Strategic Foresight and Futures Literacy

Oct 5, 2021

How can exploring possible futures help us make decisions today?

When I think about the future, two questions fight for space in my brain: ‘How do I want to change the world?’ and ‘How will the world change while I am trying?’

These are questions are the heartbeat of strategic foresight. We project ourselves into the future to imagine how we can shape it, but we must also understand the new challenges we may face.

Done well, this can help us make decisions today about what we will prioritise, explore, abandon and invest in.

By actively engaging with the future, we can better deal with change. Done well, strategic foresight improves anticipation and innovation, which help organisations transform successfully.

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Using strategic foresight

Change is not easy, but it is necessary and unavoidable. Strategic foresight addresses three challenges which make it hard for organisations to adopt to external forces:

  • The speed of change: Increased technological, social and environmental change, faster innovation and adoption, and shortening product lifecycles outpace organisational planning cycles.
  • Information blindness: The volume of competing data and signals, the lack of appropriate networks, and the tendency for people to ‘filter’ information to match their expectations and support their existing plans.
  • Inertia: Complex internal structures and processes, an incomplete understanding of the external systems we operate in, and a focus on immediate concerns and current technology inhibits successful transformation.

Strategic foresight can help overcome these challenges. Our approach is built on four core practices to help National Societies with:

  • Exploring: Identifying the critical drivers of change – the macrotrends and societal shifts that shape our work – and building networks to connect with experts and fringe research improves the quality of our information and lead-time.
  • Examining: A practical set of tools which allow sensemaking and insight, which is used to inform strategic priorities, planning and action.
  • Experimenting: Prototypes, proof-of-values, innovation projects, and activities which build evidence for action, investment and change.
  • Exploiting: Transitioning successful experiments to the organisation by scaling new capabilities and teams.

Futures literacy

The future is not fixed and so it cannot be predicted with certainty. But it can be examined intelligently.

Our Futures Literacy programme will train IFRC staff in strategic foresight practice, giving them the skills and tools to examine multiple futures and apply strategic foresight to their own projects.

We are partnering with UNESCO, whose futures literacy work is world-renowned. Our partnership will allow us to build on their expertise and create an IFRC approach rooted in collaboration.

UNESCO say: “When people are capable of deciding why and how to use the future, they become better able to detect and create the otherwise invisible – innovation and transformation. They are more at ease with novelty and experimentation. Less anxious about uncertainty. Humbler about controlling the future. More confident about being able to comprehend and appreciate the potential opened up by change.”

How might it help my National Society?

The IFRC network intends to transform its operations and impact by 2030. Over the next decade, a huge amount of time and money will be invested to deliver this vision. Already, thousands of choices are made every day which will influence the success or failure of this ambition.

Delivering the 2030 strategy means considering the future at all times. We need to think about what is coming so we can make sound choices now and adjust to new information. A strategy is a plan of action to take you into the future, so as the future changes, you must adjust your strategy.

We can help you learn the skills to make strategic foresight and futures literacy part of your planning and decision making. We can connect you to global experts, new perspectives and other people in the IFRC network facing similar challenges.

Together, we will map the future we want to see and make plans to move us towards that future in everything we do.

This article is part of Shifting Sands, the IFRC’s humanitarian futures and foresight network. It was written by Ben Holt, the Solferino Academy’s Global Lead for Strategic Foresight