Chapter 9. Visions and Challenges – Priorities for Professionals

Grounding and Validating Our Scholarship

Grounding our work, by relating our theories to other foundational theories in science and practice, and validating it by showing the predictive utility and replicability of our theories and methods, are among the key ways that foresight scholarship advances.

We have offered a few foundational theoretical foresight frameworks in this Guide:

  1. Cognitive Neuroscience and Behavioral Sciences (prediction, imagination, and values/preferences)
  2. Exponential Science and Technology Foresight (accelerating change, Chapter 2)
  3. Evo Devo Foresight (unpredictable and predictable systemic and universal change, Chapter 3)
  4. Personal foresight (including Emotion-Cognition Action cycles and cognitive biases, Chapter 4)
  5. Adaptive Foresight (4 domains, 3 types, 8 skills, 20 functions, related methods, Chaps 8-10)

These frameworks are an incomplete list, and none are yet deeply grounded and validated. Even Cognitive Neuroscience is still missing some major pieces to its structure, such as a predictive understanding of how and where long-term information is encoded in brains, and a functional understanding of consciousness, social life, and idea propagation between brains. The last three frameworks are particularly poorly grounded, being more systems theory than science today.

But all of these feel like key steps in the right direction, which is why they are at the heart of this guide. The better foresight scholars ground and validate these and other theoretical frameworks, and the more aware they are of the key theories and varieties of foresight in use today, and the strengths and limitations of each, the more our field will flourish. We’ll need a lot more good academic research and statistical experiments. Many more PhDs will have to be graduated. We’ll also need quite a lot more and smarter machines. All will surely come.

Meanwhile, many shoddy theories and misconceptions will persist in our practitioner community, and we should challenge and critique them as best we can. For example, there are a number of postmodernist futurists, who see science and its technologies as primarily “social constructs,” forced on us by “Western hegemony.” But in an evo devo framework, only the evolutionary features of science and technology are social constructs. The equally important developmental features are universal optima, to be discovered by all scientific and technological cultures. Certainly these features are a small subset of science and technology, but as systems that constrain our evolutionary futures, they are at least equally as important.

The West, being the most industrially developed culture at present, has clearly made many of the most negative impacts on the world, along with a number of the most positive ones. All cultures, being mostly human constructions, are surely fallible. But there are also many universal laws and processes that Western culture has uncovered to date, and that any other culture, had it reached industrialization first, would have also uncovered. One fundamental discovery is the primacy of science and its laws, and the great utility of accelerating knowledge growth and complexification in all modern civilizations.

It is critical for all foresight practitioners to understand how every extant culture thinks about the world, and to relate to others using their language and reference frames. But we do our clients and the world a disservice by not valuing truthseeking as much as we value empathy. A balance must be kept. The need for empathy and sensitivity doesn’t make all world views equally adaptive, over the most environments. While the evolutionary, locally unique, and unpredictable features of all cultures are to be prized as diversity creators, certain developmental processes and rulesets will also increasingly win out in all cultures, and science and evidence will increasingly guide us to those processes. Both evolutionary and developmental goals and values must be championed.

A “clash of cultures” will to some extent exist in any foresight work that deals with poorly-structured  and high-stakes issues, and that benefits from critical feedback. Hiding our arguments and evidence for an apparently more probable future ahead of us than the ones presently being envisioned isn’t sensitivity, it’s a breach of professional ethics, no matter what culture we practice within. Some cultures will “get to the future first” in some developmental terms, and we can gently begin to help our clients consider that probability, and estimate it for themselves. For a long time, in the US, we felt like we were on the vanguard of social development, and we remain so in many ways. Yet in some ways, a few of the wealthy postmilitary European democracies have gotten to certain aspects of the societal future ahead of us, and the US will slowly wake up to that fact in coming decades.

This conflict of cultures can be far more courteous and productive than the dramatists like to imagine. Not recognizing the continued primacy of some variant of the Western scientific and industrial democratic perspective may be popular in cultures that have long been oppressed by avaricious and colonizing Western states and corporations. But that perspective is a grave misconception, in my view.

The systemic oppression, waste, poor values, and greed that the least regulated of our Western systems still impose on the rest of the world is very real, and must be morally challenged. But the developmental processes that Western scientific investigation and technological intelligence have discovered are clearly accelerating and moving increasingly beyond our control, into their own autonomy, ever closer to our biological human level. That future fact alone is perhaps the most powerful one we’ve come to recognize, and must be at the center of our dialogs about the future.