Foresight is a systematic, participatory, future-intelligence-gathering and medium-to-long-term vision-building process aimed at enabling present-day decisions and mobilising joint actions. It can be envisaged as a triangle combining “Thinking the Future”, “Debating the Future” and “Shaping the Future”.
Foresight is neither prophecy nor prediction. It does not aim to predict the future – to unveil it as if it were predetermined – but to help us build it. It invites us to consider the future as something that we can create or shape, rather than as something already decided.
Terms that are similar to foresight include forward looking activity, futures research and future-oriented technology analysis. In this learning package we will use the term foresight.
Foresight is different from most planning activities, even those that are strategic and long-term focused. Part of the difference lays in the principal characteristic of Foresight, which is based on participative methods. Foresight encourages the active involvement of stakeholders with the aim of sharing knowledge (and enhancing awareness of who can supply knowledge!), to build a vision of possible futures for the region.
Hopefully it will be possible to establish some consensus around this vision. But even where such consensus is lacking, the Foresight process should contribute valuable learning about possible futures and the positions of key stakeholders.
Characteristics of foresight
Foresight is concerned with the longer term, which is generally considered to be beyond normal planning horizons. Foresight time horizons therefore typically range between five and thirty years. The time horizon of a Foresight exercise should be far enough to allow changes to be possible but not so far away as to seem irrelevant.
Foresight is not only about analysing or contemplating future developments but supporting actors to actively shape the future. Purely analytical studies of possible futures (i.e. “futures studies”) without connection to possible actions are not considered as Foresight. Therefore, Foresight activities should only be undertaken when it is actually possible to shape the future. Foresight is only worthwhile when it can be tied to action.
Openness to alternative futures
Foresight assumes that the future is not pre-determined. The future can therefore evolve in different directions, which can be shaped to some extent by the actions of various players and the decisions taken today. In other words, there is a certain degree of freedom to choose among the alternative, feasible futures, and hence increase the chance of arriving at the preferred (selected) future state.
Foresight is not done by a small group of experts or academics but involves a number of different groups of actors concerned with the issues at stake. The results of the Foresight exercise are disseminated among a large audience from which feedback is actively sought. Foresight uses interactive and participative methods of debate, analysis and study of long-term social, economic and technological developments and needs. These interactive approaches involve forging new social networks.
Foresight is based on the principle that the problems we face cannot be correctly understood if reduced to one dimension and sliced up like a salami to allow it to fit into the perspective of the different academic disciplines. Instead, Foresight provides an approach that captures realities in their totality with all the variables influencing them, regardless of the type (quantitative and qualitative).