Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Foresightful Mind

To predict is to control; to co-create is to influence what you would like to bring into being.

This digital world today differs from anything ever experienced in our history; the interconnectedness of all on a planetary scale. Today we are inextricably linked, in real time and in ways far more imminent than most realize. It is really difficult to become aware of things you are not aware of. Particularly shifts in current norms, which is governed by complexity. Is it possible to “predict” the future, how to apply systems thinking the approach to forecasting, and how to shape such a “foresight” mind?

Some trends are more significant than others in their impact. Some corrections require more drastic paradigm shifts with corresponding economic impacts, predictable political challenges. Applying complexity to innovation, creativity, knowledge generation, etc... tends to suggest that it happens when the conditions are right for it to happen and to successfully propagate. It does not exist in a vacuum. It is still probabilistic and uncertain. A foresight mind likes the idea of the discovery of fundamental properties, of inferencing and experimenting with different configurations of properties, of chance discovering something of collective value, and seeing it propagate through adoption and imitation. It likes to figure out how much chance and prior conditions there are, and get the idea of looking at where 'things' overlap to see if there are useful convergence ideas - innovation in the configuration of properties. This is where you see a lot of research value at the moment. Don't stay in a swimlane cast around for ideas to convergence with.

"Those who claim to foresee the future are lying, even if by chance they are later proved right." (Arabic saying) There's definitely a prediction horizon beyond which extrapolation is useless - especially in the face of truly novel events or where there is deep uncertainty or ambiguity. A good strategy to employ is an adaptive stance with agile contingencies. You may not be able to foresee specific instances of futures, but you can imagine general classes and position to take advantage of / shape / mitigate what is then occurring.
(1) The highest level of futures sensitivity comes from appreciations of the whole situation which relies heavily on intuition and sensing.  
(2). Prediction can be an outcome of the controllable relationships within a system.
(3) The future parts of the influence relationships within a system come from an assessment of probabilities system dynamics models.

Foresight is an ongoing conversation. It is something you engage in as a matter of practice. It, therefore, is open to making corrections and changes and not wedded to any particular method or technique. It balances the rational, data-oriented processes with sense-making and other softer methods. One way to build that into a forecast is to admit that these episodes of violent change will be part of the future too, even if you are not able to predict when they will happen. That means adopting strategies that explicitly acknowledge this 'phase transition' risk is a fundamental part of nature and cannot be diversified away. In a portfolio context, for example, admitting that the economy and markets periodically experience phase transition from a relatively healthy state to a 'broken market' state like the financial crisis. Change is a fact of life. Change is in small adaptations that tilt scales, but also in big paradigm shifts that rebuild the scales. Those ‘foresightful’ minds collectively feel the horizon in which you are able to make reliable predictions is coming closer, shortening or put another way, (a.) the pace of paradigm shifts is quickening (reset) and (b.) the pace of small adaptations is quickening aggregating to bigger shifts in scales quicker than previously.

A systems approach to the future would say that you co-create it. To predict is to control; to co-create is to influence what you would like to bring into being. Scenarios of possible futures create stories, this is where you want to be. It will look more like a scenario fed modeling and simulation exercise, rather than a mathematical extrapolation of past behavior. In mathematical forecasting, there are usually no mentions of real structure, while, in systems related anticipation, there's the inclusion of soft variables. So, in fact, both approaches might be complementary. Scenarios present snapshots of possible futures.
-Scenarios provide a picture of the future from which you may 'back-cast' to discover what decisions may be required at each stage to get there.
-Scenarios do not predict the future but help decide what to do now in order to shape it. Such stories become self-sustaining narratives. Everyone understands it, knows what it takes to get there, knows what endangers the journey. Holds one another accountable.

"History is an imperfect guide to the future, but it is the only one we have." (Old adage) The brain creates a program based on narrative. It is the most powerful type of a computer that could ever be built, it has endless capacity. The challenge is narrative, that is the program. In essence, there are two sets of narratives: (1) a set of stories about how you got to this moment. These historical stories are inherited, learned and also subject to revision and creative invention (and often they are contradictory and/or in tension with each other), and (2) a set of possible stories about how you will move forward from this moment. Within the forward-looking stories, there are some parts that you know will occur with reasonable certainty, and some that you feel you can influence, and some that remain beyond your influence, and some that matter, but are unknowable and uncontrollable. You use the first set of stories (experience) to understand what is possible in the second set (the future), and how to influence that. Your sense of meaning comes from the entire set of narratives, retrospectives, and perspectives with all of their ambiguity and inconsistency. The mental models through which you understand past experience deeply influence how you imagine the future. As you change the understanding of the past, new possibilities and interpretations of them emerge in the future.

The good news about a foresight mind based on systems thinking is that even with new paradigms - their principles are not likely to be violated.
(1). Take a broad range of perspectives (agreeing and competing for the better);
(2). Explore them together in a spirit of open-mindedness, learning, and respect;
(3). Include those who have influence as they possess the means to shape the future through their actions;
(4). Explore the past for general insights, don't over-categorize and try not to fixate on single narratives;
(5). Try to understand the drivers shaping the underlying structures and dynamics (trends and point samples are symptoms - use science / social science where appropriate);
(6). Treat it as akin to 'Climate' not 'Weather' - Indicative not predictive - models are only as good as your assumptions and data;
(7). Revisit, test and always broaden involvement.

The future is already here, but it is unevenly distributed. When you imagine the future (to develop foresight not to create forecasts), you must test them with the 'possible, probable, plausible' scenario. When you get to plausibility, you might apply systems thinking,  though you do have to be careful, since some of these things you imagine could be based on paradigms that you do not yet know or understand. There is a process of envisioning and creating preferred futures. That is a much more active and engaged approach to shaping the future. Instead of passively consuming forecasts, get people actively engaged in shaping their destiny.


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