Millennium Project

Factors Required for Successful Implementation of Futures Research in Decision Making

Appendix B: Background on Futures Research

B.1. Comments on Methods

Futures research and decisionmaking are entwined. Every decision involves some idea or expectation about the future. Unfortunately, decisions are also made with little conscious attention to the forces that can shape success or failure. Therefore, some structure is in order to provide prospective to the methods of futures research and the activities involved in decisionmaking.

Forecasts are unavoidably inaccurate and incomplete. Despite these limitations, futures research has been useful in decisionmaking for two reasons: first, because there is no better alternative and some information about the future, however impaired, is probably better than none (although this could be argued), and second, because methods have been derived that aid in decisionmaking despite the shortcomings of forecasting (e.g. scenarios). The methods are, in general, systematic, but in no sense is the field of futures research a science, that is its methods do not require statement and validation of hypotheses, the standards of professionalism are essentially ad hoc, and except for a few projects, the information which comprises the field is rarely accumulated.

Futures research is the systematic study of possible future conditions. It includes analysis of how those conditions might change as a result of the implementation of policies and actions, and the consequences of future conditions on individuals and groups in society. Futures research can be directed to large or small-scale issues, in the near or distant future; it can project possible or desired conditions. It is not a science and the outcome of studies depends on the methods used and the skill of the practitioners. Its methods can be highly quantitative or qualitative. Its purpose is to help decisionmakers anticipate opportunities and avoid threats.

When futures research methods are applied to the study of competition in industry, the field is known as business intelligence: projecting likely moves of competitors. Government intelligence, information about the likely intent and actions of other nations, may also use futures research techniques for analysis.

In futures research, quantitative or qualitative methods may be used to produce normative and exploratory forecasts. Thus all of the methods listed in Figure 7 can be classed as being either quantitative or qualitative, and being applicable to normative or exploratory forecasting (or both). The matrix presented in Figure 7 serves as a simple taxonomy of the methods of futures research. All of the methods below are designed to evoke some understanding of future possibilities.

 

Figure 7

Taxonomy for Futures Research Methodology

 

Method

Quantitative

Qualitative

Normative

Exploratory

Agent Modeling

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Complexity based models

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Cross Impact Analysis

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Decision Models

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Delphi

 

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Econometrics

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Environmental Scanning

 

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Futures Wheel

 

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Genius Forecasting

 

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Morphological Analysis

 

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Participatory Methods

 

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Regression

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Relevance Trees

 

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Scenarios

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Science Road Maps

 

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System Dynamics

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Tech Sequence Analysis

 

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Time Series Forecasts

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Trend Impact Analysis

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Five of the techniques however deserve an additional sentence or two because they are new and not yet widely known, or because they may appear to lie outside of futures research, should be included.

 

 

 

Morphological analysis is a method for stimulating innovation. In that sense it is a technique for asking what is possible in the future in a given field. The technique was first illustrated in a search for new kinds of jet engines. It begins with subdividing the system of concern into its major subsystems: in the case of jet engines these might be thrust mechanism, fuel, oxidizer, etc. Then, in turn, each of these subsystems are described in terms of all possible alternatives: for example, the thrust mechanism could be turbojet, ramjet, pulsejet, propjet. The oxidizer could be atmospheric oxygen, liquid oxygen, another chemical source, etc. The fuel could be liquid or solid. Having exhausted the possibilities under each subsystem heading, the alternative approaches are assembled in all possible permutation. For some of the possible combinations, real life systems exist. For others, they do not. Some of these others will be patently impossible; but others at least raise the question "why not". And in attempting to answer this question new inventions are stimulated.

