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Foresight: a policy and governance tool to navigate contested and co-created futures

However succinct a particular leader’s vision for the future may be, and however well-considered their plan, the future is a contested space, not a definitive terrain to be conquered.

Marius Oosthuizen
24 April 2017
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Locating foresight and participation on the time-power continuum. These polarities combine to produce four quadrants.Democracy is not at risk of being torn apart, but eroded from within – this is the consequence of a global order in which the limits of the neoliberal consensus with its free markets and formal, often centralised governance, has been tested and found wanting.

Naturally, governing requires trade-offs between competing interests. Growing diversity within societies has led to attempts at multiculturalism, pluralism and calls for naïve tolerance, as public leaders attempt to lower the tensions inherent in the competing interests and conflicting norms that have to co-exist in this new normal. These complexities have put the project of a democratic global order under strain and given rise to populisms and reversals of historic integrations and partnerships, in favour of short-term and parochial identity politics. The problems besetting the EU is but one example, and poses the risk of failure of the institutional and policy capacity of states to cope with this brave new world.

While ‘Foresight’ and its methodological base is not a panacea to address all social ills, it does offer a new approach to some of the gordian knots that confront policy-makers. How does one ‘consult one’s constituency’, if it has itself become a plurality of contending voices? How does one plan for the future, when diametrically opposed forces amount to unresolved tensions that make long-term anticipation difficult, if not impossible? Foresight, as an approach to thinking and planning, to policy-making and governance, offers a new start.

Policy-making and governance is born of the science of planning and the art of power

The practice of Foresight, or “anticipation” as some in the field prefer to call it, can be located on the dual continuums of time and power as depicted in the figure below. What emerges is the polarities of ‘hindsight’, a view of the past, and ‘foresight’, a view of the future, versus that of ‘control’ and ‘no-control’.

These polarities combine to produce four quadrants:

Quadrant A. The ‘past’, described from a position of ‘control’, where power and high levels of agency are assumed, producing a conceptual space where codified histories and authoritative narrative histories are considered to be definitive forms of hindsight.

Quadrant B. The ‘future’, described from a position of ‘control’, also where power and high levels of agency are assumed, producing a conceptual space where codified futures in the form of ‘visions’ and ‘plans’ produce contested futures. This is the typical planning terrain where negotiation, formal trade-offs and settlements occur and where experts make predictions.

Quadrant C. The ‘past’, described from a position of ‘no’ or low ‘control’, where little power and low levels of agency is assumed, producing a conceptual space where contested histories co-exist, depending on who has voice and who is consulted. This is a terrain where victims and heroes are subjective elements of the various narratives held by constituents, a space where hindsight is at best reflexive.

Quadrant D. The ‘future’, described from a position of ‘no’ or low ‘control’, also where no power and low levels of agency is assumed, produces a conceptual space where co-created futures become possible, as diverse contributors each add their thread to the tapestry of reality. This latter quadrant is an a-typical terrain for planners, especially those who have assumed power in some position of bureaucratic appointment. It is the realm of co-creation. Most policy work, and governance for that matter, is undertaken within the linear paradigm of the ‘past, present and future’ above the horizontal, where a high measure of control is assumed by planners.

Most policy work, and governance for that matter, is undertaken within the linear paradigm of the ‘past, present and future’ above the horizontal, where a high measure of control is assumed by planners. Since elected officials and their administrators consider themselves to be executing a mandate, they operate on the underlying assumption of; high levels of agency for themselves and their constituents. In this sense, two of the quadrants resulting from the continuums, being that of (A) and (B) are the comfort zones of conventional bureaucrats. These conceptual spaces are marked by certainty, a desire for consensus and one dimensional forecasting. While this normative paradigm of governance worked reasonably well for the decades since WWII, the relative stability of a post-war globe masked the naivety of the approach, particularly as regionalism and global interconnectedness rose.

Even history, as we know, is not a singular construct. So too, the future, is an open array of competing images of fears or hopes, depending on who’s preferred future is projected. Although codified and narrative histories (quadrant A) ‘tell us’ what the past contained, these are mere objectifications of a highly subjective conceptual space. Similarly, however succinct and vivid a particular leader or politician’s vision for the future may be, and however well-considered their resultant plan, the future is more of a contested space than a definitive terrain to be conquered. This is why Foresight, an open approach to crafting co-created alternative futures, is a useful alternative to conventional planning. Foresight, by its nature, is adept at facilitating participation from competing and diverse voices and views, since it sees the future as an array of alternative possibilities rather than a concrete extrapolation of past and present trends. Foresight, by its nature, is adept at facilitating participation from competing and diverse voices and views.

