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  • Writer's pictureGraham

The Barefoot Futurist

Updated: Feb 2

Most people I talk to have never heard of futurists or foresight. At best, they are curious. At worst, they are skeptical. What, after all, is the point of thinking so hard about the future when so little can be known about it? Just yesterday somebody told me it was a fool's errand.

Big companies sometimes get the point. They have the resources to indulge in exploring the future. Superficially, they usually want to do one of three things: innovate, make more realistic strategic plans, or manage risk. At a deeper level, the individuals in the company want to feel more confident in the decisions they're making, and feel less intimidated by a constantly changing environment.

They know the stories of companies that get ahead of the future (such as Intel, when it made the shift from memory chips to microprocessors) and those that get eaten by it (eg. Kodak).

But not every company is large, and it's not just companies who could benefit from foresight. Very few people think about the future in the kinds of systematic ways that will lead to more confident, productive decision-making. And that's a problem.

Good intentions

The methods, tools and techniques of foresight have been created by very smart people with very noble intentions. And as is often the case in situations punctuated by fear and confusion, there are people with less noble intentions who ignore all that good work to sell snake oil.

The tendency has therefore been to "professionalize" the practice of exploring and understanding the future, to make it more procedural and regulated. There is some merit in this, as it targets the snake oil salespeople. But a potentially bigger problem than reputation is awareness. A complementary approach would be to make foresight more accessible to those who would find it useful but don't have the resources to embrace the full monty of professional foresight.

If more people had a better handle on the future, more confidence in their ability to influence it, and a clearer understanding of the implications of their decisions today, wouldn't the world be a better place?

I'm going to misappropriate a quote here to make a point, because "we don't need a handful of people doing foresight perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly."*

Which is why I believe that while professional futurists have their place, so do the part-timers, the hobbyists and the amateurs. Close to the action, they have the opportunity and incentive to innovate on the fly and cultivate the capacity to think into the future in ways that make most sense for themselves and those around them.

Foresight at the grassroots level

A useful comparison might be with the barefoot doctors of China. While China has now recovered much of its former economic glory, it was for most of the previous century horribly poor. When the Communist Party of China took over in 1949 after decades of war and instability, the healthcare system in particular was in a parlous state. In rural areas, there wasn't really a system at all.

The state's response was to train farmers, who often worked barefoot, in the basics of preventive medicine, hygiene and healthcare. They then returned to their villages and provided medical assistance when not working in the fields. The results were impressive, with life expectancy between 1952 and 1982 rising from 35 years to 68 years. The barefoot doctor program became a model for the World Health Organization in 1978 of how basic healthcare challenges could be effectively managed without excessive input of resources.

Barefoot doctors introduced medicine, especially preventive medicine, where there had been none before. They also taught people how to take better care of themselves. So, I believe, it is with foresight. In other words, we need barefoot futurists to encourage forward thinking at the grassroots level and cultivate healthier attitudes toward the future.

Given a choice, of course, most people would prefer a doctor who'd undergone years of formal training to someone who'd done only six months and was practicing medicine on the side. And in the same way, they'd prefer a trained foresight practitioner who can conduct thorough research rather than one who simply enjoys reading about emerging trends and creating forecasts about how they might progress.

But the deep probe of the future is useful only in a certain, and actually quite narrow, set of situations. In many other situations, something more basic is required.

For example, many foresight practitioners would recommend spending a considerable amount of time (I saw recently an estimate of 3-12 months) to generate scenarios, one of the most common foresight techniques. Instead, how about holding scenario-building exercises every couple of months using different drivers of change, and coming back to earlier scenarios to see if they have evolved and how? This allows people to look at the future from different angles, rather than just more intensely from the same angle. It also creates the feedback loop that is so often missing in foresight work.

Of course, there are already initiatives pushing in this direction. One is from UNESCO, which believes "people and communities everywhere are capable of becoming more futures literate." Another is Teach the Future, which "promotes ‘futures literacy’ as a life skill for students and educators." And there are several very credible free and paid-for courses which are producing graduates that are taking their newfound skills back to their organizations.

But with the skills of foresight still confined to the hands of the few, what else can be done to support these barefoot futurists?

* Zero-Waste Chef Anne-Marie Bonneau originally said: "We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly."

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