Note: this post was originally published on 7/22/2014.
In “Contexts for Future Conflict and War” Jeffrey Becker has clearly and accurately identified one of the central and persistent intellectual challenges to be found within current foresight work regarding the futures of conflict and security. The tendency on the part of many analysts (and very many leaders) to frame the futures primarily in terms of historical trends and to be biased in favor of the “hard,” quantifiable data of which most of our trend analyses are composed is a natural one and not endemic only to the realms of security studies or government work. Add to this the tendency of most of us to think and reason (and thus, forecast) in a linear fashion and it is easy to see why so much of the governmental, corporate, and nonprofit foresight work that is conducted today seems to reveal futures that might be more challenging than the present (we’ll need more resources or more “innovation”) but can be surprisingly familiar in their core attributes.
I applaud Becker’s call for improved foresight work and I suggest that his prescription needs to be rounded out by a broader and deeper understanding of futures studies and the intellectual and methodological approaches that students of futures studies typically take towards developing foresight. Becker’s fixation on “trends” and their combination is an understandable one, but it is merely the starting point for contemporary and comprehensive foresight work.
Many people are unaware that futures studies is an academic field of study, albeit a relatively small one. The central analytical focus of futures studies is the phenomena of change. The field is concerned with understanding and anticipating how and why change happens in society, seeking to help others anticipate how and why the future might be different from today. Alongside this analytical focus, the central normative concern of the field is energizing clients to reconceive their preferences for the future (based in part on the critical explorations conducted through the analytic side).
Emerging from this field is an approach to developing foresight that incorporates trend analysis as well as emerging issues analysis; that bases forecasts on theories of change and stability cascading across multiple scales; that employs a wide variety of forecasting techniques drawn from different fields; that fundamentally frames the world in terms of systems, interactions, and complexity; that explicitly critiques and unpacks the assumptions underlying expectations for change and the future; and that specifically seeks to identify and reconfigure the images of the future (visions, aspirations, and anxieties) that both dominate and shape our expectations and preferences for the future.
In practice this means that good foresight work is typically an ensemble approach in which conceptual frameworks, models of change, and forecasting/backcasting/incasting methods are all specifically selected for the project at hand. Trends certainly make their regular appearances here, but they are essentially just fodder for the larger work being conducted. And while the nature of the external environment is of course a critical factor in composing the methodological ensemble, the internal environment in the shape of the organizational culture and client psychologies will also influence the frameworks and methods that are selected. It is here that “knowing your client” becomes as important to the downstream utility and success of a foresight project as knowing the industry.
Becker’s focus on combining trends in order to generate more dynamic and useful foresight represents a step in the right direction, but stops far short of the distance needed to be traveled to arrive at what is today considered best practices in futures work. The good news is that – at least in terms of approaches, frameworks, and methods – the full remedy is already available and relatively easy to administer.
Dr. Richard Lum earned his PhD in futures studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is CEO of the foresight and strategic analysis firm Vision Foresight Strategy LLC. He has conducted foresight and strategy work for clients such as the UK Government, the European Commission, and the US Pacific Command.