“But we cannot predict the future.”
This is usually the first in a series of hurdles I meet when I try to make the case to peers in the social change field about foresight, and when I explain that its near absence in our psyche has left us often grappling with changes rather than owning and driving them. Social changemakers, especially those in the human rights field, have become so good at emergency response and crisis management that these supposed exceptional moments have become our norm. We have prized being “agile” and “responsive”—I’d be rich if I earned a dollar for every time these words appeared in funding proposals—that we have barely dedicated time to the calm and confidence that comes with being able to actively bring about the future we want.
Save for a few corners in international NGOs and the humanitarian sphere, foresight—which is the study of the past and the present to be able to come up with alternative futures, which then allow us to make strategic decisions today—is almost unheard of among activists and social change practitioners. It was pioneered in the military during the Cold War then in the corporate world, and has since been part of planning in these sectors and in government. But NGOs and social movements who use foresight strategically in their work are almost non-existent.
I am not talking about our usual three- to five-year organizational strategic plans, which in reality are mere responses to the realities we see today. I am talking about truly long-range planning—think 10 to 30 years out—and gaming possible futures (plural, not just one) so that no matter what future actually comes to pass, we are ready and actively managing it. Since our strategic plans will necessarily inhabit the future, why not base them on the future instead of the past? Why are we making strategic plans on the basis of the rise of authoritarian populist leaders in the past years, when we cannot be certain that this phenomenon will still be our concern 10 years down the road? It might be authoritarian populism and “shrinking space” today, but like any donor proposal fad in our field goes, we can be certain that we will be moving on from them at the next turn of the road.
Since our strategic plans will necessarily inhabit the future, why not base them on the future instead of the past?
I stumbled upon foresight only by accident. I did not know to look for it, nor did I think that my work as a human rights lawyer working for JustLabs, a global innovation space for the social justice field, was incomplete without it.
We had been using design thinking and other methodologies to help activists in different regions of the world identify possible, out-of-the-box solutions around the question of whether the human rights field was in a state of crisis (workshop participants determined that it was in a moment of transformation instead), and in so doing we knew we needed to understand what our theory of change was for the responses we were crafting. When I was closely examining how the different pieces were coming together, I realized that we could come up with really exciting and possibly effective concrete actions then, but if they were to become truly game-changing, they needed to outlast whatever game we were playing. Otherwise, we would just be endlessly churning out new, exciting bits of action every time something is thrown our way—be it the rise of authoritarian populist leaders, “closing civil society space”, intergenerational and planetary crises such as climate change—but that would be it. Design thinking and other tools would allow us to be innovative and fresh in the moment, but it would still leave activists tired and playing catch up whenever something unexpected happened. With global economies collapsing and societies reorganizing themselves fundamentally around an “unexpected” event of COVID-19 today, we now know that business as usual is just not sufficient anymore.
Most importantly, we in the social justice field would always be responding to something that seems to just “happen to us”, like an external reality that we simply have to accept and deal with. There would be no sense of agency as to what that reality could be, as in a future that we are actively bringing about and designing. This diagnosis was shared by the global collective of experts from different fields that make up JustLabs' team, which led some of us to get training at the Institute for the Future and incorporate foresight into our work and share it with the groups we support.
The pace of change around us is so unprecedented that, in the words of foresight professional Daniel Burrus, the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” no longer suffices. According to him, the better thinking today is, “If it works, it’s already obsolete”—in short, the next wave of change is already underway. By the time we catch up to the best practices of the leader in our field, the world would have already moved on from that and what we had painstakingly adapted to become over years is already no longer good enough (Burrus suggests we do “future benchmarking” instead—where we aim today for what we think will be the future best practices of the leader in our field). This latter mindset is practiced by those who are changing every aspect of our day-to-day lives, from the elite corners of Silicon Valley to daring culture hackers everywhere. Is it not quite odd that for a field dedicated to “social change”, we often do not engineer change but usually just adapt to it?
Foresight is precisely geared towards having a sense of taking charge. But this does not come from having a magic crystal ball. It is not about making accurate predictions about one future. Instead of a crystal ball, it is about having bionic eyes and ears set firmly on the ground, floating in the air, and with a straight shot to the possibilities in the skies, looking out even for weak signals of change that could portend a huge transformation—things that most people are still barely recognizing. It is being ahead of the curve, in the truest sense of the word. We always knew that a pandemic would come, the same way that it should not surprise us that a new mutation of government leaders would resurface at some point that would disrupt civil society work as authoritarian governments did in the past, but we relegated them to the back of our planning just because we could not predict their exact timing or form. Foresight still does not allow us to predict such details of the “when” and “how”, but it helps us build resiliency regardless.
Foresight is about systematically imagining different probable futures, and identifying what future it is that we prefer, then making that future happen starting today. It is like having a new intelligence system that feeds into our every strategy and activity.
This then helps to create a common vision within our organizations and movements that all our members (not just the leaders) can co-construct and embrace, which is another beauty of foresight—it is only as powerful as the level of inclusivity, diversity, and community envisioning that a group adopts. In this intelligence system, everyone in the group matters—from the administrative to the programmatic team, the hard liners and the outliers—and integrating the views of those from other disciplines and especially those we disagree with. We are often used to having our strategic plans crafted by the thematic experts on the subject matter, which makes sense to a limited extent—but does not recognize the fact that often, experts are not necessarily the best in anticipating the future. Expertise matters, but when it comes to imagining futures, a community envisioning is much more effective.
Foresight is about systematically imagining different probable futures, and identifying what future it is that we prefer, then making that future happen starting today.
This does not mean, however, that we all need to go back to school and become foresight professionals within our groups, or much less spend funds we do not have to be able to hire external consultants who will dictate to us what that one “official” future that we should prepare for is. It is more about developing new muscles in the way we work and the way we see the world, much like when we learned to integrate strategic planning into our workplaces (it might be hard to remember, but strategic planning used to be new until it became ingrained everywhere) or when we started to become more open to the importance of innovation, communications, and well-being (i.e. mindfulness) in our practice. They are hard until we keep practicing them.
Foresight can be done cheap or cost-free, but like anything that matters, it needs one to take a different mindset and a dedicated space and time to it. It is not easy in the sense that we have cognitive barriers we have to overcome (it turns out that our brains are wired to see our future selves as strangers, so we do not feel as much empathy for our future selves as we do for ourselves). But as someone in one of our labs said, if we in the social change field are tired of crisis management and playing catch up, what have we got to lose in trying?
To help get your feet wet in this way of seeing the world and its possibilities, I have put together a [simple guide,] as part of the JustLabs/OGR practical guides series, to start with foresight in social change work. With the experience that we have had at JustLabs in working with diverse organizations—global and local, Global South and North—to radically reimagine their direction and their place in the ecosystem of social change actors in these turbulent, exciting times, this guide is meant to be straightforward, easy, and as with anything we do at the Lab, fun.
So go get your feet wet, imagine possible futures, and own what is to come.
Go to the Foresight Guide for the Social Change Field [here,] with an icon of the cover of the Guide