Social Foresight

The three fundamental components of foresight

The fundamental assumption of social foresight is that the future can never be known with absolute certainty. The future is and remains structurally in flux, and the foresighter should be aware of this. Nevertheless, it is important to inform the decisions we have to make in any case to know the directions in which the currently active natural and social forces are pulling in any given context or social reality. These directions are of course subject to change, e.g. through a lessening in the intensity of one or more of the dominant forces, or an increase in one of the currently weaker ones. The currently active trends may continue to hold or be deflected from their current course, either due to internal reasons or external interference of various kinds – environmental, economic, political etc.

Where there might be insufficient information to extrapolate time series, construct models and simulations, or where one cannot proceed with the construction of formal models for lack of time or more profound reasons, one may still proceed by attempting to describe an adequate selection of possible futures, e.g. through scenario analysis. The description of a number of possible futures aims to allow and encourage greater flexibility and openness in the decision makers' thought processes through an explicit attempt to consider multiple potential futures. In the absence of such foresighting exercises, only a minute selection of possible courses of action are usually taken into consideration by decision makers. Preconceptions of a cultural, professional, or judgemental nature, of which they are themselves only partially aware, restrict the fan of available choices that are considered plausible reasonable or opportune. A more explicit awareness of the implicit assumptions often leads to a widening of the range of available choices and decisions, on an individual as well as collective, communal, and/or corporate level. Secondly, the description of many possible futures induces the development of strategies that tend to be winning in most possible futures, and in this sense are more structurally robust.

In addition to the formal analyses and the construction of visions of the future, the third component of a foresight exercise considers the eventuality of rare and high impact events (wild cards). Individually, events of this nature are unique and thus the methods used for the first two components of a foresight exercise, models and scenarios, cannot be applied. Wild cards can be both negative and positive events, such as natural disasters, a break-up of federal states or currencies, or new scientific developments. A wild card's impact can be devastating for the functioning of the current system, or it can present a great opportunity. Either way, the systems that are able to anticipate the possibility of a wild card and position themselves to take advantage of it in the event that it should materialise acquire an obvious strategic advantage over those systems that have not set up or made use of their own anticipatory means.

The three components briefly described above clearly don't exhaust the full complexity of a true foresight exercise. Nevertheless, they are its cornerstones, and all three are employed in a rigorous foresighting exercise.

Foresight motivations

The main goal of foresighting exercises is to assist decision makers and the community as a whole in making better, i.e. more informed and aware decisions. Developing foresights is therefore of assistance to making immediate decisions and to medium and long-term projects that must be undertaken to face challenges that present themselves in the present day or are approaching on the horizon. The underlying idea is that, even though we cannot know the future, this doesn’t mean we cannot prepare ourselves for the problems or challenges that we may have to face.

Even though the primary reason for foresighting is concrete and operative, the development of methods and theories associated with foresight is a research field just like any other, and hence open to abstract formal and methodological reflexion.

In that regard, it should be recalled that as much as foresight studies may have grown more sophisticated and professional in the last fifty years, there remain room for substantial improvements. SoFor will concern itself with improving both foresight methods and the underlying theory supporting the field of foresight.

Three further components of foresight

As well as the three general components of foresight mentioned above, there are three further, more specific ones that need to be mentioned, however briefly: the foresight context, the relationship between education and foresight, and the institutional imagination.

If the foresight exercise is to contribute to making better choices, at the individual and collective level, then the issue of one's own future – where this is intended to refer to the person, community, business, organisation or institution carrying out the exercise – ought to become a constant, common and shared topic of discussion and sharing of ideas. In other words, if the topic of the future itself is to become a force actively contributing to the steering of communities, businesses, organisations or institutions, then it must be discussed both formally and informally. The active involvement of the community (or business etc.) in question becomes an important precondition for the success of the exercise itself.

Due to the way it has so far been set up, school is perhaps the institution that has turned out to be the most impervious to the topic of the future. It does seem normal to think of school as an institution primarily delivering knowledge looking towards the past; however, 'primarily' should not become 'exclusively'. For what reason should school, and more broadly education in all its facets, not also attempt to offer its learners of whatever age the ideas, theories, and tools to allow them to consider, understand and make project for the future, which is after all where they will be spending the rest of their lives? The experiments carried out so far, particularly in Australia and Finland, have brought to light a number of serious and not yet fully understood structural difficulties tied to the implementation of a foresight component to school teaching. This is a topic that requires the development of innovative research strategies.

Thirdly, the magnitude and intensity of challenges that contemporary societies are and will be facing may require the conception of novel institutional frameworks. Indeed, one cannot rule out that at least some of the problems being faced and in the pipeline are directly or indirectly connected to the form that political institutions have historically taken in the west. To imagine new institutional frameworks may be of assistance in facing some of these issues. Clearly, it would not be sufficient to simply carry out purely abstract thought experiments on institutional changes. As social scientists we can and must also assess whether the newly proposed frameworks would be desirable (for instance in the sense of mitigating the adverse consequences in question), robust (i.e. capable of withstanding the test of time), and practicable. A framework that were to induce unintended negative effects, that were to prove itself unsustainable in the long run, or that could not be set up in practice would not constitute an acceptable foresight outcome.

Contacts

SoFor – Social Foresight
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