Foresight and knowing about the future – from block to network

People have been fascinated about future since the dawn of civilisation. In a hope to know what will happen, people have turned to different fortune tellers or oracles, who have claimed to know the future, but have often given rather cryptic answers. Nowadays divination and fortune tellers are not taken too seriously, but anticipating what the future might bring is still popular. Foresight is one of the modern ways of knowing about the future.

Foresight has gained popularity since the 1960s and is an established practice in policy-making and corporate strategy. It offers a systematic approach and a broad set of methods in order to help structure and cope with the complexity and uncertainty inherent in futures. In foresight alternative futures are explored and reflected back to the present in order to come up with actions to reach a desirable future. The process is becoming increasingly participatory, engaging multiple stakeholders to have their say on what they think will happen and what they hope will happen – as well as what should be done now and by whom. However, the increase in participation poses problems with regards to synthesizing the opinions expressed and moving back from the alternative views of what is a desirable future to what should be done now.

Linear vs. systems view to foresight

The conventional view of knowledge production in foresight is rather linear. Roughly put, the idea is that insightful experts are gathered, foresight methods are systematically applied and out comes futures knowledge in the form of tangible outcomes. These outcomes are thought to then advice decision makers. Following this logic, increase in participation will bring more ideas and thus improve the quality and ease of implementation of the outcome. However, the knowledge creation itself remains a black box. Furthermore, the focus is on the outcomes and the different ideas that are expressed in the process, but which do not make it into the final outcome are ignored. In addition, little is said on what influences the process or whose images of the futures are presented in the outcome.

An alternative to the linear process view is to frame foresight as a system. The systems view to foresight looks at the interaction between different participants and actors – called agents – of the foresight processes. The agent might be an individual, a project group or an organisation. The agents gather around a common topic or interest and interact in workshops, seminars, meetings or through surveys. The participants have some ideas of what the future might be as well as views on what the present situation is, and these ideas and views are shared and built upon in the interaction.

In the linear process view futures knowledge is seen as an object. What the systems view suggests is that futures knowledge should instead be seen as a network of concepts used when thinking about the future. The concepts are linked to each other, for example economy and growth, and some concepts are emphasised more than others. Different participants of a foresight process have different views to the network. In a foresight process the emphasis of concepts change as well as the linkages between them, and thus the network changes. It seems to be more common to just change the emphasis of concepts than it is to introduce new concepts or reframe existing ones. Reframing requires intensive interaction among a suitably diverse group of agents.

Implications of the systems view

The systems view to foresight has implications for the practice of foresight. Instead of large all-encompassing projects, the systems view encourages flexible and continuous foresight processes, which are seen as parts of a larger whole and which interact with each other. Foresight as a system is not centrally controlled. In fact, in the systems view control is impossible. But while the system cannot be controlled, the content and ways of interaction can be influenced to some extent.

In terms of who should participate, the diversity of the agents matters more than the number. More is not better, if it is more of the same and some agents are ignored. Furthermore, while subject matter experts definitely can add their knowledge to the discussion, expertise on embracing and articulating multiple perceptions of a future is perhaps even more crucial. This expertise accumulates during the separate foresight processes.

Finally, instead of focusing on the outcomes of a single foresight process – ”knowledge as a blocks” – the  focus should be on shaping the networks of concepts used when talking about the future. What we think and hope might happen in the future shapes our actions in the present. Therefore it is important to understand how these perceptions about alternative futures are created.

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist

Mikko Dufva’s dissertation “Knowledge creation in foresight – a practice- and systems-oriented view” is available online.

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