How to do foresight?

No really, how, in today’s world? This is the question I am faced with over and over again when reading news about Brexit, Erdogan, Trump, etc. While they are attention-grabbing phenomena in their own right, what interests me more is the bigger picture behind them. There is an undercurrent of major transitions sweeping through western cultures. These transitions cover the economy, societal structure and our relationship with nature. These transitions are not sudden and new, they have been in the making for some time, but what is interesting is how they are becoming increasingly interconnected and how we are reacting to the resulting complexity.

To give some examples, think about the role and nature of media. There is an on-going shift from one-way mass media, and the shared perception of reality it introduced to a more disperse and multifaceted perceptions enabled by digital technologies and information networks. Instead of empowered and enlightened, shared and nuanced perceptions we have filter bubbles, conspiracy theories going mainstream and polarization of discussion to a shoutfest. At the same time the power of influencing the discussion has moved from big media corporation to big platform companies.

“In the future there will be so much going on that it will be impossible to keep up”

This shift in media, coupled with other major transitions such as globalisation and the impacts of disruptive technologies has led to the feeling of everything happening now. Douglas Rushkoff has coined the term present shock (imitating Alvin Toffler’s future shock) to describe this feeling of being an alien in your own time. People crave for simpler times to ease the anxiety. Simple and populist messages are more appealing than nuanced expert opinions. The deterioration of trust in society and the growing disregard to facts or the words of experts are partly consequences of this anxiety.

So how to say something worthwhile about futures when things are interdependent, old structures are changing and people are anxious about the present, let alone by the future? I can think of at least three ways to do foresight in a time of transition.

1. Grand narratives

A conventional approach is to make grand narratives of the transition, and try to develop a compelling and shared vision. This approach grows in popularity the higher up in abstraction you go, which makes sense because the holistic depiction the narrative provides is basically the view from the top down. The problem is making the narrative appealing on the practical day to day level. Grand narratives can easily become disowned futures if they do not connect with the current perception of reality of those in the midst of the transition. In addition, the grand narratives are unitary and normative, and it can be difficult to achieve both a concrete description of preferable change and something everyone can agree on.

2. Transformational local foresight

An alternative is to abandon the top-down view and focus on creating change on the local level. The recipe is simple: get a comprehensive and diverse representation of stakeholders around the same table and have them discuss what is preferable. Then start moving towards that future. The implementation of this simple recipe is of course a lot harder and the process easily quite messy. However, this type of transformational foresight has worked before in situations like South Africa transitioning to post-apartheid era.

But what about the global view? Will this scale? What is the power of the facilitator or those commissioning the project?

3. Something completely different

The third approach is my favourite, although it has one significant downside: it has not been fully described yet. But let me depict some characteristics of this systemic, experiential, inclusive and plural approach to futures. First, it takes a systemic approach to foresight in order to live with complexity. It utilises models but does not trust them. The systemic approach has more to do with systems intelligence than objective systems sciences.

Second, the major difference, especially to the first approach, is the lack of grand narratives or clear vision and objective. If there is a goal, the goal is to keep playing, keep ideas about futures flowing and open. The approach favours plural and diverse narratives and multiple viewpoints. These are embraced and embodied through the third characteristic, experiencing futures. Fact and feeling are not seen as separate, but rather essential parts of a holistic experience of what alternative futures could be like. Drama, design, games and roleplaying are used to bring futures to life.

Finally, the fourth characteristic is to act and iterate, similarly to the second approach. But contrary to the local focus, the point is to scale the results and to achieve a culture of experimentation. Experimentation and iteration is combined with reflection and a learning mindset. Action is connected to building futures capability, the ability to think about and imagine alternative futures.

How do I do foresight?

The third approach describes my research and work agenda for near future. There is a lot of good work going on in systemic foresight, in experiential futures and with describing post-normal times. There is also a lot to be gained from connecting these strands of work. And from acting together and cooperating even though the road might seem muddled at times. Let’s enjoy the diverse scenery of futures.