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: personal foresight, improving our individual, relationship, and family navigation of the future, organizational foresight, improving our teams, companies, and institutions abilities to create the futures they desire, global foresight, improving our societies ability to cooperate, compete and adapt, and universal foresight, which includes science, complexity studies, and our models for universal change.
The universal domain is often overlooked by those thinking about the future in lay terms, and too many leaders today don’t have a strong understanding of science and complex systems. Gaining a Big Picture, universal perspective on change has become particularly important in recent decades, as complexity and change continue to accelerate. Chapters 7 and 11 introduce two universal change models, exponential foresight and evo devo foresight, that I believe will help you better understand 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 chapter will offer some initial answers to these questions. Our answers 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 have asked to date about these important topics.
The 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 future for years, but eventually there’s a time to settle down, engage with it, and finally, commit to a serious lifelong 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 many 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, ones we have created for ourselves, have taken center stage.
We’ve been a fantastically successful species. Some say too successful, as measured by our total numbers and by our intended and unintentional impacts on the world. For example, we now live in a geological epoch of our own making, called the Anthropocene, an era of human-made climate change. Most people are surprised to discover that the Anthropocene began an incredible 8,000 years ago. At that time only 10 million of us lived on Earth, yet we apparently managed to burn an astonishing one-fifth of Earth’s ice-free land for forest clearing and hunting. That’s the other thing most people are surprised to learn. Today’s humans are vastly less violent and unforesighted than in generations past. Today we alter our biosphere in far more ways than we did in the prehistoric era, but with far less climate impact per individual, and far more and faster-increasing regulation and tracking of our biospheric behaviors.
That’s not to say all our biospheric trends are going in the right direction. Many still aren’t. Today we 7.6 billion human beings and our tens of billions of domesticated animals make up 97% of the carbon mass of all terrestrial mammals. In a vast unplanned experiment, we’ve turned our continents into carbon monocultures, 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’re also still ignorant of the total biospheric diversity we are destroying. We don’t even yet know how many species we’re killing annually, but it is likely dozens a day, and is perhaps 1,000 fold higher than the background rate that would go extinct without our presence. While we probably know all the kingdoms, nearly all phyla, classes and orders, and most families and genuses (taxonomic classes) on our precious planet, our only habitable home in the solar system at present, we’ve mapped just 14% of the species on land and 9% of those in the oceans, if the estimate of 8.7 million species (excluding prokaryotes) on Earth is accurate. Our biological ignorance is incredible. See Vaclav Smil, Harvesting the Biosphere (PDF), Pop. & Dev. Review (2011), and the Smithsonian’s Mass Extinction (2014) for good overviews of these deeply troubling issues.
Meanwhile, our global carbon emissions continue grow, toward increasingly planet-altering levels. They helpfully plateaued to just 0.4% growth in 2013-2016, then returned to an alarming 2% growth in 2017. We haven’t yet reached Peak CO2, and growth-oriented plutocrats continue to spread doubt over whether that is even necessary, though it’s clear to all evidence-based thinkers that we must.
Fortunately, our collective intelligence and foresight are far better today than they were when we first arrived on the scene. They are also accelerating, as we will see. 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. We’ll explore many examples of better and worse paths forward in this Guide.