 

 

Just as the methods of futures research can be listed and categorized, so can the aspects of decisionmaking. Decisions can be viewed from several different viewpoints:

 

  1. a values perspective is involved in judging whether the expected outcome of a prospective decision is good or bad. What seems good to one person may seem bad to another, depending on the values they hold.
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  3. a utility or rational perspective can be used. In this approach, one decision may be better than another, if it meets certain rational criteria better than its alternatives. A sub-discipline of operations research and economics probes decisions from this standpoint, using schemes such as portfolio analysis to make risk explicit and proportional to return, and rules such as mini max - minimize the chances of maximum loss.
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  5. the field of judgment heuristics deals with the quirks of human decisionmaking, focusing particularly on risk taking and probability judgments. Judgments are often strangely impaired by predilections that are either genetic or environmentally implanted and place an otherwise objective consideration of decision options onto a distorted playing field.
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  7. the field of cognitive science creates models of decisionmaking from the standpoint of the inductive thought processes involved; these models are often applied to computers as well as humans.
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    Futures research and decisionmaking come together in any planning enterprise. Ideally, futures research lays out what might be and planning selects and implements that which seems desirable. The interplay between these activities can be sketched as in Figure 8.

     

    Figure 8

     

    The Relationship Between Forecasting and Planning

     

    The box in the upper left of this diagram, a vision of desirable future objectives represents normative forecasting; the box in the lower left, projection of likely futures, represents exploratory forecasting. The process of planning requires analyzing the gap between the two futures: that envisioned and that desired (central box) and creating candidate policies that might close the gap (right hand box). The creation of these policies is the locus of decisionmaking and is subject to the limitations and strictures mentioned above: moral considerations, utility, judgment heuristics, and cognitive processes. Those policies can affect the future in two ways: by changing expectations about what's possible to achieve, or by changing the forecast about what's likely. When a policy is found that reduces the gap, action should follow.

    B.2. Some Thoughts on Foresight

    Futures Studies can be placed on a continuum in comparison with: reacting, muddling through, administration, prediction, forecasting, planning, "outlook"/"lookout", strategic risk-management, foresight(ing), futures studies/research, science fiction, fortune telling, spiritual revelation.

    A very important question in distinguishing futures work is "When does 'the future' begin?" How far "forward" in time can before first encountering "the future?" For example, where does "administration" end and "planning" begin, and then "foresight" begin, etc.? Different groups define those boundaries differently, and indeed the boundary is no doubt different for different classes of actions, depending on the life-cycle of the object of concern, for example.

    Another continuum useful in distinguishing foresight from other future-oriented work might run from considering a single "most likely" future; to high/medium/low futures of a single theme/variable; to the development of best case/worse case scenarios; to the concept "an alternative future" (meaning "alternative to the what most people think the future will be," thus perhaps a kind of "preferred future"); to genuinely "alternative futures" (meaning true alternatives to the present as well as to "the most likely" future); finally reaching actual futures research with its insistence on the term "futureS" rather than "THE future" along with the envisioning and movement towards "(a) preferred future(s)"

    Another mark of futures work includes the importance of consciously articulating and distinguishing between "images of the future" which underlie all future orientation, even that which believes it has no conscious future orientation at all. So also is the use of (and/or faith in) primarily quantitative methods vs. primarily qualitative methods.

    Some people believe that the success of futures work is best measured by whether consciousness has been raised/changed, or not, while others insist that that is not enough and that actual actions have to be taken more or less directly from the use of foresight for it to be deemed "successful." Some note, however, that "the future has a long fuse" and that direct action may be taken, but not immediately, so that "consciousness raising" is thus probably the best proximate measure of a successful futures activity.

    Whether the external environment around an entity is taken as given, or is itself problematic, is an important distinguishing feature between foresight (which problematizes the environment) and other future-oriented work (which takes the external environment as granted)

    In addition, some activities demand longer time horizons--military, space, energy, transportation, insurance. It may be easier and more imperative for such organizations to be future-oriented and to want to use futures research. Others (such as the typical manufacturer and retailer), can be quite successful for a long time--maybe forever--without considering "the future" at all; just be observant and adaptive; muddling through will do except in major system breaks.

    Whether one takes a strictly "free market" laissez faire, libertarian approach, or whether one assumes a totally centrally-planned economy and society, foresight is still needed. Foresight is not something "socialists" do but "capitalists" do not, or vice versa.

    LIBERTARIAN FORESIGHT If each private economic entity engaged in and/or used foresight, then (according to Libertarian assumptions) that would aggregate, via the invisible hand, to the closest approximation possible of foresight for the commonweal. No strictly "governmental foresight" would be necessary, or desirable.

