Bottom Line: foresight helps organizations anticipate today more of what is possible tomorrow. This is the way…
One of the most frequent questions a trained, professional futurist is likely to get upon first meeting someone will be some version of, “So, did you predict (x)?” Not infrequently, that question will be asked with just the hint of a smirk on the questioner’s face. For the past two years, our conversations with prospective clients and new acquaintances have been filled with variations of, “Did you guys predict COVID?” The answer, of course, is no. Despite being trained futurists, we did not predict COVID-19. We weren’t trying to. Because futures work – gasp – is not about prediction.
The Landscape from the Trees
One of the most important things to understand about true foresight work is that it is about trying to see more of what is possible in the future. It increases the confidence to act by illuminating more of the threats and opportunities that are logically possible – and their consequences and interactions – rather than trying to reduce the perception of uncertainty by removing alternatives from a decision-maker’s view. What does that mean?
There are two fundamentally different orientations to any project trying to describe the future before it happens. One is telescopic. It tries to see a more specific thing, more clearly, further out on the horizon. The other is panoramic. It tries to see more of the landscape, a broader sweep of the mountains and valleys ahead. Foresight work is panoramic. It is trying to help clients see more of what is possible in the years ahead, not less. And this makes sense, as logically there are more alternative outcomes possible the further out in time we are thinking.
Anticipating the Way Ahead
Does it work? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it does. Case in point: in a horizon scan that we conducted for a financial services company, one of several emerging issues that we identified and worked up dealt with the future possibility of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO) being used in insurance. Was this the most popular emerging issue with the client group? Maybe not, and we kept it on the board because: 1) we have been observing developments around concepts like smart contracts and DAO for years now and they are intriguing and were relevant; 2) other trends and recent developments strongly suggested the possibility of further experimentation and evolution, and; 3) it represented a challenge to certain assumptions about how the client industry was organized and who were the players.
And you know what? Guess what was recently announced: a new climate and weather insurance coalition organized through a DAO rather than traditional insurance companies. And in a nice intersection between theories that help us think more critically about the future (in this instance, the classic “disruptive innovation” theory of Clayton Christensen) and using trends to anticipate future challenges, this new effort is all about making critical financial mechanisms available to customers facing rising environmental challenges and who are not served by traditional offerings.
Predicting the Pandemic
Do we claim this a victory for our predictive accuracy? No. We did not predict Lemonade launching a “parametric climate risk transfer initiative.” And we weren’t trying to. What we were trying to do in that client horizon scan was to identify for them more of the possible threats and opportunities that could logically emerge in the years ahead. We were trying to give them a better sense of the ways in which the contours of the emerging landscape could change. We were trying to get them more prepared for the types of changes that could happen (and what they would do about that, mitigative or facilitative, and how to recognize those changes as they developed).
Need another example that this stuff works? OK. To swing this back to the pandemic, not long before COVID-19 erupted on the scene, we had just completed a horizon scan for a national health-related organization. Among the very many things we had worked up for them were emerging issues related to future systemic risks to the health and long-term disparities among various American populations. As soon as the lockdowns began in the Spring of 2020, members of the client team reached out to discuss the unfolding emergency and to point out that because of the foresight work they and their stakeholders had done with us, they were already familiar with that type of threat and with the potential downstream implications to their clients and communities. The foundations for informed strategic conversations were already in place, exactly when they needed them.
That is what foresight is about. Anticipating more of what is possible – bad and good – before it is knocking on our door. Working with our clients, we are trying to map more of the emerging landscape for them, not less. With that map in hand, organizations can far more confidently consider different strategies and pathways forward to the goals they are striving to achieve. And talking about maps of the future, what does your organization’s map show? What are signals in the environment currently telling you about the emerging issues that may lie ahead? How confident are you that your organization has identified enough of the potential disruptions and hidden opportunities for it to make the best decisions possible?
And to end this talk about emerging issues and anticipating more of what is possible in the future, consider one of our favorite emerging issues, which we have been watching for several years now: civil rights for robots…