Strategic foresighting to address complex challenges

In his recent interview, Quentin Grafton spoke about how strategic foresight has been used to address challenges around food security. Strategic foresighting seems like a useful way to maximise face-to-face engagement to address wicked problems and complex, systemic challenges. This article looks more closely at what foresighting is, and how it can be applied.

When unpacking a certain complex water scenario, one approach to creating a management strategy is known as foresighting. When we look at inputs, or what is happening, and determine the impact now and in the future, that is the foresight.

Foresighting – what it is and how it works

Foresighting involves analysis, interpretation, and prospection, which ask what seems to be happening, what’s really happening, and what might happen. The end result of foresighting is an analysis of what we need to do, and a strategy that describes how we will do it.

Foresighting can come in different shapes and sizes, but is ultimately about setting out a range of possibilities into the future,

“So, it’s forward-looking,” he says. “It’s not predicting the future. It’s saying ‘well, if we assume this or if we think this is going to continue, let’s say business-as-usual, this is where we’re going to end up…’ You go through the evidence and you back that up … it’s clearly evidence-based. And then you look at alternatives, and you get people to engage as well. What can be done if we think that’s a problem? Typically, with foresight, you are looking at a problem that’s likely to get worse with business-as-usual. Then you engage around the question: ‘What do we do about it?’” Quentin Grafton, Professor of Economics at Australian National University

The foresighting approach, as Grafton describes it, involves looking at various future scenarios based on the data available, and exploring the various outcomes associated with different decisions that could be made. It is a complex process that requires a preparation work, but foresighting can help with aligning individuals and organisations along the path, and the decisions necessary, in order to reach the best possible outcome.

Grafton says that the people who are engaged in the processes come up with what they think should be done, rather than a facilitator outlining what needs to happen. Foresighting is often dealing with wicked problems — societal issues that are highly complex. As a result, the answers will likely be multifaceted and complex, but the process of foresighting is a good start in making headway towards addressing these challenges.

Strategic foresighting in action

Strategic foresighting requires a lot of pre-meeting work and planning. In order for foresighting to work, facilitators need to not only carefully select an inclusive pool of participants to be a part of the foresighting process, but they need to plan and map out evidence-based scenarios to serve as starting points for policy dialogues.

It is not, unfortunately, as simple as having a group of people showing up and guessing what the future holds and working through such scenarios. A well-researched strategic foresighting process, with evidence-based scenarios, and experienced facilitators who can direct and support difficult policy dialogues are all ingredients required for a successful foresighting event. If done properly, the approach can help communities to build knowledge and navigate uncertainties, building resiliency and forming beneficial relationships through the process.

Including policy dialogues

Policy dialogues allow for cohesion when there is a division between sectors and stakeholders. We may better know them as roundtables, workshops, committees, commissions, reg-negs, or working groups.

Policy dialogues, according to Peter S. Adler and Kristi Parker Celico, “are carefully constructed, deliberative meetings that address both politically controversial and technically complex aspects of an issue in a dispute.”

Adler and Celico say that policy dialogues seek to exchange information and build consensus recommendations between private, public, and civic sectors. They bring diverse groups together, focus on an issue of common interest, have a clear start, middle, and end, and seek to find practical solutions to complex issues. Typically, there is some sort of convenor, a stated goal, and facilitators to manage proceedings.

Foresighting and policy dialogues are not mutually exclusive. When tackling wicked problems, it is good to have a number of tools in the toolbox that you can pull out and use when appropriate, and as suitable. In this case, embedding the policy dialogues within a strategic foresighting approach can help to align stakeholders working across sectors to better understand one another’s perspectives and the implications within and across sectors that decisions may have.

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