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Foresight: understanding the methodology

How can foresight help us imagine the future?

Benjamin Cabanes, Lecturer at Mines Paris - PSL & at the MIE department of École Polytechnique (IP Paris), Orso Roger, Research Engineer at Institut des Hautes Etudes pour l'Innovation et l'Entrepreneuriat (IHEIE/PSL) and Liliana Doganova, Researcher at Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation at Ecole des Mines de Paris
On September 26th, 2023 |
4 min reading time
Benjamin Cabanes
Lecturer at Mines Paris - PSL & at the MIE department of École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Orso Roger
Orso Roger
Research Engineer at Institut des Hautes Etudes pour l'Innovation et l'Entrepreneuriat (IHEIE/PSL)
Liliana Doganova
Liliana Doganova
Researcher at Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation at Ecole des Mines de Paris
Key takeaways
  • Foresight is a set of practices designed to prepare for present action by thinking about the future.
  • Foresight is concerned with different types of future: possible, plausible, probable and desirable (or desirable) futures.
  • Foresight approaches draw on a wide range of methods and practices that can be predictive, exploratory or prescriptive.
  • There are several complementary foresight methods (creativity, interaction, expertise and evidence) and their use depends on the context and the objective.

For organ­i­sa­tions, whether in the pri­vate or pub­lic sec­tor, adapt­ing to the future can seem like an impos­si­ble task. The chal­lenge is to be agile and resilient in the face of a future that will be sub­ject to change, and which often seems more wor­ry­ing than desir­able. Indeed, con­tem­po­rary crises (cli­mate, bio­di­ver­si­ty, health, ener­gy, access to resources) are expos­ing play­ers and organ­i­sa­tions to ever-greater ten­sions between, on the one hand, rapid and effec­tive deci­sions root­ed in the present and, on the oth­er, the need to project into the future to avoid the solu­tions adopt­ed turn­ing into new dead-ends. The future thus appears to be a prob­lem­at­ic tem­po­ral cat­e­go­ry for organ­i­sa­tions: can we antic­i­pate, guess at or pre­dict the future? How can we think about a future that is a pri­ori unknown and plur­al? Can the future be thought about and con­ceived with­in organ­i­sa­tions? It is pre­cise­ly to these ques­tions that fore­sight approach­es and prac­tices attempt to pro­vide some answers.

The emergence of foresight in France

The con­cept of “fore­sight” was devel­oped by the French philoso­pher and senior civ­il ser­vant Gas­ton Berg­er (1896–1960) in the 1950s. Before becom­ing a method or a dis­ci­pline, for Gas­ton Berg­er, fore­sight was an atti­tude1, a state of mind that led to the prepa­ra­tion of action in the present based on reflec­tion on pos­si­ble or desir­able futures. It is not a ques­tion of pre­dict­ing the future, but of cre­at­ing a dia­logue between the present and the future to build a desir­able out­look. The fore­sight approach is based on five principles:

  • See­ing far ahead: think­ing about the dis­tant future (gen­er­al­ly 10–50 years ahead) so as not to lim­it our­selves to the imme­di­ate con­se­quences of cur­rent decisions.
  • Think­ing broad­ly: favour­ing mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary approach­es to take account of the plu­ral­i­ty of view­points and avoid reductionism.
  • Think deep: iden­ti­fy the deci­sive fac­tors so as not to suc­cumb to extrap­o­la­tion or analogy.
  • Tak­ing risks: agree­ing to chal­lenge received wis­dom to gain greater free­dom of thought. 
  • Think­ing about peo­ple: pay­ing atten­tion to the role of peo­ple and the respon­si­bil­i­ty they bear.

Along with Gas­ton Berg­er, Bertrand de Jou­venel (1903–1987) was the oth­er lead­ing fig­ure in the French school of fore­sight. In 1960, he found­ed the inter­na­tion­al asso­ci­a­tion Futuri­bles (a con­trac­tion of “futures” and “pos­si­ble”), which was ini­tial­ly fund­ed by the Ford Foun­da­tion. For Jou­venel, fore­sight is not about mak­ing utopi­an pro­jec­tions. Fore­sight should be an “art” that enables real­is­tic fore­casts to be drawn up to sup­port deci­sion-mak­ing and the man­age­ment of change.

