Written by Arturo Marqués

It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see” Winston Churchill [1]

One of the great defects of democracy is short-termism. In the frenetic daily life of European policymakers, immediacy often overshadows the pillars of our systems. Maybe that is why there has been a proliferation of the narrative of political leaders viewing as close to impossible the ideas proposed by ‘intelligence analysts’ when trying to predict future economic or social trends.

The main reasons usually alleged for this attitude are, on the one hand, the short-sightedness created by political electoral cycles, and, on the other, the need to deliver prompt results during political leaders’ limited terms in power [2] [3] [4] [5].

The perception of an imbalance in the EU’s vision is predominant: although some European politicians recognise the attention-grabbing potential of these futuristic analysis, others opt instead to shift the focus back to the actual moment. Yet despite this imbalance, there is an academic discipline that, although established years ago, is emerging more strongly across the international arena with the aim of closing this gap, called ‘Prospective studies’ [6]. The prospective, we could say, is in vogue.

PROSPECTIVISM’S MOMENTUM

Despite being in the ‘Information Age’, we are in the midst of the most uncertain, volatile and complex times since new technologies appeared. Never before has information been so accessible and widespread throughout different digital or analog platforms. Prospective studies is at a critical juncture in acting as a potential solution to those urgent needs the world’s democracies will have to be prepared to deal with.

Many leaders coming from the business world are already becoming aware of this new method and have established ‘Foresight Units’ within companies in order to allow them to anticipate and forecast future market trends and financial movements from their competitors. Consequently, these Foresight Units constantly try to influence future scenarios based on their strategic economic or corporate interests [7].

In this sense, anticipating the future is a huge competitive advantage, since it allows every government or business to avoid potential risks and to make the most out of upcoming opportunities. In turn, once these units have an approximate vision of the future, they can carry out actions (sometimes omissions) in order to positively influence the shaping of those future scenarios.

FORESIGHT IS NOT DIVINATION

‘Prospective analysis’ is essentially applied in those areas where it can be most impactful, for example when exploring the sustainability of a country’s social security system, or for those sectors greatly exposed to volatility, it can be used to determine corporate finance volatility in the business sector, for example. 

Nevertheless, by and large it is applied in many broad areas like economics, geopolitics and, increasingly, technology and the defense and (cyber)security sectors.

This kind of discipline is often confused with other terms such as ‘prediction’, ‘divination’ or ‘prophecy’. It is important to remark that prospective analysis’ intention is not to guess or announce the future via a godlike gift, but to dissect the real world through people’s behaviours and preferences, thus enabling prospective analysts to map out their future trajectory.

PAST vs. FUTURE

Yet the significance of interpreting these behaviours conflicts between those who place emphasis on the past against those who place it on the future. On the one hand, there is the ‘futurologist community’, claiming that in order to identify those emerging technologies that may be able to produce positive benefits, a long-term outlook is needed. On the other hand, there are the historians, who claim that an accurate analysis of the past is essential to understand the present (and maybe the future) [8].

The first group predicates that prospective analysts should not necessarily limit themselves to what the rationale could accept as possible but instead to imagine in a logical way the future and, in that way, mould it based on bold predictions. In other words: out-of-the-box thinking. Yet the future is multiple, indeterminate, and open to a wide variety of ‘forces of change’ that could alter the estimates from one day to another. In other words, what will happen tomorrow does not depend so much on the trends observed today as on whether futurologists can capture fast changes in behaviours and redirect their estimates.

In contrast, the second group claims that history is constantly repeating itself, and therefore so do behaviours [9]. These behaviours tend to replicate in high frequency, undermining the futurologist community’s claim that the predictability of humans has never been easier. Another critique they raise is that futurologists, instead of taking references from the past, mark timeframes too far away to be accurate, as the time horizon limit for futurologists is usually around 20 years ahead [10].

What is interesting to observe is that each generation records the impression of living in a time of unprecedented change. Some experts refer to it as ‘cognitive bias’, explaining that it is a natural psychological phenomenon [11]. They clarify that this is so because each era is exceptional for each person in existence, since it is the only time that they are alive. Hence, current ‘prospective analysts’ must be careful of overestimating the importance and speed of changes.

THE SHIELD AND WEAPON OF PROSPECTIVE ANALYSIS

The work that prospective analysts perform has gained significance in the here and now. During these uncertain times, prospective analyses are incredibly useful for our political leaders and decision-makers in order to make it possible for them to reach lowest common denominator agreements on actions to take in scenarios to come [12]. That is why one of the main mottos of prospective analysts is: ‘there will never be good answers if we do not ask the right questions’ [13]. Scenario constructions help political leaders or business executives understand what could happen (to be prepared for it), what should happen (to minimize one’s own potential risks), or even what people want to see happening (to legitimate their decisions), but never what will definitely happen.

