Integrating the Thinking and Doing of Foresight

Understanding the nature of the connection between the thinking and doing of foresight.

Integrating the Thinking and Doing of Foresight

Here we explore the fundamentals of the links between the thinking and doing of foresight and the need to integrate them into your foresight work.

At the core of foresight is the principle that futures work involves two intersecting, interdependent activities which I call simply the thinking and doing of foresight. It might be confusing to accept that foresight is a term that describes both a neurological function that allows us to imagine futures and a term that describes tangible processes designed to help us construct those images in the present, but they are distinct. The first use is a cognitive activity to expand and deepen your thinking about futures and the second is a practical application of your thinking.

Our thinking informs our planning, our choices, and our actions every day. We need to make how and why we think about futures overt - so we are consciously aware of them and we can understand the impact of that thinking on actions that emerge from foresight processes.

Integrating Thinking and Doing

Why is this integration of the thinking and doing of foresight so important? Because there is little futures work that seeks to include how we think about futures as a primary driver in process design. The power of the assumptions that were identified in Part 1 is recognised but not always dealt with in the required depth, resulting in processes that certainly achieve a tangible outcome - but it is an outcome then bounded by the known, trapped in what Richard Slaughter calls problem-oriented futures work that focuses on challenges in short-term contexts.

Richard Slaughter also writes about the need to distinguish between the ‘world in here’ and the ‘world out there’ and the need to integrate them. this distinction matters. There is an often-cited and adapted quote that is useful at this point:

“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are'“ from Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b).

When our foresight is latent, yet to be found, we live in the world ‘out there’, and our thinking about ‘the future’ is underpinned by assumptions that are tacit, invisible to us. Our perspectives on reality and our interpretations of what futures we accept and those we reject can be opened up if we are aware of just how we think about futures.

When we recognise the power of our assumptions, new perspectives and new images can emerge, we can use our foresight and design foresight processes that allow us to move beyond the single future to the many futures that are always available to us in the present. We can act in new ways.

Making Foresight ‘Real’: Applied Foresight Processes

Any view of the future is first an interpretation of reality in an individual brain. It is only when collective interpretations of the future are defined and considered in an integrated way that their influence on action and decision-making in the present becomes visible. That is, it is not until individual images of the future are surfaced can they be used in the present, because defining individual images of the future always comes before using them collectively in the present.

In this sense, we are seeking not to present a single truth about ‘the future’ - as strategic planning does - but to instead design and facilitate processes where people can surface their individual images of futures to enable collective images of multiple possible futures to be generated and used in the present.

Foresight processes allow us to face the quandary of how to engage with something that our minds will tell us is not real, to challenge the logic that risks us becoming victims of what I call assumption walls, brick walls in our thinking that keep us trapped in the present - walls that can be broken down. Without active foresight, where we recognise the nature of our foresight capacities, our minds retreat to what we know, reject the unknown, and revert to our unchallenged assumptions about which futures are real and which are not. We then risk designing processes that generate presentist, linear-projected futures.

Continuous social change ensures that the present is unlikely to be replicated exactly in any version of the future we can imagine now – connected and influential certainly, but not identical. The thinking and doing of foresight, therefore, requires the capacity to look for both the known as well as the new and novel in the present, seeking understanding of the complexity of social change of the world instead of reducing it to match our existing simpler patterns of understanding. It requires a form of thinking that challenges and disrupts deeply held assumptions, recognises latent futures, and builds new ways of sensemaking in foresight processes that can inform wiser, more considered - and futures-inclusive decision making and policy development in the present.

My Perspective

When I was new to foresight in the early 2000s, convincing people of the value of foresight was a real challenge for me - at this point, I thought I was doing a job and, given that the Vice-Chancellor had introduced foresight as a must-do, I assumed (wrongly) that people would just accept it and work with me. I was very wrong. I fell into the trap of viewing foresight as just another job to be done. While we can certainly define a process that uses foresight, you can't ensure that everyone who participates in that process will find their foresight capacities. The process focuses on acquiring knowledge of ‘the future’ but does not usually explore the more ontological question about ‘what is the future?’. Both need to be considered to the same degree if our foresight processes are to be successful.