What is foresight?

Brussels, May 30, 2013

At the beginning of the 2000s, a semantic and methodological consensus was established at various levels, built upon the framework of the intellectually creative convergence between the Latin or French prospective and the Anglo-Saxon foresight, especially the initiatives taken by the K2 Unit of the Research Directorate-General of the European Commission under the impetus of Paraskevas Caracostas, Günter Clar, Elie Faroult and Christian Svanfeldt in particular [1]. A formal definition emerged from this, of the sort that we hope for, because our rationality wants it, but that we also fear, because our freedom may suffer from it. This formalisation, fostered by the work of Futuribles (Paris), LIPSOR (CNAM, Paris), PREST (Manchester) and The Destree Institute (Namur, Wallonia), has been successively adopted by the Wallonia Evaluation and Foresight Society, the Mutual Learning Platform of the European Commission and the European Foresight College, originating in and supported by the DATAR in the second half of the years 2000. It is, roughly speaking, this definition that appears in the Regional Foresight Glossary that constitutes the outcome of the work of this College:

Foresight is an independent, dialectical and rigorous process conducted in a cross-disciplinary and collective way and intended to shed light on questions of the present and the future, on the one hand by considering them in their holistic, systemic and complex setting and on the other hand by relating them, over and above their historicity, to temporality.

This is supplemented by two paragraphs, placed in the comments in the glossary, which elucidate the field:

Exploratory foresight allows evolving trends and counter-trends to be detected, continuities, discontinuities and bifurcations of the environmental variables (actors and factors) to be identified, and the spectrum of possible futures to be determined.

Normative foresight allows visions of desirable futures to be constructed, possible collective strategies and rationales for action to be developed and, consequently, the quality of the necessary decisions to be improved [2].

A rich but unsatisfactory definition

On the one hand this is a rich definition, as it emphasises a process that frees itself from powers and doctrines to involve a perspective of free thought, exchanges with others, open deliberation, and teamwork, all while affirming the requirements of methodological rigour, a cross-disciplinary approach and collective intelligence, usually so difficult to achieve. Modern foresight incorporates these systemic and complex reflections which, from Teilhard de Chardin [3] to Edgar Morin [4], including Jacques Lesourne [5], Joël de Rosnay [6], Pierre Gonod [7] and Thierry Gaudin [8], have modelled or reinvigorated foresight. The author of La Méthode (Method) states the essence when he stresses that the interaction of the variables in a complex system is such that it is impossible for the human mind to conceive of them analytically or to attempt to proceed by isolation of these variables if one wants to understand an entire complex system, or even a sub-system [9].

On the other hand, this definition of foresight now appears unsatisfactory to me and has a manifest weakness insofar as it does not clearly indicate that foresight is resolutely oriented toward action. It must also be noted that it should be oriented toward an aim: action for action’s sake, noted Gaston Berger, the leap into the absurd that leads to anything whatsoever, is not genuine action either. This is a series of movements tending toward an end; it is not the agitation by which one seeks to make others believe that one is powerful and efficient [10].

The action that results from foresight aims for change, that is, transformation of a part or all of a system. Peter Bishop and Andy Hines were not mistaken: the first words of the reference work of these professors of Strategic Foresight at the University of Houston are: Foresight is fundamentally about the study of change [11]. This change, as has been known since the work of Gregory Bateson [12], can only be the result of a collective, motivational process. Far from just thinking that one could modify the future simply by looking at it, Gaston Berger saw change as a dynamic that is hard to implement and difficult to conduct, as the American researchers in social psychology whose models inspired him had shown [13]. The theories of change and transformation processes described by Kurt Lewin[14], one of the most important figures in 20th century psychology, or of Lippitt, Watson and Westley[15], up to those of Edgar Morin [16] or Richard Slaughter cited below, all show the difficulty of changing the balances of power, of breaking through inertia and putting the system in motion.

