Futures Scanning – A Retrospective View

The background

In August 2000, I was hired as a strategic foresight analyst in the Foresight and Planning Unit (FPU) of the (then) Office of the Vice Chancellor at Swinburne University of Technology. Part of this role was to conduct futures ‘scanning’ – by looking at the education ‘landscape’ through a ‘foresight’ time-frame much longer than is usual in conventional strategic planning; in our case, it was 10-20 years out. This obviously means that today, in 2021, the ‘future landscape’ being ‘scouted’ back then has since come to pass and become history. Hence the motivation for this experiment – to look back at what were picked up then as impending signals of change, and to compare what was reported in those days as future possibilities with what eventually came to pass as historical actualities. It has taken two decades to reach this point of being able to conduct such a ‘retrospective longitudinal assessment’ – and hopefully it should prove to be both interesting and instructive. It may also allow some real-world-data calibration of the utility of the heuristic principles for scanning described in the previous post.

I was in the foresight analyst role for a bit under 2½ years, until I became an academic in early 2003 initially at the Australian Foresight Institute, and later (after the AFI’s formal dis-establishment in 2005) in the Faculty of Business & Enterprise, then finally in the School of Business in the Faculty of Business & Law, remaining there until becoming a ‘COVID redundancy’ in August 2020. (My manager in FPU back then was Maree Conway who, by an interesting twist of fate, became my PhD student several years ago. Funny how things work. To ensure my PhD students could finish without having to change supervisors, I was made an Adjunct Professor as part of the redundancy process. This allowed me to help Maree finalise her thesis, and she was recently awarded her well-earned and much-deserved doctorate. The thesis was top-notch, and the pre-submission draft thesis review panel duly noted it as being really quite exemplary; I strongly suggest you go and read it, although I suspect it is destined to come out eventually as a formal book.)

In the role of foresight analyst, I was required to scan for and report on items of potential importance for the future of the university. This intelligence was compiled into a Strategic Scanning database, and parts of it were made available to the wider university community through two main channels:

    • prospect – the Foresight Bulletin, which was a quarterly newsletter-type electronic publication intended to show the more ‘serious’ of the scanning hits found; and
    • the Foresight Snippets – items of interest, often quirky, which were not necessarily important, but which were designed to get people thinking about the future, as a kind of futures thinking ‘provocation’ (in the sense of de Bono’s thinking tools). Initially email-based, these were eventually moved to the back page of prospect, after going from fortnightly, to monthly, and finally to quarterly.

In all, over those 2 ½ years I edited 9 issues of prospect (#2 to #10) and 25 issues of the Snippets (usually 3 per issue).

When I was teaching how to do futures scanning as part of my later academic work, I was often asked about ‘how well’ the scanning went, the implicit question being how much of these I actually ‘got right’. This is a difficult question to answer, of course, because ‘successful’ (or, more importantly, useful) scanning is not necessarily that which ‘predicts’ the future, or ‘gets it right’. Rather, properly understood, scanning should raise awareness about the processes of change to which organisations should pay careful attention, so that they can adapt as needed to emerging change and don’t run the risk of getting the future wrong. In fields as diverse as combat operations, aviation, law enforcement, and nuclear power station management, situational awareness is seen as something unquestionably valuable. Funny, then, that in conventional strategic planning, scanning is nowhere nearly seen as such, and often must be argued for against charges that it is a waste of time and resources.

Yet, I confess that I have often wondered about how those early futures scanning hits – some serious, many not – compare with what the future eventually turned out to be. It seems that now, post-redundancy, I do have a bit more time to go back and look at them again, which seems like it could be both fun and instructive to do.

As noted in an earlier post, and again above, there are organisational disincentives to carrying out what we in the FPU called ‘strategic intelligence scanning’, a term we chose deliberately over the more well-known but somewhat passive term ‘environmental scanning’. We did this in order to convey both the strategic importance of the need to carry it out, as well as to distinguish it from an activity that most people had (kind of) heard of and (sort of) thought they understood (but really did not).

It is fair to say that some people were perplexed by the scanning material we made available. Often they would ask (especially of the Snippets): “what am I supposed to do with these?” Our answer was, usually, “just think about them”, and we would often explain that the specific scanning information being made available was situated within a broader implementation of foresight at Swinburne, a key part of which was, as it were, ‘sensitisation’ to ‘weak’ signals of emerging potential futures. (It was in this way that the Futures Cone was originally utilised – as a communication tool for the types of futures we were scanning for – before I ended up taking it into my subsequent teaching and adapting it further as a pedagogical device.) Maree and I have published extensively on this implementation of foresight at Swinburne, both individually and collaboratively (see the Publications page for some of these latter). It seems somehow fitting to begin a retrospective view on that early scanning by returning to some of the explanatory text used in the first issue of prospect proper (issue no.1 was called simply the Foresight Bulletin; issue no.2 introduced the new name prospect, with a lower-case ‘p’).

The purpose of prospect is to provide futures-focused information across a range of relevant areas to the broader Swinburne community. … Numerous interesting and often challenging “snippets” of information are found when scanning. Some of these snippets will be published in occasional Foresight Snippets e-mails, which have now started to appear. The aim of both the Bulletin and Snippets is to share knowledge about weak signals “from the future” with the Swinburne community (FPU 2000, pp.3-4).

This is because (p.1):

The tacit unconscious perspectives we hold of the future inform our strategic thinking processes in the present, colour our perceptions of what is going on in the world, and influence our choices and actions on a daily basis. By taking a long-term foresight view we hope to expand our perceptions of strategic options and thereby ensure our decisions in the present are wiser. The goal and rationale of all foresight work is to act in the present with more wisdom, informed by “future” perspectives. … The articles and other material are derived from the FPU’s on-going strategic intelligence-scanning role and have been chosen to try to foment thoughtful reflection and discussion.

The ‘experiment’

So, that’s the set-up. Over the coming months, the core text of the Snippets (minus headers, contact info, etc) will be re-published here pretty much in its original form, which will include the URLs that were embedded in them, even though these are very likely to be dead links. I will not edit these in any way to alter the main text (apart from correcting errors I noticed during preparing them for re-publication which will be indicated with [square brackets], which means some old typos might also make it through). Occasionally, or perhaps right at the end of the 25 Snippets posts, I may also include parts of articles from issues of prospect that are of particular interest or relevance, whether that is because they were eerily prescient, or (more likely) hilariously not.

The basic idea is to simply stop and re-consider the degree to which the signals of change which were reported back then were visible, and how they ultimately played out into the future that became the-then present, which we now remember as the past. Hopefully this will allow some insights into how futures scanning as a continuing practice might be adjusted, refined, and ultimately improved. That’s the idea, anyway. And, as noted above, it might also lend some credibility to the heuristic principles for scanning I reported last week.

Richard Feynman always said that one should actually ‘do the experiment’ to find out what the real answer is, as opposed to what might be fondly desired by only looking at the theory (he most famously did this during the US Senate hearings on the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster with regard to the putative elastic properties of the rubber O-ring seals in the SRBs when subjected to freezing cold). Well, this then is the ‘retrospective longitudinal scanning study experiment’ to compare what was reported then as possibly coming with what actually came, albeit now seen with the benefit of 2020 hindsight (or is that ‘2021 hindsight’? 😉 ). What will the answer be? Let’s find out …

Reference

FPU 2000, prospect – the Foresight Bulletin, no. 2, Dec, Foresight & Planning Unit (FPU), Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia.

Image credit: metamorworks | Getty/iStockphoto.

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