The Nuts and Bolts of Strategic Foresight

I put this together this past year for colleague Dr. Gerry Roberts for the Newsletter of the Australasia-Pacific Extension Network.

In this short piece I tried to make some basic points:

First the importance of the concept of embodied foresight – that foresight is contextually situated. And as such it is ever present (tacit) and expressed differently in a variety of situations. That does not mean we don’t need formal approaches, indeed the scale shift to a planetary civilization is necessitating formal studies of futures.

Second the evolutionary notion of techno-economic shift with its particular qualitative dimensions. The development discourse is a dangerous one and I am no subscriber to the ‘industrial-development’ idea of progress, however I have a weak spot for scientific-progress as one of a number of important views.

Third the fundamentally layered nature of foresight in the “modern” world, which contains older forms.

Comments welcome



Strategic foresight is an approach to “forward thinking” that allows groups, organisations, businesses, and people the capacity to develop a grounded understanding of the social change affecting their lives. This allows people to then make decisions and develop strategies based on that “forward knowledge”.  The end result is an adaptive capacity in the face of change, and a heightened awareness of emerging opportunities.

Since the beginning of time human beings have had to think about the future to survive. Indeed, across human history the character of this “forward thinking” has changed depending on the nature of the existences that people experienced.

In paleolithic (stone age) cultures, people’s outlook on the future was likely an expression of the ways of living those people engaged in. “Foresight” may have meant understanding the migrations of animals which were food sources, be this bovine, fowl, and fish. It may have meant understanding where wild fruit, roots and edible insects existed through the year’s cycle. It may also have been expressed through how to survive a very cold winter, a very hot summer, or a period with very little water or food. These people’s foresight allowed them to navigate many challenging environments, by looking ahead for weeks and months. While we may consider this a relatively short time frame, for these people, with their tools and in their environments, this was a formidable capacity.

Herding cultures, which followed and later domesticated animals, developed another way of life. These cultures created a symbiotic relationship with their domesticated animals: such as camel, ox, cow, goat and sheep (and in meso-America rodent, dog and turkey). This way of life offered them a continuous  form of sustenance, so long as their domesticated animals had access to food and water. This then changed the character of the “foresight” these people would express. Their “forward view” would need to be focused on finding and exploiting the the best habitats for their animals. In Eurasia, migrating longer distances would have necessitated a deeper understanding of seasonal changes in various regions.

Subsistence agricultural cultures, which began to create symbiotic relationships with plants and trees, developed another way of life and hence expressed another way of “forward thinking”. These peoples would need to think about seasonal changes, especially the coming of rains, storms, and harsh weather that could destroy crops. In the ancient agricultural societies of Egypt, Babylon, the Indus river (and others) floods had to be anticipated and managed. It is not surprising that these cultures, which could store more foods for longer periods, and which needed to have a more accurate understanding of seasonal changes, began to look at the stars, and create a more accurate understanding of seasonal changes, culminating in the development of the first calendars.

Industrialisation changed the game yet again. Water resources could be pumped using machines. Goods could be transported quickly and cheaply around the world. Fossil fuels could be used for farming, as well as synthesized into both fertilizers and pesticides. The shift from subsistence agriculture to surplus market agriculture would again shift the nature of the “forward view”. New questions emerged: is there a market for this good? will there be a glut in this good? can this good compete against market alternatives?

While these examples from history and pre-history are an obvious oversimplification, and the true nature of foresight in these types of cultures is best understood by the science of anthropology, the main point remains salient. A “forward view” or “foresight” has been integral to the survival of peoples from the beginning of time to the present. I would further argue that developing the capacity for foresight has become more important as well as more complex as time has worn on.

Today the average business is faced with a mind-numbing array of issues to grapple with in considering their business decisions.

• Economic globalization has meant that more people are competing in more markets
• Currencies ebb and flow in a turbulent global financial system
• Sustainability challenges are impacting in a number of areas: land use, climate change, waste management and many other places
• Government policy sometimes stabilizes and sometimes disrupts organisations
• Economic boom and bust cycles affect different industries and sectors
• Technologies continue to have big impacts, such as computer, biotechnology, nanotechnology and renewable energy technologies
• New values are emerging from new generations with new expectations

Faced with so much complexity a common response is to say “I’ll do what I have always done, it has worked before”. However this is a major mistake!  We know from history that human life continues to evolve and change in tandem with changes in technology, culture, etc. Engaging in forward thinking not only allows businesses to adapt to a changing environment, it opens up avenues and opportunities that were previously not visible.

The modern art and science of strategic foresight is a grounded approach to understanding this landscape of social change in ways that open up opportunities to decision makers in every walk of life. An enhanced capacity for foresight has a number of benefits. It allows decision makers to understand what the key issues impacting their sector or industry might be. It provides a strategic landscape where various options for development open up. It creates more clarity where an enterprise should devote time and energy. It provides guidance in respect to the direction an enterprise should innovate.

Strategic foresight provides a number of effective frameworks and tools for providing value to clients. It involves rigorously scanning across relevant data sources to understand the nature of change for a sector or industry. It requires sifting and sorting to come to an appreciation of the key themes and issues that are most relevant. Tools in data analysis and interpretation allow for a deepened understanding of the issues faced.  In can often entail developing a “picture” of one, two or many possible futures, often called “scenarios”. Importantly, it includes making sure that this new understanding of social change is used to ask: “now what”? It helps decision makers re-think their strategies and core assumptions, opens up awareness of emerging opportunities and helps develop more robust and exciting directions for businesses and organisations.

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