The case for Strategic Foresight
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you may end up somewhere else.” - Yogi Berra
April 22, 2020
You may have noticed that we are experiencing historic rates of change. Innovation, the process of developing new ideas, products and methods is running at an ever-increasing pace. This rapid change has given rise to a feeling of impending but unpredictable impact. This isn’t the first time humans have faced uncertainty due to rapid change. At the turn of the twentieth century, new innovations were emerging and familiar innovations were advancing to fundamentally change the human experience.
Dustin Johnston-Jewell holds a Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from OCADU, and a Master of Management of Innovation from the University of Toronto. Photo credit: Joel Clifton, https://www.joelclifton.com/
Consider the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Some of the emerging technologies being introduced to the world included the zipper, automatic dishwasher, and consumer-ready electricity. Although fair attendees could not have understood how these inventions would shape our lives, there was a palpable awareness that their impact would be significant. Henry Adams, historian and novelist, articulated this when he wrote, “Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving.”
Today, the impact of emerging innovations is compounded by the volume and speed at which information is developed and shared. The latest artificial intelligence development might be published in Shanghai first thing on a Tuesday morning, reported seven hours later on the morning news in London England, and then only a few hours later, influence opening stock prices on the New York Stock Exchange.
Despite the challenges, understanding the future is beneficial to avoid threats and take advantages of opportunities. Acknowledging that the future will be different from the past is a good start. Attempting to better understand the future by extrapolating patterns of the past is also helpful. However, pattern extrapolation is beneficial only for short term, low risk events with high certainty. When taking a longer term view the future is very rarely consistent with the past, and confidence in prediction quickly erodes.
How can we explore longer term uncertainties? Where can organizations turn to gain confidence in their future-facing strategies?
Times have changed, and their once popular business is showing signs of slowing.
It’s time to diversify and look at other areas of business.
Design practitioners have the mindset and skills to help organizations take on the complex, dynamic problems that come from constantly changing environments. This is because design allows for variation, examining many options simultaneously, and drawing inspiration for solutions from a wide variety of influences to drive decisions and strategy. When exploring and designing for the future, the designer has a tool that is of immense value: strategic foresight.
Jayar La Fontaine, futurist and strategic foresight practitioner, defines strategic foresight as a set of structured exercises and principles that helps us get the most out of the natural human ability to imagine the future. Design practitioners conduct strategic foresight using causality to build and explore many potential futures. They learn quickly by anticipating and preparing for change through forced assumption testing and by asking provocative, future-oriented questions.
As an example, consider a company that invented a new category, and had great success as a result. Times have changed, and their once popular business is showing signs of slowing. It’s time to diversify and look at other areas of business. Where should the company focus its investment? What adjacent spaces hold the potential for future growth? How will the future world impact and influence the company’s business? How ready is the company to change? Rather than following the usual process of setting a goal based on the past and then attempting to adapt to an unknown future, the company partnered with a design practice to apply the strategic foresight process. They were able to explore many potential futures and select the one that best suited their business goals.
Organizations that can integrate this method of thinking into their business operations and culture will identify opportunities and threats faster and with greater competency. As noted by Arie de Geus, business theorist and head of Shell’s Strategic Planning Group, “learning faster than your competitors may be the only competitive advantage in an environment of rapid innovation and change”.
The good news for practitioners, whether product, graphic or service designers, is that they are already applying some form of strategic foresight thinking. As noted by American political scientist Herbert Simon, who defined design as the transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones, all design is inextricably linked to the future.
In a world of rapid change, strategic foresight is the design practitioner’s best tool for systematically establishing well-informed future-oriented perspectives that can guide innovation, planning, and strategy. To not just operate, but to thrive in our zeitgeist of constant change and uncertainty, design practices should embrace strategic foresight. If design practitioners do not implement a structured, intentional, regular exploration of the future, then they are missing a fruitful opportunity to save their own and not be stuck in the past.
This story originally appeared in Applied Arts magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.99 a year, click here.