Futures thinking and foresight – tools for better preparedness

In February this year, the UK Government published ‘A brief guide to futures thinking and foresight’ in order to improve policy-making. The guide is derived from 20 years of work carried out by various parts of government, predominantly the Government Office for Science, from which a number of reports have been published identifying possible futures and issues that are potentially of interest in the UK. This note offers a summary of the guide and the background to it.

The term foresight used in the guide is derived from the part of a gun that is closest to the exit of the barrel and that is used in aiming. It is clearly aimed (sorry for the pun) at a very specific future issue and is, therefore, more to do with explicit preparedness for a situation that is highly probable to occur.

Horizon scanning is a term used in naval gunnery and is the process by which potential threats are identified as they are visible coming over the horizon. It could be thought of as reconnaissance of situations that, were they to occur, could be threatening or dangerous. Both foresight and horizon scanning have been in use for centuries.

The term futures thinking is more modern and is in some people’s minds synonymous with systems thinking where systems of a plausible future are thought about in order that a better understanding of how they might develop is obtained. When adopted in an appropriately holistic manner, future thinking could be thought of as sitting between the other terms and provide a means by which systemic preparedness is obtained for plausible futures without necessarily identifying the probability of any of them occurring.

It is critical, therefore, that in carrying out policy development which of these categories the work is encompassing. It could be all three at once. It must also continually be challenged by a better understanding of what has happened in the past in order that the learnings from mistakes as well as benefits are properly incorporated into future policy-making.

Preparedness, therefore, will come from an appropriate balance between the use of prior knowledge, hindsight, and mechanisms for examining plausible futures ranging from reconnaissance (horizon scanning) surveillance (futures thinking) and targeted action (foresight).

One of the issues in providing guidance for policymakers in these areas of activity is that whatever means are put forward they might be interpreted as training methods. This could blunt the creativity of people involved in imagining aspects of the future which could occur. The balance between hindsight, in other words using prior knowledge of experiences that have occurred in the past, to foresight is clearly a very important aspect. The presupposition that foresight, horizon scanning and futures thinking are based on well-informed hindsight is an assumption that needs to be verified.

It is to be welcomed that the UK Government is looking at a more holistic way of improving policy-making methods that is informed by the past, imagined futures and creativity. It is also to be welcomed this area is to be incorporated into the education and training of policy-makers of all departments. However, it could go further and be devolved to cities and local government where preparedness is at a different scale but needs to be similarly informed by the past, by plausible futures and the situation that is current. It is, therefore, recommended that this guide is appropriately disseminated to such devolved bodies and that if necessary, it is rewritten in such a form that it matches better their circumstances.

Professor Brian Collins

Vice Chair, NPC