to the point about this book, it points out where the elephants are in the room and it says loudly and clearly “that is the Present Need you have to deal with”. And what an impressive collection of elephants the State of the World 2010 points out to us.

The first elephant it starts with are the world’s religions. Despite the ‘greening of religion’ of the past two decades the report says that “the world’s religious traditions seem to hold a paradoxical position on consumerism…religious warnings about excess and about excessive attachment to the material world are legion and date back millennia…[and yet] religious intervention on this topic is sporadic and rhetorical”. It calls the message that the purpose of humans is to consume a “false god” and demands that the world’s religions tackle this heresy. A good start.

Next it points out the population elephant in the room and calls for Environmentally Sustainable Childbearing. The report sets out the mess that is reproductive rights, the social standing of women, the use women’s bodies for sex and advertising, political manipulation of societal attitudes to fertility and the importance of the child as consumer and points out the necessity of discussion and not avoidance of this particular elephant.

Hopefully you now have a sense of why I rate this report highly as an elephant spotting text.  Later elephants address the need to reduce working hours (to reduce consumption and promote equity), for governments to implement choice ‘editing ‘ policies to ultimately eliminate unsustainable consumer choices  (most tourism,  packaging etc), to redesign urban areas that don’t promote motor vehicles, to reform health care from disease consumerism for the few to equitable health for all and so on.

So get a copy and try and see the pachyderms all around us.