Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

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Take yourself back to the beginning of the last decade, Gordon Brown is the Prime Minister, the term Brexit has yet to be coined, and the Nokia 1280 was the world’s best-selling phone. In the ten years that followed it’s no understatement to say that the world is almost an unrecognisably different place. And that’s before we even discuss the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Consider the widespread roll-out of high-speed internet and the adoption of smartphones: the development of both of these technologies has massively expanded the locations in which we can learn, work, shop, and consume and produce media. In 2010, 28% of the UK population actively used a smartphone, by 2019, it had almost trebled to 82%.

Developing the digital economy

The widespread adoption of devices that provide users with the ability to easily access the internet and download applications has created an entirely new sector of the economy. Apple estimates that the iOS App Store in the UK alone has generated more than £3.6 billion in total earnings and supports up to 330,000 jobs. Analysis by Vodafone has estimated that the UK internet economy is now worth £82 billion – that’s 5.7% of the UK’s GDP.

Put simply, in the space of a decade, technological advancements have enabled the development of an almost entirely new sector of the economy and changed the way we all interact with each other.

Unfortunately, not everyone experienced the benefits of the digital age, as can be seen by the numerous closures of big-name high-street retailers. Many of these failed to anticipate the pace and extent to which consumers would embrace e-commerce and online-only retailers, such as Asos and Amazon. The failure to anticipate the speed at which people would begin to use smartphones, gain access to high-speed internet, and shop online is a prime example of the need for futures thinking.

Embracing uncertainty

Futures thinking (sometimes known as strategic foresight) is an approach that can help identify the drivers of change that will shape the world in the future. Crucially, futures thinking is not about predicting the future, rather, it’s about considering how the numerous plausible potential futures may have an impact on today’s decisions or policymaking. A key element of futures thinking is the need to embrace uncertainty, and accept that our future is not predetermined and can be altered at any time, by any number of factors.

Techniques that are commonly used within futures thinking include:

–       Horizon scanning

–       Axes of uncertainty

–       SWOT analysis

–       Backcasting

However, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no set approach to futures thinking; it’s flexible and can be adapted to meet the needs of any organisation. This flexibility is something that the Government Office for Science highlights as a key benefit, as it actively encourages “creative approaches” and supports a high level of customisation.

If we apply this to the previously mentioned example of the widespread adoption of smartphones in the 2010s, you can see how futures thinking may have been a useful approach to help decide how much focus traditional retailers placed on developing their online stores. For example, most of the evidence at the time concurred that the use of smartphones and e-commerce would gradually grow. However, the pace at which they would grow was relatively unpredictable.

Therefore, a futures thinking approach may have considered how different paces of smartphone adoption may impact the number of people shopping online. This may have been useful to determine the level of investment required to develop an online platform that would meet the demands of an ever-increasing number of online shoppers.

Creating a futures culture

Taking a long view and considering how future events may impact the decisions you make today can have several benefits. One of these is the development of more resilient policies which can take advantage of changing circumstances, and mitigate against potential risks. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (New Zealand) contends that this approach allows for the creation of “policy that helps shape the future to promote your desired outcomes and prevent undesirable events”.

Additionally, the Government Office for Science, argues that even just by undertaking futures thinking exercises, an organisation’s focus can be shifted towards a more long-term outlook. In turn, this can generate new ideas and approaches, which can lead to innovative solutions to potential future challenges.

In short, futures thinking can facilitate an entire culture change, and create organisations that are more responsive and proactive in addressing emerging opportunities and challenges.

Limitations

Naturally, futures thinking does have its limitations. It’s not always an appropriate approach and it cannot anticipate every possible eventuality.

For futures thinking to be successful, it’s important to recognise that it provides the best results in situations where there is a great deal of uncertainty. As a result, in scenarios where there is relative certainty surrounding changes that may affect a policy, there is little benefit to adopting a futures thinking approach.

Futures thinking can also be complex, trying to envision and anticipate numerous eventualities can be difficult and requires an element of trial-and-error to explore the tools and approaches that will be useful for each organisation. In particular, it’s important to consider the scope and objectives of any futures thinking exercise, as there is potential to take too wide a view of an issue and over-extrapolate data. This runs the risk of ignoring the context of an issue, which may highlight that certain scenarios won’t conform to typical linear prediction models.

Final thoughts

Amid a global pandemic, where certainty is regularly sought after but rarely found, a futures thinking approach may be useful to help those who make decisions and create policy.

Lockdowns, vaccines, and other public health mitigations do look like they will provide us with a chance to live with the virus , and get back to something that resembles normality. However, the potential for new variants of concern to develop and spread around the world creates a level of uncertainty. Futures thinking provides the framework in which to consider how each of these potential eventualities, may impact the decisions and policies made today.

In short, in a world where certainly is hard to come by, futures thinking may provide us with a way in which to continue to create policy and make decisions that can continue to be advanced no matter what the future brings. However, for this to happen, it’s important to remember that no one can truly predict the future.


If you enjoyed this article you might like to read:

–       Changing government, changing society: what now for public innovation?

–       Implementation science: why using evidence doesn’t guarantee success

–       What works now: how can we use evidence more effectively in policymaking?

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