Foresight: A Brief Literature Review

Several of my projects these days are centering on foresight, the process of looking at the future and doing something other than burying your head in the sand or screaming and throwing your feces. Foresight is not about predicting the future, because that’s impossible. Rather, it’s about cultivating a holistic and adaptive worldview so that when the inevitably unexpected happens, you don’t freeze on the tracks and get run down by the Future. Foresight is definitely more of an art than a science, but a lot of smart people have been writing on it for several decades. These are some of the articles I’ve found particularly useful.

Ron Bradfield, George Wright, George Burt, George Cairns, Kees Van Der Heijden. The origins and evolution of scenario techniques in long range business planning.
The authors trace out the history of various foresight techniques, from RAND, to Shell Oil, to the La Prospective school. They trace out the major features of the probabilistic modified trends and intuitive logics techniques, the two major schools of practice, and bring some clarity to the confused world of scenario planning. A key starting point for any foresight scholar.

James Oglivy. Future studies and the human sciences
Oglivy develops a broad philosophical justification for futurism as crafting normative scenarios. Slicing through almost every human discipline-anthropology, history, literature, philosophy, psychology, sociology-he notes a semiotic turn. Rather than following the physical sciences in discovering the laws of human activity, post-modernists have turned away from trying to discover truths towards interpretation meaning, and how meaning matters. The role of the futurist is to make the future meaningful in a positive and useful way, to deconstruct both status quo futures and dystopian visions, and give voice to the desires of the public for a better tomorrow.

Cynthia Selin. Professional dreamers: The past in the future of scenario planning.
The founding document of scenario planning is The Gentle Art of Re-Perceiving by Pierre Wack. Wack was a Shell Oil executive, futurist, and mystic, who developed the technique of scenarios to allow his fellow executives to see beyond their narrow disciplinary boundaries and approach problems from a fresh perspective. Wack’s aim was organizational learning, and so when developing scenarios we should keep in mind the organizations that we are trying to change. Scenario planning today has deviated from Wack, as most scenario practitioners are independent contractors, lacking Wack’s deep understanding of the field as well as his reflexive orientation. But even if we cannot follow directly in Wack’s footsteps at all times, he represents an aspirational goal.

Cynthia Selin. Trust and the illusive force of scenarios.
What makes a scenario ‘good’? It’s definitely more of an art than a science, and in this article Selin argues that an effective scenario must be both provocative and trustworthy. Yet, the traditional metrics of trust: past performance, adherence to best practices, an overwhelming weight of evidence, do not apply to scenarios. Scenario making is a rhetorical art, where the practitioner must foster trust among all participants, and use metaphor and narrative to bridge the gap between the familiar present and the uncertain future.

Ronald Bradfield. Cognitive barriers in the scenario development process.
This article attempts to bridge cognitive psychology and scenario planning by exploring the cognitive aspects of how scenarios work and do not work. Human beings are lousy thinkers, and we tend to devolve to variety of heuristics rather than in engaging in proper analysis. The key finding are that a group engaged in scenario planning draws upon ready-made scripts from the media (news, fiction, science), and that they reach a transition point where they close on a concept, and can no longer be influenced. While I’m not qualified to vouch for the quality of the cognitive psychology, foresight needs more analytic articles like this one.

EDIT: And thanks to Cynthia Selin for pointing me to these articles in the first place. There's a reason you ask the experts.

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