Foresight is a process of developing a range of views of possible ways in which the future could develop, and understanding these sufficiently well to be able to decide what decisions can be taken today to create the best possible tomorrow (Averil Horton, A Simple Guide to Successful Foresight, Foresight Vol.1, No.1, 1999: 5-9).
Richard Slaughter defines foresight as “the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view and to use the insights in organisationally useful ways”. Strategic foresight is the capacity that emerges when foresight informs strategy development.
Foresight is a strategic thinking capacity that informs strategy development in universities and organisations. It expands staff perceptions of options available to the organisation, and enhances the operational context in which strategy is developed.
Foresight as an Addition to the Strategic Toolbox
Timothy Mack, President of the World Future Society writes*:
“Change is both driven and shaped by underlying and sometimes unstated individual and organizational values. Differences in approach and philosophy may lead to different conclusions from viewing the same data. These differences can also lead to different responses to the same set of options/situations.
The challenge is how to structure the glut of information that comes from scanning in ways that make it useful to the organization – The only magic in foresight is long experience and some imagination. But the real test is not how much imagination is in the mix, but how much honesty in reviewing and adjusting for the assumptions of the analytical team.
Some schools of foresight see common sense as the enemy of good futuring, and feel that innovative visioning comes from embracing the chaotic forces in all systems. The basic assumption here is that modern change is so dynamic and rapid that tools designed for more stable times are inappropriate, and esoteric and
imaginative approaches fit the situation better. Foresight is not a substitute for sound common sense approaches and time-tested institutional processes, but should serve as an addition to the existing management toolkit.”
*Organizational and Management Dynamics in Foresight (2005) in Journal of Futures Studies, 9 (3): 80.
Richard Slaughter defines social foresight is the ability to create and sustain a variety of high quality images and understandings about futures and apply these in a range of socially useful ways; for example, to develop policy, guide strategy, avoid or mitigate disasters and pursue social innovations. Social foresight emerges when a society has the capacity to routinely take a longer-term view to inform its decision making processes. It is notably missing from our current political environments.
Slaughter describes five levels in the development of a social foresight capacity (Futures Beyond Dystopia: Creating Social Foresight, 2004, page 173):
Level 1: raw capacities and perceptions of the human brain-mind system, indicated by unfreflective use of forward thinking in the daily lives of individuals,
Level 2: futures concepts and ideas enable a futures discourse to develop, indicated by futures ideas and concepts becoming influential via the discourse,
Level 3: futures tools and methodologies increase analytic power, indicated by widespread use of futures tools and methods,
Level 4: futures processes, projects and structures, embodied in a variety of applications, indicated by futures approaches being applied routinely in most organisations, and
Level 5: social capacity for foresight as an emergent property, indicated by long-term thinking becoming a social norm.
For universities and organisations, the path might be interpreted as:
Level 1: recognition of the untapped potential for the innate foresight capacity held by staff,
Level 2: commitment to learning about, and using, futures approaches in strategy development, through ‘education’ programs, and increasing understanding of concepts – ie generating an organisational futures discourse,
Level 3: increasing use of futures tools and methods to inform strategy development processes,
Level 4: use of a range of futures approaches and methods is routine in the organisation,
Level 5: long term thinking to underpin strategy development is the norm.
Governments have a major role to play in the development of social foresight. The use of futures approaches and the building of a government foresight capacity is well underway in Europe, but less so here in Australia. The monograph Creating and Sustaining Foresight in Australia: A Review of Government Foresight, published by Swinburne University of Technology, includes a survey of recent government foresight projects, and suggests a way forward for governments that see the value in futures approaches.
The UK Government Foresight Project is a must see – it has been operational since the late 1990s and evaluation studies indicate that it is having a significant impact. The For-Learn Online Foresight Guide, from the Joint Research Centre for the European Commission and the Institute for Propspective Technological Studies derives from significant European experience with foresight approaches, and is a practical guide to designing foresight projects.
The Cabinet Office in the UK government also has, buried in its website, some useful documents on strategic futures, including a benchmarking of futures work and an overview of major trends. A program it had in this area now appears to be defunct, and in 2010, the resources appear to have disappeared from the updated site. I’ll update the link here when I find them again – contact me if you are interested, as I have copies of some of the documentation.
Books on Foresight
Richard Slaughter (editor), Futures for the Third Millenium, Enabling the Forward View, Sydney, Prospect Media, 1999.
And another: Gone Today, Here Tomorrow, Sydney: Prospect Media, 2000.
And another: Futures Beyond Dystopia, Creating Social Foresight, London: RoutledgeFalmer.
Journal Articles on Foresight
Andy Hines (2003) An audit for organizational futurists: ten questions every organizational futurist should be able to answer. In Foresight, 5 (1): 20-33.
Averil Horton (1999) A simple guide to successful foresight. In Foresight, 1 (1), 5-9.
Peter Hayward (2004) Facilitating foresight: where the foresight function is placed in organisations. In Foresight, 6 (1): 19-30.
Timothy Mack (2005) Organizational and Management Dynamics in Foresight. In Journal of Futures Studies, 9 (3): 73-80.
Joseph Voros (2003) A generic foresight process framework. In Foresight, 5 (3): 10-21.