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Telescope looking at mountains in the distance

Using foresight to shape the future

You have probably heard that we cannot predict the future, but we can invent it. There is truth to this. Certainly, we are unlikely to get to where we want to go if we passively accept what comes.

But our environment is complex. An equally unsuccessful strategy is to take a single “big bang” action and expect it to have the effect we hoped for. The world rarely moves in a straight line from the known present to our planned future.

These considerations apply particularly to social innovations and the development of public policy. If we want to address climate change, improve public health or reduce global poverty we need to imagine what different potential futures might look like. Once we have an idea of what is possible, we can determine how to move towards a better version of the future.

The process of visualising times to come is called Foresight. It is a key element of design thinking, imagining better futures and creating ways to reach them.

A fork in a country road
Foresight allows us to imagine different paths and adjust our journey as new ways open up

Strategic foresight and alternative futures

Foresight is the envisioning of possible alternative futures to guide present decision-making. It typically takes a medium to long-term view, over decades. It is an iterative process including a diversity of perspectives to build a rich view of potential outcomes.

Foresight combines science and art. We take what we know now, in numbers and analysis, and combine it with our imagination. We consider not just the obvious trends, but also the ‘what ifs’. What could go right? What could go wrong?

The output of the process is a collection of potential scenarios for the future. From these scenarios, we develop planned actions to allow us to shape the future towards a more positive outcome.

Looking forward and tracing back

There are many techniques we can employ for foresighting. Two of the most useful, and complementary are trend projection and abductive envisioning.

Trend projection starts from what we see now and forecasts forward to the future. Where could these existing drivers take us? Trend projection gives us a good starting point, grounded in existing realities. However, taken by itself, it can delude us into thinking we understand a complex system full of the unforeseen.

This is where abductive envisioning comes is. Abduction is an alternative approach that asks us to think of the ‘what ifs’—what if this happened or what if the future looked like this—to develop provocative future scenarios. The point isn’t to create likely scenarios—it’s to generate some useful wildcards to challenge our thinking and introduce in a simple way some challenging randomness.

We can combine the two techniques to flesh out what we want our future to look like, within the context we have created. At this point, we can start to shift into the true envisioning process. We can start to co-design a shared future for diverse interests.


Projection tracks forward from now while abduction imagines a future and works backward


Taking the human view

A third technique that we’ve learnt along the way is to combine Foresight with human-centred design. We like to ask people: what are you doing in the future? What are other people you know doing?

Asking these questions makes it real for each of us. By putting humans at the centre, we avoid the natural tendency to focus on science fiction and new technologies. We think more about what the future might mean for our behaviours, relationships, wants and needs. People are quite good at imagining future technology but, without provocation, will completely miss social change.

Using this variety of methods, we develop plausible potential futures to guide our planning.

Shaping our future

Foresight, by allowing for a range of possible future states, generates adaptability, agility and resilience in our strategy or program. It increases the likelihood that we will move forward, towards our goal, in a complex and changing world.

Foresight isn’t prediction. We are going to get it wrong. But it is a technique that helps us build the future and be better prepared for unpredicted outcomes along the way.


ThinkPlace will be using these techniques on 21 November 2017 to discuss the future of Canberra as a City of Design. Register for the free event, a part of the DESIGN Canberra Festival, here.

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Bill Bannear

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