Tag Archive: foresight

On the road

I am out and about at the moment, it is strategic planning season. I am watching the footage from Sandy in the States and reflecting on how much damage water causes, and in this case, fire as well. Both are very difficult to stop once they get going. This type of event is exactly what we can expect to increase over coming years and the economic and human effects will be huge.

I am also hearing the stirrings of anger in the young, there was a documentary on the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria which generated interesting reactions in the young people around me. How could you let this happen? This was the question asked of the adults – not the last time I’m going to hear that, I suspect.


“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
― E.F. Schumacher

There is sometimes a tendency when thinking about and planning for future activity to want to make solutions more complex than they need to be. Whether this is due to a desire to forecast the ‘right’ direction or because understanding of the present day situation is lacking, or (more cynically) to sell a solution that only ‘you’ can deliver, more often than not the most complex answers to future problems/opportunities are not likely to be those that will work.

I have noticed in my work and teaching that to successfully wrestle with the future is to think through the complexity to identify the simplicity on the other side. If the situation is already complex, adding more complexity will not help. If the situation is complicated, then making it complex will not assist you either. Knowing the difference is a key part of foresight activity. Too often situations that are very complicated are described as complex as a way of ducking responsibility for the hard decisions or ceding of control that may need to occur to move to an outcome. Sometimes, complex situations are only partly appreciated so are considered complicated, and solutions generated which won’t work and then don’t work much to the dismay of those developing them.

complicated = not simple, but ultimately knowable.

complex = not simple and never fully knowable. Just too many variables interact.

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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?

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One of the first books I bought on the ‘the future’ outside of texts I was reading for the Masters of Strategic Foresight was Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart. I bought a copy in 2003 while at a World Future Society conference in San Francisco, it is printed on a material made from plastic resins and fibres. It claimed to be waterproof, which I tested, and recyclable, which I haven’t as yet. The material is soft and pleasant to the touch. They describe the material as a ‘technical nutrient’, “a product that can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles.” (p5) I still remember how excited I was by both the book’s message and the embodiment of the message by the artefact itself. The idea of cradle to cradle manufacturing, where the waste products of one process becomes the feedstock for another, is still a very seductive idea to me. That this should be key requirement of all design is also one which has been slow to catch on, but is starting to appear. Europe requires that the recycling of packaging and products be considered during the design process. The idea of upcycling is starting to gain traction, as is the closing of systems in restaurants and the like.

Cradle to Cradle


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One of the issues I alluded to in the previous post was our tenancy to bifurcate the future into positive and negative stereotypes – utopia or dystopia. This topic has come up a couple of times in the past week, so I thought a follow up post might be appropriate. The model I want to use to start this discussion was developed by Andrew Curry and Anthony Hodgson and you can find in the Journal of Futures Studies which places all of its material on the web free of charge.

The format of their model that I use in my work is below. The standpoint is today, and you can see from the chart that I start five years or so into the past, the first horizon is the world we know today, overtime it recedes and the seeds of the second and third horizons can be seen if you look. In the work we do, the third horizon is the future we are trying to create, the emerging signals of which exist today. It won’t be a straight line extrapolation from one to the other, instead there is what is known by the technical term of ‘the messy bit’ between us in the present and the future we are wanting to create. It is the messiness of the second horizon that derails many in their thinking about the future. We want the clean break from the past and to step into a future that is desired. Our ability to make straight line linkages between events in hindsight fools us into thinking this is possible when looking out to the future. My contention is that we currently need to develop compelling images of 3rd horizon futures and that it is the role of the leader to navigate the messy bit from today to tomorrow. Continue reading

There have been many who ponder the secrets to a long life. Having just witnessed the 70th wedding anniversary of my parents-in-law and taken part in a facilitated session on taboos around death and dying, this topic has particular resonance for me at the moment.

There is an obsession with living longer that some have placed at the door of the baby boomer generation. A google search using the term “how to live longer” surfaced 287,000,000 hits. There are a number of projects that seek to capture the wisdom and insights of centenarians as they are a rare enough breed that people want to know how to be one too.

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via Ecouterre.com

There are some interesting ideas in this latest list of fashion meets environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, the commodification of nature continues… 10 Eco-Fashion Garments Inspired by Nature and Biomimicry | Ecouterre.

Stefanie has found scraps of wood which she has made into couture pieces of clothing, Suzanne is using couple of bathtubs, some yeast, a pinch of bacteria, and several cups of sweetened green tea to make her fabric which is then dyed by beetroot. Donna is using a nanotechnology-based, structurally colored fiber that mimics the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings that does not require dyeing (see image).

When you have a look through the fashion on the website above it is an interesting  project to question the assumptions and thinking behind many of these ideas by moving them into to a world of restricted resources to generate questions such as these:

Which could continue to survive under cradle to cradle manufacturing requirements?

Which looked to ‘waste’ to find a source of material?