The profundity of the changes to be realized must also be distinguished. Making use of the work of Chris Argyris and Donald A. Schön [17], Jean-Philippe Bootz has shown that foresight operates according to double-loop models of organisational learning, meaning that its mission is to convey innovative strategies, to make structural, intentional and non-routine changes [18]. The work of Australian foresight experts Richard Slaughter and Luke Naismith, used by the Regional Foresight College of Wallonia for the past ten years, has in fact shown the difference between a simple change as a variation in a given situation, repetitive and cyclic by nature, while a transformation consists of an essential alteration. Transformation assumes the need for a fundamental transition to another level of thought and action, a change in awareness [19]. Thus, to constitute a transformation, change must be systemic, of a magnitude that affects all the aspects of institutional functioning, rather than a simple change that affects only a part of it.

Observational foresight or transformational foresight?

In the tripod that supports foresight – long term, systemic approach to complexity, and change process – the first two features are in fact means, while the last involves ultimate aims.

Foresight for transformation is substituted for observational foresight, involving cosmetic regulation. However, this cannot be taken for granted. As Crozier and Friedberg indicate, even in the most humble context, the decisive factor in behaviour is the play of forces and influence in which the individual participates, and through which he affirms his social existence despite the constraints. But all change is dangerous, as it inevitably brings into question the terms of his operation, his sources of power and his freedom of action by modifying or eliminating the relevant areas of uncertainty that he controls [20]. One understands better why foresight frightens all those who want to see the system of former values, attitudes, behaviours and powers perpetuated. And if, by chance, they feel obliged to become involved, they will constantly attempt to control it. Of course, the insurmountable task, of this indiscipline, as Michel Godet indicates, can only be practised in a context of freedom [21]. Moreover, and this is the cornerstone of the classic L’Acteur et le système (The Actor and the System), which should never leave the bedside table of the corporate manager and the political decision maker: successful change cannot be the consequence of replacement of a former model by a new model that has been designed in advance by sages of some sort; it is the result of a collective process through which are mobilised, or even created, the resources and capacities of the participants necessary for developing new methods, free not constrained implementation of which will allow the system to orient or reorient itself as a human ensemble and not like a machine[22]. Indeed, we have experienced this in Wallonia several times…[23]

A definition of foresight that better takes these considerations into account could be written as follows. Foresight is an independent, dialectical and rigorous process, conducted in a cross-disciplinary way and based on the long term. It can elucidate questions of the present and of the future, on the one hand by considering them in their holistic, systemic and complex setting and, on the other hand, by relating them, over and above historicity, to temporality. Resolutely oriented toward projects and action, foresight aims at bringing about one or more transformations in the system that it comprehends by mobilising collective intelligence.

As for the distinction between normative and exploratory foresight, even if it seems enlightening as to the method that will be used – one explores possible futures before considering long-term issues, constructing a vision of the desirable future and building the pathways to resolve the issues and achieve the vision – it can lead to believe that one can confine oneself to one without stimulating the other. Exploratory foresight consequently becomes confused with a sort of forecast that keeps its distance from the system to be stimulated. Epistemologically attractive perhaps, but contrary to the ambition of foresight…

Certainly, much remains to be said beyond this definition, which is only just one among those that are possible. Openness to discussion is fruitful. Foresight is also a part of governance, which is now its particular field, of businesses, organisations or regions. It is probably the preferred method for approaching sustainable development, which by its nature calls for change, and for managing in this so-called transition period [24]. Moreover, this constitutes one of the phases of the change process incorporated into the model of Kurt Lewin, already cited… These considerations may seem abstract. But didn’t the German-American psychologist say that there is nothing so practical as a good theory? [25]

Philippe Destatte


[1] See for example and among many other productions: A Practical Guide to Regional Foresight, FOREN Network, December 2001.

[2] Philippe DESTATTE et Philippe DURANCE dir., Les mots-clefs de la prospective territoriale, p. 43, coll. Travaux, Paris, La Documentation française – DATAR, 2009.

[3] Pierre TEILHARD de CHARDIN, Écrits du temps de la Guerre, 1916-1919, Paris, Seuil, 1976. – André DANZIN et Jacques MASUREL, Teilhard de Chardin, visionnaire du monde nouveau, Paris, Editions du Rocher, 2005.

[4] Edgar MORIN, Introduction à la pensée complexe, Paris, Seuil, 2005.

[5] Jacques LESOURNE, Les systèmes du destin, Paris, Dalloz, 1976.

[6] Joël DE ROSNAY, Le macroscope, Vers une vision globale, Paris, Seuil, 1975.

