‘Live in the now’ is the mantra of ‘good living’ I have been focusing on in the last few years. As I understand it, living in the now does not prescind being responsible, or planning ahead. Instead, it suggests that ‘surrendering’ to the present moment, exploring all its nuances, its possibilities, can make my experience more vivid. Future possibilities, after all, can only be generated in the now – in a sense the now holds all future knowledge and possibilities.
So while I am seriously focusing on being in the now, I get hired as research officer at IDS to work on foresight – a toolkit of methodologies to explore the systematic understanding of future possibilities. How ironic, I thought, and I launched myself into it. I read and I read, trying to wrap my head around how IDS researchers have been looking into the future of different development issues. I learned about scenario building, and was fascinated by the possibility of using narratives to capture multiple possible realities.
Flexing the foresight muscles
On 15 October, IDS hosted a conference on ‘Foresight and international development’. It was a ‘cosy’ event: 30 ‘experts’ sitting around a table and discussing the whys and hows of foresight.
Foresight is uncomfortable for many academics and practitioners used to ‘evidence based approaches’. Inevitably, the future is elusive, uncertain and unpredictable. As Jim Sumberg put it when wrapping up the event, ‘doing foresight requires a whole set of different muscles that as researchers we don’t usually exercise’.
The conference, which was followed by a foresight workshop organised by Frances Seballos, left me with more question than answers (as it should).
I left the event thinking ‘I am missing something?’. So I tried to ask myself the question: Why foresight?
There is something almost instinctual about looking at the future. But our ‘foresight instinct’ is not a strong enough reason to coordinate expensive projects.
The foresight literature stresses ‘preparedness’: preparing for multiple possible futures builds resilience.
Foresight exercises are by nature reductionist, they will never completely account for the complexity of future possibilities. While preparedness and resilience are reassuring terms, I was not completely convinced.
Our life is exciting precisely because we cannot sit down and plan who we will be in ten years. Yet, following the logic that the future is locked in a now that has not yet matured, we must have some agency in the future. So this is not about preparing and building resilience for a set of non-normative inevitable futures…
So why foresight?
Today, a close friend of mine posted this status update on Facebook: ‘Dreams of the future reveal more about the mind of the dreamer than the future itself.’
This resonated with me. Foresight could help question the ‘dreams’ of imagined future realities.
In the foresight approach that IDS has adopted so far, researchers organise workshops involving stakeholders in a process of collectively coming up with the drivers of change expected to influence the future. Key drivers are converted into spectrums – participants at this stage are asked to reflect on what could be the two extremes to how a driver might evolve over time. By triangulating two spectrums, participants develop narratives of a set of ‘plausible future scenarios’.
This is a fascinating, tricky process. For example, the way a driver is transformed into a spectrum influences the scenarios that might emerge. The analysis of drivers is carried out through a STEEP analysis, which helps participants think about change holistically by focusing on drivers in the Social–Technological– Economic–Environmental–Political.
But the future is full of random and unexpected events – what if the future were to be shaped by a radical shift in our ethical principle? Or by a UFO invasion?
I think there is value in how, collectively, the scenarios stretch our imagination. This said, we are inevitably imposing our own limits in imagining the future.
The foresight approach that IDS has used so far does not take into account ‘desirable futures’. I personally find this disempowering. We can imagine ourselves as spectators in a world that is unfolding with endless possibilities. And we might as well be. But we are also agents, and in international development we are trying to exercise our agency on the world. Aren’t we?
During the conference, Marie de Lattre-Gasquet - representing CIRAD - shared her experience with, ‘La prospective’, foresight in the French tradition. ‘La prospective’ considers the future to be the result of human agency, which, in turn, is strongly conditioned by human desires, projects, and dreams’ (Godet, 2008). According to the ‘spiritual father’ of ‘la prospective’, Gaston Berger, ‘imagination is the complement of reason, and opens the door to innovation and entirely new perspectives on the world’ (cited in Godet, 2008). Foresight ‘should elicit human values and aspirations’ (ibid).
‘The goal is not to observe the future from the present, but rather to observe the present from the future.’
In the week following the Foresight conference at IDS I was invited to be Master of Ceremonies at the ninth UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris. Guess what methodology they used? Foresight! Imagine 500 young people from all over the world asking themselves how the world would be in 2040. At UNESCO, they were not too concerned with how the future would be – instead, they wanted to challenge participants to imagine the future differently. Participants were asked to unpack the assumptions they were making about the present in order to envision the future. A sort of collective unprogramming.
Isn’t this the foresight we’d like to do at IDS? If not, why?
My hope is that we can continue exploring foresight methods innovatively and intentionally. As Marie explained, in the French school foresight promotes ‘anticipation, appropriation and action’. Anticipation is in line with what IDS has utilised so far. The term appropriation calls for being aware of ‘who is in the room’ and suggests that foresight is a participatory tool and ‘whose foresight’ we are referring to is an important question to keep in mind. Finally action: a call that we owe to keep asking ‘so what?’.
The ‘Foresight in International Development’ conference report will be published in January 2016. It will be shortly followed by an IDS Bulletin entitled ‘Foresight and International Development’.
Listen to our podcast 'Using strategic foresight in international development' in whch participants from the 2015 IDS-hosted conference 'Foresight and international development' reflect on how they are using foresight and similar planning approaches in research and policy for development.