Which are high-tech and therefore require the full functioning of a technological society to support it?

Which can be used to support people when they are deprived?

Which will require low wages and third world manufacturing to be commercially viable?

All of these questions can be legitimately asked in relation to innovative strategies and new products in any industry, but more often than not are ignored. When these questions are answered, there will be products and services supported that are acceptable to the moral stance of the organisation/entrepreneur. People may still not like the outcome, but at least the bigger questions have been dealt with. It is the unconscious choices we are trying to make conscious.

In addition, the sustainability of innovation is a key issue when looking at the future. What are the assumptions about the techno-economic base that the large-scale commercialisation of any of these ideas rely upon? If we are into making things for the long-term, these issues will be at the forefront of our minds, if we want to make a quick buck, then we can afford to ignore them because, at the moment, externalities are not priced into our market.

When I am working with clients to determine a course of action, I like to ask the ‘three questions’:

Who benefits?

Who does not?

And the kicker – just because we can, does that mean we should?

The moral dimension of innovation is often swept under the carpet when shiny new technologies beckon.

In a future where we may have less rather than more, who decides what resources are used for?

A BENDIGO business is prompting community discussion about the ever-growing demand for human services.  Care Beyond Measure is preparing for the worst – the day when demand out-numbers funding and workforce – and wants everyone to start thinking about the future. The in-home care provider is busy training a workforce of personal carers but is also taking the time to plan a community forum to be held in August. Care Beyond Measure senior manager Kevin Pittman paints a bleak view of the future and has prepared a presentation to highlight the “train wreck” that is edging closer and closer.  “There is a situation developing in our community that we need to start thinking about,” Mr Pittman said. “We really needed to start thinking about it 10 years ago but hey, any time is better than none.

“We need to start thinking about how we’re going to prepare for this situation.” Mr Pittman described the “situation” as a trifecta – staggering increases in demand, shortages of government funding and a shrinking workforce. “Who the heck is planning how to face a situation where we have much more demand, much more complex demand, much less money and much fewer staff all at the same time?” he asked. Bendigo Advertiser, 28 May 2012 

This is an interesting story – the aged care system in Australia has been under pressure for some time. There is 2011 report by the Productivity Commission that led to the current 2012 Government response, Living Longer Living Better, which is akin to moving the deck chairs around the Titanic. Their effort to switcheroo funding without biting the bullet of real reform means that most of the promised funding increases were moved to the end of the 5 year period (2016-17). Given the current (un) popularity of the Government, they are unlikely to be in power when these increases fall due. The Productivity Commission Report suggested opening up a very regulated industry to competition and moving the costs of aged care onto the consumer. This makes economic sense in the face of shrinking Government revenue and growing numbers of ageing Australians needing care over the next 20 years. It makes no political sense when the people facing the loss of their nest eggs all vote.

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Interior York Minster

The dynamic of trading off the long-term for the short-term appears hard-wired into our systems. Our brains discount the future, our body wants us to eat fats now to save for later and so we enjoy this process far too much. As a society we are unable or deeply unwilling to put off today so we can have tomorrow.  As small children, those who demonstrate the ability to wait for something have higher achievement scores later in life, so the ability to wait does reward us but not until later and it is this later which is the issue.

I recently recorded a keynote for a virtual conference on place based poverty run by UnitingCare which considered the long-term view for people in poverty and what might be needed to bring about change. My core message was that joined up, holistic and long-term planning for services, infrastructure  and service delivery were the key issues. I said this knowing that under current systems, it is very difficult for Governments and their service delivery agencies to deliver. Not for a want of trying, but rather funding and reporting requirements, both in Government and in the service world, actively work against it. However, all of these requirements are not ‘real’ in the sense they can be altered, they are simply constructions of a time and place. Committed people can change these requirements and therefore the results delivered on the front line.

Richard Slaughter in the Biggest Wake up Call in History discusses the mafia in Italy and says that the reason there is garbage piled high in southern Italy is the short amount of the time a crime boss stays at the top of a syndicate results in short-termism of thinking – why provide for the future if you won’t be around to enjoy it? Our brains find it difficult to think about how good something might feel in the future or how bad the consequences of poor behaviour might feel – ask anyone with a hangover.  As the reigns of those at the top get shorter with electoral cycles, CEO roles, share returns all under constrained time frames, the propensity for short-termism will increase, ironically at the same time, as we need to be thinking long-term. This is not a coincidence, it is the nub of the challenge we face. We have to become cathedral builders rather than property developers.

To build a cathedral is to toil for centuries without one generation seeing the outcome, it may their sons/daughters or grandchildren that see the finished product. Why do such a thing as for most of us there has to be individual gain, and in medieval times it was grace – or the points you accrue before you try to get into heaven.

What might be the modern equivalent?

What long-term goal with an individual payoff and a longer-term societal good could we identify?

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.