Can foresight and complexity play together?

By James E. Burke

author_james-burke
James E. Burke (biography)

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.

burke_phased-approach-to-foresight
A phased approach to foresight (Copyright: Jim Burke, DeepDive Foresight, 2020)

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.

18 thoughts on “Can foresight and complexity play together?”

  1. Hi James, great post! Congratulations! I wonder how you fit unknown unknowns and especially “gray rhinos” into your framework when assessing trends. Are research and researchers in the field of existential risks a potential source? I am also curious about how you assess social trends. What kind of sources are scoped? What mental models do you employ? (do you assume linear trends, ebbs and flows or other kinds of trends?).

    Reply
    • Hi Hamilton,

      Thank you for the questions. I will strive to comply with your observation and caution about “clear and simple solutions to complex social problems – that are also wrong!” Let me respond in turn to your questions:

      “I wonder how you fit unknown unknowns and especially “gray rhinos” into your framework when assessing trends.”

      Some meandering thoughts. If they are truly unk-unks, I won’t recognize them and they won’t be in the framework.

      However, I try to reduce the number of unk-unks through a few questions: what would cause macro trends to be disrupted? Or, to use an exercise from foresight workshops I’ve engaged in, where in the morning or early part of the workshop the question is posed: what do you believe will never, ever change? After reviewing foresight approaches, then reasking the question. What would make it change? The variations in answers are, for the participants, personal unk-unks.

      More importantly in that exercise and one question that I ask myself frequently is: what are the biases that prevent me from seeing that possibility? Is is a prescriptive bias, do I want a certain future to emerge? or a descriptive failure, I fail to include countertrends. An example: 20 years ago, I debated a fellow futurist about the future of autonomous vehicles. We both agreed they were coming; he thought they would be much broader than I. I was wrong because, on reflection, I came from a background where getting a driver’s license was a rite of passage and symbolized freedom and I assumed that was a trait that would continue. It did not.

      So, in addition to questioning biases, interactions with others–and not just fellow futurists–is critical. Going to conferences or listening to webinars about which I know nothing helps, too. In the old days, a romp through a book store would lead me to a publication or text that was orthogonal to my interests. Old fashioned curiosity is key and it helps to counter that oft repeated phrase by study commission after commission: “failure of imagination.”

      It is important not to fall solely into one or the other camp of dystopia or utopia. Frankly, either extreme is rather boring because it fails to consider the details of a transition into one or another. That leads to another consideration: what do I do about this today?

      Grey Rhinos are a bit different. The World Economic Forum’s annual risk report is a great way to look at those types of possibilities. Certainly, they carry their own biases, they offer a nice framework to start your own considerations of threats.

      “Are research and researchers in the field of existential risks a potential source?”

      I find them a great source for imagination and for understanding trends about what debates are opening up. I find that researchers who are not associated with a specific center point out emerging trends and indicators that have some practical insight into ways to define an existential threat and the specifics.

      I do especially appreciate those who combine complexity analysis with existential threats (e.g., Santa Fe Institute), especially for insights about the ways the threats could manifest.

      “I am also curious about how you assess social trends. What kind of sources are scoped? What mental models do you employ? (do you assume linear trends, ebbs and flows or other kinds of trends?).”

      Yes.

      The sources are ever-changing, wide and varied and include mainstream publications to ones less familiar. I dip in and out of twitter trends analysis and find them not quite in line with my interests (a bias I likely have or will pay for).

      My mental model is more qualitative, tends to be more unstructured, and, in the absence of a particular question, like what’s the future for existential foresight, generally involves random collections with categories of trend type, believing that social trends cannot be understood without relation to other categories. As such, I rely on morphological assessments. I don’t know that I “assume” any of those, but consider them in as integrated way as I can.

      Again, thanks for your questions,.
      Jim

      Reply
  2. James, thank you. This is an interesting message about complexity!
    As I understand it, the term “complexity” refers to the description of the ”fuzzy” world or the variety of connections and relationships of objects in the “clear” world.

    At the beginning of my scientific activity, I met with a well-known popularizer of science. This specialist gave me amazing advice. “If you want to be understood, then tell us about your science by making an apple pie”, he said. It seems to me that the production of apple pie can become a criterion for a constructive analysis of your methodology for foreseeing and predicting the future:

    Imagine that the Future is the ”result” (fresh apple pie). To achieve this result, there must be an initial idea (desire and recipe for apple pie). If the result and the original idea are known, then the process of making the cake will also be well known. In this case, the forecast methodology will be effective. If the result and the initial idea of what to cook (pie, bread rolls, pancakes, gingerbread, etc.) are unknown or unclear, then the process will be as complex and intuitive as possible. In this case, the foresight methodology will be effective.

    If we imagine that the Future is a “process”, not a result, then a combination of forecasting and foresight methodologies will be effective (depending on the situation or the current stage of the process).

