The Changing Story of Foresight

Some thoughts on what foresight means - and whether a single definition matters.

The Changing Story of Foresight

When futures studies began to emerge in the 1960s, its focus was a specific process — forecasting and the Delphi method at the RAND corporation. Since then the field has developed and formalised around a range of different processes, with scenario planning becoming a dominant method over time. That is changing at the moment as more open, participatory, citizen based processes are being used. This process focus is well recognised in the futures literature, and a theory basis for the field is also developing.

I started thinking about this recently when I saw another attempt to use foresight as a tool, a process, and a competitive advantage. Then I started to wonder when the term ‘foresight’ became an accepted one in the futures field. I found my foresight around 2000, but the quotation by HG Wells in 1932 about the need for professors of foresight must be one of the earliest mentions. In hindsight, I can pinpoint the day I realised that foresight had become overt for me, and it’s that sort of capacity. You can’t do a test to prove you have foresight; instead it evolves over time as you open your mind to new information, new perspectives and new futures in the present.

Definitions of Foresight

Today though, it seems foresight is most often used as an adjective or descriptor — such strategic foresight, foresight methodologies and methods, foresight narratives, foresight tools, foresight training and even foresight worldviews. It’s certainly better than futurology or futurism I will admit, but exactly what is foresight?

  • The Oxford dictionary has “The ability to predict what will happen or be needed in the future” as its definition which I will dismiss as useful because it has the P word in it. We can’t predict the future except by luck.
  • The Foresight Guide says “Foresight is simply the act of looking to and thinking about the future.” Here it seems to me that this is a flawed definition— because you can’t look at the future because it doesn’t yet exist; we can only think about it.
  • The Glossary produced by the Centre for Strategic Futures and Civil Service College in Singapore defines is as “The ability to consider and plan for the future.” But, foresight — for me — has nothing to do with planning which is a quite distinct activity to thinking about possible futures.
  • The Glossary of Terms commonly used in Futures Studies defines it as: “A systematic, participatory and multi-disciplinary approach to explore mid- to long-term futures and drivers of change.” Here we have foresight as an approach, a process that is bounded by time and change.
  • And the folks at Audience Dialogue write: A broad term covering all methods of envisaging the future, but with an emphasis on the alternative futures concept. This is getting close, particular because it focus on futures in the plural, not singular usage.

I now prefer Peter Hayward’s definition of foresight from his PhD thesis (2005):

a cognitive construct, something that an individual assembles in their consciousness, and then acts as if this construct carries significance for the real world … [it is] a capability which operates to increase the biological continuation of a human organism by reducing risk, employing prudence, and taking care.

This definition locates foresight as a fundamental human capacity which can then be applied in a process. When I discovered episodic foresight during my PhD, I began to understand just how innate this human capacity to think about, and imagine possible futures, really is. But, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, we spend more time on the doing of foresight than we spend on actually understanding the fundamental nature of foresight’s neurological basis, and what that means for our use of foresight in the present.

Foresight is first and foremost a cognitive capacity and, with my purist hat on, the only process that might be called a foresight process is one that ‘activates’ individual and collective foresight capacities. That ‘activation’ primarily involves recognising unchallenged assumptions we hold about ‘the future’, and learning how to expand and deepen our thinking to allow us to engage with ‘many possible futures’ in the present. It also involves our temporal preference, our motivations, and our openness to new experiences. It draws on those parts of the brain involved in creativity, and it requires us to accept that our imaginations are valid sources of information about futures.

I’ve come to believe that the starting point for any foresight process must be accepting that foresight must first be understood as a cognitive activity— that it is how we think about futures, and the nature of the assumptions that underpin that thinking.

I wrote about duelling terminology in a recent post, and foresight is an example of a term that may well have lost its meaning as its definitions increase over time. Does it really matter how we define foresight though? We know it’s about thinking about futures — is that enough? For me, the answers and yes, and no.

It matters how we define foresight because not understanding foresight as a cognitive capacity totally misses the power of our mindsets to shape what futures we accept — and reject. The end result of closed mindsets is closed futures, and more often than not, ‘used futures’, the ones we borrow from someone else, the ones we think we should be seeking. Reports that repackage known information in new ways is a good example of this borrowing, particularly when there is no acknowledgement of the origins of their borrowings in that work. Often, what seems new isn’t really new at all — but our minds must be open enough and aware enough, to recognise that.

Using Foresight

Foresight is first about thinking about how we think about the future. It is a state of mind that we need to make conscious which we can then apply in a foresight process — in that order. How do we make this happen?

  1. Spend time to find your foresight. I wrote a paper about the neurological connections with foresight, but others know more than me. It’s a starting point. Do my course, engage with people who are focused on integrating neuroscience and foresight — there aren’t many of them. Start with Tyler Monagan.
  2. Seek out and own your assumptions about futures. We all have them but usually use them subconsciously. We have to make them conscious before we start imagining futures. Our brains let us reject new futures, new ideas, new thinking that doesn’t match past patterns — unless we force it to change these hidden assumptions. How to do that? Start with UNESCO’s Futures Literacy work — where recognising assumptions is at the core of what they do. When you begin to build your futures literacy skills, you have identified your assumptions about futures. You are becoming aware of the power of your foresight.
  3. Then, and only then, begin designing processes to use your foresight capacity, and to build your futures literacy skills — and your imaginations. How to do that? Read about my Futures Conversations Framework and the UNESCO Futures Literacy Labs to start thinking about new ways to design processes. Move beyond used processes that have passed their use-by-date — like conventional strategic planning, something I’ve been writing about for a long, long time. Perhaps it’s time to stop using the term even?
  4. Fundamentally, seek out the new in the present. Expand and deepen the conversations you have about futures. Move beyond the single right future and the quick process with the right answer. Spend time thinking, spend time talking — give yourself and your organisation to immerse yourselves in futures, and to find your foresight capacities.