The New Policy Instruments and Approaches Collection

 A place to start your exploration 
Foresight
Systematically imagine plausible futures based on data and trends
Binoculars with tiny man
Anthony Michel, Michael Brown

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Foresight is a process of anticipating and managing change. Foresight methods are used for strategic policy and planning to systematically imagine plausible futures based on current data, trends and policies. The most common foresight approach is scenario planning. Scenarios are credible, challenging stories that transform strategically important knowledge into fresh perspectives about a range of plausible futures. Foresight methodologies do not attempt to predict the future but instead provide a framework for thinking about possible futures and their implications for organizations.


Advantages

  • Foresight uses credible, tested methods that have been developed and used for decades by corporations (Shell) and governments (UK, South Africa, Singapore).
  • Foresight provides systematic approaches to complexity and uncertainty. It tests and challenges our assumptions about the present and our likely futures. It aims to change mindsets.
  • It avoids the pitfalls of prediction by imagining alternative futures beyond the baseline forecast.
  • Foresight tools and methods are not difficult. Once learned, they can be used in the public service in everyday policy work (i.e. scanning, preparation of policy options, SWOTs, etc.) 
  • Many foresight methods are collaborative and benefit from a crowd-sourcing of ideas. This helps to eliminate silos, increase creativity and build links across systems. 
  • Scenario exercises and products can build a shared language of change across organizations.
  • Foresight methods provide a structure for analyzing complex subjects by bringing stakeholders together to think critically about longer term implications.
  • Foresight methods help train individuals to think differently and test assumptions. 

Limitations

  • Foresight should not be oversold for what it is not. It is not a means of predicting the future. It will not help you set your policy agenda. It is not “scientific” since one can gather no data nor conduct experiments on the future. It analyzes existing evidence using creativity and imagination. 
  • Some foresight approaches can be done by small groups of experts, but these approaches are limited by having only a few perspectives. Collaborative exercises benefit from crowd wisdom, but are resource heavy and more difficult to sustain over time. 
  • The use of “dark-side scenarios,” which is a responsible component of futures work, is perceived by some to be risky. There is some aversion to foresight work for this reason. 
  • It may be difficult for subject matter experts with strongly held viewpoints to be able to effectively participate in foresight analysis, and in some cases they can negatively affect the foresight process. 

Policy Opportunity

  • Foresight is a valuable component of horizontal medium and long-term strategic policy work. 
  • Once a scenario set is created, it can be used as an instrument to test policy options for robustness in a range of plausible futures (“windtunelling”).
  • Transformative scenarios can help organizations move from a passive stance of “preparedness” to a more proactive effort stance of active promotion of the most desirable future (e.g. the Montfleur scenarios on the eve of post-apartheid South Africa).  

Considerations

  • Clarity of purpose is required before undertaking an exercise. If a foresight project is undertaken with too broad or too narrow a mandate, it will be challenging to provide useful outputs. 
  • Small scale “expert” foresight work generally proceeds without approval as regular policy work with sophisticated tools. However, larger collaborative exercises that require participation from across a system should obtain senior management support to ensure full engagement of participants throughout the project.
  • Collaborative exercises work best with diverse groups, mixing together different organizational levels, functional roles, degrees of content expertise, etc. 
  • Selection criteria for participants should privilege creativity, imagination and open-mindedness. 

Government of Canada

  • Policy Horizons Canada is a strategy foresight organization within the Government which releases foresight studies and helps anticipate emerging policy challenges and opportunities. There is a wealth of information on their website, including a video about how foresight work has been undertaken within the government of Canada. 
  • Global Affairs Canada has a “Foresight GAC” policy team which analyzes global trends and changes through environment scanning and foresight to help inform departmental strategy policy and priority setting.
  • Canadian Security Intelligence Service undertakes foresight exercises, including one in 2013 looking at what Al-Qaeda would be like in 2018

Best in Class

  • National defence and intelligence agencies have strong planning cultures, focus on long-term investments and are concerned with technological changes and global dynamics. They are leaders in foresight analysis.
  • The Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) of the UK Ministry of Defence contains a “Futures: Strategic Trends” team and “Futures: Concepts” team which use foresight tools to analyze future strategic contexts and how the armed forces may wish to operate, based on changes in policy or emerging trends in strategy, security and technology.
  • The Central Intelligence Agency’s Global Futures Forum engages multidisciplinary stakeholders from around the world to examine global trends, engage strategically and better anticipate transnational threats.

Sources