    Therefore, you can leave everything as it is in your methodology. But you can strengthen your concept with a fundamental knowledge of apple pie. To do this, you need to answer a few questions. Does planetary nature have an initial idea, a purposeful process of its transformation, and a clear result? Does the society have an initial idea, a purposeful process of its transformation, and a clear result? Does a person have an initial idea, a purposeful process of its transformation, and a clear result? How are these elements connected and synchronized in time and space? It will then be possible to extrapolate the answers to these questions to the local, regional, and global initial ideas, processes, and outcomes that will shape their logical future.

    What do you think of this idea?

    Reply
    • Hi Vladimir, Thank you for your comments and suggestions. As I understand it, in the “clear” domain the connections and relationships are fairly straightforward. I cut the apple and the pieces are uneven and rough. So, I sharpen the knife and the pieces are much more uniform–cause and effect clearly seen. And the foresight of “if I sharpen the knife, this might work better,” in light of the goal of having more uniform apple slices, is straightforward.

      Complexity refers to the conditions beyond those straightforward conditions, past a complicated world where we are producing apple, and peach, kumquat pies, in multiple places with multiple supply chains to multiple distribution routes. Complexity refers to those things, in some cases, where the initial effects are small. For example, one of our apple producers is in a dry climate and has to irrigate. One day a storm knocks out power and there is no irrigation. The result is a smaller apple, but a sweeter apple. That causes eventually an increase in apple pie sales. That chain of events is hard to forecast in the specific, but could be recognized as a factor in the aggregate.

      Regarding your specific questions:
      -Does planetary nature have an initial idea, a purposeful process of its transformation, and a clear result? That is as much a spiritual question as an astronomical matter. It implies some universal intelligence for which evidence is as much in the eye of the beholder. Certainly the conditions are complex.
      -Does the society have an initial idea, a purposeful process of its transformation, and a clear result? I am not an anthropologist. It would seem that the smaller the tribe, the easier to have some consensus on the idea and any need for transformation. Growing populations add more perspectives, desires, skills, etc., making transformation a complex matter.
      -Does a person have an initial idea, a purposeful process of its transformation, and a clear result? I think at this individual level, an idea and purposeful process that has boundaries and constraints is more reasonable, with a clear result (not the same as a clear domain) more accessible in design and desire.
      -How are these elements connected and synchronized in time and space? Connected, yes–the strength and networks of connectivity are challenging to identify. I am unsure of synchronization–whether the independent actions force some accommodation or, back to your first question, there is some universal synchronization.

      “It will then be possible to extrapolate the answers to these questions to the local, regional, and global initial ideas, processes, and outcomes that will shape their logical future.” At each level, extrapolation becomes more difficult and, because of our inability to identify the full network of connections and effects, as well as emergent qualities, becomes less likely. It still, however, is a worthy goal.

      Jim

      Reply
      • Thank you, James.
        Your example with the “sweet apple” logically explained the reason for the complexity. The chains of conditions and factors also look logical. Within this logic, everything looks great!

        I suggest that you and your colleagues who are watching our discussion pay attention to the existence of other logics. For example, we can recall that man is made up of chemical elements born in the bowels of the stars. All chemical and physical processes in the human body occur according to natural laws, which a person does not control with his psyche. At the same time, a person cannot exist outside the process of transformation of planetary matter. However, without this, all biological objects cannot exist. Did all these results result from the complexity of the chains of conditions and factors?

        Under such conditions, you and I can have two general lines of reasoning:

        1. To consider the existence, development and life of man and human society as part of the existence, development and life of the Universe, the Solar system and the planet, implying that all the chains of conditions and factors are arranged in some predetermined way.
        2. Introduce the uncertainty principle of chains of conditions and factors and rely on scientifically based intuition. In this case, there may be incidents of scientific foresight. For example, at an international conference on the problems of Big History, two speakers made predictions for the future of man. The first speaker claimed that a person in the future will become an android and completely submit to artificial intelligence. The second speaker argued that the future of a person is to leave behind a masterpiece-a glass of cognac and a slice of lemon.

        However, it is necessary to descend from the philosophical heights to the apple producers. You say that complexity refers to conditions that go beyond simple conditions. It is possible that the term “complexity” in relation to apple producers can be excluded if we describe the existence of simple conditions, factors and their chains for people; for people and the processes in which they are involved; for events and processes of a planetary nature. In this case, the term “complexity” can be replaced by the term “probability”. This will allow us to start developing the “theory of system probability” in parallel with the “theory of complexity in forecasting”. This theory combines a chain of simple conditions, factors of different horizons, which can be analyzed and builds forecasts for apple producers using appropriate low-threshold or high-threshold forecasting methods. What do you think about it?

        Reply
        • Thank you, Valdimir.
          Whether there is a predetermining factor at the heart of existence is a question I will leave to philosophers and future scientists. I would take issue with replacing complexity with probability because it adds an element of cause and effect that we have neither the tools or insights to capture and predict.
          In foresight, the concept of prediction is an illusion–we cannot predict the future. We can, however, create stories of possible futures that enable us to better prepare for the future that does emerge. Prediction and probability are terms that apply to complicated systems and we continually make progress in that arena. Complex systems and complex adaptive systems are much more challenging because all the factors in affecting the system, or more realistically, interacting system of systems, are elusive and “hidden.”
          Jim

          Reply
          • Dear Jim, I apologize for tormenting you with difficult questions. Our discussion is becoming too general. So, at the end of our discussion, I want to ask you a few questions that are important to me. You write:
            – «Whether there is a predetermining factor in the basis of existence is a question that I will leave to philosophers and future scientists».
            – «Complex systems and complex adaptive systems are much more complex, because all factors affecting the system or, more realistically, the interacting system of systems, are elusive and “hidden”».
            You have a right to have such a point of view. It does not prevent you from effectively solving various problems.

