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Foresight and Modern Future Research: Possibilities and Practice

We know from the first great civilizations that people thought about the future even thousands of years ago. Mostly they were concerned with predicting the weather for crop cultivation, or with their health and destiny, or with threats and auspicious moments for waging war. History tells us that before he embarked on his relentless conquest of the east, Alexander the Great consulted the Oracle of Delphi to find out his chances of success.

Thinking about the future in the modern era

Societies have changed vastly since then. Economies and systems of production, lifestyles, cultures, and systems of belief, technologies, the military, sciences, media, and politics have seen great transformation, mainly in their forms. So when people today think about future developments, even in their everyday lives, it rarely boils down to a yes or no question, contrary to what oracles in former times, or the table talk and tabloid media of today, might suggest. The realms of possibility for human behavior are in principle very extensive. Contemporary sociology therefore talks about the “multi-option society” (Peter Gross). On top of this, changes are accelerating at an increasing rate, with their diverse consequences and challenges for modern people, institutions, and societies. Such challenges – here listed only in note form – include climate change or climate disaster, technological change and specifically digital transformation, individualization, commercialization, the concentration of capital, and urbanization. In addition to this increased complexity, we have to contend with conditions of globalization, under which the spatial dimension, and hence the human sphere of perception and more or less conscious sphere of impact, expands still further. Everyday uncertainties for people today are different than those of millennia ago. They appear less existential, but they are potent and they preoccupy us more or less consciously.

Humans have the capacity to distinguish past, present and future. In addition, human activity is a priori and for the most part geared to the future. And in so far as human beings are a kind of “thinking animal,” their behavior is only partially guided by instincts and simple routines. All of this means that both the individual and collective behavior of humans is extremely contingent. It is ultimately influenced by countless factors, their interaction, and how they are perceived. Human behavior, therefore, is barely possible to predict, or only under particular circumstances. For this reason, modern, science-based futures research and foresight1 do not aim to make predictions. The goal is rather to develop the best possible and sufficient basis for discussing future realms of possibility. The former director of the Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment (Institut für Zukunftsstudien und Technologiebewertung, IZT) neatly sums it up: “You cannot predict the future, but you can develop scientific knowledge about the future, and use that for a better understanding of (possible, probable, desirable) futures. And in a participative, democratic process, you can work to prevent disasters and achieve the best” (translated from German).2

The need to think about the future

From the two phenomena described above (the range of options and the challenges), a kind of “objective need” for futures research and knowledge about the future can be derived. Thinking about – or better: forethought for – tomorrow and what it may bring is therefore by no means trivial. In so far as humans need to modify their environments and do so more or less consciously and creatively, they and their historically differentiated institutions and professions need to “understand” the past and future and make these “understandable” for themselves. Even more than that, however, they need to dedicate themselves to the future, because it is “there” that the emergent human living environments will be found, and because uncertainties and corresponding – possibly dangerous and, in part, potentially even life-threatening or existentially threatening – new challenges, hazards and risks may be associated with those environments.

Over the course of history, forms of dealing with the future and associated uncertainty have changed immensely. From the middle of the twentieth century, an increasing scientification of thinking about the future can be observed. This was initially influenced by the technological sciences, where research was conducted into the intended and unintended consequences of new technologies and their applications. Military research has also been a major influence on modern futures studies. Most active in this field were US think tanks – particularly the RAND Corporation, which rose to prominence with its linking of three new scientific theoretical approaches: cybernetics, game theory, and rational choice theory. The new approach to futures research, however, only developed “in around 1960, after European and US knowledge stores came together to form conceptualizations of futures research, which then in turn made an impact in the United States” (translated from German).3 Since then, various approaches have been developed for dealing with that sphere which is not yet realized, but which is at least partially beginning to emerge in the form of futures. “Futures” is in the plural, since as long as no single “future option” has become established, the future holds manifold possibilities.

In the meantime, international working and research networks have formed, which are devoted to more or less systematically investigating future developments. They utilize concepts and methods from various scientific disciplines. For the most part, their goals and methods are pragmatic, for example in fields such as market research, urban planning, organizational development, technology design, and the military. In the course of “reflexive modernization” (“reflexive Moderne,” Ulrich Beck), these activities are being further professionalized and, in some cases, scientifically grounded with corresponding institutions, expert networks and in the higher education sector.

One particular, demanding way of dealing with futures is scientifically grounded futures research. In the course of general cultural and scientific development over recent decades, research fields such as technology assessment and technology foresight, meteorology and climate research, military strategy development, risk research, urban planning and so on have emerged. Their work has been increasingly supported and expanded by rapidly growing computer capacities (e.g. modelling, visualization, big data).

