By James E. Burke
What is foresight and how does it differ from prediction? What role can complexity play in foresight? Does Cynefin® offer a possible framework to begin integrating foresight and complexity?
In this blog post, I describe how:
- Foresight identifies clues for the future and integrates them into forecasts
- Complexity theory offers ways to understand how the future emerges
- Cynefin® gives us a framework of domains that allows us to better understand trends and forecasts.
What is foresight?
Foresight starts from a place of humility—we cannot predict the future—and an acceptance of ambiguity.
We can, however, look for clues about the future and create different pictures and stories of ways the future might unfold. Foresight is a discipline that collects and scans trends and conditions to forecast, not predict, possible futures.
The diagram below offers a simple phased approach to foresight, starting with a search for clues (Sense), pulling together the results and looking for the ways the dots connect (Analyze), using those insights to plan ways to live into that future (Shape), and repeating the process. The first touchpoint with complexity is recognition that while this process is sequential, it is not necessarily linear, but instead is networked.
Foresight is often unfairly confused with palm-reading, crystal-ball gazing, and other fortune-telling schemes. To be sure, there are entertaining characters who glibly make predictions with no evidence or accountability. But serious futurists have vigorous processes to collect, characterize, analyze, and forecast. Better futurists take those forecasts for the future and bring them back to implications and actions for today. That is key – “abandoning” people in the future without discussing implications for the present does them a disservice. It makes the forecasts an interesting intellectual exercise with little planning value.
What is complexity?
Simply put, complexity is the way that different elements come together to create unpredictable new realities. These new realities emerge or show themselves in unforeseen ways, many times with unintended consequences.
The emergent behaviors themselves frequently occur because of small changes in initial conditions. The extreme example is captured in the idea that a butterfly flaps its wings on one continent and that small disturbance leads to a major storm on the other side of the planet.
There are supporting and competing theories of complexity, but there is a general agreement that predictable, linear, cause-and-effect takes place only in relatively simple systems.
How might complexity contribute to foresight?
Complexity invites a deeper dive into the future by encouraging futurists to take a systems view of the future, to consider the ways that trends might combine and affect each other.
One way futurists assess the future is through scanning for trends and then categorizing the trends as social, technical, environmental, economic, political or ethical. The shorthand is STEEPE.
Complexity suggests that treating those variables as interdependent, and searching for the ways they connect, would give a better way to understand effects and, perhaps, emergent conditions. Complexity suggests the rules for the system are always changing and foresight could give a way to understand how the system might change.
Could Cynefin® play a role in integrating foresight and complexity?
Cynefin® “… pronounced kuh-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple, intertwined factors in our environment and our experience that influence us (how we think, interpret and act) in ways we can never fully understand.” (https://www.cognitive-edge.com/the-cynefin-framework/).
It refers to a framework that uses sense-making through, among other tools, stories to identify and understand meaning in a situation. It is a rich framework that may have utility in foresight. The framework includes four domains and liminal spaces between the domains. They are:
- “clear,” where the fixed constraints are easier to understand, with more clear cause-effect;
- “complicated,” with governing constraints, generally larger systems with the challenge trying to understand the cause-effect relationships;
- “complex,” where the components and relationships lead to emergent system behavior; and
- “chaotic,” without any constraints useful to understand system characteristics or operational tendencies.
I am not aware of any attempts to map forecasts based on foresight to these four domains and suggest that assessing and assigning forecasts to domains could offer ways to better understand how the future could emerge. Again, this is not aimed at prediction, but rather to identify the range of futures that might emerge. At the very least, it could invite futurists to consider ways that trends and forces could converge, compete, and shape the futures.
Some concluding questions
- How would trends and forecast convergences be assessed in a Cynefin® framework?
- Would the categories of STEEPE (social, technical, environmental, economic, political or ethical trends) be sufficient to allow comparisons within and across the four different Cynefin® domains?
- How else might trends converge and drive emergent behavior as we see in systems complexity?
Biography: Jim Burke is founder and Foresight and Solutions Navigator at DeepDive Foresight, bringing clients warnings about surprises before they are surprised. He is based in Arlington, Virginia, USA. He has thirty-five+ years’ experience in long-range planning, foresight, early warning analysis, change management, innovation, design thinking, and advanced technology implications. His research interests include ways to make foresight more accessible, including anticipatory leadership, approaches to integrate complexity into foresight, and transformation for organizations and people.