The development of foresight in the USA

Dur­ing the same peri­od, fore­sight approach­es also devel­oped in the USA under the impe­tus of Her­man Kahn, Theodore Gor­don, and Olaf Helmer at the RAND Cor­po­ra­tion. The RAND Cor­po­ra­tion devel­oped sev­er­al for­malised meth­ods, the best known of which are the Del­phi method and the sce­nario method2. Devel­oped in the 1960s to deal with the uncer­tain­ty weigh­ing on the devel­op­ment of weapons sys­tems in a tense polit­i­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal con­text, the Del­phi method involves gath­er­ing and com­par­ing the opin­ions of experts on an iden­ti­fied prob­lem. The aim is to reach a form of con­sen­sus through a series of iter­a­tive ques­tion­naires, giv­ing respon­dents the oppor­tu­ni­ty to revise and, if nec­es­sary, defend their judge­ment. The sce­nario method is an “imag­i­na­tion aid”3, the aim of which is to con­struct images of future sit­u­a­tions based on the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a series of plau­si­ble and coher­ent events.

Ini­tial­ly, these tools were used in mil­i­tary or pub­lic pol­i­cy con­texts, but they were soon applied to the eco­nom­ic and social sphere, par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in major groups such as Shell or Gen­er­al Electrics and inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions (UN, UNESCO, UNITAR and the OECD, for exam­ple). The spread of French and Amer­i­can futures stud­ies led to the cre­ation of sev­er­al struc­tures, includ­ing the World Future Soci­ety in 1966, the Club of Rome in 1968 (which com­mis­sioned the famous Mead­ows report on the lim­its to growth)4, the Copen­hagen Insti­tute for Futures Stud­ies in 1969, the Swedish Sec­re­tari­at for Futures Stud­ies in 1971 and the World Futures Stud­ies Fed­er­a­tion in 1973.

Alternative futures in foresight

Fore­sight is con­cerned with dif­fer­ent types of future (Fig­ure 1)5: pos­si­ble, plau­si­ble, prob­a­ble, and desir­able. Pos­si­ble futures are dis­tinct from absurd or impos­si­ble futures that do not respect the ele­men­tary laws of physics. Pos­si­ble futures are, how­ev­er, mul­ti­ple, plur­al and may break with his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ries. They depend on future knowl­edge and char­ac­terise what could hap­pen with a high degree of uncer­tain­ty. Plau­si­ble futures are like­ly futures that are con­sis­tent with the present sit­u­a­tion. They remain uncer­tain but can occur giv­en the cur­rent state of knowl­edge or con­sid­er­ing known unknowns. Prob­a­ble futures are a cat­e­go­ry of futures that are an exten­sion of cur­rent trends. Final­ly, desir­able or prefer­able futures char­ac­terise pos­si­ble or plau­si­ble futures that are explic­it­ly derived from val­ue judge­ments. Since val­ue sys­tems dif­fer great­ly from one per­son to anoth­er and from one organ­i­sa­tion to anoth­er, this cat­e­go­ry of future is high­ly depen­dent on the indi­vid­u­als involved in con­struct­ing it.

Foresight: methods and practices

Far from being a gen­er­al the­o­ry of the future, fore­sight has main­ly devel­oped through the grad­ual emer­gence of a mul­ti­tude of het­ero­ge­neous meth­ods and prac­tices. The Fore­sight Dia­mond (fig­ure 2) posi­tions fore­sight meth­ods accord­ing to four types of dimen­sions (cre­ativ­i­ty, inter­ac­tion, exper­tise and evi­dence)6. These meth­ods are not incom­pat­i­ble, but com­ple­men­tary, and their uses depend on the objec­tives and con­texts in which they are used. They can be quan­ti­ta­tive, qual­i­ta­tive, or even semi-quan­ti­ta­tive. A sin­gle fore­sight exer­cise may involve between 5 and 6 dif­fer­ent meth­ods. The inter­me­di­ate prod­ucts of one method are often tak­en up at oth­er stages of the sce­nario devel­op­ment process, pro­duc­ing impor­tant syn­er­gies and encour­ag­ing the inte­gra­tion of mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives7.

