As the great French diplomat Talleyrand once said: "When it is urgent, it is already too late".
As the pace of change increases, decision-makers wade through files marked 'for immediate action' classified increasingly by the degree of urgency involved. Consequently, only when a problem becomes urgent does it come up. As a result, most decision-makers have little room for manoeuvre.
Executives often justify their decisions by saying that they had no choice but to act. The truth, however, is often that they no longer had a choice because they allowed the situation to get out of hand.
Necessity is often nothing more than a lack of foresight. The way to avoid this bind is to become aware of situations as they are taking shape and may still be moulded, rather than after they have already become a constraint. In plain terms, without anticipation there can be no freedom in making a decision. Those responsible for making decisions are up against the wall, too busy 'fire-fighting' to choose freely.
Fast, and increasingly unpredictable, change has led to the rise of theories like reactivity, which may be glossed as 'if we cannot see ahead very well, let's be adaptable'. Although attractive, instant adaptability is an enormous illusion for regions which are in charge of roads, schools, hospitals or indeed for most human organisations…
The long-term is the only horizon possible for real in-depth action that involves new infrastructures, training or different ways of thinking and behaving. In practical terms, a horizon of a few months, or even three to five years, leaves very little room for manoeuvre.
The future is a realm of power, but that power is not necessarily complete.
There is an inherent problem when various players who exercise different (and somethimes conflicting) powers exist. All the players have some individual power enabling them to act. However, each needs to undertake its own Foresight for information purposes (information always being uncertain) on the change set in motion by the dynamics of that particular system.
A maritime analogy may help describe the situation more clearly. A sailor:
- Strives to gauge the wind, the reefs, the course of other ships sailing nearby (anticipate his strategic environment); we may, in this instance, talk about monitoring instruments, anticipation and exploratory scenarios;
- Acts appropriately, given the strengths and weaknesses of crew and craft, so that the vessel arrives safely to shore. Reaching port is the sailor's project. As such, it is a project that requires planning, or even programming, a strategy to be implemented using instruments for steering.
Anticipation and action imply a permanent dialectic that relies upon two different, yet complementary, kinds of logic. This can be summed up as two questions: What might happen? What can I do?
Of course, the power of the various players is unequal. The very distribution and growth of that power are at stake as well as strategies of alliance and conflict.
The future of a territory or any human organisation (such as a company) thus depends on:
- Its international and national environment, some external drivers (major trends and uncertainties), those particular impacts on the foresight object;
- Its own dynamic resulting from internal drivers, shaping actors and factors;
- The more or less conflicting strategies of the different actors who have an impact on the object of the Foresight exercise.
On the international level (including the European and national environment), the Foresight exercice should serve to identify those major trends and uncertainties which may have an impact on studied object. As generally, a territory or a company has little, if no power at all, to influence these trends and uncertainties, one can only try to anticipate them and explore their local impacts.
Foresight exercises have a twofold aim:
- To identify the long term spontaneous dynamics of the subject studied (diagnostic) and its possible futures (anticipation);
- To promote debate among the stakeholders so as to gradually elaborate a shared vision of a desirable future and create a consensus on how to achieve it, who should do what, when and how.
In other words, in a Foresight exercise we are attempting to:
- Anticipate what may happen within a specific area (thematic or geographical) according to long term external and internal factors;
- Launch a process whereby the actors in the area (e.g. region or sector) may share not only a common representation of the subject, its possible futures and the challenges which lie ahead, but are also able to share a common vision of a desirable future (project) and hence may adopt a common strategy — instead of conflicting strategies — to achieve it.