Cat Tully is founder of School of International Futures; a think-tank that builds the capacity of policy-makers, decision-makers and civil society to use and gain impact from strategic foresight.
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd” Voltaire
Farhad Manjoo’s NYT article Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch makes a depressing yet compelling diagnosis of the fate of “futurism” or “foresight”, a discipline designed to encourage long-term thinking in the face of uncertainty. “It’s not just future shock…” he writes, referring to Toffler’s 1970s book that describes a state of individual and community paralysis in the face of rapid change …”we now have future blindness”.
Foresight, he argues, has predominantly failed to achieve impact in a reactive and short-term world. The abject failure of many government and corporate strategy functions to be remotely prepared for a UK Brexit referendum outcome- leaving many CEOs and leaders scratching their heads why they have these functions (and abolishing them in at least one famous US financial governance institution)- is only one of many examples of this phenomenon of “future blindness”.
I agree with the symptoms described by Manjoo, but having my spent career working in strategy for governments and the private sector, the last six specifically addressing systemic failures in the application of foresight in many different countries around the world, my diagnosis is different. In particular, I see three challenges that require attention if we are to rekindle Toffler’s flame. We must overcome political discomfort in addressing the future, address the failure of the foresight field to share its own success stories, and help governments deal with the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment they face.
Manjoo identifies both supply and demand-side failures that have encouraged “small-minded and short-sighted 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 prediction and self-promotion (Manjoo doesn’t go as far as saying crystal-ball gazing or snake oil selling – but others have) has compromised the reputation of the field. A crucial tenet of foresight is that it should not be about prediction but helping others to consider multiple future outcomes to build resilience.
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 skills, mindset and structures need for long-term decision making.
It is correct to conclude these failures result in ‘future blindness’, but even in less partisan environments, we are continuing to under- even dis-invest in long-term thinking despite well-made and respected arguments from all corners, including the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the Oxford Martin School. All this, despite CEOs and country leaders lamenting unprecedented levels of global uncertainty and calling for resilience and flexibility and growing regulatory requirements around preparedness and risk management. So, why does innovation in this field prove so difficult to embed?
My previous experience working on both the demand and supply side of this field, and then founding the School of International Futures to specifically address these failures, has provided insight into three additional points that are central to the challenges we face.
First, meaningful conversations about the future are deeply political in nature and should challenge closely-held and comforting beliefs (Jim Dator’s carefully worded profound second law about the future is that “the future must, at first sight, seem ridiculous”). In 2006-7 when the UK government was developing its first National Security Strategy, scenarios outlining an unwinding of globalisation and financial de-growth were rejected as unfeasible and unacceptable. The translation of insight about the future into better decision-making in the present must address this human response.
The participative foresight agenda can also be difficult for decision-makers to accept – our belief that citizens must be active participants in conversations about the future, not just so-called experts. This shift of power in decision-making can be seen to be both radical and often initially uncomfortable.
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 foresight exercises, often due to the fact that success stories aren’t captured, curated and narrated more widely, or remain proprietary. But this is also an issue of 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.
A more damaging issue is that some (even many) foresight exercises or processes remain theoretical and do not ground insights from into tangible implications for decisions today. It certainly does not help that some foresight projects and programmes highlight only the obvious or take too long to deliver insights, resulting in genuine questions about the field’s relevance and value.
Finally, the impact of volatility on democratic governance systems undermines 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 is overwhelmed by the infinite stream of alternatives beyond the terms of democratically elected office, or financial quarter, just as our individual minds are overwhelmed by the flood of data around us. 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.
Nik Gowing and Chris Langon’s disturbing report, ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’ recently exposed a perilous deficit in the ability of leaders to spot, identify and handle unexpected events. The report, based on in-depth interviews with corporate and public service leaders, found that public and corporate institutions do not provide leaders with reliable or comprehensive horizon scanning that will prevent the surprise or ‘shock’ from ‘unthinkable’ events happening.
2016 is a unique year to address these challenges head-on. I am optimistic about the possibility of a major governance shift in the next three years driven by a global appetite for innovation arising from the Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs). The Global Goals has effectively been a global scenario and visioning exercise out to 2030 – taking a complex adaptive systems approach to achieve a sustainable, equal and fair future for all, respecting planetary boundaries. This framework is driving changes in long-term governance and emergent strategic planning in countries as varied as Costa Rica, Israel, Finland and Rwanda. There are two ways we can build on this momentum.
First, we must recognise and integrate foresight– not as a separate esoteric skillset done by “futurists” but – as a regular part of policy-making or standard organisational decision-making processes. Within governments, there must be a recognition that engaging systematically with the future is a core civil service skillset and that effective foresight requires us to take a participative approach, engaging with our citizens and communities. Within businesses, we need to integrate foresight into strategy and planning processes, and look to collaborate across sectors and industry when necessary. And when these exercises are done – we must capture the results and value of foresight work to share our successes, and also acknowledge our failures. I like the wine example that is quoted below – 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.
“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“ SOIF Latin American Interview
Second, we need to go beyond creating institutions to create long-term governance ecosystems. It is not enough to introduce a single innovation in the bureaucracy (e.g. to establish a foresight unit, or introduce foresight as a core competency for civil servants). It is not enough to do so in the executive (e.g through a Minister of the future, cabinet meetings on Future trends, or 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 even in the judiciary through “Future care duties”. (These are all real-life examples in countries as varied as Sri Lanka, Wales, Costa Rica, Finland, South Africa and Germany). Instead, we need to take a systemic approach to encourage and mainstream long-term thinking by tackling different aspects of the state – that engage and in turn are supported by civil society, academics, philanthropists, and the private sector.
After all, foresight is a holistic approach that can empower people to shape 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.
PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.