Predicting the future – along with building a perpetual motion machine, the quadrature of the circle, or finding a cup of good coffee in the university cafeteria – is one of the unsolved mysteries that have been bothering scientists over centuries. While most have given up on the latter three, a method called strategic foresight offers a serious scientific approach to the challenge of predicting the future, or at least limiting the possibilities to a set of plausible scenarios that organizations can prepare for.

If you were already there in the year 1999, you might still remember the scene from the movie Matrix when Neo consults the Oracle for the first time. In the beginning of the scene, the Oracle says to Neo, “I’d ask you to sit down, but you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.” “What vase?” Neo asks, turning to look around, while his elbow knocks a vase from the table. It breaks against the linoleum floor. When he goes on wondering how the Oracle could know that this would happen, she just replies: “What’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything.”

Oracle (Matrix)

Watch the whole oracle scene from Matrix on YouTube:
https://youtu.be/EUN1ClT9i9w

Although it is as old as twenty years, the movie Matrix brings up a bunch of topics that are both very popular and controversial today. Technologies like virtual reality, machine learning and robotics are further developed and available to a wider public now. In fact, we do not have to watch a historic science fiction movie to notice that technology has a massive impact on our present and future lives. Change is happening faster and faster all over the world than ever before, and there is no end to it. If we look at it tomorrow, or next month, things are likely to be pretty much the same. We might also be able to tell with a high degree of certainty that a vase will still be on the table in five seconds, five minutes or five hours. However, the further we look into the future, the more uncertain and less predictable it will be.

Moreover, the change we care about is usually not as simple and concrete as a vase on a table. For instance, we might want to predict which kind of new information infrastructure will be needed to make the most relevant scientific knowledge accessible to the public in fifteen to twenty years. Or which influence the growing economisation of science and research might have on scholarly communication. When we think about change on a larger scale, we may conclude that it is not even possible to predict change. There is, however, something that we can do when faced with change: be prepared. It is therefore essential to foresee and evaluate changes and future events over the long term and be prepared for different futures.

Possible and Plausible Futures

How can we foresee and prepare for the future of an organization? Strategic foresight is a future-directed approach that deals with the prediction and assessment of future occurrences over a long term in order to develop robust strategies about the ways to get there. The aim is to analyze the upcoming external changes in connection with internal capabilities and drivers and be progressively prepared to deal with the complex problems in future [1].

Strategic foresight is designed to address volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments and contexts. It differs from traditional planning approaches that are normally model-based and no longer provide reliable outcomes. In general, strategic foresight combines technology and expert analysis to determine the factors which will most likely have an impact on the development of the organization. In most cases, strategic foresight focuses on the timeframe roughly between ten and forty years from now. That is where things are certainly not very predictable, but also not completely unknown to us now.

Strategic foresight is not only about better predictions of the future. Instead, it is about better preparedness for different futures. Futurists trust that there is no singular path from the present to the future and therefore rely on multiple scenarios that are possible and plausible [2].

Futures Cone

Futures Cone. Image: Warren Walker, adapted from Voros (2003, 2017), which was based on Hancock and Bezold (1994).

The Cone of Possibilities is a tool used in foresight and futures studies to help depict the idea that there are many future possibilities. This is an easy way to see how we can look at many distinct futures to know how we can make better choices in the present. The cone extends from the present on the left to alternative futures on the right, enabling one to understand and explore different futures as time progresses [3]. Strategic foresight pays attention to all these futures since each of them represents a particular mechanism of change, and learning about those futures will make the futurists (and their organizations) better prepared for any of them.

Preparing for Future Change

Foresight has become an increasingly important competence in a number of sectors in the recent years, as it can serve as a key step to better identify and respond to emerging changes. There are a number of methods for conducting a foresight study such as scenario thinking, backcasting, brainstorming and so on, but eventually the decision of which to use depends on what is suitable for the organization.

Foresight methodologies seek to gather and make sense of data so that people can think about the future in different and new ways. These data could be collected from humans or from the analysis of documents and artifacts, or both. The data may be evaluated using qualitative or quantitative methods, or both. However, data needs to be analyzed, interpreted and used in ways that make sense for the organization to be used in strategic processes [4]. The strategic foresight system must be implemented in line with the strategic demands of an organization. 

As an innovation initiative, the ETH Library Lab contributes towards addressing research life-cycle challenges in a number of areas with a long-term perspective. In this context, the lab conducts a foresight project with methodological support from the department of Strategic Development at ETH Zurich. The goal is to navigate a wide range of ideas and opinions on the future and to identify those that are most relevant to the needs of scientific libraries and research life cycle.

What We Can Learn from the Oracle

Thanks to data-driven approaches like Strategic Foresight, organizations do not have to rely on some obscure oracle’s advice when they make important decisions for their future development. Still, we may use the first Oracle scene in the Matrix trilogy as an analogy for real life decision-making in three ways:

  1. Our expectations about the future have an impact on our decisions and therefore on the future itself – the Oracle points to the possibility of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” when she implies Neo might have broken the vase only because she told him about it, leaving the answer open.
  2. Even the Oracle in the movie is not capable to predict the exact future on a larger scale. After all, she does not tell Neo if he is “the one” (to save humankind). Instead, she reveals him a secret: “Being the one is just like being in love. No one can tell you you’re in love, you just know it.” 
  3. Finding out about our future does not mean blindly subscribing to determinism. At the end of the scene, the Oracle reminds Neo that he is in control of his own life and makes him aware that he will have to make a game-changing decision.

In this way, the oracle empowers Neo to make his own decisions instead of relying on some sort of predetermined fate. Rather than telling him his future, the Oracle’s advice helps Neo understand his role and make the right choice when everything is up to him, and this is how Neo finally becomes “the one“. As Morpheus says later in the movie: “She told you exactly what you needed to hear, that’s all. Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize, just as I did, there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

References

[1] http://www.forschungsnetzwerk.at/downloadpub/LivreblancAgentielle-Strategic_foresight_EN.pdf

[2] http://www.futuremotions.nl/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/FutureMotions_introductiondoc_January2018.pdf

[3] Van Dorsser, C., Walker, W. E., Taneja, P., & Marchau, V. A. (2018). Improving the link between the futures field and policymaking. Futures, 104, 75-84.

[4] Conway, M., & Futures, T. (2006). An overview of foresight methodologies. Thinking Futures, 1-10.

Author

Bala Nivetha Kanakaraj

Ph.D. Biomedical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Madras

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