[7] Pierre GONOD, Dynamique des systèmes et méthodes prospectives, coll. Travaux et recherches de foresight, Paris, Futuribles international – LIPS – DATAR, Mars 1996.

[8] Thierry GAUDIN, Discours de la méthode créatrice, Entretiens avec François L’Yvonnet, Gordes, Ose savoir-Le Relié, 2003.

[9] Edgar MORIN, Sociologie, p. 191, Paris, Fayard, 1994.

[10] Gaston BERGER, Le chef d’entreprise, philosophe en action, Conference done on the 8th March 1955, in Prospective 7, PuF-Centre d’Études prospectives, Avril 1961, p. 50.

[11] Peter BISHOP & Andy HINES, Teaching about the Future, p. 1, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

[12] Gregory BATESON, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Antropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology, University of Chicago Press, 1972.

[13] Gaston BERGER, L’Encyclopédie française, t. XX : Le Monde en devenir, 1959, p. 12-14, 20, 54, in Phénoménologie du temps et prospective, p. 271, Paris, PuF, 1964.

[14] Kurt LEWIN, Frontiers in Group Dynamics, dans Human Relations, 1947, n° 1, p. 2-38. – Bernard BURNES, Kurt Lewin and the Planned Approach to change: A Re-appraisal, Journal of Management Studies, septembre 2004, p. 977-1002. – See also Karl E. WEICK and Robert E. QUINN, Organizational Change and Development, Annual Review of Psychology, 1999, p. 361-386.

[15] Ronald LIPPITT, Jeanne WATSON & Bruce WESTLEY, The Dynamics of Planned Change, A Comparative Study of Principles and Techniques, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Cie, 1958.

[16] Edgar MORIN, La méthode, 1. La Nature de la Nature, p. 158sv., Paris, Seuil, 1977.

[17] Chris ARGYRIS & Donald A. SCHON, Organizational Learning, A Theory of Action Perspective, Reading, Mass., Addison Wesley, 1978.

[18] Jean-Philippe BOOTZ, Prospective et apprentissage organisationnel, coll. Travaux et recherches de prospective, Paris, Futuribles international, LIPSOR, Datar, Commissariat général du Plan, 2001.

[19] Richard A. SLAUGHTER, The Transformative Cycle : a Tool for Illuminating Change, in Richard A. SLAUGHTER, Luke NAISMITH and Neil HOUGHTON, The Transformative Cycle, p. 5-19, Australian Foresight Institute, Swinburne University, 2004.

[20] Michel CROZIER & Erhard FRIEDBERG, L’acteur et le système, p. 386, Paris, Le Seuil, 1977.

[21] Pierre SEIN, Prospective, Réfléchir librement et ensemble, dans Sud-Ouest basque, 10 juin 1992, p. 1. – Voir aussi Michel GODET, Prospective et dynamique des territoires, dans Futuribles, Novembre 2001, p. 25-34.

[22] M. CROZIER et E. FRIEDBERG, L’acteur et le système…, p. 391.

[23] Philippe DESTATTE, Les questions ouvertes de la prospective wallonne ou quand la société civile appelle le changement, dans Territoires 2020, Revue d’études et de prospective de la DATAR, n° 3, Juin 2001, p. 139-153.

[24] Philippe DESTATTE, Une transition…. mais vers quoi ? Blog PhD2050, 12 mai 2013, https://phd2050.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/une-transition/

[25] Kurt LEWIN, Problems of research in social psychology in D. CARTWRIGHT, ed., Field Theory in Social Science, London, Social Science Paperbacks, 1943-1944.

6 commentaires
  1. Riel Miller a dit:

    Dear Philippe – Wonderful to see this contribution to our reflections. Thank you. I hope we will have opportunities to explore the many issues you have raised. One quick thought, amongst many, is what is the relationship between studying and action? Of course studying is an action, but it is not the same as making a choice (even if in order to study something it is necessary to make many choices). In other words, I wonder to what extent certain aspects of anticipation as a conscious process of engaging human imagination can be distinguished from the decision to commit to one « action » or another? Despite the close interdependency between perception and choice it still seems relevant to distinguish the two and to consider that there is a specific (refined) role for anticipation, particularly conscious volitional efforts to imagine the not-yet-existing later than now, in each sphere. I have a similar question regarding intention – which also seems to me to be amenable to certain degree of decomposition. Lastly, I wonder how to fit in the proposition that the sign of good futures work is the conclusion – « there is no way to know » – like the famous Chinese fable about the horse – the answer is always « maybe ». All the best, Riel

  2. phd2050 a dit:

    Many thanks Riel for these really interesting inputs. I will provide a contribution in answer to the relevant questions you asked in a specific paper, as I don’t want to close this discussion about the definition of foresight. Basing the foresight definition on the three axes – which are a systemic approach of complexity, the long term issues and action – implies that foresight is a part of future studies dedicated to action and change.

