A request on the World Future Studies Federation listserv by foresighter Jim Breaux about crafting messages on 'what is foresight' got me thinking about the audience for those messages. One of the complaints in the foresight field is that explaining foresight to the public is tough, and journalists often misappropriate the term, making fun of futurists and blaming them for all sorts of things.
I believe that until futurists stop making predictions, we might just deserve what we get, but that's another story.
There's a lot of reasons people don't know about futures/foresight and even more importantly, probably don't care. The most obvious one is that the future is not real in the sense that we can experience it:
- the future hasn't happened yet - there are no facts, no data about the future - we are being urged to live in the present - we are too busy today to think about the future - even, it won't be my future so I don't care about it
and the list goes on.
People in organisations today are buried in restructures, change management programs and busyness. So a response that you often hear is along the lines of: Thinking about the future - bah! I don't have the time! And fair enough really.
But all that activity - restructures, change - is to ensure the organisation survives into the future isn't it? If you want to understand how to position your organisation for the future, don't you need to explore the future first, rather than rely on the past and the present to inform your strategic decisions? We know the future will be very different to today, yet most change programs tweak what we have today rather than design new ways of working for the future. And we wonder why nothing really changes.
The point of all this is that when you are trying to explain the value of foresight to someone who doesn't know what it is, there is no one message that works in all situations. What you say to a client who is doing foresight in their organisation will probably be different to someone you meet in a social setting. And what you say to a person deep in a change management program will be different to someone who wants to use foresight to shape that program before it begins. The reality is more harm than good can be done by trying to convince an audience about the value of foresight when they couldn't care less and just want to get on with what they are doing today.
It doesn't help that there is no universal understanding about what foresight is, its value and how it fits into our ways of working, thinking and living today. If someone you have asked 'what do you do?' responds with 'I'm a brain surgeon', there is some form of implicit understanding there - doctor, operates, brain, wow! 'I'm a futurist' is likely to bring the immediate response 'where's your crystal ball?' and a loud guffaw. At best, you'll get someone who says 'tell me more', at worse you'll get what I called glazed eye syndrome - otherwise known as 'there is no point saying anything more'. Until there is an accepted and tacit public understanding of what foresight is all about, why its valuable in organisations, and what professional futurists do, it will always be necessary to craft foresight messages very carefully.
Understanding where your audience is in terms of their foresight maturity is necessary - before you launch into the full story about the value of foresight and why our organisations and our world need this thinking capacity urgently. In other words, on a macro level, creating that universal understanding of foresight is always essential but at the micro level, not always useful.