Image: New York Public Library
Anatomy of a Foresight Process
The benefits of foresight include increased readiness for change, solutions with a higher level of creativity, increased number strategic options, and a greater awareness of the future and its implications.
But, how does it work? And what should you look for in a foresight process?
There are probably as many proprietary and branded processes as there are futurists — so it’s helpful to have a baseline to compare them to. Fortunately, there are a few general models of foresight processes to choose from.
In 2005, after booting up a foresight department within an Australian university, Joseph Voros published the aptly titled A Generic Foresight Process Framework.
This barebones breakdown of a foresight process allows for different methods to be combined in a structured way. What this model makes clear is that foresight is not a substitute for strategy.
Instead, foresight creates an informed context for developing long-term strategies and action plans.
In the Generic Framework, Inputs are observable trends or cycles, weak signals from the fringe, interviews with subject matter experts, brainstorming, asking questions, and environmental scanning. This is all the raw material of the process.
The inputs are fed into Foresight Work, which is comprised of three processes: Analysis , Interpretation , and Prospection.
- Analysis asks the questions: “what seems to be happening here?” “How might established trends and plans unfold and interact?” “How are these connected?”
- Interpretation asks the same question again: “What’s really happening?” Life is chaotic, cause and effect are rarely simple. This stage uses methodologies like Causal Layered Analysis or Systems Thinking to discover what is driving change.
- Prospection is a term used in psychology to describe the process of creating and evaluating mental representations of possible futures. This stage is all about exploring possible futures and scenarios and ask “What might happen,” with the broadest possible lens.
Now we arrive at Outputs , these can be tangible and intangible. While many of us study history, few of us learn to approach the future in a structured way. Maybe the most impactful outcome of going through a foresight process is changing your point of view or perception?
However, for the more concretely oriented, final products can also include reports, scenarios, role-plays, speculative fiction or design, multimedia installation, games, and experiential workshops.
That can be used to inform strategy development and implementation - aka the outputs of the foresight process become inputs for strategic planning.
Framework Foresight was developed by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop at the University of Houston.
Framework Foresight is the primary framework that my Master’s program teaches. Like the Generic Framework, it is also designed to be adaptable and able to incorporate different methods and techniques.
Over time the model has been updated to better align with the Association of Professional Futurists’ six foresight competencies.
… but in 2013, Framework Foresight followed nine stages.
I’m choosing sharing the more complicated, outdated model rather than the simplified version. I think it’s nice to have a detailed example of what a robust foresight process might look like.
Houston Foresight - Hines, Bishop, Worrell
- Domain Description What is the scope of research, guiding questions, area of inquiry, time horizon?
- Current Assessment What is the state of play today?
- Baseline Future If business as usual continues, what can we expect?
- Alternative Futures The baseline may be the most likely future, but with so many futures it may not really be that likely at all! At this stage, we explore key uncertainties and the range of possibilities.
- Preferred Futures This is the vision. This is what people sign up to work for, to strive for.
- Implications Analysis Considering baseline and alternative futures and asking “what are the implications of this, if true?”
- Futures to Plans How does foresight integrate into institutional norms and processes? How do visions become reality?
- Leading Indicators What is uncertain today won’t be forever. By inferring intermediate steps between today and an alternative future, we can develop an early warning system to inform our actions.
- Summary The final step is one of the most important: highlighting the most interesting and impactful information of the study.
Nine steps is a bit complicated for a simple model, but Framework Foresight’s strength is the detail of the model. It gives me the sense of being a bit uncompromising, but in a positive way. Framework Foresight is serious about delivering a the best possible product.
The Association of Professional Futurists puts it more succinctly and lays it out in six steps.
Association of Professional Futurists
Only six steps and two phases in this model of a foresight process!
Phase One: Mapping
- Framing, the scope of the project, and assessing the current state of play.
- Scanning, searching the horizon for signals of change.
- Futuring, Identifying baseline and alternative futures.
Phase Two: Influencing
- Visioning, exploring the implications of different futures.
- Designing , emphasizes bringing the future to life.
- Adapting , ongoing implementation, and communication of the preferred future.
The simplicity of this explanation is the most satisfying to me. Two parts, made of three processes each. The first part establishes the terrain of future possibilities. The second part tackles what actions to take in the present.
Or, distill it into three steps:
- Learning: Framing, scanning, and forecasting.
- Deciding: Visioning and planning
- Acting: Put strategies into motion
Perfect for an elevator ride.
There is no one right way to practice foresight. But there are lessons to be drawn from examining these general models.
While they are related, foresight is different from strategic planning.
High-resolution future scenarios require both focused and broad research.
If you only have two options you don’t have a choice, you have a dilemma. Three choices aren’t much better. Foresight is about generating options and the space to act differently.
Use futures research to decide you actions today.