Practising Foresight - Future Thinking and Change

Practicing Foresight - Insights from Prof. Sohail Inayatullah

How future-thinking enables change

December 20, 2018, Bruno Jacobsen

Sohail Inayatullah, PhD and Professor of Future Studies, presented compelling cases about foresight in practice at the Strategic Foresight Summit. This article is based on content presented at the Strategic Foresight Summit 2018, organized earlier this year by Futures Platform.


Sohail Inayatullah spoke at Foresight Summit 2018


Practicing Foresight - How Future-Thinking Enables Change

His great insights outlined “futures” fallacies which make futures work difficult for most organisations. He also highlighted the importance of transformative foresight, where the role of stories and metaphors is crucial in constructing a present story of how the future is formed.

Foresight work can range from the near present to the far future. From the short-term horizon of “we are too busy” to “create the impossible,” which is often too far into the future for most decision-makers. “There’s the space to make foresight happen,” Professor Inayatullah explained. The core of futures work is about wanting to make a difference and doing things differently.

In practice this often this means doing futures work before the strategy and policy processes take place.

Futures fallacies - why don’t we?

Professor Inayatullah addressed, during the seminar, “futures fallacies” and assumptions that make futures work difficult.

First, he raised the issue of how the brain processes the past and the future: “Our brains are wired for the past. We are unable to see novelty, and that is why we need to do futures work”.

According to Professor Inayatullah, we have entered a period of galloping time—in other words, a period of exponential influence and impact. On the one hand, the rhythm of the current world makes everything more complicated. On the other hand, it opens up opportunities for anyone who seeks them.

A repeating question throughout the seminar was how does one go about changing the world, after creating scenarios or conducting future deep dives. Professor Inayatullah reflected on his experience and provided a sharp answer. “In my experience, the response of the decision-makers I have worked with reflects a zero-loop. This means that after presenting the futures, they feel overwhelmed by them, say they are too much to handle and shut them down.”

The goal is to get from zero-loop to single-loop and, finally, to double-loop learning. While single-loop learning is about changing one’s methods and becoming more efficient in order to achieve goals set, double-loop learning focuses more on challenging one’s own assumptions and beliefs in order to discover the unknown. This allows the organisation to get new ideas, see new paths, and define new goals.

“There’s a gap between those ‘who want change’ and those ‘who want to change’,” Inayatullah reminded. People are often reluctant to challenge their assumptions. Often people feel that change is warranted, but instead of acting on it, they believe someone else should instead. The real challenge, therefore, is not about seeing the necessity of change, but how to think differently, to become different, and how to operationalise that.

Failure to do this often results in waiting until it is too late.

Narrative foresight is focused on transforming the current story and metaphors that are used to describe the future

One way to open up the future, according to Inayatullah, is to examine the metaphors and narratives used by cultures and individuals to describe the future they inhabit. The metaphors become the foundation of our thinking. Inayatullah calls this narrative foresight. Narrative foresight focuses on the stories and thus moves away from a focus on new technologies to the question of what’s next. It is about exploring the worldviews and myths that affect possible, probable and preferred futures.

Inayatullah clarified this by giving two examples where a change of narrative facilitates organisational change. A traditional energy company described themselves as the ocean liner, Queen Elizabeth. Turning an ocean liner takes time and effort, but after doing futures work the company understood that change could be facilitated by viewing themselves as sending out patrol boats to test the waters. The patrol boats became research projects, and the board managed to breathe easier when the initial changes were more moderate.

A similarly powerful change in the narrative was done with a national police force who saw themselves as toothless tigers—unnecessary and without any real power. The citizens saw them as unhelpful, and the real power was perceived to lie with another institution. The metaphor was changed to a guard dog who works for the community and protects it by building trust and focusing on identifying early signals. “To the police, this meant a new framework in which information now made sense. The heuristic disruption makes the information more actionable,” Inayatullah explained.

Narrative foresight is focused on transforming the current story, the metaphors and myths associated with it. The change in the narrative and metaphors warrants new policies, key performance indicators and measurements. This means that the right metaphor for the project is essential to making change happen, as different narratives lead to completely different solutions.


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