Foresight with Impact – a response to “Future blindness”

3 Jan

“Our wine industry’s current success is due to an exercise we did 20 years ago examining our future – it’s why we’re beating the quality of our neighbouring country’s wine“

Farhad Manjoo’s NYT article on Alvin Toffler makes a depressing yet compelling diagnosis of the sad fate of the discipline called “futurism” or “foresight”, which has proved unable to make the necessary impact in a world little interested in looking at the longer-term.  “It’s not just future shock…” he writes, referring to Alvin Toffler’s book of the same name which described over forty years ago a state of individual and community paralysis in the face of uncertainty…”we now have future blindness”.

Manjoo’s observations focus on the consequences of “small-minded and shortsighted politics”, quoting Elisabeth Drew on the “near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future.”  He identifies both supply and demand factors in the failure of the futurist discipline to influence policy-making.  On the supply side, a focus on predictions and marketeering (Manjoo doesn’t go as far as saying crystal-ball gazing or snake oil selling – but others have) has degraded the quality and calibre of the field.  On the demand side, the growth of partisan politics has trumped all other considerations for assessing the value of future policies, resulting in underinvestment in the capability for systematic thinking about the future.

It is correct to conclude that both demand and supply failures result in a major under-provision of effective thinking about the future being integrated into current decision-making.  But what is most interesting about this phenomenon are two more specific queries: First, why is there ongoing under- (and indeed dis-) investment even in non-partisan environments?  This trends continues despite well-made and respected arguments for the importance of long term thinking from all corners, including the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the Oxford Martin School.  Despite statements by CEOs and country leaders about unprecedented levels of global uncertainty and the importance of resilience and flexibility.  Despite growing regulatory requirements around preparedness and risk management.  And, second, why does innovation in this field prove so difficult to embed?  

Having worked in this area previously on both sides of the demand and supply equation, and subsequently having dedicated the last six years to attempting to address these systemic failures through the School of International Futures, there are three additional points that give additional colour to the challenge we face.

First, meaningful conversations about the future are deeply political in nature and can challenge closely-held and comforting beliefs.  The participative foresight agenda – our belief that citizens must be active participants in conversations about the future – is therefore both radical (shifting power away from elite decision-makers) and often initially uncomfortable (Jim Dator’s carefully worded profound second law about the future is that “the future must at first sight seem ridiculous”).  

Second, the foresight field has fallen short in making the case for its contributions to effective decision-making.  There are few easily accessible case-studies showing the impact of these exercises.  This is because some (even many) foresight exercises or processes insufficiently focus on grounding the insights from conversations about the future into tangible implications for decisions today.  But it is also very significantly due to the fact that success stories aren’t captured, curated and narrated more widely.  Why this is the case is a complex web of problems around causality, long timeframes and leaders, who in the rare case that they stay long enough in position to see the results, might prefer to attribute effective foresight to individual brilliance rather than process.

Third, the impact of volatility on democratic governance systems is undermining effective policy-making for the longer-term.  I don’t necessarily think we are in a more risky or uncertain world… (a debate for another time)…but I fear the assessment of being overwhelmed is essentially correct.  And our narrow bandwidth of governance is overwhelmed by the infinite stream of alternatives beyond the terms of democratically elected office, as much as our individual minds are overwhelmed by the flood of data around us.  In summary, there seems to be reducing returns to governments in investing in policy decisions for the future…and therefore in the institutions that enable decision-making in the longer-term.

2016 is a unique year to address these challenges head-on. I am optimistic about the possibility of creating a major governance shift in the next two to three years as a result of the global coordination of appetite and innovation that has arisen from the Global Goals.  The Global Goals has been effectively a huge global scenario and visioning exercise out to 2030 – reflecting a complex adaptive systems approach aiming for a sustainable, equal and fair future for all, staying within planetary boundaries.  This Sustainable Development Goal framework is driving innovations in long-term governance and emergent strategic planning in countries as varied as Costa Rica, Israel, Finland and Rwanda.  And this is how we should build on this moment:

First, we must recognise and integrate the foresight approach – not as a separate esoteric skillset done by “futurists” but – as a regular part of policy-making or standard organisational decision-making procedures.  Within governments, there must be a recognition that engaging systematically with the future participatively with citizens is a core civil service skillset.  Within businesses, we need to recognise this as part of the strategy and planning process, and one to be done collaboratively across sectors and industry when necessary.  And when these exercises are done – we must capture the results and value of foresight work to share wider. I like the wine example that is quoted above – a personal testimonial is a powerful way to show impact, value and attribution.  We need much more of these – and SOIF is busy collecting these stories internationally.

Second, we need to go beyond creating institutions to enable long-term decision-making.  Instead, we need to create long-term governance ecosystems.  It is not enough to introduce a single innovation in the bureaucracy (e.g. a foresight unit, or introducing into the learning and development practices of civil services).  It is not enough to do so in the executive (e.g. a Minister of the future, or cabinet meetings on Future trends, or including in coalition agreements between governing parties).  It is not enough to do so in the legislature (with Parliamentary Committees of the Future, Ombudsmen or Commissioners of Future Generations, or creating legal obligations for Public bodies to protect future generations or creating the right for Mother Earth to be lea). Or even in the judiciary (e.g. creating new “Future care duties”).  Instead, we need various approaches that straddle the different aspects of the state – that engage and in turn are supported by civil society, academics, philanthropists, and private sector.

Foresight is a holistic approach that can empower people to create a better world for this and future generations. In a world that appears to be full of confusion, echo-chambers, populism and polarisation, foresight needs to be at the core of what governance is about – collaborative conversations about the future that return agency, meaning and power to people as citizens.

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