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From foresight to forethought: No longer lost in translation?

Strategic foresight / COMMENTARY
Fabian Zuleeg , Ricardo Borges de Castro

Date: 15/06/2023
EU strategic anticipation is more necessary than ever but also more difficult in the age of permacrisis, given that current levels of uncertainty, volatility and downside risks are likely to persist. To avoid being lost in translation, foresight needs to become forethought, adapting to the new environment and being better embedded into European policymaking.

No one saw it coming?

The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine put foresight into sharp focus, with many critics claiming that current mechanisms and methodologies failed to anticipate these events. In both circumstances, EU decision-makers were caught off-guard and unprepared.

While the idea of having a ‘crystal ball’ is appealing, strategic foresight is not about predicting the future but rather about preparing for it or, ideally, shaping it. Yet, some criticism is warranted, and an honest look in the mirror is helpful to avoid foresight becoming just a fad, unable to provide the intelligence needed in future crises that are bound to come.

What is more, in the current age of permacrisis, levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) are higher and are likely to remain so in the coming years. In addition, downside risks prevail, potentially making reactive strategies extremely costly, if not completely ineffective. This naturally raises expectations of what foresight can deliver to help European decision-makers avoid the constant firefighting of the last few years.

Instead of business as usual or hiding behind VUCA conditions, foresight should re-invent itself, changing and adapting to a new, more challenging reality. The alternative is that it risks being discredited and eroding some of the good progress made across the EU and its member states in the last few years in mainstreaming strategic anticipation, descending into irrelevance.

Re-thinking foresight

A re-think of foresight points to several issues: approach; integration; resources; and methods.

Often, in foresight circles, the long- and short-terms are presented in opposition and politicians are blamed for being shortsighted. Indeed, many are. But in liberal democracies, it would be wrong not to factor in the constraints of elected leaders in an increasingly polarised and fragmented political landscape. In a European context, foresight needs to also consider the EU’s governance system (and its different institutions) as an additional factor that can hinder or empower national and European policymakers.

Hence, anticipatory democracy – at the national and EU level – needs to try to reconcile long-term thinking with short-term priorities, political cycles and institutional tempos. This should be done while bringing issues to the EU27 policy agenda that may not yet be on the radar, or that need to be acted upon now to avoid bigger problems in the future.

Foresight’s position and its level of integration into the policymaking cycle will be critical to its success. In an EU setting, despite becoming a more political entity lately, the European Commission enjoys more durable political mandates, allowing its officials to think more long-term.

Strategic anticipation should be at the outset of any policy process and continuously feed into it and vice-versa. Indeed, the role of public policy needs to be built into the foresight system to prevent future adverse outcomes. This would allow it to become more operational and actionable, bringing under the same policy roof the foresight and strategic planning dimensions, also mitigating the length and cost of traditional foresight processes.

Indeed, foresight is a resource intensive activity that requires time, highly qualified people, and money. In a world of pervasive uncertainty and rapid change, lengthy foresight exercises risk becoming out of step with reality.

Hence, if it is well integrated into the policy cycle and carried out systematically, constantly reviewing insights and identifying weak signals, as well as what may be their implications to public policy and EU decision-making, its relevance is likely to increase and its usefulness to improve. It is also likely to become more flexible and responsive to political leaders.

Foresight value will also depend on the methodologies in place. Despite some innovation, foresight methods remain broadly unchanged. Indeed, several models rely on the past to forecast the future. But in a world of pervasive uncertainty, with high downside risks, complex interconnectivities and unintended consequences, past data is an unreliable predictor of the future.  

Hybrid methods that bring quantitative and qualitative elements and mix different techniques – from trends analysis and horizon scanning to storytelling and scenarios – will likely be more useful in dealing with uncertainty. New technologies, such as artificial intelligence, do not offer a panacea, but equally, they need to be built into foresight processes in a critical but constructive way.

Getting these issues right will go a long way in improving what foresight can bring to European decision-making. But for the future, as the EU’s executive capacity increases, foresight should focus much more on action and consider what needs to be done to avoid future problems before they develop. In simple terms, foresight needs to become forethought.

Forethought rather than foresight

Foresight needs to re-invent itself. In governments or the public sector, foresight is frequently oriented to only identify problems or risks. This is natural. Yet, many times, the subsequent step of translating foresight into policies, plans or strategies does not take place. In contrast, forethought seeks and considers solutions and ways to avoid future problems in a dynamic and integrated process.

Turning EU foresight into forethought entails some of the following steps:

  • Embed the EU foresight function fully into the decision-making process with a clear link to political leadership while retaining autonomy to provide independent and critical advice that addresses optimism bias and the European progress illusion. Often, foresight means going against the tide or conventions and being able to ‘speak truth to power’. Considering the way military intelligence is embedded in battleground decision-making can serve as an inspiration.
  • EU foresight should become much more political, responsive and consider expected decisions, actions, and tradeoffs. It should also allow for real-time correction of intelligence as the world changes, building in constant feedback loops to refine insights.
  • EU foresight activities should be framed in a normative process of strategic thinking that keeps the European public interest at heart – what are the objectives, values, and interests that need to be defended?
  • Foresight should focus more on policy options and what can be done regarding potential future challenges at the EU and member states levels. Think tanks play a vital role in this space and should be supported while retaining their independence.
  • Going beyond ‘what if’ questions and setting out worst-case scenarios and possible contingencies and mitigation measures, EU foresight should be geared to consider what needs to be done now to prevent future adverse outcomes, breaking down long-term trends and projections into second and third-order implications of what should be done in the short- and medium-term.
  • There needs to be a clearer understanding of the role and success measures of strategic foresight, looking at the actions taken as a result and the impact these actions have on the probability and magnitude of risks. In a world of downside risks, strategic foresight and associated policy responses might be most successful when they prevent these risks from emerging.
  • In a more complex environment, foresight must incorporate much broader, multidisciplinary terms, also considering the ‘bigger picture’: what are feasible scenarios for system change rather than staying within current confines?
  • Foresight should break EU silos and be more diverse and inclusive of different perspectives to avoid group thinking, risk aversion, and policy blind spots. This means integrating different and challenging perspectives from across the EU and the rest of the world.
  • In the face of increasing geopolitical and geoeconomic competition, there need to be spaces and resources for covert foresight exercises and thinking, and anticipatory intelligence gathering at the EU level.
Avoiding afterthought

In the age of permacrisis, taking these steps to improve current foresight efforts and activities at the EU level could go a long way to better link foresight to decision-making and increase its policy impact and usefulness to political leaders in Brussels and the 27.

Forethought may be what foresight needs to avoid being lost in translation and eventually becoming an afterthought.

Fabian Zuleeg is Chief Executive and Chief Economist at the European Policy Centre.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is an Associate Director and Head of the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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