When explaining what a Futurist does (and no, it’s not about prediction) I sometimes find myself describing a sort of corporate therapy. Foresight and futures work encourage organisations to spend time collectively exploring uncertainty, exposing and challenging what are often deeply held assumptions.
The aim is to shift thinking away from an assumed single future, towards a range of possible futures that are significantly different from today. The intention is to broaden and deepen thinking about the future, to embrace uncertainty and change, and to make it real by highlighting ways for the organisation to pivot towards its desired future. Popular motivations for this in today’s business climate are to create a more robust strategy, spur innovation and avoid disruption.
Organisations generally do foresight work as a collaborative group activity. Participants get to share their uncertainties about the future and challenge assumptions in a safe environment. This allows for a shared consensus to emerge about the future, which in turn forms the basis of a more robust strategy and new organisational vision, or provides a catalyst for innovation.
Many will be familiar with such corporate uses of foresight, but few appreciate that they can apply the same tools and techniques at a personal and individual level.
We naturally find it hard to accurately predict the future, or even accept possible futures we don’t like. That’s because of the way our brains works. Essentially, our visions of the future use our memories as a framework. So, they tend to be more like the past or common cultural stories than is really likely.
Using foresight tools and techniques at an individual, rather than organisational, level offers a range of benefits. It can help with both personal and career development by giving structure to challenge and expand our future view. This equips us with better agility and resilience to recover from setbacks, and improves our chances of being able to unlock future opportunities.
By scanning the horizon to anticipate change and by sketching out a range of future scenarios, we can begin to make more proactive and informed life and career choices. Using personal foresight in this way leads to greater feelings of contentment and empowerment in the face of a highly complex, volatile and dynamic reality.
There are multiple benefits for organisations with a more futures-literate workforce. Employees equipped with techniques and mental models for thinking about the future are likely to be more adaptable, agile and receptive to change. For organisations seeking to innovate, futures thinking has a proven track record of boosting creativity and ingenuity, as evidenced by increased use of foresight in creative and design education. You need only search with these keywords to discover many examples of educational institutions and academic research highlighting growing activity in this space.
In a world where there’s increasing concern about the impacts of AI and automation, there’s a strong need to develop skills in people that aren’t easily replicated by machines. Foresight encourages creative and critical thinking. It encourages you to pay attention to underlying value systems, to navigate undisclosed assumptions and biases, and to identify latent connections between seemingly disparate issues.
I believe that there’s a compelling case for businesses to not only use foresight for the benefit of the organisation, but to also provide support and training for employees to use it on a personal level. Ultimately, I would like to see constructive future thinking taught throughout the education system, with the same rigour and focus that’s applied to thinking about the past. Foresight is a skill that everyone could benefit from.