    CONSERVATIVE FORESIGHT. On the (slightly more visible) other hand, under "maximum privatization/ that government is best which governs least" type assumptions, governments might buy and use foresight supplied by many competing private producers.

    LIBERAL FORESIGHT. Under assumptions of the desirability of a more proactive system of governance which seeks to intervene and act on behalf of the common good, each government unit might either engage in foresight or have ready access to foresight produced by one or more other governmental units. All governmentally-produced foresight should be available freely to any citizen, and itself subject to democratic control.

    Each governmental unit and individual citizen should also have the opportunity to buy privately-produced foresight (however, some privately-funded futures research might be owned entirely and kept secret by the funder).

    AUTHORITARIAN FORESIGHT. Finally, according to certain totalitarian assumptions, the government might have a monopoly on foresight, requiring all units of society, including economic sectors, to use the foresight provided by government experts alone. All private (or foreign) foresight would be forbidden.

    B.3. Does Futures Research Help Decisionmaking? Two Views

    The Project asked professional futurists and policy makers to identify examples and experience in the uses of futures research in decisionmaking, in four ways. The first two have already been described: in depth interviews with policy makers and the Lookout Panel. The second two methods were:

    A request was made via the projectís two Internet listserves for examples of futures research and futures studies used in decisionmaking.

    Private correspondence was established with professional futurists asking for more detail about projects in which they might have been involved.

    In many instances, participants in this aspect of the study suggested publications of theirs and others that were made available via hard copy and on various web sites (see Appendix F). The team followed up these leads and this activity is reported in this section.

    The Millennium Project listseves were invited to comment on "cases that illustrate how futures research has helped improve policy." These listserves are made up of several hundred people: professional futurists in one instance, and people who expressed interest in the future in the other. The results of the on line discussion were surprising. One camp said policy making always considers- formally or informally- the future. A second camp said they had been searching for such examples for years and had failed to find that futures research had contributed significantly to policy making. As an example of the first position, one professional futurist said:

    The first camp argued that future orientation is inevitable, unavoidable and is almost always a part of decisionmaking. A correspondent taking this position said:

    All decision and policy making which is goal oriented, with the relatively minor exception of cathartic choices in their pure form, are based in part on images of the future of probably outcomes of different options including doing nothing. Therefore, all structured and organizational policy making includes some arrangements for more or less systematic exploration of relevant contingent futures.

    Prime illustrations include the constant use of "intelligence estimates" in security and external relation choices and the constant use of economic models in many economic decisions.

    Indeed, most of the literature dealing with policy making, descriptive-historic as well as prescriptive takes up the use of "futures", sometimes well and sometimes badly so, but still usually explicitly.

    This is even more pronounced in the very large literature on "planning" in all its forms, where "futures" in one way or another are a main concern -- both predictively and as a target for impact.

    Therefore, I am not sure about the "point" in seeking literature on uses of futures in policy making.

    And another futurist responded:

    ....images of the future guide all goal-oriented decision or policy making. I would strengthen the statement you make to:

    All decision and policy making which is intended to achieve values set by the parties who will be subject to the decision or policy, is based on visions of the future, expressed or implied, which arises from each option presented, including doing nothing. Other decision and policy making is conducted by trusting elite individuals or groups to perform such an analysis emotionally without reference to external, shared models that the parties affected can verify, and is restricted to situations where the risk of sharing the information is (perceived to be) greater than the risk of choosing an undesirable outcome.

    But the other view held:

    The issue is critical, and it would be good to pinpoint real examples (of policies where futures research) made a difference. I might say that, over the last year, I have looked in the literature and in conversations for examples in one area: the SRI/Shell Oil/GBN approach to scenarios. I have not found a single case, including Shell's, in which policy choice flowed directly from the scenarios. Other important values were achieved, at least partially, but not this--which I take to be the basic reason for doing FR.

    And another professional said:

    As you know, it is VERY difficult to "prove" that futures activities result in effective subsequent action. I know of no good study which has done that (do you?), and certainly have no clear evidence in anything I have done over the past 30 years.