            However, in 1970, E. Jantsch said that Transdisciplinarity is the coordination of all disciplines and interdisciplines in the education/innovation system on the basis of a generalized axiomatic and an emerging epistemological pattern. It follows from this statement that transdisciplinarity should have generalized axioms, within which all difficult questions about the world and the possibilities of its knowledge should be answered, or indicate the ways to get answers. Further, transdisciplinarity should coordinate disciplinary knowledge and methodologies in achieving the goals of knowledge of the world, or in solving complex problems of society. In this regard, I want to ask you, as a person with a lot of practical experience, two important questions for me. Please explain:

            1. Why, when disciplinary experts say that “It is impossible”, “It cannot be”, “It is hidden”, they do not ask the questions relevant in this blog: “Is it possible?”; “Can it be?; “Can it be opened?”.

            2. Will E. Jantsch’s transdisciplinarity be able to coordinate disciplinary knowledge, methodologies, and specialists on the basis of generalized axiomatics if disciplinary specialists talk about the impossibility, but not the desire, to get answers to these questions or to participate in getting answers?

            Vladimir

            Reply
            • Hi Vladimir,

              I appreciate the follow-up and any “torment” might be along the lines of “Why did I not think of that?”

              “1. Why, when disciplinary experts say that “It is impossible”, “It cannot be”, “It is hidden”, they do not ask the questions relevant in this blog: “Is it possible?”; “Can it be?; “Can it be opened?”.”

              I agree and one of the practices in my approach to foresight is: “question the experts.” History is replete with experts who were skeptical and dismissive of coming advances. Some were business leaders who had to scramble to make up for their skepticism or whose companies went out of business. So, when I hear an expert say: this in not possible, the natural follow up is, what will make it possible? That can open a rich conversation.

              2. Will E. Jantsch’s transdisciplinarity be able to coordinate disciplinary knowledge, methodologies, and specialists on the basis of generalized axiomatics if disciplinary specialists talk about the impossibility, but not the desire, to get answers to these questions or to participate in getting answers?

              Vlaidmir, I am not sufficiently familiar with Jantsch’s approach to answer that. It is yet another area that calls for my attention. Thank you for raising the question.

              I hope I have not missed any of your comments or questions.

              Jim

              Reply
              • Jim, this is my omission.
                I can recommend you three articles that describe the E. Jantsch’s transdisciplinarity and the solution of some problems of forecasting the development of modern society:

                Mokiy, V.S. (2019). International standard of transdisciplinary education and transdisciplinary competence. Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, 22, 73-90. DOI: https://doi.org/10.28945/4480

                Mokiy, V.S. (2019). Systems Transdisciplinary Approach in the General Classification of Scientific Approaches. European Scientific Journal. Vol. 15, no 19, ESJ July Edition, pp. 247-258. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.19044/esj.2019.v15n19p247

                Mokiy, V.S. & Lukyanova T.A. (2019). The External and Internal Planet’s Limits to Growth: Transdisciplinary Rethinking. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Vol. 9, No. 9, September 2019, 134-144. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.30845/ijhss.v9n9a16

                Vladimir

                Reply
  3. Hi Gemma, Thank you for the comment. I am delighted to learn of your training. I was exposed to it more formally several years ago, got diverted from its practical application, and more recently have returned to answering your question. One area where I think the Cynefin framework can offer value is in boundary definitions and determining what Sonja Blignaut identifies as “systemic context.” This helps to determine in which domain one or your organization operates. When that is combined with sense making in an organization, it offers a way to better identify the forces affecting the organization, regardless of domain. This next step is where I am hoping to find evidence (or not) and it involves matching the organizational forces with external trends, to see where there is coherence in application (which would be in the clear domain) or if the external trend would cause organizational turmoil, e.g., chaotic or, potentially, opening up awareness of new relationships and a new way to consider complexity. This is an emerging approach and I would invite any critique or ideas. Thanks again. I appreciate your active involvement. Jim

    Reply
  4. Great post, Jim. I really enjoyed your integration of Cynefin and foresight. As a complexity scholar and practitioner, Cynefin influences me deeply. As a matter of fact, I just attended their basecamp training last year and got a systemic introduction to this framework. I would be most interested in seeing your thoughts in applying foresight in the “complex” domain of the Cynefin framework, given the nonlinear relationship between cause and effect in this domain. In the “clear” and “complicated” domains, the relationship is relatively linear which makes prediction relatively possible; in the “chaotic” domain, the conditions are just too unstable for any meaningful foresight. Looking forward to hearing more from you!

    Reply

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