Ahead of the Curve
The role played by foresight in the future-oriented enterprise
Since Ancient Times, it is only human to wonder what the future will bring, and to devise methods or tricks to anticipate it. From oracles to tarots, from horoscopes to fortune telling, across history the dubious art of interpreting what lies ahead has influenced the life of many, and damaged the lives of more than few. The key challenge in systematically, effectively and efficiently explore scenarios and strategies that look at half a decade to two decades ahead in time, is determined by the complexity of human systems, and humans themselves. Whereas the laws of nature enable the accurate prediction of phenomena in everyday physics, chemistry or life sciences, it becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, to determine the directions that a country or a city will take over a longer to medium span, or how individuals will aggregate their opinions in a consensus, or not. To address this kind of challenge, foresight might be seen as a systematic approach, strong of a corpus of methodologies and a short lived but intense tradition in terms of professional associations and academic excellence. Born as an extension of wartime strategic studies and as a support to governmental policy-making agencies, contemporary foresight and futures research are applied and applicable to the necessity to envision and determine the possible –and even apparently impossible- scenarios where an enterprise will operate in a time yet to come. The use of “wild cards” and other paradoxes enables the discussion of what now appears unlikely, however it might strike the universe of study –being global politics or a single marketing category -and redefine its nature, frameworks and directions. Set with 5 to 20 years scope, preferable scenarios can be then identified, verbalized and visualized, delivering a platform of alternative hypothesis against which the business can be strategized. Whereas research methodologies in this field are mixed, with a tendency to use quantitative data as the foundation for qualitative research and storytelling, the adoption of Design Thinking and design principles has offered since the mid 1990’s a whole new set of possibilities, from visual articulation to the creation of artifacts and probes as demonstrators of how “the future” might look and feel. One of the best examples in terms of case study is Philips “Vision of the Future”, that in the mid 1990’s combined social sciences and visualizing in a massive study of how the emerging digital landscape might appear and behave in half a decade time. The outcome was substantiated in 60 ideas, realized and communicated through design models and videos. In 2001, McKinsey validated 60% thereof as existing in the market, confirming the power of the anticipatory approach. At the same time, only an insignificant percentage of these validated concepts were existing in the market as Philips propositions, because internal management audiences proved more difficult to convince to break up their consolidated ways of working and follow up visionary opportunities. This generates another reflection, one of much more practical nature. While literature, philosophy and humanities in general delighted us for centuries with fictional representations of utopias and dystopias to come, it takes a different organizational design approach to activate future visions within corporate organizations. Without concrete implementation as brand strategy programs or innovation projects, an investment in foresight will not generate any return. This because, in foresight as in life, it takes determination in the present, to truly make a better future happen.