Chapter 1. Introduction – Our Emerging Foresight Field

V. What Will Your Contribution Be?

The 21st century is a very exciting time to be a foresight professional. If accelerating change continues, humanity will experience more scientific and technological change in the next century than has occurred in all human history to date. How our new scientific knowledge and technical capabilities will affect business and social domains in the next generation is difficult to guess, though we’ll make a few attempts throughout this guide.

So far, we’ve seen that every year more scientific, technical, business, and social processes, trends, and events are becoming either intuitively or statistically predictable, and there are more tools, techniques, and people managing uncertainty and risk, and doing foresight work for profit and benefit ever before. All these folks must increasingly communicate, share knowledge, teach each other, and professionalize.

Professional foresight is today an emerging, disconnected, and often misunderstood field. Yet as our Web gets smarter, as the internet of things emerges, as our robots proliferate, as we hit Peak Oil, Peak Population, and Peak Pollution, as emerging nations move rapidly to lifestyles of the industrialized nations, as e-democracy, digitally-aided activism, and climate change continue, and as science decodes the mysteries of biological intelligence and morality and we increasingly build these properties into our learning machines, we can confidently foresee a continued flux of major disruptions ahead. People need help navigating all this change more today than ever before.

Some critics will say foresight work is no better than gambling on random events. But even random individual events can often be described as probabilities from a collective perspective, as Ernest Rutherford’s models of nuclear decay taught us in 1907. Science has since shown that many individually random social, economic, and technological events happen within a framework of predictable constraints on their collective outcomes. Foresight professionals are busy discovering ever more of those constraints, better discovering possible alternatives within those constraints, and learning more of the forecasting rules in every social game. All of this will slowly but steadily improve their odds of predictive success. Better forecasting and prediction are key skills of not only of great gamblers, statisticians, and scientists, but of great investors, planners, innovators, managers, and leaders. Those who fail to realize this fact will increasingly be at a disadvantage to those with better foresight.

Academics, technologists, businesses, institutions, and the general public are slowly warming to the idea that with a little effort and evidence-based practice, much better marginal foresight is often achievable at moderate cost, foresight that can provide great personal, organizational, and social advantage.  For the future-focused self-starter and active learner, foresight practice opportunities are everywhere, once you know how to look. The going won’t always be easy. Most institutions still don’t get foresight or its promise, and it may be a decade or two yet, and more powerful digital foresight tools and platforms, before our field becomes more widely known, and foresight jobs and training explode. In the meantime, success in a foresight career requires sound ethics, an ability to unearth and frame the hidden foresight problems of our clients, humility in the value and limits of our methods, and yet a strong belief that our content and methods can help our clients achieve better strategy, planning, and action.

Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail (1869)

Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail (1869)

Let’s close this introduction with a useful metaphor. Foresight practitioners should remember they are often pioneers, explorers, and trailblazers in a new and sometimes hostile frontier. The vistas can be breathtaking, but we must be prudent and cautious. If we stray too far afield, we risk getting shot down by critics and dying alone, with our face in the dirt and arrows in our backs. Many organizational leaders are legitimately skeptical of our still-developing methods and value. We are sometimes called impractical idealists, quacks, self-appointed gurus, shamans, or con artists. A few rogue futurists do fit these descriptions, and we need to challenge them when we witness shoddy thinking or behavior from a colleague. But by and large, we are a very practical, curious, courageous, humble, evidence-seeking and ethical community.

As good pioneers, we must learn to support and rely on each other and to effectively circle our wagons and fight for our causes when conflict comes. By helping each other to continually improve our practice, and being vigilant and responsive to criticism and challenges, we will assuredly settle the foresight frontier. We will turn our field into a mature and vital set of professional and academic disciplines, and be successful at navigating ever more complex and interesting futures. We can each do our small part today to grow our field, to learn from and support each other, to help our clients cope with the now and the next, and very importantly, make time to enjoy the journey together. Welcome to the profession!

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