For exam­ple, bench­mark­ing, patent analy­sis and bib­lio­met­ric analy­sis of aca­d­e­m­ic lit­er­a­ture are quan­ti­ta­tive approach­es based on the use of data, infor­ma­tion, and quan­ti­ta­tive indi­ca­tors. They aim to build up a state of the art on a par­tic­u­lar issue or theme to be explored. Quan­ti­ta­tive or semi-quan­ti­ta­tive approach­es can be described as pre­dic­tive or explorato­ry. They are pre­dic­tive when they are asso­ci­at­ed with fore­cast­ing or plan­ning projects. They are explorato­ry when the aim is to iden­ti­fy inter­ac­tions between dif­fer­ent types of phe­nom­e­na to uncov­er pos­si­ble or plau­si­ble futures.

Qual­i­ta­tive approach­es rely on imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty and tend to be nor­ma­tive in scope. The aim is to seek out and exam­ine pos­si­ble and desir­able futures rather than prob­a­ble ones. The results of this type of approach are then used to deter­mine what actions need to be tak­en to make this desir­able future a real­i­ty. For exam­ple, the back­cast­ing method involves design­ing a desir­able future and then imag­in­ing the var­i­ous stages and deci­sions that would make it hap­pen8.

Fore­sight dif­fers from con­ven­tion­al fore­cast­ing and plan­ning prac­tices. It attach­es par­tic­u­lar impor­tance to the process itself, dur­ing which areas of uncer­tain­ty are iden­ti­fied. These areas of uncer­tain­ty are then explored using fore­sight tools and meth­ods, and it is dur­ing this explo­ration that par­tic­i­pants build or acquire a shared vision of the future that sup­ports them in their present deci­sion-mak­ing. This shared vision of the future will then be used with­in the organ­i­sa­tion to sup­port knowl­edge cre­ation, deci­sion-mak­ing, strate­gic ori­en­ta­tion and change man­age­ment processe9.

1Berg­er, G., de Bour­bon-Bus­set, J. & Massé, P. (2012). De la prospec­tive : textes fon­da­men­taux de la prospec­tive française (1955–1966). Edi­tion L’Harmattan.
2Rohrbeck, R., Bat­tis­tel­la, C., & Huiz­ingh, E. (2015). Cor­po­rate fore­sight: An emerg­ing field with a rich tra­di­tion. Tech­no­log­i­cal Fore­cast­ing and Social Change, 101, 1–9.
3Kahn, H. (1962). Think­ing about the Unthink­able. New York: Hori­zon Press.
4Mead­ows, D. H., Mead­ows, D. H., Ran­ders, J., & Behrens III, W. W. (1972). The lim­its to growth: A report for the club of Rome’s project on the predica­ment of mankind.
5Voros, J. (2017). Big His­to­ry and Antic­i­pa­tion: Using Big His­to­ry as a frame­work for glob­al fore­sight. In Hand­book of Antic­i­pa­tion: The­o­ret­i­cal and Applied Aspects of the Use of Future in Deci­sion Mak­ing? Springer.
6Pop­per, R. (2008). How are fore­sight meth­ods select­ed?. Fore­sight, 10(6), 62–89.
7Heger, T., & Rohrbeck, R. (2012). Strate­gic fore­sight for col­lab­o­ra­tive explo­ration of new busi­ness fields. Tech­no­log­i­cal Fore­cast­ing and Social Change, 79(5), 819‑831.
8Robin­son, J. B. (1990). Futures under glass: a recipe for peo­ple who hate to pre­dict. Futures, 22(8), 820–842.
9Bootz, J. P., & Mon­ti, R. (2008). Propo­si­tion d’une typolo­gie des démarch­es de prospec­tive par­tic­i­pa­tive pour les entre­pris­es. Trois cas illus­trat­ifs : EDF R&D, AXA France et BASF Agro. Revue man­age­ment et avenir, (5), 114–131.

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