Two weeks back we were in Singapore attending (and supporting) the 2015 International Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Symposium produced by the government of Singapore. Like so many things Singaporean, it was a well-organized event attended by some very impressive folks. Being a trained and professional futurist (I still don’t love that title 🙂 ), the event gave me an opportunity to reflect on foresight conferences in general and to think about the kinds of value I personally look for in such gatherings.
To my mind, there are three major types of value that – for me at least – make a foresight conference worthwhile. First, there’s content. Now, just about every foresight event promises and provides content, typically in the form of speakers. But from the view of someone who does this work day in and day out, most of the content delivered by speakers is already familiar. Thus, what make a conference really valuable from a content point of view is truly bleeding edge or unusually esoteric thinking. In this sense, a conference has to act as a good complement to a futurist’s ongoing scanning activities.
Second, a conference can be worthwhile by offering new methodologies or new insights and innovations in existing methodologies. Professional foresight folks really do have a need to continually refine and expand their tool kits, and conferences can be valuable by offering genuine professional development along these lines. Unfortunately, a lot of foresight conferences are focused more on delivering content to a non-professional audience (i.e. clients/users), and rarely have solid offerings that really enhance the day-to-day practice of futurists.
Finally, a foresight conference can be worth the price of attendance if the other attendees are of particularly high caliber with regard to foresight skills and experience. For myself, this is where I have found the most value in the foresight gatherings that I have attended over the years. Even here, however, conferences can often face something of an uphill battle, since the patterns of normal distribution in any professional population dictate that the really outstanding (and thus, professional stimulating) futurists represent the small leading tail (small in numbers) and are often in demand (quite busy) and not always able to attend.
Such musings aside, I had a fantastic time meeting old and new friends at the Symposium and very much enjoyed the attendees who were there. If I had suggestions for future Symposiums, and assuming that the organizers design the event for foresight professionals, I would place a heavier emphasis on really leading edge thinking to share and I would think seriously about how to provide spaces for attendees to interact and produce some original foresight while they are there.