Everybody always wants to know the future: Which technology will create breakthroughs in the next years? Which innovative products will we see on the market in ten years? Foresight does not enable better predictions, but foresight can help you to see the things that matter in how the future could unfold. Thinking about the future makes people see the real questions for todays’ decision makers. Insight in interconnected challenges, implications of global shifts supports transformational policy making in a much richer way than a ‘prediction’ would do. Having said that, curiosity about the future often starts with a prediction question. Strategic foresight can be seen as the practice to deepen those questions and the collaborative learning process. After all, finding the right question is part of the learning in foresight.
In their foresight study on the impact of technology on the agriculture and food sector, the Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends (STT) also started with a prediction question on the impact of technologies on the agriculture and food sector. By organising a participatory process around horizon scanning for new technologies, STT generated not only an impressive list of technologies that are likely to impact our agriculture and food system in the near and longer term future. They also reflected on uncertainties about the potential breakthrough of that technology, and the systemic changes that could occur from that breakthrough. For instance, in addressing a perhaps far future technology such as nanorobotics and utility fogs (that enable shape-shifting of products) they questioned how such a technology would reduce the need for raw materials. In addition, short stories by the author, and Futurista partner Silke de Wilde helped to make these technologies less abstract and see potential use and consequences of use from a storyline perspective.
The overview of technologies can be seen as a starting point for further scanning. It shows how technologies are related or based on the same enabling technology such as sensor technology. But the question of which technology will break through, is not answered by the results of horizon scanning.
To move deeper into understanding the factors that influence uncertainty, STT presented a list of developments in society categorised in demographics, economics, socio-cultural, ecological and geopolitical. Their selection of developments points at fundamental shifts in society, such as global power shifts from West to East and economies of scale, new inequalities between rich and poor, new circular economic models and empowered consumers. Next step in sense making of how these developments relate, was done by presenting scenarios. Agriculture and food systems is one of the areas where scenario planning is regularly done. Based on a meta-study, STT highlighted five archetype scenarios and discussed them with stakeholders. Typically, the main distinctive characteristic of these archetype scenarios was the value based goal that explained why things where done in a particular way.
Now the most interesting work of scenario planning can begin, as STT also remarks. That is asking what each scenario could mean for the breakthrough of new technologies. Given the differences in value based goals, how does this shape the preferences for certain technologies? Would people accept these technologies, or would they be concerned about the risks? What would be the reason for entrepreneurs in each scenario to invest in technology? How could the government benefit from these technologies in providing services, monitoring and enforcement?
Working on these questions is where the most profound way of organisational learning takes place. This learning process is what set foresight studies apart from most research. Regularly, research reports present their findings and conclusions on a question, and make recommendations that decision makers can take into account. Strategic foresight is a participatory process that delivers more than the results of a scanning exercise. The value is in the rich sets of conversations that have revealed meaningful storylines and leadership questions. The only way to really grasp this value, is by taking time to discuss and learn from these conversations.