The Folly of Foresight

Seeing the road ahead isn’t the same as doing something to get there: it’s a lesson that foresight and strategy aren’t the same things

Seeing the future isn’t the same as meeting it with preparation.

“These lineups were scary” said one woman who had twice before attempted to get a COVID test at a Toronto-area testing centre. People were reporting waits of up to eight hours in places like Ottawa, which were being overwhelmed with demand.

Despite the demand for testing in the spring and the projected rise in cases for autumn, the Canadian province of Ontario let their guard down and didn’t prepare for the spike in demand than anyone paying attention saw coming. Now they are playing catch up. This is being played out around the world as the implications of removing restrictions coupled with changing seasons (and behavioural patterns tied to them) amplify the COVID-19 pandemic for a second round.

The entire pandemic has been foreseen in models for more than two decades, with a shocking ‘call to arms’ for preparation published in Foreign Affairs just three months ahead of COVID-19 surfacing.

Seeing something coming isn’t the same as doing something about it.

Foresight’s Strategy Problem

Strategic Foresight is a practice that brings together data, imagination, and strategy together to anticipate what might happen and envision possible futures with the aim of improving our ability to meet them or shape them. Futurists are (usually) practitioners of strategic foresight. Amy Webb, in a long twitter thread, outlined the field and hypothesized why she was seeing a lot of use of the term ‘futurist’ since the COVID pandemic started. It’s a useful beginning point and is highlighted below:

The entire thread — which is worth the read — provides a short history and profile of what futures work is and the role of strategic foresight — something that Webb’s argued should be in every organization’s budget for the coming year. Webb is a pro. She uses high-quality data sources and methods and is among the most widely cited and respected members of the field.

Great data and clever models are one thing, putting them into use is something else and this is where much of futures work falls flat. It’s the same fallacy that scientists make when they assume that the data will show us the way and that we — the public, governments, corporations — will follow.

Without the strategy part of foresight given as much or more attention, futures are simply more noise in a crowded information landscape. Case: see COVID testing.

Don’t confuse data with change.

Behavioural and Systems Science: An Offering

A look at the science of behaviour can help illuminate why we don’t change in the face of data and forecasts that are likely to prove true (we never fully know the future until it becomes the present) and present danger. Science journalist Ed Yong has written extensively about how and why the psychology underlying the United States has contributed to the lack of adoption of evidence-based measures to fight COVID-19.

People change (or don’t) for many reasons and information is only one of them. Our peers, culture, community — “norms” — and customs around us play an enormous role in shaping our behaviour.

Proximity and accessibility to the right mechanisms of support (e.g., masks, places to shop and play that are safe, transit methods) are another key factor.

Many things that influence us are invisible.

These influences are often exerted through design — how we design our tools, workplaces, homes, media, communities and organizations. It’s about human-centred design. These are all areas where the right strategy comes in — a great strategy brings together insights from methods and approaches like foresight and transforms it into both a plan and implementation of that plan.

Many of these are systems issues that require systemic interventions as well as individual-focused ones. It’s a role for systemic design, real strategic foresight, and behavioural science put together.

The case of COVID-19 testing is just one of many that illustrate this. Let’s conclude with another tweet from my colleague and fellow OCADU alumnus Tai Huynh, editor of The Local and health system leader, as an illustration.

The story link is here.

Lives are at risk. We can do better — and with some foresight and strategy we might just see a way to do this before things get worse.

Strategic Foresight is a way to reduce uncertainty and guide wise action. If your organization requires help doing this and preparing the foresight, strategy, and designed solutions that bring together systems and behavioural science, contact me at Cense. This is what we do.

Photo by Nuno Antunes 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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