Thinking about the future and practicing foresight is no cakewalk. This is made very clear in the book Foresight in Action. The authors have done ethnographic research on how foresight practitioners proceed in practice, with respect to the policy practice. The study took place at several Dutch ministries and planning agencies.
The research shows that, in practice, many choices are made that conflict with the theory of Foresight. In this post I try to summarize the authors’ findings into four pitfalls for foresight practitioners.
Pitfalls for foresight-practitioners:
1. How to deal with policy when you make future scenarios for policy makers?
Foresight practitioners and the (academic) literature seem to have accepted that to create future-proof -or ‘robust’- policy, it is necessary to design future scenarios that are free of policy. This is closely related to a widely used tool to test policy, namely testtunneling. In this exercise, policy is checked against possible future worlds. The policy is the option that is tested and therefore not part of the instrument that performs the test. However, in practice, attempts to make policy- free scenarios fails. Most future explorers find a middle way and choose for example a ‘minimum differentiated policy’. Assumptions are made intuitively or are not made negotiable. This detracts from the quality of the process and the scenarios.
2. Are the scenario-axes used for the intended purpose?
The use of a two-dimensional coordinate system when creating scenarios is presented in many textbooks and literature as the standard method for making future scenarios. However, the authors of Foresight in Action remind us that working with a two-dimensional coordinate system is only suitable if two overwhelmingly strong driving forces are identified. On many issues, however, more than two overwhelming driving forces van be formulated. Nowadays, foresight practitioners often force themselves are a project group to find the two most overwhelming driving forces, to develop scenarios. These driving forces are then used in a framework with scenario-axes to design the scenarios. In addition, there is often confusion about the role of the scenario-axes: is it selected due to mechanical reasons, or, for example, to process the group or to facilitate the presentation to the public? Often these questions are not sufficiently considered and the choices made are not justified.
3. Can you resist the temptation to ‘certainify’?
Foresight is often presented as the art or method to deal with uncertainties. Foresight practitioners often state they do not wish to ‘predict’ the future through numerical forecasts or trend extrapolation. In practice, foresight practitioners’ dealing with uncertainty is disappointing. During the foresight process, consciously or unconsciously, more and more uncertainties are artificially made certain: certainification. Certainification appears, for example, by numerical justifications or references to the past. This certainification ultimately leaves no more room for uncertainties in the exploration of the scenarios. And the question is to what extent the foresight exercise then helps in dealing with uncertainties.
4. How do you escape from historical determinism?
In the theory on foresight, there seems to be consensus on the assumption that historical determinism should be avoided in foresight. ‘The future is open’. However, in the process of foresight, historical determinism always seems to play a role. In perhaps the most “innocent” form it starts with the justification why it should be avoided in the first place. A common argument is: “In the ’70s, no one would have believed that our society looks like it does now.” In doing so, we refer to the variability in the past to show that variability will apply in the future. However, it is more worrisome as the process progresses and choices are made in creating the scenarios. Different kinds of arguments are used to determine why certain reasoning or developments are not plausible or useful in a scenario. Often they refer to, and comparisons are made with past events. If these arguments are heeded, which often happens, the end result is a set of scenarios that suits today’s world, rather than dealing with the uncertainties and images of the future.
Recommendations for foresight practitioners:
Below I briefly describe the recommendations made in the book, which I personally definitely take to heart. Remember that these findings apply to the use of scenarios and forecasting for policy rather than for business.
- The idea of policy-free scenarios should be let go. In practice it has been found that it is not possible to make policy-free scenarios, and therefore we should not pretend it could be done.
- As the requirement of policy free scenarios is associated with the method of testtunneling, there is also a need for an alternative to testtunneling. New ways should be found (or the old ways have to be adapted) to use scenarios.
- The scenario-axes must be rejected as an ideal way to create scenarios. It does not reflect the complexity of driving forces for contextual scenarios. New methods should be developed and evaluated.
- New methods should be developed and described in order better to deal with uncertainties in foresight and not to be tempted by certainification or giving into historical determinism when creating scenarios.
To be continued …
This blog was also published on my website SilkeDeWilde.com