Furthermore, in the course of recent decades, mainly in Western countries like Germany, ever more capacity for and forms of futures research competences have been created, both in the business field and also in government, i.e. in the political and administrative field. These include study commissions in the German Bundestag and Land parliaments; the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (Büro für Technikfolgenabschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag, TAB); teams in policy departments of governments and ministries; government commissions; projects on behalf of ministries; teams, commissions, departments in parties, and foundations; and international bodies (e.g. United Nations (UN), Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), World Bank, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Club of Rome, NATO). Thus the German Federal Ministry of Defense (Bundesverteidigungsministerium, BMVg), German Federal Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt, AA), and German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit, BMU) have created futures research capacities; other ministries are considering doing so.4 This is often a case of evaluating and using the expertise obtained from futures researchers in sufficient depth.

Scientifically grounded futures research

Finally, a self-professionalization of scientific futures research has taken place. In 2007, futures researchers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland set up a futures research network association called Netz­werk Zukunftsforschung.5 Various international expert networks in the futures research field have existed for decades now. And in 2010, the Institut Futur at Freie Universität Berlin launched an inter- and transdisciplinary master’s degree programme. This is the first and so far only academic futures studies course in Germany, while various other countries outside Europe already offer courses in futures studies. The methods and principles of researching, constructing, and reflecting on imagined futures in society, politics, and business are taught at the Institut Futur.6

The great overall breadth of methodical approaches is remarkable. They originate in various scientific disciplines, particularly the social sciences. They encompass trend and megatrend studies, scenarios of very different kinds, Delphi surveys, various types of modelling, and the use of bibliometrics and big data, as well as road-mapping, other quantitative methods, and qualitative approaches. For the development of the discipline and self-professionalization, an important handbook was written by a working group in the Netz­werk Zukunftsforschung.7 It is designed as an attempt to formulate initial proposals and suggestions for standards and quality criteria in futures studies, to offer practical guidance for work on futures. In ­theoretical terms, modern futures research relates to various social theories and social analyses, as well as theories of change. This can be seen particularly in the university working contexts.

For the systematic identification and prioritization of social trends, as well as their driving factors, the STEEP method is often used. The method investigates various key aspects of change processes. Usually these are the following five areas: Social, Technological, Economic (macro), Environmental, Political. Depending on the problem at hand, occasionally the aspects of Values (STEEPV) and the Military (STEEPM) are included. Each of these areas is examined as systematically as possible to find influential, potent trends, as well as the driving forces and actors. Then, in addition, the mutual effects and interactions are estimated, and conclusions worked out for one’s own decisions and actions.

Despite these positive developments, even modern, scientifically grounded futures research can only shine a more or less plausible, intelligent spotlight on future developments. Predictions are (probably) in principle impossible.

Inertias and challenges

The need for scientifically grounded futures research and a carefully considered, evidence-based approach to shaping the future is today greater than ever. Here we can mention a doyen of German futures research, Ossip K. Flechtheim.8 In a historical phase, when the limits of Western patterns of development were beginning to become more obvious and apparent, Flecht­heim assigned a big task – perhaps too big – to futures research: “In a way similar to that in which medicine is concerned with human ailment and healing on an individual level, futurology should diagnose, prognose, and ‘treat’ humanity collectively” (translated from German).9

From the middle of the twentieth century onwards, people and institutions have grown accustomed to a way of life (the “American way of life”) which now turns out to be highly problematic. This is because it systematically, though unintentionally, undermines the conditions for human life and human civilization, and is on the verge of destroying them, as countless studies and reports show. Spread by Western media and advertising, this normality of undesirable developments is also seen as a goal in most other regions of the world. Yet a generalization and spread of the Western lifestyle is not possible, simply for reasons of resource limitations. So the United Nations model of sustainable development was created, and recently its sustainability goals were drawn up (United Nations: Sustainable Development Goals, 2030 Agenda).

It would be fatal – and this poses a major challenge for futures research – not to question the permanently created “comfort zones” in our culture, and not to discuss “inconvenient truths” (to borrow the title of Al Gore’s famous documentary about global warming). The creation of always “new” products and media content results in a “racing standstill” (“rasender Stillstand,” Paul Virilio) in which warnings are not heard. We ignore and suppress the possibility that threatening developments and the associated vague anxiety and feelings of insecurity might have something to do with the negative effects of our own consumerist and exploitative lifestyle. For thinking, reflection, and forethought, habit is an extremely potent gravitational force. It is a normal and permanent state that is hard to change. More than it has done to date, futures research should here act as a “second-order observer” (“Beobachter zweiter Ordnung,” Niklas Luhmann), strengthen societal reflection and self-reflection, and productively “irritate” to help overcome dangerous thinking habits and destructive behaviors.

