Opinion & Analysis

Foresight is a messy methodology but a marvellous mindset

By Berta Mizsei

“People assume that time is a strict progression from cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” – Doctor Who

‘Strategic foresight’ is a phrase that’s been floating around the EuroBubble for a while now. It involves imagining possible futures to anticipate and prepare for change, opportunities and obstacles. While there are multiple ways to do foresight, they all aim to construct narratives or scenarios about the future, with some examples being EU health policy in 2040 and the endeavour to map out the EU’s possible position in global governance in 2050.

I have been quite sceptical of the quality of foresight exercises but was also admittedly hazy on what they entail. Thanks to conversations with foresight experts and attending their workshops, the title of this commentary has changed from its original ‘Foresight is a scam that everyone should do’ to the one you see now – less bombastic and hopefully a bit more accurate. And while I remain cautious, I believe that what I dislike is due to the poor execution of an otherwise commendable approach.

The European Commission certainly seems to think that foresight is worth investing in. It has launched an EU-wide Foresight Network and produces an annual Strategic Foresight Report.

The OECD also has a Strategic Foresight Unit, and several countries such as Canada, Singapore and Finland have championed its use to promote agile and flexible governance. Big decisions are being made with the help of foresight. For example the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is employing foresight to prepare for future infectious disease threats.

And this is where my initial scepticism resurfaces.

From my first few forays into foresight, it seemed that it employed desk research and expert workshops, but refrained from the use of data and from testing the solidity of assumptions. This can make scenarios weak and anecdotal, something experts justify by stating that scenarios are meant to be a ‘first step to start a discussion’.

The deficiencies of foresight became more evident when I took part in the process – so much of what ends up in imagined narratives depends on whether an expert was chatty during a workshop, or on the background of the expert writing the scenario.

As a young researcher coming from a quantitative background, this felt alien and alarming.

However, as it turns out, my issue was not with foresight per se, but rather with a certain way of doing it, one that is insufficiently grounded in sound research methods. In short, I am disturbed by ‘bad’ foresight. Foresight’s newly-found popularity means that there is more demand than supply for foresight experts, thus the prevalence of questionable foresight methodology has increased – something that was discussed during a dedicated session at this year’s Ideas Lab (CEPS’ flagship annual event).

One culprit is the Commission. Its foresight relies heavily on ‘backcasting’, a planning method that starts with a desirable future and works backwards to identify ways to achieve that outcome. One example is the 2022 Strategic Foresight Report ‘Twinning the green and digital transitions in the new geopolitical context’ that mapped out ways to get to the ideal future the Commission cabinet had imagined.

Is this useful? Undoubtedly.

However, it is also single-mindedly deterministic about the future of environmental policy, which is both notoriously complex and of critical importance to the current Commission. Similar hubris (or malpractice) is evident across various EU apparatuses – policymakers have a clear vision of what they want to happen and they invest into figuring out how to make that a reality without admitting how turbulent and unpredictable the future is. This is commendable and politically advantageous… but it is not foresight.

It misses one of foresight’s main virtues: forcing us to consider alternative futures.

It is this aspect that convinced me that running a foresight workshop would be useful for any EU institution. It takes participants out of their daily grind of a 9-5(6 or 7?) day to contemplate what ‘may yet happen’. It reminds us that despite sounding confident, we actually know very little about the future.

Foresight incapsulates a mindset that most Eurocrats would do well to revive. You cannot assume that everything will go the way you imagine it to. If you’re in a managerial position and you don’t prepare for nightmare scenarios and develop built-in moments to course-correct your plan if things turn to the worse (or when new opportunities arise), then you are doing yourself a disservice.

To put it bluntly, have we learnt nothing from the surprises of Brexit, Trump, Covid-19, or the war in Ukraine? It’s vital that policymakers understand the limitations of foresight (of which there are many) but also absorb some of the flexible, creative thinking that it entails.

So, my parting message is this: Strategic foresight is here to stay. Embrace it! (…but cautiously).

The EU institutions could start with the Green Deal. Following the example of the ECDC, they could get foresight experts to guide them in imagining and analysing alternative futures. This involves identifying catastrophic possibilities and possible reactions, thus crisis-proofing this Commission’s landmark policy package (i.e. building resilience). And – as it turns out – quantitative tools are very useful in this.

Most importantly, future scenarios cannot remain a one-off. Instead, they have to be periodically reassessed in light of changing circumstances, and the same should be done with preparedness strategies.

This way, foresight studies would really become that ‘first step’ they are truly meant to be.

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, this Expert Commentary is part of a week-long series to highlight the insights and expertise of some of our most talented young female researchers.

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