Foresight Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

We look with reverence at those individuals who can peer clearly into the future wondering, how do they do that? How is it possible to peel away the fabric of time to see what has not yet come to be realized? Do they have a special power none of us have? And of course, the answer is yes. They have a team.

Even for those who are the brightest in the field — the leaders, the innovators, the creators of tomorrow — foresight cannot be done in a vacuum. Foresight is both a mindset and a methodology complete with tools and processes to unveil many possible futures. The mindset can be learned and adopted by those who want to get outside the realm of the everyday and stretch their understanding of horizon boundaries. But just like any good design process, operating in a vacuum can wind up with results which may not be the most applicable. So how do we combat this? In design we call it creating a cross-functional team. To make a robust solution, good design leads create a team that has a variety of different perspectives. A variety of perspectives help challenge inherent assumptions and biases that we all have and may not be able to recognize. The need for assumption challenging and bias breaking is just as necessary in foresight as it is in design work. In other words, great foresight work requires alternative perspectives to help transform good foresight work into robust, applicable scenarios.

Sometimes finding a strong team of assumption-challenging colleagues is, well, just as difficult as it sounds. Luckily there are a few habits we can incorporate into our daily practices to help us question assumptions and incorporate a variety of different perspectives.

1. Embrace cross-contamination. I’m one that always works better when I have many projects going on. What I like about having several things going at once is that ideas which at first might not seem like they relate to one another — like how people experience getting their first credit card and current research being conducted to help extend life expectancy can influence one another. For instance, with the increase of supercentenarians, what role might credit and banking play in retirements stretching toward three or even four decades? Embracing cross-contamination of topics is also called associative fluency — the ability to make a wide range of connections when presented with a given stimulus. Associative fluency can happen as a response to new topics, perspectives, or genres of information and helps us create connections which may not have occurred to us without new inputs. So, embrace a variety of different inputs! Read sci-fi, business books, and even young adult fiction. Watch The Bachelor, Westworld, and the Science Channel. Mix up your inputs and see what associations your brain will make.

2. Accept the anti-bias bias. Just admit that you have biases and get on with it. While it is remarkably hard to recognize our own biases as we enact them, reminding yourself that we ALL have biases will help you check the things you “know” to be true, and may help you reframe them toward unknown knowns. With enough reminders, you’ll recognize the need to bring others in to help balance your biases with theirs. One core tenet of foresight and futures studies is that there are many possible futures, not just one. Going into this kind of work with one perspective is likewise a sign of newness. We need many perspectives to create robust future scenarios, so accept you have biases, and bring in some co-collaborators.

3. Leave your ego at home. No one can see the future — no matter what they say. There are no future facts as by their very nature facts live in the past. We look back at facts to recognize patterns, acknowledge them, and use that information to inform our understanding of how such patterns might progress in the future. The future, however, is wholly unknown. Take precaution listening to predictions about a future that will “absolutely be true”. Many past predictions have wound up as uninspiring and sometimes even silly in hindsight. Working with futures requires equal parts rigor, creativity and humility. Be prepared to make a declaration about the future, be prepared to work toward making that future vision a reality, but also be prepared reassess your work often. Be prepared to pivot and scratch a previous vision based on new information. Our futures outputs are only as good as the inputs we use to create them, and inputs are always changing. So ditch an ego-first mindset and embrace a world where asking for help is part of the process and admitting shifts along the way only makes your work better.

4. Avoid the void. Come back to present every now and then! Futures are a super interesting place to play, but don’t forget to live in the present too. I’ve caught myself expecting that something has already happened when it hasn’t yet, or disconnecting from current events in favor of future possibilities. It’s a jarring realization and one that should happen early but not often. Remind yourself to stay in the present and conduct journeys to futures, not the other way around. Normal by Warren Ellis depicted a scene in which futurists whom stared too long into the future got lost in their own paranoia. It’s an interesting look at a potential future of futurists if we stay in the foresight realm too long. Ground yourself every now and then — the present is an exciting place to play too.

5. Seek those who whole heartedly disagree with you and ask them why. This is a build on “embrace cross-contamination”, but one worth calling out. There are a huge number of diverse perspectives out there, and many of them won’t align with yours. In an era of information bubbling and echo chambers, make the effort to get outside your comfort zone. If you want to push boundaries, begin by pushing yours. Seek people who hold different opinions than you. Show honest curiosity, listen to why they feel that way. You’ll learn a lot, even if it makes you uncomfortable at first.

If we are to create visions for the future, diverse perspectives are necessary. Access to many futures means imagining many ways of looking at a variety of possibilities. Doing it alone may run the risk of creating a singular perspective — a vision of exponential tech growth and profit, for instance. Embracing a variety of inputs will help us look at many different futures, and create visions which might help us expand our ability to create interesting, diverse, and potentially evenly distributed futures*. Instead of being a solo sport, futures are collective; so build a crew. At the very least it will result in some weird, inspiring and brain-expanding conversations.