An important and well-known example of the “warning function” of foresighted scientific findings was the 1972 Club of Rome report, The Limits to Growth. Using new computer models with different variables, it was judged that maintaining normal growth trends (particularly gross domestic product and population growth) could cause societies to collapse, mainly because raw materials are available only in limited quantities. These assessments led to numerous changes and innovations in political, economic, and social fields. Thus the worst consequences predicted in the report have not yet occurred, or their force has been reduced. In some cases, rethinking and alternative action took place.

Methodology with the example of “weak signals”

In the field of security research, for example, modern futures research can draw on extensive experience and social-science approaches. Risk research, early warning systems, and technology assessment are just some examples that can be cited. The canon of frequently used methods in futures research also includes cross-impact analyses, Delphi surveys, scenario techniques, and trend analyses. To these, the “weak signals” approach can be added,10 which was developed by Igor Ansoff in a management context in the 1970s and has been used for some time in futures research. It aims to help businesses anticipate changes well in advance, and react accordingly. Ansoff used a five-step scale to categorize the transition from weak to strong signals and the appropriate reactions. The concept attracted interest in security research, too, since timely detection and evaluation of new or future emerging dangers could minimize or prevent security risks.

Of central importance here is the question of whether particular events and signals are actually weak signals, in the sense that they will develop into relevant trends and influential factors. Experience shows that weak signals develop along idealized stages, each of which has specific phenomena and features:11

Weak signal: No-one knows
Strong signal: Can be spotted in research groups, think tanks etc.
Trend: Appears in general contexts/can be recognized by several persons
Megatrend: Significant and recognizable entity comprising phenomenon
Driving force: Affects whole societies

Accordingly, by means of expert dialogs and various process steps and tools (e.g. horizon scanning, monitoring, technological and social forecasting), an attempt can be made to assess whether particular signals have the potential and a high probability of developing in line with these five steps.

Another conceptual and methodological challenge consists in overcoming structural barriers to the gaining of insights by individuals and groups. Ansoff describes internal structures as possible filters, through which information has to pass in order to be perceived, and hence be taken into account in decision-making: the surveillance filter, the mentality filter, and the power filter. The surveillance filter describes the characteristics of actors and institutions in the search for (new) information. In this filter, structural and methodological criteria determine whether weak signals are (or can be) perceived at all. Creativity plays a special role here, as it is crucial for the signal filtering process. The mentality filter is characterized by mental criteria. Recognizing new information requires that one’s view of possible change processes is not blocked and remains open to new relevant facts. As the final characteristic, the power filter refers to the evaluation and use of information previously identified as possible weak signals, which is in no way automatic.

It is only at the level of a decision that the information results in a reaction, which of course can also take the form of doing nothing. Ansoff described these three filters as a structural challenge in the detection and evaluation of weak signals. Consequently, in addition to the detection itself, these three filters constitute the second difficulty in the process of utilizing possible weak signals. In other words, a habitual and comfortable thinking structure has to be broken up in order to be able to see what is new. He therefore particularly suggests looking in those places where normally one might not look, although the innovative and new often come from the fringe areas and oppositional milieus of a society or of the world society. This is a challenge in principle and in general. It always arises and has to be dealt with in futures research and foresight work.

Benefits of futures research and foresight – and requirements

It is sensible and useful to apply and consult foresight and futures research in almost all areas of society. Usually, futures are thought about in simple forms, in entrenched ways. That is to say, such thinking is neither sufficiently systematic nor sufficiently complex, and does not consider or use the experience and expertise of modern futures research.

At a theoretical and conceptual level, futures research offers expansions in three dimensions. In terms of content, it can add additional perspectives and aspects (“what”). In societal terms, additional groups and organizations can be reco­gnized as relevant (“who”). In the time dimension, foresight and futures research can set new emphases and take additional, more extensive periods of time into account (“when”).

Somewhat more specifically, futures research and foresight can contribute in various ways to better decisions and strategies. One of the main ways is by supporting the creation of transparency and orientative knowledge for decisions, e.g. by making trends and diverse development possibilities visible. Traditional thinking patterns can be expanded and usefully complemented. Hence an important expansion of options for action can take place, and new solutions can be found. Foresight and futures studies strengthen integrated thinking and the competent handling of complexity (on account of the multidisciplinary approaches alone). Finally, futures research makes it easier to be aware of and explain implicit – and possibly obsolete – assumptions. The UNESCO Foresight Unit also emphasizes this aspect, with its new concept of “anticipatory assumptions” (Riel Miller).

