Causal Looks: Foresight Fundamentals

It’s been said the best way to predict the future is to create it: foresight is way to help us determine if its the one we want.

There’s no shortage of quotes about the future. From the weather to strategic plans, we humans love to forecast and plan for what is to come. But beyond a crystal ball or using the past to project ideas into the future much of the thinking around what is to come is based on opinion, which some argue is our lowest form of human knowledge.

Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding. – Bill Bullard (lawyer and legislator)

Strategic Foresight is a form of action-oriented research that seeks to blend the idea of predicting the future by creating it together with data to develop visions of what could happen to allow us to envision how we might create a preferable future, intentionally.

How might we combine the highest form of knowledge (empathy) with intent and creation (design)? Foresight is the answer and it starts with asking three (sets) of questions.

First Question: What’s Up?

Strategic Foresight is an applied social science and design approach that employs a range of methods that generates data about what is (e.g., trends) and employs sensemaking and imaginative design techniques to envision what could be. Foresight helps us to construct possible options and scenarios that could play out based on a set of assumptions that we might manipulate. For example, if we assume that people working from home will continue post-COVID-19 pandemic, we might further explore what that might look like. Will the shift be permanent or temporary? Will it be part-time or full-time? Will it be more prominent in certain sectors and what are the implications on how we related to one another or our communities?

We might challenge this and suggest that people will be desperate to return to pre-COVID normalcy.

What Foresight starts with is determining what events and trends have contributed to the present-day situation. To illustrate, we’ve been able to do knowledge-work remotely for more than 15 years. Yet, we still flock to cities and both urban residential and commercial property has become valuable as a result. Workers are still commuting through cities, contributing to traffic congestion and pollution, and also spurring entire industries like restaurants, entertainment, transportation and other services that are supported by these patterns of people movement and work.

The revenues, employment, and interconnections created by all of these issues create a variety of possibilities for what the future might hold. Depending on

Middle Question: Assumptions

One of the fundamentals in Foresight is making assumptions and as the joke goes:

Never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME. – Jerry Belson (comedian) (don’t follow this in foresight)

In Foresight (and social research in general) we are constantly making assumptions; failure to identify our assumptions will render it useless. To riff on Belson’s quote: failure to state assumptions will make you an ass.

What you will find is that the assumptions we make can wildly change the scenarios that we create. This is where the imagination and creative aspects from design come into play. To build on Bill Bullard’s words above: great scenarios draw on empathy. To illustrate, consider the post-COVID work-world we introduced earlier using empathy.

If we envision what life might be like for someone who is more introverted, working at home might be an asset and returning to workspace filled with other people continually (and sometimes literally) bumping into us might not be attractive. If we reverse this, we might find that someone who derives happiness and energy from lots of personal contact and co-locating with others, they might be relieved and eager to return to work. What both of these situations do is present assumptions that we can start to build scenarios on (with many other assumptions).

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. – William Gibson (Author)

Some of the elements of the future — like remote work tools like Skype and Zoom — were here long before we did it on a mass scale. This part of the research is also about exploring what aspects of the future are present now.

We will want to test these assumptions by drawing on data from different sources — including primary and secondary research. Are these likely to be true? Do these assumptions hold? How do we know and trust our data? (An example of trust comes into our data the more sensitive the topic, the means we explore it, and the perceived safety and security of the data).

Next Question: What’s Next?

Where Foresight can assist us is in developing a strategy for moving forward. This is about connecting our understanding gained from the questions above and the data we have and the ability to extrapolate what’s happening now, what’s new, and what’s possible (and plausible) to envision a pathway forward.

This needs to be systematic and involve a great deal of engagement with those potentially affected by the strategy. It’s not something that a CEO and her leadership team can do on their own. It needs to acknowledge complexity and bring in diverse perspectives across the enterprise — including suppliers, customers, partners, and allies when possible. Diversity tells us how the system looks from different perspectives.

What it also does is start to develop a Theory of Change: a model of how change is to happen. It allows us to reason out how and why change is likely to happen. From this, we can develop a starting point and strategy that we can shape into an action plan. That plan might very well be adaptive in nature and sensitive to change, but it gets us focusing on the small systems around us and the steps we can take to shape the future ahead.

Lastly — an most often forgotten — is the need to evaluate what it is we do once we start taking action. This is the litmus test to help us determine whether our assumptions are correct and to what degree so we can make the adjustments needed to shift our strategy.

Staring at the horizon is a lot less scary when you have some idea of what might be there. And if you don’t like what you see, Foresight can help us prepare and design for alternatives.

If you need help seeing the future and engaging in Strategic Foresight, contact me: you’d be surprised what you can see and achieve.

Photo by Thomas Welch on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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