Can foresight change the future?
Can foresight change the future?
For several months now we have been experiencing the effects of an unforeseen event impacting the majority of people on earth. It has caught many by surprise. Because the pandemic was such a shock, it has promoted greater awareness for an area of professional skills called foresight. We devised a set of six questions to dissect the role of foresight now and in the future. The responses below are written from our unique perspectives as futurists seeking to understand the value of foresight in the post-pandemic world.
1. What might have been different if foresight had been acted on at the first reports of global outbreaks?
RJ: I would separate this in 2 parts, one part related to using foresight right after the first reports and a part two, related to the use of foresight before the first announcements of global outbreaks.
- Part one, if foresight had been used during the first reports, it would have given the chance to think about different speeds of escalating scenarios right from the start. which would have led to think about the worst-case situations right from the start, i.e. hospital overcapacity, 2nd, and 3rd waves, risk groups. This, in turn, would have led to creating measures and step by step actions to cope with the situation. These measures could have been distributed to governments and health organizations in a fast way to help them create effective contingency plans, because simply not all leaders are made the same, and not all leaders are able to lead in a crisis.
- Part two, if foresight might have been used before the outbreaks, it would have given time for governments, corporations, cities, technology companies, school systems, Manufacturing chairs, you name it, the chance to have prepared “playbooks” in case of similar situations. It would have created a basis for orchestrated actions and smoother crisis management for entire populations
So if we take the graph made by Prof Luis Huete from the IESE Business School, an effective application of foresight would have meant that all countries would be in the top right-hand corner, where economy and lives would have been very softly impacted.
AW: If foresight had been immediately implemented by government and medical workers, things may have been very different. First of all, a genuine perspective embracing foresight would have offered a more realistic parameter in terms of the duration of the pandemic. The idea of the crisis ending in weeks or even months would not have been a seriously entertained idea. Foresight would mean that governments would have made economic sustenance of their populations the first priority, planning for a minimum of five years of protracted economic slowdowns. Foresight would have created a sense of hope and imbued a proactive approach to public health policies--track and trace programs would have been mercilessly implemented. Strategic leadership would have sought viable ways of closing schools, public gatherings, and crowded indoor spaces for years on end, but with adequate modifications to alleviate social alienation that social distancing caused. Furthermore, there would have been zero shortages of equipment or supplies, and a highly advanced level of emergency preparation would have been ready to put in place.
2. Current research from the University of Houston (https://www.houstonforesight.org/25-of-fortune-500-practices-foresight/) finds that a quarter of Fortune 500 companies apply some kind of formalized foresight in their organizations, including Apple, Ford, and Citibank. Do you think this level of involvement in foresight practice in business will increase/decrease in the near future?
AW: It would make sense that companies become more aware of and sensitive to disruption after experiencing the COVID-19 crisis. I have seen an increase in the number of job titles for “futurist” in various companies over the years, so the pandemic may serve as an accelerating event within the foresight profession itself, driving this trend faster and farther. Even if companies don’t formally adopt foresight or hire a futurist, it is entirely feasible to me that more and more individual people will embrace a more long-term outlook. Particularly given the fact that rebuilding the economy will take years, it seems like a futurist mindset is more important than ever.
RJ: I do see some signals that are leading companies to an increment in their demand and need of foresight capabilities. One, is, for example, the life expectancy or long term survival for established firms, which has been constantly declining for several decades. A study made by a large consultancy company mentions that in 10 years 75% of the companies currently quoted on the S&P 500 will have disappeared. Maybe those are the ¾ of companies that do not have the foresight practice installed in their organizations. Further, a study made in 2018 by the Aarhus school of business mentions that future vigilant firms are 33% more profitable than the average. Two, the bucket load of: changing markets, exponential advancement of technologies, changing needs, increasing regulations, shifts in consumer preferences… make it very difficult for businesses to simply continue on straight paths of development shown by traditional planning and strategic methods. All in all, I expect that foresight activities in business will increase in the near future.
3. Would the pandemic have been a pandemic if we "all" would have applied more foresight?
AW: I don’t think anything could have averted the pandemic. We are part of a natural system and pandemics are nothing new or avoidable. As someone who studied anthropology in college, I tend to see pandemics as one of the inevitable parts of the human ecosystem, and I wouldn’t even try to suggest that we can outsmart a virus. Rather than see it as something we could have strategized our way out of, let’s embrace it as a powerful reminder of how inadequate our usual planning methods are. We need to look more critically at our systems and acknowledge their weak spots, then work to build those up. I don’t know that a foresight perspective is as necessary here as a systemic view of how the world works.
