Strategic foresight is not futuristic forecasting, nor is it the sole purview of Popular Science magazine, the World Future Society, or the Jetson Family. It is about having the imagination to be prepared for what may come, regardless of which scenario occurs – it’s a mindset, not a process.
The late leadership guru Robert Greenleaf said it is an ethical issue if leaders fail to “make the effort at an earlier time to foresee today’s events and take the right actions when there was freedom for initiative to act.”
Greenleaf’s statement is pretty strong. And most people would think that he refers to political leaders. But his observation is pointed at leaders at all levels. In fact, an article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review examines how successful companies survive and thrive in an increasingly complex world. The authors note that a key element is corporate leaders who “expect surprise but reduce uncertainty” by using strategic foresight.
Efforts to create strategic foresight capacity in the U.S. federal government have experienced fits and starts over the past 40 years. But in recent years, there has been some progress at the agency level, largely at the behest of political and career leaders who appreciate the value of foresight as part of their decision making processes. They might not think of it in terms of an ethical issue, but as good leadership.
Foresight is not making a prediction about the future. Daniel Kim, a former colleague of Greenleaf,says: “foresight is about being able to perceive the significance and nature of events before they have occurred.” New Zealand professor Jonathan Boston, who is writing a book about strategic foresight systems in various countries, observes that leaders throughout history have undertaken efforts to look beyond the horizon by “consulting prophets, oracles, priestly castes, fortune tellers, and astrologers.” He notes that good long-term governance today should rely on other approaches to help leaders look ahead and reflect on ”the implications of current decisions, events, and trends” in order to make more informed policy choices today and their effects on tomorrow.
Is the use of foresight a personal leadership characteristic or should it be an institutional element in governance? There is a range of different approaches to creating an institutional foresight capacity; these include:
Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses in terms of their scope, impact, and relevance to leaders in decision making. For example, embedding such a function in the White House could make the use of foresight more prominent in decision-making, but it could also be seen as being manipulated by the political process and eliminated with a change in ruling party. In contrast, an independent function might be seen as impartial but it could also be treated as being irrelevant by policymakers.
The current U.S. approach seems to align with several of the latter approaches, where individual agencies are taking the lead, but are working together. Three years ago, foresight professionals from around the federal government began meeting informally to share among themselves their insights and methods.
Based on their initial meetings, it became clear that foresight methods are used in a range of federal agencies, but their uses are at different levels of maturity. The group now has about 150 participants representing about 30 federal agencies and it meets quarterly. It is in the process of developing a charter and governance system, with the intent of remaining informal for the time being. Some of the issues being addressed by this broader community include:
Dr. Boston says that his research shows a need to develop foresight mechanisms that address both the supply and demand sides of the democratic process. The supply side is developing the analytic and delivery capability. The demand side is creating political incentives to act on the information developed. Boston observes: “Addressing the demand-side is more challenging than the supply-side.”
Dr. Boston’s research has identified over a dozen different types of solutions, such as reforming budgetary systems, creating procedural rules that constrain policy makers, strengthening foresight and strategic planning processes.
Interestingly, his research recognizes that, if our political leaders deep down don’t care, it won’t happen. He writes about the importance of nurturing a frame of mind that values “stewardship, guardianship, trusteeship and fiduciary duties.” And observes: “a crucial question is how to cultivate and foster the specific dispositions, virtues and values which underpin such a quest.” And that tone typically is set by a new president.
Leon Fuerth and Evan Faber (2012) Anticipatory Governance: Practical Upgrades (George Washington University)
Jonathan Boston (2014) Governing for the Future (lecture notes at American University)
The Atlantic Council (2014) Strategic Foresight Initiative
The Dialog (2015) Database of Reports on Global Trends and Future Scenarios (The Dialog and the Inter-American Development Bank)