The Three Ps of Adaptive Foresight – The Core Practice Types in Our Field
The Three Ps of Adaptive Foresight Model was first introduced by Alvin Toffler, who is my candidate for the 20th century’s single most important futurist. Every one of his works is worth reading to better understand the future, and we’ll explore those works further in future versions of the Guide. In his international bestseller, Future Shock (1970), as prescient today as when it was written, Toffler explored the social effects of the increasingly important role of accelerating change in humanity’s future. Toward the end of this work he also argued that foresight can be clearly divided into three key practice types, and that this subdivision was necessary for the future of the field. Here is a key quote (p. 407), with our colors added:
“Every society faces not merely a succession of probable futures, but an array of possible futures, and a conflict over preferable futures. … Determining the probable calls for a science of futurism. Delineating the possible calls for an art of futurism. Defining the preferable calls for a politics of futurism. The worldwide futurist movement today does not yet differentiate clearly among these functions.”
The primacy of these three approaches to foresight was supported again a decade later by the influential foresight practitioner Roy Amara in an article in The Futurist, the magazine of the World Future Society (The futures field: searching for definitions and boundaries, The Futurist, Feb 1981). Having a second well-respected futurist give this framework credence further raised its profile, and a few practitioners then began calling this the “Three Ps” model. While its formal academic name might be the Toffler-Amara Three Ps model we’ll usually call it the Three Ps (or “3Ps”) model in this guide.
As we’ll propose, Toffler and Amara may have identified three universal types of futures and foresight thinking in their works. Three Ps is the primary foresight model we use in this guide. It is a simplification of evo devo foresight, a prescientific model and approach to foresight that we will also use throughout this guide and discuss in depth in Chapter 3. Both the Three Ps and evo devo foresight are specific approaches to adaptive foresight, a world view which claims that environmental adaptation and selection, which in human society involves competing and cooperating preferences, is the most fundamental way that successful foresight is created, in all complex adaptive systems, whether they be chemicals, cells, organisms, organizations, ideas, or technologies. We will offer several other models in this Guide, but continually return to the Three Ps as the simplest and best general way to navigate the future.
As mentioned earlier, to emphasize their importance, we will often depict these three foresight types using three different colors (blue, green, and purple) in this guide. Here they are again in list form:
- Probable Futures (constraint- and uniformity-generating, predictable, secure, expected, familiar)
- Possible Futures (freedom- and variety-generating, unpredictable, creative, alternative, novel)
- Preferable Futures (individually or group-preferred values, goals and agendas for the future)
In the 3Ps model, the Great Value Proposition of Foresight, for every individual, team, and society on Earth, is that we can use it to see better what will happen, what could happen, and what should happen, all at the same time. Let’s look now at each of these in more detail.
The Probable. The first foresight type is the probable—also called the expected or baseline future, what we think will likely happen tomorrow, usually whether we want it to or not. If it will happen independent of our desires, philosophers also call this “necessity” (versus “chance”). The probable future is dominated by convergent physical processes and thinking, and strives to become a science, though much of this kind of thinking does not yet have scientific rigor. Though it can be hard to do, this is the kind of foresight we recommend starting with when dealing with any problem, as it helps us understand the relevant predictable laws, limits, constraints, trends, and boundaries of the future. For examples of predictable, convergent, uniformity-generating processes, think of classical physics, or the laws of thermodynamics, which bind our whole universe to certain highly-predictable futures. Think also of biological development, psychological development, and social development, meaning any values, goals, agendas, behaviors, and laws that appear to be cultural universals, like the increasing preference for democracy over autocracy over the last several hundred years of human development. For business, think of predictable trends in demographics, politics, economics, technology, and all the relevant predictable elements of an organization’s competitive and cooperative environment.
The Possible. The second foresight type is the possible—also often called alternative futures within the field. This is the set of things we think could happen tomorrow, or what scientists call “chance”. It is dominated by divergent physical processes and thinking. For examples of unpredictable, divergent, variety-generating universal processes, think of quantum physics, a process that is considered partly indeterministic and is characterized by irreducible uncertainty (unpredictability). Think also of the continuous divergent and unpredictable branching we see in biological evolution and its “tree of life”, and the unpredictability of human free will and imagination. For organizations, think of any activity you or your competitors might possibly take, or any of the many environmental changes that we cannot predict in advance, which nevertheless might change our strategy, plans, or actions. Possible futures are the realm of creativity, imagination, risktaking, competition, and experiment. Artists, designers, experimenters, risktakers and entrepreneurs don’t usually seek first to know the future, but to create it.
