For this fourth session of our debate series, we welcomed Adrian Taylor, founder of Foresight to Strategy, 4sing GmbH, a strategy consultancy firm specialised in using future thinking. He used the opportunity to explain how his career reflected the use of foresight, as well as to present his approach to the future in the service of companies, NGOs, associations, and public institutions.
The future is an open book in which to explore options
His first use of scenarios came when, as an officer in the British army, he was asked to write a paper on the future of Gibraltar. Wishing to pass the difficult message that in the future of the Rock may not be exclusively British, he opted to present different scenarios – including sovereignty sharing between Spain and the UK – so his superiors would hear the message passed, but not be put on the defensive. Later, working as a lobbyist in Brussels, his employer, through interactions with a client, saw the value of using the future thinking to influence present policy decisions – we all adopt behaviours in our personal and professional lives, and make choices over others, because we have a vision of the future, although often this vision is implicit and not shared with others.
A method and a computer tool
Subsequently, Adrian joined a software company that made a tool which allowed him to develop not just the future scenarios, but also strategies as well. Moreover, it permitted the user to “wind tunnel” strategies in these alternative futures, to see if they remained robust.
Since having founded 4sing’s in 2008, he has run hundreds of projects in over forty countries. A key point he stresses is that future thinking is not just about the future. It is to inform the decisions that are on the table right now. Typically such decisions are taken by looking only at past experiences, with the idea that we should avoid repeating the same mistakes. Taking decisions based on past experience is rather like driving down the motorway whilst only looking in the rear-view mirror, and assuming that if the road behind was straight, then it must also be straight in front… But we know that nowadays, there are so many disruptions that predicting the future from the past is unwise. This is what Adrian calls the ‘permacrisis’ – one crisis (e.g. Russian invasion of Ukraine) starts before the previous one (e.g. COVID) is resolved.
Hence it is wise to embrace any dilemmas and contradictions we are confronted with, so as to identify the alternative ways the future could develop. In doing so, one seeks to identify the consequences of change, not its causes – and not, the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed, so although you may not see it where you are sitting, there may be other places (geographies, sectors, social groups) where a trend is already much more visible. The ultimate aim of 4Sing’s work is to provide the client with a compass, not a map. A map that is too detailed will ultimately prove ineffective because the terrain will constantly change (as the world moves on). Hence it is better to give a client a few heuristics – rules of thumb to work by – rather than detailed instructions to follow.
The journey is also the goal
A first step in this work is to gather the views of as many stakeholders as possible, at all levels and ask them how they perceive the future of the issue being dealt with. This diversity of views helps generate different plausible scenarios in which we may have to live. Once these exist, it is possible to confront our existing strategy – and alternative possible strategies – with the scenarios. Just as a model aircraft can be tested in a wind tunnel, so this way the alternative strategies can be tested for robustness in the different scenarios. In general, the strategy that comes out on best in all scenarios is chosen.
However, what is as important as the strategy chosen, is the exercise itself. Having lived the future in advance, when later a problem arises, a client will have already thought about how to respond. Moreover, humans often only “see” things they already know. This is also what scenario building and, more broadly, the study of the future allows: to change our perception of the present, as once we have realised that something could happen, we can notice if there are truly signs of it happening. This is one of the many points in common with LEAP’s method of anticipation: questioning the certainties of the future first of all influences our way of thinking about the present. The more complex the prospective analysis, the more delicate the anticipation, but the analysis leading to the anticipation is always relevant to take into account, sometimes more than the formulation of the anticipation itself.