I've just spent two years working toward a Master's degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation.
Because most people look at me blankly when I tell them this, I've developed two ways to describe what what I'm doing, and foresight is. The first is to say that foresight used to be called futurism, but that futurism has increasingly become associated with the idea of predicting the future. Foresight is not about predicting the future, it's about minimizing surprise. The second way I usually put it is that foresight is not about predicting the future; it's about designing the future.
Actually, I'll say it's just about anything, as long as it's understood that foresight is not about predicting the future.
The reason is that, frankly, I'm pretty tired of all those, "Dude, where's my flying car!" digs. There's always been a certain brand of futurist who's obsessed with getting it right: with racking up successful predictions like some modern-day Nostradamus. I'm sure you know who I'm talking about; some futurists play the prediction game very well, but in the end it is a game, and closer to charlatanism than it is to science. There's actually no method for seeing the future, and nobody's predictions are more reliable than anybody else's.
If actual prediction were possible, the insurance companies would be all over it. They don't try to predict how you're going to die, though, do they? They look at trends and probabilities, and try to minimize surprise for their investments. That's exactly how strategic foresight works--as a kind of institutional insurance policy against disruptive surprise. There's a whole raft of methodologies for this, ranging from Delphi polls to trends analysis and scenarios. For me, this way of looking at the future is complementary to my other way of looking, which is the more fun and disreputable wild-eyed prophet--that is, as a science fiction writer.
There are no limits on me when I write SF. In contrast, doing foresight is a disciplined activity. I like this combination; I'm finding that each way of looking forward influences and improves the other--as long as I don't get the two confused.
I'm still coming to grips with how these two years will affect my writing. One result of undertaken the programme is that I've developed a different attitude toward writing near-future SF. Most writers I know avoid at all costs writing about the near future, because nothing goes out of date quicker than next year. I've always tended to agree with this assessment and--because SF writers aren't in the job of predicting the future either--have tended to set my novels and short stories very, very far in the future. Thousands of years, usually.
I'm no longer satisfied with doing that. There's the little matter of my second way of describing what foresight is: not as prediction, but design. If you're afraid of being a poor predictor of the near future, you'll avoid writing about it. But what if you were never out to predict in the first place? What if you don't care if a story you set in 2012 gets immediately overtaken by events? What if you set the action there not to predict some event or outcome, but to encourage some action on the part of your readers?
In other words I have a new ambition for my own SF: not as prediction, and not cautionary, either--but aspirational.
The fact is that if I've learned one thing in two years of studying how we think about the future, it's that the one thing that's sorely lacking in the public imagination is positive ideas about where we should be going. We seem to do everything about our future except try to design it. It's a funny thing: nobody ever questions your credentials if you predict doom and destruction. But provide a rosy picture of the future, and people demand that you justify yourself. Increasingly, though, I believe that while warning people of dire possibilities is responsible, providing them with something to aspire to is even more important. The foresight programme has given me a lot of tools to do that in a justifiable way, so I might as well use them.
Now all I have to do is put my money where my mouth is. By, say, writing an optimistic, aspirational novel set in the near future and unflinchingly accurate to the possibilities, both positive and negative, of the next few years?
Yeah, okay. --At least, I'm going to try.