    The permanent epistemological discussion in social sciences about the possibility or necessity for the researcher not only to observe but also to impact on the system (see Manuel Castells last papers) does not influence directly this paradigm. Furthermore, as you wrote it, the choice for a scientist already exists, generally implicitely.

    In any case, the decision of not acting (or of not talking about our doubts) is also a choice. As I heard you often repeating, the « not-yet-existing », as well « the future », do not exist and cannot be anticipated as a reality. But, without doubt, we can imagine some of the possible futures among the multitude of possible trajectories. As you know, one of the aims of foresight is to raise awareness among the people, companies and political decisionmakers about that uncertainty, but also to convince them that they can act to contribute to the building of their future. Will these futures be better than the present we are living in? Not sure at all, but we can want, decide and try to make it better than a future built without our contribution. This may only be a theoric will but, in my opinion, foresight is a creative tool to lead us all to realize that change. That is why I stressed on the difference between Observational foresight and Transformational foresight. But you have already understood, from my definition, that I do consider that, in futures studies, what is not transformational is not foresight. Indeed this is not against the public morality. And this could not be foresight… Kind regards, Philippe

  3. thanks, Philippe! It is so refreshing to see this important question getting the attention it deserves. We need more ideas and thoughtful consideration and hopefully we’ll build toward some degree of consensus. Progress!

  4. Ian miles a dit:

    The participatory element – involving sources of knowledge beyond he usual suspects, and stakeholders beyond usual litres – marked a critical feature of foresight as compared to much technocratic futurology. This was captured in the FORENSIC guides, versions of which in all major European languages can still be Lund on cord is website (see practical guide to regional foresight).
    I have always been rather unhappy with the terms exploratory and normative, not least because it is all normative (inescapably infused by vale judgements) and (if any good) exploratory, allowing you to discover what you didn’t know or articulate before. Also, we may choose to examine undesirable prospects, for good reasons!
    But These cavils are not meant to detract from the good conversation you are initiating and pursuing!

    • phd2050 a dit:

      Thanks Ian for these inputs.You are right to insist, as Fabiana Scapolo did in an e-mail, on the relevance of the FOREN project and « practical guides to regional foresight » and the For-learn work as well. I agree with you about the ambiguity of the concepts of normative and exploratory foresight. It is always difficult to explain to students the meaning of normative refering either to normative science or to law. We probably have to use the idea of will(ness): what somebody wants and intends to transform in an effective decision leading to action. In the second definition I mentioned, you have seen I prefered not to refer to that typology which increases confusion. Thanks again!

    • Riel Miller a dit:

      What fun. Much to discuss of course. Just a quick thought – the difficulty with normative/exploratory is when it is applied in a way that conflates different levels of perception/action. At the inescapable level there is always a set of descriptive frames that need to be spelled out before starting to imagine: I decide to assume that the sun will rise; I decide that the universal declaration of human rights will remain in place as an official reference point for nations; and I also make a set of assumptions about categories/models – like a transaction based system of exchange, private property, copyleft, etc. Then, within this set of descriptive frames/assumptions – that set the conditions within and with which the picture (snapshot) of imaginary futures can be described – there are different ways of rearranging the deck chairs – according to desires, out of nightmares, from some confidence in the ability to predict, or in order to escape the confines of contigency or optimization views of the future and the associated instrumental teleology. Here the distinction between normative and exploratory has a meaning because the purpose of thinking about the future is different and there is no pretending to escape from the fact that we are of necessity being now – with all it brings with it and all it constructs reflexively. But there is a specific meaning to using the future to reveal/invent novelty in the present – it is using anticipation to explore the present, not the future.
      Thanks for the frolic.

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