Foresight, the practice of anticipation, opens windows to collaborative futures

Since the fall from grace of positivism, the future is increasingly understood to be more than a mere projection of past trends, but rather inherently complex and unknowable. The acceptance of this view implies that ambiguity must be accommodated by policy-makers who typically desire certainty, but can often not achieve it in their planning processes.

Paradoxically, the accommodation of ‘contested histories’ (quadrant C.) often is a key step in embracing new and open futures, in that it disarms contending interests by acknowledging unresolved historic tensions. What policy-makers using foresight as an approach can do, is to use their power to facilitate processes of integration that move the discourse among followers from quadrant A to C, granting diverse voices access to the planning setting.

Such an approach follows the argument of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard who understood that a multiplicity of communities of meaning co-exist, using their “language games” or “phrase regimens” to denote their sense of reality, into complexes of possible senses. Given this perspective of societal meaning construction, Foresight must grapple with innumerable and sometimes incommensurable separate systems, among which meanings are produced and rules constructed to govern norms. Policy-makers can at best navigate such settings, far from controlling or dictating its’ parameters.

This acknowledgement of the limits of the power of bureaucrats, and the rise of dispersed power in an interconnected world, turns the public square into a creative space rather than a ever-combative one. For instance, whereas parliaments of old were considered inherently multi-polar and structurally set up as such, increasingly collaborative solutions to grand national and international crisis such as climate change requires thinking and planning to be undertaken in quadrant D. This acknowledgement of the limits of the power of bureaucrats, and the rise of dispersed power in an interconnected world, turns the public square into a creative space.

Over time, policy-makers must emerge from working in the domain of powerlessness (quadrant D), where they have played a facilitative role, to the domain of governing (quadrant B) where resource allocation and structure accompanies ideas, but this shift takes place on the back of coalition building.

Complex system collaboration, as is being argued for here, is not without its challenges. As early as 1992 scholars such as Huxham and MacDonald were reporting on the “inertia” often resulting from public leaders being “overwhelmed by the dynamism” that collaborative settings produce. Public administrators are essentially ill-equipped to cope with the sheer complexity. The key, scholars in the field of public management have argued, is in finding a new equilibrium through the process of learning as new coalitions for action are formed. This, scholars agree, moving from learning to action to get things done, rests in finding the right combination of administrative capacity (structure and resource) and social capacity (for building relationships).

Coalitions require that the collaborating members have a sense of real ownership of their planning and the visions that articulate their goals. It is for this reason that Foresight is useful and powerfully emotive in its ability to create a whole out of more than the sum of the parts. If facilitated from a perspective of interdependence, Foresight represents a generative alternative to an otherwise stale planning paradigm.

‘Listening’, the frontier of participative public thought

At the core of this approach lies the notion of “suspended listening”. Although politicians understand the power of roadshows and consultation, as a means to political ends, it is often the case that the voices of constituents are ultimately ignored in the act of governing and policy execution. Participative democracy, and increasingly the availability of direct democracy at local level, is now bringing listening to the forefront of public leadership.

Listening is often a casualty of realpolitik and individual ambition. However, participative democracy, and increasingly the availability of direct democracy at local level, is now bringing listening to the forefront of public leadership. In order to co-create the future, to discover alternative futures through foresight, a deep commitment to formative listening is required. MIT’s Otto Scharmer takes a radical approach to this endeavour, which he has now famously named “presencing”, or allowing the future to “emerge” by, “listening with your mind and heart wide open”. This, Scharmer argues, is the path to connecting to inspiring visions of the future where the will of individuals and communities are engaged in shared pursuit. A deeply philosophical point of departure, to Sharmer, this is the way towards “seeing and acting from the whole”, as opposed to struggling to do so from disconnected parts.

In this sense, the holders of power, whoever they may be, must suspend judgement, expertise and certainty, for a time, to allow for the expansion of their mental models. Once the acknowledgement has been made that the future will not be decided upon by agents of change, but co-created, often from below, suspended listening seems the only reasonable approach.

The future then, the unoccupied and open terrain which must simultaneously be discovered and constructed, is a conceptual setting which participative foresight is able to traverse. Once the paradigm of foresight is embraced by public leaders, the likelihood is slim that a return to conventional planning can be seen as an attractive option. The future will not be decided upon by agents of change, but co-created, often from below.

Aristotle understood as early as mid-300 BCE that “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” If nothing else, Foresight offers a richer opportunity for thinking and reflection as we transcend rational empiricism and journey towards post-positivist critical realism. Where is this more befitting, than in the realm of governance where responsible leadership is so vital?

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