'OK, what are we doing about the future?'

For most businesses, and probably most of us in general, being asked this question can be a daunting prospect.  Your particular need for thinking about the future, probably depends on the organisation you work for. For example, government departments often have to plan for projects that last over 5, 10 even 20 years in length, so they at least need to try to make assumptions on what the future could be like over long periods of time.  For businesses, this often varies - for fast moving sectors, like the media or fin-tech, a year is a long time away and five year years seems like a lifetime! However, in other sectors, like R&D, Engineering, Defence and Insurance, companies have projects that can run out to the 2030 or even the 2040 horizon.

So, at some point, most organisations are probably going to need to plan, or at least think about the future.  When they do, they generally have two approaches for thinking about the future and both of these are generally based on a combination of open-source information gathering and established foresight practices.  And, when trying to go through their options they probably start in the same place that most us of start when we're trying to find things out - google.

So, to think about this further, I've summarised two of the most common foresight related activities and looked at how the relate to google searching, or if 'open source intelligence collection', if you want to be fancy.

Foresight activity 1 - Running a workshop.

For a lot of organisations, the best way to show that you are thinking about the future is to do something that proves you are doing something about thinking about the future!  At the moment, the most common way to do this is to convene a workshop in which a range of facilitated techniques (usually scenarios) are used to generate ideas around future trends and outcomes.

For such activities, groups of experts are assembled and asked certain questions and tested on certain outcomes.  Typically, this google is applied in heavily at the event design stage.  Some consultancies and larger organisations, will have their own networks or course, but often for emerging issues and new ideas, this network will need a lot of maintenance.  As a result, google is, generally the first step in finding ‘people’ - the great and the good, for finding those who know about stuff and then getting them together to talk about what could happen.

I’m not going to go into whether, group events are a good are bad thing.  I think the important thing is that they serve a purpose and if used at the right time in a project can really help gain knowledge and a deeper understanding around a range of trends and issues.  However, they’re not the only option in futures analysis and they can be subject to a large level of selection bias and group think, so its good to reflect on this.

Foresight Activity 2.  Running a literature search

This is where google rides even higher than in event design.  To compile a view on the future, a common thing to do is to gather as much data as possible on a specific issue.  It’s just so easy to do!  So, you have a research problem - ‘What is the long term economic stability of Europe out to 2030’, the very first thing you’ll probably do is google it.  This will lead to you, spending the morning, the day, the week clicking through links, reading blogs and foreign policy articles discussing pertinent trends.  Pretty soon, you’ll have a lot of data, a lot of different views, and then find yourself having to make a call on what the most significant ‘future’ is going to be.

As with using focus groups, compiling a literature review of open data is not a guarantee of improving how you think about the future.  It again has its limitations - does the data you’ve gathered reflect your own personal bias? Are your sources reliable?  How do you make sense of the bewildering array of links and references out there?  At the time of writing this (12/09/2016), if you google ‘brexit’ you’ll get 140,000,000 search returns.

Understanding open source intelligence

So, back to the first question? Does all foresight start with google? Well, yes it probably does, but then again do all forms of research and analysis today start with google ? Like most other disciplines, does foresight find itself needing to adapt to the scale and abundance of open source intelligence?  If we assume it does, here are some things it could do to improve how open source data could be used and accessed:

  1. More accountable predictions. Finding clear, distinct predictions about the future are hard.  Long term predictions are often deemed as too complex and too difficult to do, or worse, too risky,  ‘What if I get it wrong?’  This, although understandable, probably only worsens the situation for trying to understand the future.  The lack of clarity and measurable predictions means that a wide range of competing views are gathered that are very difficult to test, leading to a situation where everyones ‘invents their own future’ rather than trying to contribute their own predictions to a combined assessment of what the most probable future could be.

  2. Understanding the role of data and the role of experts.  It pays to be clear on this, what do you want experts for and why do you want to gather data?  Would it be better to spend some time assembling data that allows you to form a hypothesis around the future which you can then test with experts, rather than just asking senior executives for the answer?  Additionally, really knowing why and what questions you expect to answer using scenarios or workshops will also really help.

  3. Think about how you store and model data.  Maintaining data on what has been predicted and what other people have said about the future (in the past!) is actually really valuable.  It allows you to maintain your own archive and knowledge around what’s happening, and crucially, what’s more relevant to your business and sector.  This is a real challenge for most organisations - as it costs money and time, both to resource the maintenance of the data, but also to protect the data.  But it can, and will pay dividends.  This is because it provides another store of data, that can be contrasted against whatever open source data you get from further google searches that can and will happen, ever time says to you 'OK, what are we doing about the future'.

P.S - Other search engines are available!