Using Strategic Foresight to Create the Future We Want

The future is having a moment. Philanthropic and nonprofit organizations can use the foresight tools long championed by private industry to build more desirable futures for their communities.

Amid a storm of seemingly unimaginable events—from a once-in-a-century pandemic to wars breaking out in different parts of the world—futures thinking is experiencing a revival. The word “future” is popping up in conference titles and think pieces. New futures-oriented organizations and associations, along with future-focused production studios, are emerging almost daily, and some foundations are hiring futurists in residence to inform their work. This is not surprising. The tools for futures thinking were created precisely to help people cope with uncertainty—to make sense of the changes in the external environment, examine their potential implications, and develop portfolios of actions in response.

Although thinking about the future is an inherent part of being human, something people have been doing since time immemorial, contemporary organizational foresight and futures tools, not surprisingly, evolved into a discipline in the 1960s, a period of great social turmoil and technological change, similar in many ways to what we are experiencing today. In 1967, Alvin Toffler published his famous book Future Shock in which he issued a warning: In the face of vast technological and social changes, humanity is likely to collectively experience a condition not unlike the culture shock suffered by travelers to foreign countries, where they are surrounded by strange languages and customs. Similarly, people are likely to experience shock as things around them change so much that they feel like strangers in what used to be familiar environments. The result will be mass disorientation, irrationality, and widespread malaise. Sound familiar?

The cure Toffler advocated was universal literacy in futures thinking, something to be taught in schools and practiced widely within organizations, communities, and by governments. In that atmosphere, several research organizations, mostly funded by the Department of Defense, including RAND and SRI International, developed tools for strategic planning. Alongside these efforts and sometimes as their spinoff, research organizations, like the Hudson Institute and the Institute for the Future (IFTF), where I serve as executive director, emerged to help people think systematically about the future under conditions of extreme uncertainty. This remains the main purpose of foresight or futures thinking—providing people with tools and literacy to help them think longer-term (five, 10, and more years down the road) and to make better decisions today.

Foresight tools include horizon scanning to spot signals of change around us today. For example, early indicators of shifts in norms, behaviors, and technologies that are likely to grow in scale and importance over the next decade and beyond; trend analysis to identify large underlying patterns that will be shaping a particular domain of industry or society; scenarios to synthesize trends and signals together and create plausible, internally consistent stories of life in the future; backcasting or future-back thinking to connect scenarios with actions we can take today and tomorrow in order to avoid certain scenarios or achieve desired ones.

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Many of these tools have been widely adopted in the corporate world. Philanthropic and nonprofit organizations are relative latecomers to the discipline. Today, facing increasingly uncertain terrain and technological changes, we see their growing interest in futures work. Unlike in the corporate sector, however, where the main goal of foresight is to increase competitiveness and grow market share and financial returns, the social sector can adapt and use foresight tools to create public good, improve provision of social services, and fill the gaps left by the government and private sectors. Given their mission, civic organizations must engage in what writer and scholar Richard Slaughter calls “social foresight,” in other words, use foresight to accomplish deeper transformation in thinking, understanding, and actions needed to achieve systemic change among internal staff as well as key constituents and stakeholders.

Futures tools enable social sector organizations to be bolder, aim higher, and reach wider audiences than traditional strategic planning activities. In this article, I outline how organizations can use these tools to meet their goals and help create futures that empower communities and ensure a more equitable world.

Breaking Up the Monopoly of Vision Elites

The future begins in the imagination. Before you can build something, you have to imagine it. Unfortunately, the spaces for imagining potential futures and sharing them widely have been unevenly distributed. They are a way of life in Silicon Valley and other pockets of power where many feel like they are inventing the future and where conversations are peppered with words like transformation, disruption, innovation, and exponential growth. Simultaneously, large swaths of the population feel like they are powerless victims of the future.

Nonprofit leaders can feel particularly vulnerable when there is economic uncertainty or the communities they serve face growing challenges that feel outside their control. Melody Proebstel, senior director of community engagement at United Way of Northern California, explained:

“At times, it feels like we are walking around in futures that other people created for us. Foresight is a tool for nonprofits like mine to imagine the future for ourselves. It should not just be a practice for the so-called elite. We deserve the power to shape our own future.”

By giving time, space, and training for staff, grantees, and community members to engage in imagining potential futures, philanthropic and nonprofit organizations can widen the ranks of future visionaries and amplify diverse voices, challenging official and highly visible narratives about the future.

Deconstructing the Past to Increase Agency

One of the maxims of futures thinking is that you can’t start thinking about the future without understanding the past. How did we get to where we are today? What patterns does the past reveal that can help us better understand what is happening today and imagine what might come next? Examining the past often makes it clear that the arrangements we live in today are not preordained but are outcomes of specific choices, made by specific people, at specific times. This understanding is empowering because it means that such arrangements can be changed and that the choices we make today are the building blocks of the future world we and generations after us will be living in decades from now.

Hodari Davis, one of the founders of Youth Speaks, an organization dedicated to helping young people use the power of spoken word to achieve social change, explains the significance of these efforts:

“When we understand how important it is for Black people specifically, and marginalized peoples generally, to have the expertise to read the past in a way that reveals the future, we will put as much emphasis on Black futures as we do on Black history. Unevenly distributing the tools to curate the future locks trends of an unjust past into patterns of future injustice.”

