On the need for longer-term thinking

The rate of change in the world and the degree of uncertainty has amplified immeasurably over recent times. We find our operating systems suspended, decoupled or in flux. New modes and methods of communication and connection have allowed ideas to travel fast, creating new openings for shifts in societal values as well as behaviour. Disruptive forces today are multifaceted and ambiguous with root causes that are difficult to discern, interacting in ways that are impossible to predict, leaving us with few counterfactuals and less than perfect data. As a result, society faces a range of complex challenges: Covid19, racial injustice, political polarisation, global warming, refugee crisis to name but a few. 

At the heart of work to address these lies a dichotomy. On the one hand are those who believe we can define and pursue a vision for the future that sees the relevant issue addressed. On the other hand are those who suggest that such a definition is illusionary. Complex scenarios continuously shift over time and as a result of our interventions, so we should define instead the direction not the destination. We should understand the present sufficient to identity where there is the possibility of change, and that this work enables a journey of discovery. Yet without a vision and the sense of purpose it helps galvanise, the desire to act in the present can be undermined and the imaginative leaps it can help foster remain unrealised. 

A foresight approach offers a way forward. The role of future‐oriented techniques is not to anticipate the future as “it exactly will be” but to set the stage for a learning process which fosters adaptation and prepares for future challenges. Understanding and working with these nuances is what I call ‘the art of change’; the idea that we can neither mandate nor prescribe a solution to be implemented, but need mechanisms for proceeding into the unknown that is, after all, the greatest characteristic of the future. This philosophy, change as an art and a science, underpins the call to ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’. Those bringing this philosophy to life offer a pragmatic entrepreneurialism, bringing a wide skillset and a flexible mindset to the challenges of our time.   

Futures and foresight should be a fundamental part of this work. Foresight approaches and techniques can facilitate and support the kind of multi-disciplinary working, critical thinking and radical action that are necessary to effect change. These approaches bring clear value for those trying to make the world a better place, to effect systems change, to open up our imaginations to the possibilities of what could be. Yet there remains a shadow side to foresight. It can be easy to dismiss as ‘just another tool’ to be added to a heritage including systems thinking, design thinking, agile and lean and all sorts of other models that strategists, management consultants and CEOs advocate. 

It turns out that looking at foresight and futures is not as straightforward as finding good practice and identifying opportunities to give it more weight and reach across other disciplines. Perhaps it is, on one level. But at a deeper level, thinking about the future taps into some of the deepest notions of what it is to be human and how we see our place in the unfolding universe. This stretches the thinking beyond foresight as a discipline, touching on philosophy and semiotics, anthropology and incentives, mysticism and decision-science, magic, art and loss… As James Baldwin said “any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has already known it, the loss of all that gave one a sense of identity, the end of safety”. We must attend to this work appropriately for people approach change, and feel loss, in different ways. 

My ultimate hope is in some small way to stimulate deeper thinking and practice about the longer term. Perhaps then we might bring new approaches to the disruptive times we are currently living through, with Covid19 upending our daily patterns of life and prefiguring challenges to come. In 2220 will our descendants look back and see that 2020 was the precursor to a positive shift in the way we come together and organise as a society? Was the adoption of a longer-term perspective, stimulated by foresight and futures methods and mindsets, at the heart of this shift? 

I certainly hope so. 

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