What is Foresight?
Foresight is simply the act of looking to and thinking about the future. This activity can be amateur or professional, trained or untrained. As we’ll see, foresight is a critical activity we all need to get better at, in order to make a better world.
Do you care about the future? Do you want to get better at anticipating, creating, and managing it for yourself, your family, your teams, your organizations, your society, and your planet? If so, congratulations. You are an explorer, and you’ve found one good treasure map that can help you go further in your quest. This guide will give you a big picture overview of the modern challenges, opportunities, communities, careers, models, skills, methods, leaders, and resources of professional foresight. It will strive to show you why foresight is more important and helpful today than ever before, and to motivate you develop and use foresight to build a far better world for yourself and others.
Professional foresight is traditionally practiced in four domains: universal foresight, which includes science, complexity studies, and our models for universal change, personal foresight, improving our individual, relationship, and family navigation of the future, global foresight, improving our societies, and organizational foresight, improving our teams, companies, and institutions. The first domain is often overlooked by those thinking about the future in lay terms. But having a Big Picture, universal perspective on change has become so important in recent decades that Chapters 2 and 3 begin with this perspective. They introduce two universal change models, exponential foresight and evo devo foresight, that I believe have become necessary to understanding the larger context and longer-term future of human society.
Being a foresight practitioner today requires a little courage and some dancing in the dark. Our field is still emerging and poorly grounded, and foresight itself is not one single profession. Across all of its domains it is instead an expanding and not always well-defined set of professions, ways of thinking, and practices that help communities, organizations and individuals to better anticipate, create and manage change. Yet our field also has a very bright future ahead, as we will see.
Foresight practices can be as varied as the individuals who choose them—each unique and personal blends of both science and art. A foresight professional may look like a Futurist, giving keynotes to audiences; an Advisor, Coach or Consultant, offering advice;, a Forecaster, finding trends and predicting; an Intelligence professional, doing sensemaking and pattern recognition; an Analyst, Strategist, Planner, or Manager, supporting decisionmaking, planning, policy, and action in an organization; a Designer or Engineer, creating products or services; an Innovation Manager, improving an organization’s ideation and R&D processes; an Entrepreneur, starting a new business; or an Investor or Venture Capitalist, seeking the next great business opportunities; and an Opinion Leader or Activist, driving conversations and social change, to name some of the better-known choices on offer.
With this surprising breadth in mind, some basic questions must be raised at the beginning of this guide. Why is it valuable to think about the future? Who defines the foresight field, and what is professional? How does one get trained? What are the important types, models, and methods of foresight thinking and practice? What major changes, opportunities and problems lie ahead for our societies, and how can foresight practice help us to better manage them? This guide will offer some answers to these questions. Our responses won’t be definitive, but hopefully you will find them useful, and they will definitely spur new questions for you as well—hopefully better questions than you had before reading this guide.
This guide is intended for three audiences: First, students of foresight training programs and courses around the world, to help them as they move into their careers. Second, professionals in any industry who want to know what modern foresight is and how to better use it in their organizations. Third, anyone who wants to get more earnest or serious about their relationship with the future. You may have been flirting with the future for years, but eventually there’s a time to settle down and commit to a serious relationship.
Today is a very exciting time for foresight work—never has human society been more complex and fast-paced, and never have we had as many tools and opportunities available to greatly improve our lives, our teams, our organizations, and our world. We have problems and threats to manage as well, of course. Moreover, as our technical abilities have grown, the age-old threats and hardships of our natural environment have receded in severity, while new problems we have created for ourselves have taken center stage.
By many measures we’ve been a fantastically successful species. Some say too successful, as measured both by our total numbers and by our intended and unintentional impacts on the world. For a famous example, we now live in a geological epoch of our own making, the Anthropocene, an era of human-made climate change that began roughly 8,000 years ago, when only 10 million of us apparently managed to burn an incredible one-fifth of Earth’s ice-free land for forest clearing and hunting. We’ve been altering our biosphere with less destruction per individual, but increasing total effect ever since.
We’re also finally recognizing the full scope and danger of some of the problems we’ve created along the way. Today we 7 billion humans and our tens of billions of domesticated animals make up 97% of the carbon mass of all terrestrial mammals. We’ve turned our continents into a carbon monoculture, based entirely on us. WWF’s Living Planet Report (2014) estimates that we’ve reduced vertebrate wildlife populations (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) roughly fifty percent in just the last 40 years (1970-2010). Freshwater populations are down even farther in this period (80% loss), as we’ve grabbed up, polluted, and introduced more successful “invasive species” into all the easy-access freshwater. We don’t even yet know how many species we’re killing, but it might be dozens a day, and is perhaps 1,000 fold higher than the background rate without our presence. While we probably know all the kingdoms, nearly all phyla, classes and orders, and most families and genuses (taxonomic classes) we’ve mapped only 14% of the species on land and 9% of those in the oceans, if a recent estimate of 8.7 million species (excluding prokaryotes) on Earth is accurate. Meanwhile, our carbon emissions continue to accelerate toward planet-altering levels. See Vaclav Smil, Harvesting the Biosphere (PDF), Pop. & Dev. Review, 2011, and the Smithsonian’s Mass Extinction (2014) for a few good recent overviews of these issues.
Fortunately, our collective foresight is far better today than it was when we first arrived on the scene. Today, our greatest limitations and problems are the ones our successes have created for us. Better foresight can guide us to solutions to those problems, finding ways out of the traps we create when we are being selfish and greedy and short-sighted, as we still so often are.