Renewing regional foresight

Last week I participated to a seminar on regional foresight at Tampere. During the seminar my view that Finland has a great foresight tradition was enhanced. However, at the same time there seemed to be a concern of being stuck regarding the impact of foresight, applying futures knowledge and supporting decision making. Here are three key take-away messages from the seminar.

1. Foresight needs to renew

The world is undergoing multiple transitions. Economic and societal structures are under pressure and new technologies will radically disrupt our everyday lives. The complexity, interdependence and rapid pace of change have both added the appeal of foresight and revealed its weaknesses in providing quick and applicable answers to the needs of decision making.  The old linear approach to foresight is not working; the network of actors is multifaceted and fragmented, making it hard to achieve a joint vision. Changing world necessitates a new way of practicing foresight: not as a linear process but as a networked modification of perceptions about futures. Steps towards this direction have been made. Good examples include the Finnish National Foresight Network and several regional foresight networks, such those in Pirkanmaa, Kainuu and Keski-Suomi.

2. The importance of theoretical basis and clear definitions

Foresight has been riddled with loose definitions and a lack of coherent, solid theoretical basis. Research around foresight has focused more on creating new methods than on improving the theoretical background. Therefore I am extremely delighted to have received the “foresight act of the year” award for my dissertation on knowledge creation in foresight, in which I explicitly aim to improve the theory of how we generate knowledge about the future and what it means. I also clarify a new, emerging  way of approaching foresight, namely as a system as opposed to a process. The need to understand the background of foresight better was evident also in the presentations by Alun Rhydderch and Jari Kolehmainen. Alun Rhydderch described the differences between adaptive and activist modes of foresight, drawing from the different schools of foresight. Presently there is perhaps a bigger need for the activist mode, where the emphasis is on transformation. Jari Kolehmainen offered an excellent term for making sense of the dilemma in evidence-based decision making: that decision makers are offered “knowledge-like produce” in addition to solid, research-based knowledge.

3. From seeing to acting

Many presentations and comments emphasised the shift from seeing to future to action. The “foresight bubble” needs to be popped and connect foresight tightly to decision making. In order to do this more concreteness is required. An excellent example was given by Leena Ilmola: when the impact of climate change to regional social policy can be clarified, decision makers start to get interested. On the other hand the nature of futures work depends on the context: as uncertainty grows strategic management changes to risk management and further to scenario planning. In situation of extreme uncertainty the focus is on resilience.

The seminar left a feeling that Finnish foresight – as so many other Finnish activities – has all the potential to gain an impact greater than what the size of our small country would suggest.