RJ: Seems like the pandemic and other situations we have faced in the past and will have to face in the future, are inevitable. Problems, challenges, difficulties, hard times, whatever you may want to call these moments, they will happen, the beauty of those problems is that they also give us the chance to think about new ways of dealing with these situations. Even better, if we think about the inevitable beforehand, we are preparing the best we can for something we cannot avoid happening, we are looking at new chances, new ways of thinking and creating new strategies for our worn-out ways of thinking, and all from the comfort of not having to deliver under pressure in the middle of a crisis. Reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill “Difficulties mastered are opportunities won”.
4. What are some new directions for the foresight profession after the pandemic?
RJ: I can imagine that foresight professionals become a standard part of decision-making processes within government and business organizations. In the same way, a minister of the economy or a COO influences decision making in their organizations, the same way a Foresighter could influence the direction of organizations, preparing them for the future. Another angle would be the inclusion of foresight studies as part of the career formation for students in universities and for managers in their companies, at the end we will be creating leaders that need the awareness of the future and know the value of being future-ready. All in all, I see a strong direction for the foresight profession to become more common in business environments with a strong influential and advisory role.
AW: I think more organizations will want to have a futurist viewpoint in their planning and decision-making as they become aware of different risks like climate and automation. The pandemic is just a dress rehearsal for what might happen in the event of global warming reaching the various thresholds which scientists have warned of for years. The experience of sudden, drastic change, such as what COVID-19 has wrought will not be soon forgotten. It may be considered imprudent or risky not to consult a futurist on vital decisions in the future. In particular, the pandemic might influence a new generation of foresight professionals to be more proactive and strategic in their work.
5. How can futurists have a meaningful, positive impact on the world?
AW: Futurists can live up to their name by acting as a voice for future generations. The best way to speak for the voiceless is to amplify empathy, which is the only thing that matters in the immediate post-pandemic future. Because societies, governments, organizations, schools, and individuals will be hungry for empathetic allies, there is a huge potential for foresight to rise to the top of decision-making ranks in the next few years. Futurists often use descriptive scenarios to help audiences experience empathy for future generations. We can, and should, meaningfully impact the world by providing opportunities to validate our inherent sense of obligation to future generations with empowering images of the future. This is an approach that survivors of the pandemic will embrace. They are living proof of the failure of previous generations to protect us from avoidable crises.
RJ: Can you imagine a futurist winning the Nobel Prize based on their contribution to the benefit of humankind? maybe this futurist, with their words, actions, and ideas of where the future might go, guided a whole community of people to create an everlasting impact in the world. It could have been a futurist in the area of economy or medicine or science; maybe it wasn't even within a category but just by the fact of being able to give a picture of the future that is touching enough to inspire a call for action and open the way towards possible solutions, was enough to create change at a global scale.
Honestly speaking, a Nobel Prize (in this case only as an example) is a great recognition, but I as a futurist I am personally moved by a different purpose, not to win a prize but by the desire to improve companies both from a future-oriented business perspective, as well as, from the viewpoint of the improvement of the people who work within them. With this in mind, I believe that better human teams make better companies; and better companies make a better society.
6. How do hopes, aspirations, and expectations for the future change?
AW: The pandemic has cast a pessimistic shadow over us all, and that’s something we will collectively struggle with for some time. I think the shock and sadness will eventually give way to a more hopeful outlook informed by what has been learned and reflected upon during the lockdown and curve-flattening periods. An emergency of this scale helps uncover what we really value and place importance on in life. Many people realized their living situations, educational decisions, or employment no longer serve them. I think the pandemic is a critical life event in terms of prioritizing what matters. Organizations and communities have had to face difficult choices and it’s hopeful that many will take what they learned forward into the future. I believe that in the U.S., the scale of tragedy and loss will lead to chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on a societal scale. Despite all this, I still believe the future is worth looking forward to and planning optimistically for. The pain and suffering must be channeled into rebuilding the world into one worth working for and I think that’s where foresight can have the biggest impact--rebuilding.
RJ: it is true that now many are confused about what they should feel regarding what the future holds for them. This is totally understandable. Companies are confused and going into bankruptcy, governments are handling in crisis mode, even, your individual future is hanging on a thread. On the other hand, people are realizing what is really important and trying to figure out how to re-prioritize. A practical exercise would be to list the expectations, hopes, and aspirations you have regarding the future, but in 3 separate lists: before, during, and projected after the pandemic. Maybe using the chart below.
I have filled it in with a couple of examples and added a colored line to show the variation throughout time and where I feel it will land after the crisis. I have also included some notes at the end of the line which reflects some of the following questions which you can ask yourself to consider the situation: What has changed? Why has it changed? Are these changes something I see and feel could be maintained going forward? Do I see signals corroborating my assumptions? What benefits do I have from such a change?