What is the Foresight Field?
Foresight, also known as futures studies and futurology, is the art and process of looking to the future. Our oldest written forms of foresight thinking include both political propaganda, like the Prophecy of Neferti (1960BCE) in Ancient Egypt, and social and religious prophecy, including the Delphic oracle of Ancient Greece (1400BCE to 395), and many popular prophets since that time in Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Zoroastrian, Judaic, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, and all our more recent religions. Another very old form of foresight is utopianism, or secular aspirational political philosophy. We see this kind of foresight in Greece in Plato’s The Republic (380BCE), in Europe in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), and in the writings of many more recent utopian philosophers and political theorists, from Karl Marx to Mao Zedong. While political propaganda, religious foresight, and utopian foresight have been central to human development, and each influences our values and aspirations today, none of these are major subjects of this Guide.
We are mainly concerned with secular foresight, a way of thinking that began in the European Enlightenment (1650-1840), and which uses not only visionary aspiration (which we find in propaganda, prophecy and utopianism) but also intuition, reason, evidence, discourse, critique, and experiment to guide our individual and collective values determination, analysis, strategy, goalsetting, planning, and action. We will most carefully focus on strategic foresight, a set of increasingly future-adaptive practices that emerged with the start of the modern foresight field in the mid-1940s.
As its name implies, strategic foresight is futures thinking and methods that seek to create or alter our strategies, goals, plans and actions. Strategic foresight is what we are referring to when we use the term foresight in this guide. This kind of foresight uses skills like environmental intelligence, forecasts, alternative futures exploration, visioning, strategizing, analysis, and feedback to produce or alter individual or organizational strategies, goals, plans, and actions. If your futures thinking doesn’t seek to create or alter strategy and its dependents, then it may be imagination, entertainment, or even education, but it isn’t strategic foresight.
As the color legend explains in How to Read The Foresight Guide, the Guide focuses on building your skills in three primary types of strategic foresight, uncovering and guiding probable, possible, and preferable futures. We’ll occasionally display these foresight types in three primary colors, blue, green, and purple in our text (see picture right). We’ll also use red for header titles and for important concepts, and gold for any of the twenty specialties that are most useful in organizational foresight. That adds up to five colors that we will use occasionally for emphasis in the Guide.
To preview the three basic foresight types, some foresight work involves discovering probable processes and destinations, places we are likely to go regardless of what we individually want, because of the known and unknown laws, conditions, and constraints of the universe and our environment. For example, until we change our biology to be like the handful of organisms that don’t age, people will continue to age, die, and be born. Scientific knowledge will continue to get more specific, explanatory, and powerful. Global technological change and business activity will continue to accelerate. We’ll keep moving more human intelligence and abilities to our computers and machines, and our planet will become increasingly digitized, connected and transparent in all its public spaces. We will soon have software agents that mirror our values and preferences, what I call personal sims, and we’ll use these agents to aid us in navigating the world.
Thinking about such apparently predictable aspects of the future, and attaching a quantitative probability to their arrival, either rough or precise, is engaging in future (singular) studies, one of the original phrases describing our field. This kind of probabilistic thinking will be called developmental foresight, and we’ll frequently color it blue in this guide, to remind us of its presence.
Another equally important early term for foresight work, futures studies, and its shorthand, futures, emerged and peaked in the 1980s. One of its leading proponents is Jim Dator, the inspiring and recently retired founder of the U. Hawaii MA and PhD program in Alternative Futures. Use of the plural term emphasizes that our future always brings unpredictable new possibilities, options, uncertainties, and a plurality of differences. Thinking about largely unpredictable futures will be called evolutionary foresight, and frequently colored green in this guide, again to remind us of its presence.
As we’ll see, different personalities are often attracted to work on each of these basic foresight types, as well as a third foresight type, preferable futures, that we’ll discuss shortly. Unfortunately, many future thinkers continue to argue over whether there is “one future” or “many futures” ahead. But when we think carefully about it, we realize that both perspectives are always true, for various processes and contexts in any complex system we study.
At any point in time, certain processes are predictably converging developmentally to one common future (for example, we know the future motion of the planets, and we know our near-future world will contain exponentially more digital information and devices). Meanwhile, a much larger set of processes and events are unpredictably diverging evolutionarily to several different futures. A more useful question, then, is to ask how we can better determine what is predictable and what is unpredictable for the process, event, or system in question. Our achievable preferable futures, in turn, must always exist within the constraints of what the probable and the possible will allow.
To recap, the term futures is commonly used to highlight divergent options and alternatives, and for future-related content (thinking, artifacts, stories, models, studies, and research) that highlights the diversity of our creative choices and future outcomes. It is also used for preferable futures (that third type, which we will often color purple in this guide) when we want to emphasize the diversity of preferences that people have on any organizational or social issue.
The term future is often used for content that focuses on a specific expected (probable) future (eg, the sun will rise tomorrow), and when we want to emphasize a single preferred future that most or everyone has (eg, the continued survival of humanity). The term foresight refers to strategic foresight, the content and methods we use to alter our present strategies, plans and actions. To do this well, strategic foresight must account for the relevant probabilities, possibilities, and preferences affecting the issue in question. While we usually think of strategic foresight in terms of organizations, it also occurs in personal, global (social), and universal (science, world view) domains.
A great brief introduction to the possible and preferable domains of strategic foresight, written for organizational leaders, is Patricia Lustig’s Strategic Foresight (2015). A great deep introduction to the field is Tuomo Kuosa’s The Evolution of Strategic Foresight (2012). It is an excellent (but at $150, indefensibly expensive) look at the growth of strategic foresight from its 1940’s roots in defense and intelligence to its modern forms, now including business, public policy, urban, and institutional foresight, with the main focus on governmental foresight and public policy. As a bonus, it is one of the rare foresight books that takes evolutionary approach. Kuosa’s next book, Towards Strategic Intelligence (2014, offered in free PDF) is a great followup, focused on the intersection of intelligence and foresight.
Unfortunately, most books on strategic foresight, including these, lose a few points in their current versions because they don’t write nearly enough about the probable future. They don’t remind us of obvious long-term and large-scale predictable global and social trends, many of which are accelerating, that will impact all our strategy-making should they continue to accelerate, as we do in Chapter 2. Some books on strategic foresight even try to define away prediction and forecasting, as “not part of our field.” This is a major mistake, as it leads such authors to underappreciate processes and forces that constrain the possible and the preferable, including accelerating change.
Each of us sees pieces of the future, and of foresight practice, particularly well, and other pieces less well. To be the best foresight practitioners we can be, we want to regularly read books from all those who are serious about looking to the future, and learn as much we can from each of them. Everyone sees a piece of the elephant, and by comparing all our unique views, we see better than ever before.