The Preferable. The third foresight type is what we or our organizations want. We all generate preferences as intelligent beings, and activities like visioning, goalsetting, strategy, and planning are key aspects of preference foresight. The preferences we generate which are adaptive are those best able to survive and thrive in our competitive environment. As we will see later, preferable futures can only happen as an emergent mix of possible and probable futures, which are the two most basic types. Not to get too deep here, but the reason the first two types of futures are more fundamental in our universe is because they existed long before the emergence of life, which alone can also generate preferences. Seeing the probable and the possible as the two most basic ways of analyzing change began, as far as we know, with the Greek philosopher Democritus (460-370 BCE), who said, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of necessity and chance.” As Alvin Toffler reminds us, all preference foresight is also normative (values based) and political. Preferable futures are a subset of the probable and possible futures that we think will generate the best outcomes, based on our particular values. Typically we want what is best for us, best for our group, or ideally, best for all (utilitarianism).
In antiquity, both Eastern and Western philosophers proposed the particular importance of three human values, the True, the Beautiful, the Good. In the East, the Bhagavad Gita, written perhaps in 400 BCE, spoke of “words which are good and beautiful and true.” In the West, Plato and Aristotle each briefly explored these three values as transcendentals, or universal properties of being. Aristotle (350 BCE) was the earliest explicit champion of the universality of these three values categories, because of his model that divided human intellect into the theoretical, the productive, and the practical. In Aristotle’s model, our theoretical mind is concerned with knowledge and truth, the productive mind with the creation of beautiful objects, and the practical with ethics and the nature of the good.
Notice that Aristotle’s three “universal values” associate strongly with Toffler’s Three Ps. Those who like to explore probability foresight can be considered motivated by truth-associated values, those who do possibility foresight are motivated by beauty-associated values, and those who explore preference foresight are motivated by goodness-associated values. In fact, these values and foresight processes track so closely, Aristotle’s three values can be thought of as simply a restatement of the Three P’s, from a values perspective. We’ll return to Aristotle’s three values in Chapters 3 and 4.
In this Guide we will claim that the Three Ps are the three most fundamental types of foresight we can practice, and Aristotles Three Values the most fundamental sets of values that we can champion. Being just a little tongue-in-cheek, we can then claim that not addressing any or all of these foresight (and values) types can be called the Three Cardinal Sins of Foresight. The “sins” we must avoid are:
- Underdiscovering Probable Futures
- Underexploring Possible Futures
- Underdetermining Preferable Futures
We’ve listed these three foresight skills in a particularly useful order. As we will see, anticipation is the foundation of good foresight. The more thinking you and your team do about relevant high-probability trends, the more predictable future outcomes you will also discover. Those trends and outcomes will usefully constrain, guide, and empower all your other foresight activities.
As it says in the subtitle, this guide will help you become a better leader in Anticipating (seeing probable futures), Creating (exploring possible futures) and Managing (steering toward preferable futures) change. Whenever we fall down on any one or more of these three challenges, the quality of our foresight is compromised. We’ll offer our best starter advice on avoiding those Three Cardinal Sins in this Guide.
We need to use all the tools we can, including our best models, methods, tools, platforms, quantitative and qualitative approaches, and the most cognitively and skills diverse crowds of expert and lay opinions we can marshal, so we can better discover,determine, and predict those highly inertial or inevitable features of the universe that converge us toward probable futures, better create, imagine, and explore all the relevant possible options, and better survey, measure, and map the full pluralistic landscape of preferable futures and strategies relevant to the future of an issue. We also must make all of that 3Ps information as open, accessible and understood by all the relevant actors as possible, so we can all get to the best futures available to us collectively, as a team, an organization, or a planet, given the resources we have today. We call that open, collective, and digital approach Big Foresight, and we’ll say more about it in Chapter 13.
Finally, our definition of leadership includes not just opinion leadership, but activism, which implies having not only good foresight, but an idea of progress, of where it is “best” for us to go next, which is always a controversial, contentious, and imperfect judgment, based on the best models, evidence and argument we can marshal to date. We’ll consider ideas of progress in several chapters, as we discuss various models of change. In this Guide we’ll try to convince you that digital and social empowerment activism, a broadly useful set of approaches to activism discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, are currently at the vanguard of normative (values- and vision-driven) foresight and leadership.