Building foresight capabilities

We need to de-mystify foresight skills and make them everyday

writes Ben Lee.

The RSA’s new report A stitch in time? offers a blueprint for improving how we think about the future and foresight. Developing our ‘futures literacy’ means incorporatinig more of what we know and don’t know about the future, into actions now. More fundamentally it helps us understand the role ‘the future’ plays in our decision-making; how it provokes new ideas, but can also stifle when we imagine barriers that do not yet exist. The RSA authors acknowledge that local government in particular has rarely been faced with so many decisions where strategic uncertainty plays such a big part. Yet this comes at a time when the ability to build new skills is stretched thin. We have seen this ourselves in economic development, town centre management, culture, libraries, health inequalities and may other areas of work.

We share the RSA’s belief in the importance of foresight and futures literacy and agree that small steps make a big difference through “light-touch training, capacity building and role creation”.

But we also know that for many people the term ‘foresight’ means rarified sklls and expensive projects. In our experience that’s not at all what it means.

For us it means when we carry out trend-analysis and build evidence-based scenarios, we treat those activities as skills transfer. We work through each step with clients as active participants in the process.  We don’t just involve our clients but their stakeholders too as we did while orchestrating the MK2050 project with Milton Keynes, a place-based exercise in participatory futures (also mentioned in the RSA report) which now guides local decisions.

It also means working in bite-sized ways as we did over this summer with Surrey County Council. With a small group of managers we built evidence-based scenarios to test strategies for their public library services and wider cultural offer. This was an inexpensive but impactful way for managers to apply trends data and their own tacit knowldge to test potential strategies against multiple ‘new normals’.  Our work consisted of a two-part workshop, informed by service-specific data, with the background evidence and resulting scenarios documented using Miro (a kind of digital whiteboard) so it could be easily shared internally.

These are skills and approaches we have developed over many years. Many of our methods are embedded in the Europe-wide “ICFS” foresight skills programme we first launched with our Swedish partners Kairos Future back in 2013. Its goal is to formalise the discipline of futures-based strategy, and the programme is mapped to a Masters level qualification through the Chartered Management Institute. To date we have over 60 alumni and the programme will next run (as a remote course) in Spring 2021.

We also carry out assignments through our place on the UK Government futures procurement framework operated by the Government Office for Science – which is open to all central and local government bodies, and which places high demands on rigour and quality of approach.

Foresight and futures literacy are among the most valuable skills public managers need for medium term planning of local services, strategic needs assessments, and for Covid recovery. This will become even more important over the coming decade as work through the impacts of automation, climate change, and Brexit. But acquiring these skills can start with simple everyday steps – just talk to us to find out more.

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