    Indeed, I have submitted funding proposals to Ö..... for four years in a row...... to engage in a study to find out if indeed the ten years of ......... foresight........(much of which I have been very directly involved in) has in fact resulted in anything significant and lasting. "Does the future matter"? is one way I phrased it.....

    So I can't honestly answer your question. And, as I looked over what other people sent in to you, I don't think they can either, in spite of their claims.

    Unfortunately, policy making is usually impervious to futures studies. Predictions of the future can usually be picked apart and disregarded. Time horizons can be impossibly short. All the futures studies on global warming have not yet moved US policy in the directions recently endorsed by the administration...Political pressures are more important than futures studies.

    Which introduces another methodological problem: some of the best futures work is based on an organization (or person) stating, and working towards, a preferred future, very broadly stated, while other is based on scanning for highly specific problems/opportunities and trying to avoid/obtain them; others yet is aimed specifically at monitoring competitors in order to stay/get ahead of them in market share, for example, and much futures work seems to be just some person having a bright idea which may or may not be used to form policy and guide action (most of the material I have been sent has been of failures, not successes, or of possible, but certainly not conclusive, successes).

    Why this dichotomy? During the preparation of this report, the Millennium Project engaged the services of a professional futurist to identify and validate case studies. In the end, the futurist abandoned the research- at least for the time being. He gave several reasons for doing so:

    1. Most material on the subject simply states that success was achieved but is short on real evidence.

    2. Business examples are often proprietary.

    3. There is no adequate typology for classifying the cases and their methodology.

  9. Only very few foresight activities are carried out in house by trained professionals who are knowledgeable in the methods of futures research.

B.4. Individual Decisionmaking as a Mirror of Socio Political Decision Making

That futures thinking is pervasive and implicit in socio-political decisionmaking is borne out by studies of decisionmaking by individuals drawn from cognitive psychology and neurology. Holland et. al. for example, suggest that individuals make decisions based on mental models held in their brain that are "transient, dynamic representations." These models are of the "if--then" sort. For example, if a deal offered seems to be too good to be true, be cautious about accepting it because it is likely not to be true. Or if faced by life threatening situations, then react to protect self and family. Such models are used to make predictions about the need for and consequences of individual actions. The models are predictive, based on experience, and are modified as new learning by the individual takes place. The models lead to rules for decisionmaking and rules become "a network of interacting, competing, not necessarily consistent hypotheses" In the contest between conflicting hypotheses, the rule that leads to successful prediction "is strengthened, ... increasing the likelihood of its use in the future...." and those that lead to error are "modified or discarded.... Predications about the attainment of goals will normally be the most powerful source of feedback."

It is easy to make the assumption that this vision of decisionmaking by individuals parallels the processes of socio-political decision making used by leaders or groups. Paraphrasing Holland et. al., one could say: decisions are always based on explicit or implicit models. Such models are used to make predictions about the need for and consequences of action. The models are predictive, based on experience, and are modified as new learning takes place. The models lead to rules for decision making and sometimes the rules are not necessarily consistent. In the contest between conflicting hypotheses, the rules that have led to successful results in the past are used more frequently and those that have led to error in the past are rarely used again.

In this analogy, political necessity in socio-political decision making is parallel to self preservation in individual decisionmaking. Sometimes in the social sphere other factors weigh more heavily than political necessity, as other factors are sometimes more important than self preservation for the individual.

This parallel between the processes of induction in an individual and in socio-political decisionmaking can be carried further. Individual decision making is often befuddled by psychological inconsistencies. For reasons that have not yet been discovered, the mind sometimes thinks in patterns that appear to be irrational. Good bets that make sense in economic terms often seem risky; risky ventures sometimes seem like sure things. The way a question is posed affects the answer. Beliefs are formed by first impressions. Value is assigned where none exists. We depreciate mentally to avoid admitting a loss. We are very reluctant to cut losses on loosing projects. We value our self esteem and will go to great lengths to avoid admitting that we have acted in a way that was less than ideal. We invent and believe the explanations we invent for our poor performance. We ignore or do not believe information that contradicts our beliefs. We are overconfident. The list is longer, but it is clear that what appears to be intrinsic in individual decisionmaking is mirrored in the distortions of socio-political decision making.