What is Strategic Foresight?
Thinking about the Future
Thinking about the future is an innately human activity, practiced for millennia in order for us to survive and evolve, and mainly concerned with short or medium-term horizons. Often beginning ten-years out, strategic foresight gives us tools and methods to think about multiple futures in a way that helps us anticipate change in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.
As stated by Kedge: The Futures School, Strategic Foresight "is an organizational, social, and personal practice that allows us to create functional and operational views of alternative futures and possibilities."
Using these tools we can imagine, explore and probe how the world could be across a range of probable and possible futures. We then create visions of how we see the world in a preferred future, in order create action in the present and 'pull' the desired future towards us.
There are many overlaps between strategic foresight and design (thinking), including research practices, large-scale sensemaking, abductive reasoning and the creation of ideas, insight and prototypes- although design is mostly concerned with an existing problem change along shorter timelines. Design is also generally focused on transitioning from a current state toward an improved future state.
Strategic foresight moves further upstream, where we identify weak signals, extrapolate trends and examine the wider environment to frame different scenarios of how the world could be, creating insight and catalysing change. The aim is not to pick a state and transition, but, to quote Sohail Inayatullah "continuously investigate our assumptions of what we believe the future will or should be like."
Strategic Foresight Methods
There are three 'flavours' of strategic foresight, which influence our work:
IFTF were born out of the RAND Corporation 50 years ago, and are based in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. Although they regard themselves as methodologically agnostic, they have developed a broad and deep toolbox, whilst their process cycles through four stages: PREPARE > FORESIGHT > INSIGHT > ACTION
Professor Inayatullah was awarded the first UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies in 2015. In 2010, he was awarded the Laurel award for all-time best futurist by the Shaping Tomorrow Foresight Network. He is known for developing the 6 Pillars method for transformative futures alongside Dr Ivana Milojevic.
Experiential futures is an evolving, contemporary approach to futures thinking created by Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan. Experiential futures focuses on a nested concept of three spaces:
The theme or kind of the future to be explored (e.g. generic image of the future)
A specific narrative proposition and sequence of events that emerge from the setting
The circumstances of encounter where particular events are given physical form at 1:1 scale in various media.
The goal of experiential futures is “the design of situations and stuff from the future to catalyse insight and change (in the present)."
Although we are influenced by these luminaries and their approaches, thinking about and planning for the future, like many things, is not an exclusively western concept or practice.
The Māori principle of Kaitiakitanga is that of guardianship of one’s environment, creating action in the present, honouring ancestors of the past, for the benefit of future generations (to paraphrase Te Aroha Grace). In this way, strategy and action are viewed as intergenerational, are systems-oriented and more closely resemble strategic foresight than the three-year, corporate strategic plans we are used to seeing.
By acknowledging and understanding a range of different perspectives and world-views, we can develop cultural empathy, and be more intentional in creating equitable and inclusive futures. We can also build stronger, more resilient foresight and design practices in the process - ideas which we will explore in subsequent posts.