 

Black woman with head leaning back; mouth open singing; red, pink, and blue flowers in her hair
Artwork from the Exhibit A project on display at the Life is Living Festival in Oakland. (Photo by Exhibit A)

 

To call attention to the importance of studying the past to imagine the future, Hodari created the Exhibit A project, in which he gave life to a dry government report showing wide historical disparities in various indicators of well-being between white and non-white residents in Oakland. Local artists were commissioned to re-envision and re-express the data from the report to make it accessible to broader audiences. The multimodal artworks were exhibited at the Life is Living Festival and in other public exhibitions and used to provoke conversations between community members and policy makers. Through this process people were given an opportunity to imagine their desired futures for the city and to share them in community.

Normalizing New Narratives, Values, and Behaviors

While examining historical patterns and choices helps us understand that current arrangements are not fixed, futures thinking also helps us normalize new possibilities by making new ideas less alien and strange. There are many tools for doing this. Continuously finding and cataloging signals of change is s a key component of a foresight practice. By necessity, we often find signals on the edges of “normal” life—someone doing something seemingly strange that does not fit existing patterns. Another tool, future ethnographies—qualitative research with people and communities who are “living the future today,” such as climate migrants or leading-edge AI creators—helps us understand these people’s daily lives and gives us glimpses of the emerging “new normal.” A third tool for embodying new possibilities is social simulations, a practice pioneered by my colleague Jane McGonigal, who has written extensively on the power of imagination and “urgent optimism” to inspire change. Jane describes social simulations as:

“... experiences demonstrating the feasibility and benefit of structural solutions to social problems that invite people to pre-experience these futures before they have arrived. Through taking on diverse personas and immersing in interactive experiences, individuals become both players and creators who have the opportunity to witness firsthand the consequences of their actions and choices.”

Applied at scale, social simulations are powerful tools for envisioning change and transforming systems. For example, in 2010, IFTF invited thousands of people all over the world to imagine living in a global respiratory pandemic (the scenario was based on expert interviews and analysis of data that made this a likely possibility). During a period of several months, participants shared online journal entries, videos, and photographs describing their experiences. They also created support groups and collaborative projects to help them deal with the emergency. Some practiced wearing masks in public, some wrote about challenges of participating in social rituals, such as weddings and funerals, others imagined coping with supply interruptions for basic necessities. Essentially, we saw a preview of what took place in the real COVID-19 pandemic. Many participants reported to Jane, the main creator of the simulation, that when the real pandemic hit, they felt ready because they had already worked through this scenario. Nonprofits can similarly run social simulations with their staff and communities to improve their resilience in the face of change and engage them in co-creating desirable futures.

Bridging Polarities

Futures thinking is a team sport. At its best, it weaves together highly diverse perspectives and experiences. If you are thinking about the future of work, for example, you may engage people with knowledge of demographics, technology, economics, and policy, as well as those on the frontlines of new forms of work, like gig workers and customer service representatives using AI. It is not one trend in one domain but the intersection of trends in diverse domains that are likely to shape the future.

A good foresight exercise involves listening and learning from others in the room to understand their thinking and assumptions. The longer time horizon used in these exercises helps people abandon their immediate turf interests and urges them to think about new possibilities and new constituencies, even those that may be “unthinkable” today. The future may be one of the few—if not the only—safe places for highly charged discussions. Christopher Cabaldon, former mayor of West Sacramento, who participated in a futures session for mayors sees it this way:

<blockquote“Civic engagement goes wrong when it is anchored in the present, inducing our brains to go full-NIMBY, worrying about everything that could go wrong and activating cognitive shortcuts that emphasize loss, selfishness, and stereotyping. Instead of relying solely on zoning hearings with predictably dispiriting outcomes, futures thinking exercises and immersive simulations activate our optimistic, pro-social imagination.”

Instilling Hope Without Being Pollyannish

At its core, futures work is an act of hope. The very idea that there is a future is optimistic. Today we are inundated with apocalyptic scenarios and prophecies. As a reaction to the fear and paralysis such viral prophecies can generate, there is a tendency for some groups and movements to go in an opposite direction, focusing only on positive, dreamy visions of the future. A good futures exercise involves deeply examining a range of possibilities, not shying away from dangerous scenarios or “unthinkable” scenarios, both positive and negative ones.

Alternative scenarios methodology pioneered by political scientist Jim Dator enables people to develop four archetypal scenarios: growth (things continue as usual), constraint (imposing conditions of discipline by political or social/cultural means), collapse (breakdown of existing systems and structures), and transformation (fundamental shift in society and economy). This methodology allows the exploration of multiple possible trajectories, challenges existing assumptions, and stimulates creative thinking.

In today’s world where seemingly impossible futures can become overnight realities, foresight tools can help social sector organizations become future-ready: turning them into sensing and sense-making entities. In the process, they would turn the strategy process from an episodic and dry exercise into a force for mobilizing communities to pursue bold visions and become active players in building desirable futures.

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Read more stories by Marina Gorbis.

Leadership

Marina Gorbis
Marina Gorbis is executive director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a nonprofit research and education organization dedicated to helping people systematically think about the future in order to make better choices today. During her several decades at IFTF she has brought a foresight and a futures perspective to hundreds of organizations in philanthropy, education, government, and business.