On a stitch in time

I co-authored a report into the value of foresight and futures and provide here my introduction to that work. We set out on a research journey to write a provocation around the value, practice and opportunity of foresight and futures methodologies in different contexts, with a focus on their potential for improving public policy and discourse. 

“An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future.”

Jostein Gaardner

We enter this space not as foresight and futures experts, nor are we specifically writing for that audience. We spoke to experts across the field who offered unparalleled depth of knowledge, insight and expertise. As authors we fall into that growing category we might describe as curious generalists. Since the scientific revolution, the world has seemingly favoured deepened knowledge in what appears to be an infinite number of fields. We are not in this camp. We want to know enough about a range of disciplines, to see how bringing diverse insights together can offer new ways of thinking about and addressing some of the more intractable challenges we face as a society. Indeed, many of those we spoke to through this research would not identify as a ‘futurist’ or see themselves as only practicing within this field, and instead offer a breadth of knowledge and experience. This is the spirit in which this paper is offered. 

It is aimed for the creative problem-solver, the adaptive generalist, the intellectually curious, the model thinker. For those who collect and utilise a number of mental models and frameworks from a range of disciplines. In past RSA publications we have referred to such people as systems-entrepreneurs: those who recognise the need to facilitate change whilst at the same time trying to preserve some stability; those who recognise that no single field has the answer, for there is no single answer to be found; those who might want to see what a field such as foresight and futures has to offer in complement to their existing skillset. 

In the opening chapter, ‘Hindsight’, we explore the extent to which concepts of time and the future are at the heart of what it is to be human. We then dig deep into the use of foresight and futures approaches across three core contexts: that of the organisation, the individual decision-maker and society as a whole. We frame the report is framed around this structure, with each context forming a core chapter. In each, we identify and explore five ways in which we might realise the value of long-term thinking in a short-term world. We conclude each chapter with a set of insights that we have drawn from our research. We offer them with humility and the hope that other interested travellers find these ideas and provocations of interest. If we have sparked new thoughts, ideas or reflections in some of our readers we will have succeeded, for we might never know what they may lead to in the future. 

This research would have been fascinating without the shadow cast by the global pandemic of COVID-19. In many ways, the pandemic is amplifying both the shortcomings of societies current modus operandi to respond to something as complex and emergent as a pandemic and the need for longer-term thinking in terms of the kind of society that might emerge from its wreckage. For there remain long-term challenges to address, from the climate crisis to retirement funding, the Sustainable Development Goals, to urban air quality, obesity to social justice. These, and challenges like them, will require long-term thinking that frames short-term actions. 

We realised through our research that there is a growing movement to re-prioritise the future and long-term thinking in our everyday lives, communities, organisations and systems. Activists and citizens are taking actions and provoking thinking across the broadest range of disciplines and communities, from the Long Now Foundation to a petition to the UK Parliament to establish a citizens’ assembly for the future, from the Longplayer in London’s Trinity Buoy Wharf playing music for a thousand years to the Long-Term Stock Exchange.   Popular books include Farsighted, The Good Ancestor, On the Future and The clock of the long now. We have tapped into this work primarily because we were directed by our interviewees where to look, not necessarily because we had previously come across it. 

Our hope is that in some small way this report helps amplify such work and invites others on a path of discovery. In that spirit we offer, as recommendations, a set of ideas we feel are worth exploring in more detail in order to take this work forward into a tangible phase of discovery and design. 

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