Cowardice of foresight

In a seminar about regional foresight a a few months ago there was a call to break away from a “foresight bubble”. This meant being more aware of the implicit assumptions we foresight experts tend to make, which may not be that clear to others. The latest hype is old news in foresight community, which always tries to be a step ahead. But lately I have been thinking that perhaps the biggest bubble is focusing on the future at the expense of the present.

This lead me to realise that I have been a coward. I have happily worked in projects boldly imagining alternative futures but leaving achieving those futures to “someone else”. It is really easy to be a foresight expert or a futurist, especially if you

  1. Talk about the long term (more than five years)
  2. Offer several alternative futures, as is the best practice
  3. Claim that they are not predictions but meant as conversation starters.

As long as you say plausible things, you will never get caught when the future inevitably happens. It is the perfect foresight crime. What is left out in this form of foresight is carrying out the actions in the present, working through the changes needed, and having the discussion about the value choices behind the actions. Although the idea of making the world a better place is well embedded into the ethos of futures research, it is something for others to do. Futurists and foresighters are there just to show the way (or several possible ways).

Now there is definitely value in providing alternative images of futures. In fact, I believe compelling, new futures worth having are desperately needed in western countries in order for us to avoid a total societal collapse. But this needs to be complemented with actions towards the “right” direction, actions that includes also those who have been involved in visioning the direction.

Which leads to the question about the right direction. Whose futures are described? This is another form of cowardice in foresight: not wanting to engage in discussion about the values behind the images of the future. Why is one scenario preferred over another and by whom? This discussion does not have a neat solution that can be packaged into well visualised set of scenarios. But it is the first step towards action in the present. And to pretend that the alternative futures described in any particular foresight process would be somehow value-free is just irresponsible.

When the refugee crisis began, there was frustration in the foresight community over how it was seen as a surprise and something unexpected. From the viewpoint of foresight practitioners, the situation had been included in various scenarios for quite some time (although perhaps not always in the scale it did take place). But instead of feeling smug frustration over the lack of future-orientation by those not involved in futures thinking everyday, this is a perfect case to reflect upon the best practices of foresight. For me two key questions come up:

  1. If this was known, why was nothing done about it?
  2. What is apparent to foresighters now that will surprise others in the future?

Regarding the first question it is easy to avoid responsibility and say that influencing policy is hard, that policy makers are too caught up with current issues, the whole situation is complex and full of different issues and in the end isn’t it enough that this issue was raised? Indeed identifying key issues is essential, but resolving them is the responsibility of everyone, not just policy makers or those who funded the foresight exercise.

The second question is one worth a blog post on its own, but generally speaking it has to do with transformations in three main areas of our world: the environment, the economy and the political system. From my comfortable couch of a privileged white male optimist these can be summarised as:

  • We are becoming more and more aware of the boundaries of our environment; in the future we will have to try to live well inside them and be sensitive to their changes.
  • The economic system based on growth is not something that we can sustain; we will have to transition to dynamic equilibriums instead of continuing growth.
  • The nature of work and employment will transform radically making basic income or similar necessary.
  • And finally the political system will be supplemented by self-organising citizen society.

Whether or not these changes will actually happen or not is not as important as what am I going to do about them. And I am glad that I have the opportunity, through many of the projects I am working on now, to actually move from describing alternative futures to discussing where we want to go and actively working towards these futures.