March 21, 2024

Introduction to Futures and Foresight for Emerging Technologies

Sarah Munby, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Science, Technology and Innovation, recently made a strong case that the only thing you can confidently say about the future development of AI is: I don’t know. 

We touched on this in our January newsletter. No one is sure about how the capabilities of AI will develop, let alone how business, government and society will respond to them.

But this doesn’t mean that you should stand still. Tools exist for helping decision makers make smart choices in the face of uncertainty about the future, where traditional forecasts are liable to falter. Strategic foresight and other ‘Futures’ methods are increasingly being used by senior leaders in government departments and board rooms to support systematic thinking about their current context and how it might develop over time - improving organisational resilience and agility in the process.

What is strategic foresight?

Strategic (or often in a business environment, ‘corporate’) foresight is a method for investigating possible future developments, opportunities and challenges to support effective decision making.

Its origins lie in the Cold War work of analysts at RAND, who considered multiple imagined futures, or ‘scenarios’, to test US military strategies for engaging the Soviet Union at a time of extreme uncertainty. 

The approach was carried across to the corporate realm by Pierre Wack and colleagues working at Royal Dutch Shell in the late 1960s and 1970s, who progressively developed a scenario planning process that helped the company navigate the 1973-74 oil crisis and its aftermath. Grounded in a concrete understanding of the present and recent past, these scenarios helped senior leaders think about different possible trajectories for Shell’s operating environment and what their implications would be, enabling them to be prepared, despite the uncertainty, for a variety of outcomes in a way that their competitors were not. 

Since Wack’s work, other futures and foresight methods have proliferated, becoming increasingly common in boardrooms and governments around the world. Along with scenario analysis and planning, commonly used tools include:

  • Horizon scanning: picking up signals from the present environment about how it might be changing.
  • The ‘three horizons’ method: thinking through the steps to be taken to get from horizon 1, the present, to horizon 3, a possible or preferred future.
  • Futures wheels: a tool for brainstorming the direct and indirect effects (working through first, second, third order) of a future change across a system.
  • Backcasting: starting with a preferred future and working back from it to determine what steps would need to be taken for it to be realised.

How can foresight help you?

Futures and foresight work can be tailored to achieve a range of possible outcomes:

  • Fostering a better understanding of emerging threats and opportunities, supporting resilience and strategic innovation
  • Improving agility and adaptability in response to new developments
  • Stress-testing existing and proposed strategies by exploring their appropriateness for different possible futures
  • Challenging assumptions and shifting internal models that might otherwise be stuck in the past
  • Supporting strategic decisions to shape the future in a way that supports your organisation
  • Fostering culture change and improved morale by involving colleagues in participatory sessions that draw on their expertise and give a sense of agency
  • Engaging stakeholders in conversations which are of mutual benefit

Interest in futures and foresight is growing as more organisations come to appreciate the radical uncertainty facing them, and the inadequacy of their traditional tools for grappling with it. A 2020 survey of senior executives at the largest US and European countries found that more than 90% had some sort of foresight activity taking place within their organisation. In the few years since, discussion of its value in business, as well as in government, has only increased.

In the case of emerging technologies, foresight can be a vital tool for exploring not only the possible pathways of technology development, but their interactions with other factors such as societal uptake (how those technologies intersect with emerging demographic and values shifts, for instance), economic developments (what role might disruption to supply chains, or ongoing low growth play?), political and regulatory responses, and more. 

In work with our clients, we ensure that foresight is strongly tied to an organisation’s particular context, so that it feels real to decision-makers rather than relating just to things happening ‘outside’ the organisation and beyond their control. We apply futures methods in a targeted way that supports the generation of ‘aha’ moments on the part of leaders, shifting perspectives and opening up new possibilities that would not have been considered otherwise.

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