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Two sides of foresight work

Two Sides of ForesightOver a long time as a futurist, I have come to look at futures work as having two sides: analysis and experience.

That is a hard won and only recently-clear conclusion. I think it's valuable to think about the difference, and the critical need for both sides, for doing good foresight work, for dealing with different kinds of thinkers and learners, and for being effective in communicating with others. 

Here's how I see it: exploring the future depends on, and benefits powerfully from wide-ranging research, close analysis of what we know, careful consideration of what is more and less certain and what is wholly uncertain, the comparison of alternate scenarios, and so on. We cannot be futurists without putting effort into that work. That is our analysis work. It is, in fact, what most futurists I know do best. (It involves plenty of creative effort as well–don't take the word "analysis" too narrowly.)

But, analysis alone is not all that we need. Too often, especially with today's availability of information, the work of analysis consumes us. We also need to have, and foster in others, experiences in exploring the future. Our careful analysis is unlikely to be wholly successful if we fail to give people some chance to do their own thinking about the future. That is central to effective work with groups. It is also a part of how we need to approach sharing ideas about the future with others. Giving people a futures experience through images, stories, and the chance to question, challenge, and interact, make all the difference in getting through to them with new ideas. 

In working on the future, we have to consider our work incomplete if we have only done our careful research and analysis. We have to give the experience side our best creative attention as well. We need to guard time for "playing" in the future–to come with ideas about future possibilities–without an over-concern about plausiblity, liklihood, or data. We need to let the creative ideas flow. Analysis by itself does not get us where we need to go.

Here's one approach that futurists use, as an example. Working with a group, choose a year ten years or more in the future, for example 2024–fifteen years from now. Have groups of 5 or 8 people spend time coming up with newspaper headlines from that year. (Nevermind that we may not have newspapers by then, the front page is a familiar concept for people to play with.) Have them draw front pages on flip charts and then share them with the other groups. The headline creation gets people's playful juices going, and brings out people's assumptions about the future. It gives them a chance to play with ideas about the future, rather than just sitting hearing someone else's ideas. It moves them toward stories from the future, rather than just extrapolated trend data, or technical concepts. 

There are lots of techniques like this, and you can create your own. Just be sure they help you break away, sometimes, from just doing analysis, when what you also need is some experiences.

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