The word “foresight” is defined as the ability to see ahead. It can be fun, however, to consider the literal definition as well, which is “before seeing.”
What happens before seeing?
At the #UNDP4Future event in Istanbul, we demonstrated a variety of biases that limit our ability to see ahead.
These ranged from cognitive biases, such as intentional blindness (when we miss obvious things changing in front of us because our attention is directed elsewhere) to social biases, such as group think (when we go ignore the obvious and go along with the group to avoid social discomfort).
While seemingly trivial, these biases exert powerful influence on our ability to perceive the world around us and can lead to disastrous outcomes. To quote Robert S. McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense and the “architect of the Vietnam War”:
“We see what we want to see; we believe what we want to believe.”
This can have damning consequences for organizations that misperceive the world around them, and act on outdated information or incorrect assumptions about the future.
Good foresight methodology focuses on improving our ability to see the world as it truly is.
It focuses on wiping away the dust of assumptions that cloud our vision of how the world is changing, and what it may become.
Good foresight, in this case, is about what happens before seeing, as opposed to simply seeing ahead.
The happy outcome of such an approach is that it reduces strategic surprise, and aligns our plans more closely with the future outcomes. Good foresight helps us plan for the possibilities of tomorrow, as opposed to simply reacting to the outcomes of the past.
This can be done many ways, ranging from online games to in-depth workshops and face-to-face engagements. The key to success is to draw from unlikely sources, to incorporate heterodox views, and to combine them in rigorous and creative ways.
My own platform, Futurescaper, uses the internet to engage large groups of stakeholders in exploring their views of the future. These views build on each other to create rich, interwoven webs of influence and opinion that form the basis for more robust and rapid foresight exercises.
Regardless of the tools used, 21st century organizations must take responsibility for thinking more creatively about the future.
Writer and activist, Audre Lorde once wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We all know that the old ways of planning are no longer conducive to today’s quickly changing, diverse contexts. To continue to put faith in them is tantamount to magical thinking.
Instead, we must embrace new ways of interacting with a changing world that are honest about the complexity and uncertainty of the 21st century.
How can UNDP use foresight in its practice? Here are three ideas:
1. Use web-based foresight tools like Futurescaper to crowdsource input from different parts of society in participatory futures exercises.
This has the dual benefit of incorporating more diverse voices and creating more resilient, robust plans. It is also fast and economical.
2. As the Sustainable Development Goals are rolled out, future-focused efforts will be the only way to help make these long-term aspirations tangible at the country-level.
Spark a conversation and come up with plans for how to achieve these goals. Done correctly, we can engage both communities and elites in creating a common understanding and a plan of action for addressing them.
3. Foresighting and futures conversations can be an exciting and engaging way of interacting with various stakeholders.
Everyone has a stake in the future. Helping both UN staff and the countries they serve become more “futures literate” will help the UNDP better communicate its purpose, and more effectively serve its goals.
These options offer the development field a new and exciting approach to planning and policy-making. At the same time, development offers foresight a sense of purpose and relevancy often lacking in practice.
Together, foresight and development can be a powerful and inspiring combination with the promise of helping create a better, more equitable world for everyone.
*Referred to in the context of UN Security Resolution 1244/1999