If one treats people like they are, one makes them worse.
If one treats people like they could be, one makes them better. (Translated from German.)
(Johann Wolfgang Goethe)

Nevertheless, to carry out futures research and foresight is a demanding task. It requires an attitude of openness, and an increase in individual and organizational awareness of new information and opinions. Our approach when seeking to identity future developments and events should follow the lateral thinking principle: we can expect to succeed only if we overcome all too narrow patterns of perception or even taboos. Ways and mechanisms of outside-of-the-box thinking are of key importance for detecting the new and unexpected. Therefore, they should be included appropriately in the working process of futures research, and also in security research.

Particularly in the key field of defense and security, our own flexibility should be increased in this respect, both for persons and institutions. This is a reference both to the awareness and openness already mentioned, and to elements such as the division of labor, communication processes etc. Selectively distorted perception, rigid and narrow-minded stereotypes, bogeymen, and dehumanization of the enemy can all produce immense negative consequences; they can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and escalation, spirals of violence and arms races. By contrast, an integrated understanding of current situations, contingencies, and potentials is required, i.e. also the deep-seated causes of conflicts, opposing narratives, sensitivities and fears, or expressed generally: to research and understand the other’s perspective. The same ultimately applies not only to the intended but also the unintended effects of one’s own actions. Comfort zones created by an esprit de corps or male-bond cultures close off the possibility of seeing beyond one’s own horizons, including the foreign and strange, and utilizing provocations for one’s own development – in terms of content, methods and strategies. Hence problems, uncertainties, contradictions, protests, conflicts, and tensions in the foresight process should be taken seriously and taken into consideration so that the respective decision-makers and actors can prepare themselves at an early stage. One possibility here is to use wild cards, i.e. unexpected but highly consequential events (“game changers”) which upset well-ordered ideas about the future, but at the same time may reveal potential weaknesses.

In short: futures research and foresight can help to expand the powers of imagination, make opportunities and risks more assessable, reveal alternatives, and hence expand the realms of possibility and the capacity for action. They increase the self-reflection of those involved, and thus increase the chances of success with regard to strategies and tactics for maintaining or creating violence-free and peaceful conditions.

1 The terms “futures research” and “foresight” are used interchangeably here. However, futures research (or futures studies) has a more academic orientation, whereas foresight is application-oriented.

2 Kreibich, Rolf (2007): “Wissenschaftsverständnis, Methodik und Zukunft der Zukunftsforschung.” Unpublished manuscript. Salzburg, , p. 22.

3 Seefried, Elke (2015): Zukünfte. Aufstieg und Krise der Zukunftsforschung 1945–1980. Berlin/Boston, p. 70.

4 In this context, the concept of “anticipatory government” should also be mentioned, which is applied in parts of the US administration: Fuerth, Leon/Faber, Evan (2012): Anticipatory Governance. Practical Upgrades. Project on Forward Engagement, Washington DC. 
forwardengagement.org/anticipatorygovernance/
[accessed June 5, 2018].

5 See: www.netzwerk-zukunftsforschung.eu

6 See: http://http://www.ewi-psy.fu-berlin.de/v/masterzukunftsforschung/zukunftsforschung/index.html

7 Gerhold, Lars et al. (eds.) (2014): Standards und Gütekriterien der Zukunftsforschung. Ein Handbuch für Wissenschaft und Praxis. Wiesbaden.

8 Flechtheim, Ossip K. (1973): “Futurologie in der zweiten Phase?” In: Pforte, Dietger, Schwencke, Olaf (eds.): Ansichten einer künftigen Futurologie. Zukunftsforschung in der zweiten Phase. Munich, pp. 17–25.

9 Ibid., p. 17.

10 Ansoff, Igor (1975): “Managing strategic surprise by response to weak signals.” In: California Management Review 18 (2), pp. 21–33. journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.2307/41164635 [accessed June 5, 2018].

11 Holopainen, Mari & Toivonen, Marja (2012): “Weak signals: Ansoff today.”. In: Futures 44,pp. 198–205, p. 201.

Author

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Dr. Edgar Göll is a social scientist. In 1995, he joined the Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT) in Berlin, where he is currently co-head of research for the Future Studies and Participation cluster. His work focuses on sustainable development, transformation processes, and governance. Göll is also a member of the board at Netzwerk Zukunftsforschung e.V., and a lecturer on the futures studies master’s degree programme at Institut Futur, Freie Universität Berlin.

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