Why Foresight Matters

What is the value of foresight? Can we measure our futures consciousness? Let’s explore this area a little.

Why Foresight Matters

Foresight matters because it provides a deeper mental frame for understanding the complexity of the present. Complexity means there are no simple answers and it generates uncertainty about options and future implications. I  often read that we humans prefer certainty but in today's post-normal times,  we need to embrace uncertainty and look for new perspectives that are emerging today if we are to find new pathways into our futures.

Riel Miller (Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO) explains this point well:

Recent  advances in understanding complexity, uncertainty and emergence have opened up new ways of defining and using the future. The question is  therefore not how to cope with a universe that seems to be getting more  complex, but how to improve our ability to take advantage of the novel  emergence that has always surrounded us. We need to bring our capacity  to use the future into alignment with both our perceptions of the  complex, emergent reality around us, and our aspirations. If  policymakers want to address complexity, they must define and then use the future more effectively.

This  'using the future in the present' is at the core of foresight work.

Foresight is not forecasting which uses today’s information to develop a single future. It differs from prediction, which seeks to define the right future - and easy answers which are usually bounded by the present. Foresight instead allows us to engage with the complexity of the present rather than trying to reduce complexity to the false certainty of the future.

Foresight has value then because it allows us to accept and engage with this increasing complexity by broadening our thinking beyond the local to the global, to the system level - to construct the  'big picture' view of a topic (issue, challenge, paradox, question) we are exploring, and identify interrelationships across the system so we can understand more deeply the interplay of people, places, things, and the planet. This systems perspective allows us to understand the intersection of changes at the system level and the actions and decisions we take at the local level in response.

Foresight also has value because it enables us to develop a long-term perspective to inform our actions and decisions today. New futures emerge when we engage with complexity and work at the systems level of thinking and understanding in the present and move beyond linear thinking about the assumed single, right, future. We can reframe our perceptions and assumptions and find the new and the emergent in the present - which leads to finding new thinking about possible futures that are always available to us today.

Finding our foresight allows us to face the quandary of how to engage with something that our minds tell us is not real, to challenge our rational logic that risks us becoming victims of what I have termed elsewhere as our assumption walls, brick walls in our thinking that keep us trapped in the present. Without having activated our foresight capacity, where we recognise the nature of our assumptions that shape our images of futures, our minds retreat to what we know,  reject the unknown, and we generate presentist, narrow, linear futures.

Because 'the future' does not yet exist except as ideas and images which we hold in our minds, two things need to be noted. One is that new futures can still be constructed and influenced in the present  - 'the future' is not fixed. We humans have individual and collective agency to shape futures today through our actions and decisions with the  long-term in mind - as long as we are alert to the perils of short-term thinking and unquestioned assumptions. Two is that our foresight capacity is what allows us to increase our awareness of just how we think about futures - and the assumptions that underpin and shape those futures and our actions today.

My Perspective

Foresight matters because it expands and deepens our understanding of the present and generates new thinking, new perspectives and new actions. It lets us escape the thinking trap that we can be right about  'the future'. Instead, our task is to find ways to embrace complexity and seek to find our agency in the present so we can respond not react to change.