This type of analysis also takes place in other sectors, such as national defense [14]. In that sense, it can be said that the prospective can be a good shield, but also a weapon. Most of the world’s armed forces have experts in prospective analysis: they need to glimpse what potential scenarios the armed forces could face in the future in order to be able to be prepared for them (and, if possible, win against their opponents).

When it comes to the business world, technological prospective analysis is also a key element. Proprietary ‘Foresight Units’ are usually embedded within organization charts, in charge of observing areas such as scientific and technological advances, potential ethical impacts of these on society and the forces operating in their favour (or against them) [15].

In history there are many examples proving how technological disruptions have ended with steady companies and even consolidated entire economic sectors. This can be observed in the histories of Kodak (cameras went digital and disappeared into cell phones as well as people turning from printing pictures to sharing them online), Nokia (failing to recognize the increasing importance of new software and how important the transition to smartphones would be), Blackberry (the whole mobile industry was on the precipice of moving to bigger touchscreen displays) or Toys R Us (direct competitors such as Amazon, Walmart and Target all trimmed down toy discounts during the holiday season).

Therefore, businesses should learn that being able to predict technological advancements through ‘Foresight Units’ could make them capable of anticipating future challenges, thus avoiding the potential obsolescence of their manufactured products and taking advantage of the speed in global supply chains.  In other words, occupying a horizon-scanning mindset.

SPAIN’S PROSPECTIVIST TURN

In Spain the first National Office for ‘Prospective and Long-Term Strategy’ was created in January 2020. Specifically, the office is oriented to think in terms of “the Spain of the next 30 years”, and is tasked to identify possible challenges and opportunities that Spain will need to face in the long term [16].

Mobility, ‘emptied Spain’ (increasingly uninhabited rural areas due to urbanization processes), climate change, the digital economy, and the automation of work are some of the issues addressed by this new office.

Indeed, they will follow the ‘4Ps strategy’, that is, to foretell the ‘Possible, Plausible, Probable and Preferable’ future for the many challenges Spain is destined to confront [17]. It is not a matter of guessing the future, but of systematically researching the empirical evidence available to identify those challenges and opportunities.

In fact, this initiative has already been successfully undertaken in other countries some years ago, such as in Canada, the United States, France, Finland, the United Kingdom, or in public international institutions like the European Commission and the OECD.

COVID-19: A KEY LESSON FOR THE FUTURE?

Hindsight has become a particularly valuable commodity in the present: the TED talk Bill Gates gave in 2015 warning how to prevent and stop pandemics like the current coronavirus recently went viral [18]. Gates alerted that there was a need to invest in better healthcare systems, to increase international cooperation, to invest in and train medical personnel, and to increase investments in vaccine research.

Failing to do so, Gates warned, would allow pandemics such as the new coronavirus to take millions of lives and billions of dollars from public and private coffers, as is happening today.

His comments, 5 years ahead, seem more than prophetic now that we see coronavirus present in 160 countries and how it has catastrophically affected the global economy. This is the perfect example of the magnitude of ‘prospective analysis’: looking to the future, detecting growing trends and reporting failures -or inaction – in essential public sectors, like those protecting public health.

So, if the world’s citizens could put themselves in the shoes of a prospective analyst, what is the main question they should ask themselves?

It may be most useful to ask “what consequences will Covid-19 have on the global economic system? Will it change it irreversibly, or will it just be a bump in the road, and everything will return to what it was?”. Though, the most pertinent question to ask, in light of the slow resolve of European policymakers to turn their focus to the future, could be “do we need a Bill Gates clone in the EU?”.


References

[1] Churchill, W. Retrieved 13 May 2020 from https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/winston-churchill-and-the-cold-war.html.

[2] Lagerspetz, E. (1999). Rationality and politics in long-term decisions. Biodiversity and Conservation 8149–164. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008821427812

[3] Govier, T. (1979). What Should We Do about Future People? American Philosophical Quarterly, 16(2), 105-113. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/20009747

[4] Alesina, A. (1989). Politics and business cycles in industrial democracies, Economic Policy, Volume 4, Issue 8, Pages 55–98, https://doi.org/10.2307/1344464

[5] J. Franzese, R. (2002). Electoral and Partisan Cycles in Economic Policies and Outcomes, Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 5:369-421  https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.polisci.5.112801.080924

[6] Nijhoff, M. (1972). Future is tomorrow: 17 Prospective Studies. Springer Netherlands.  DOI 10.1007/978-94-010-2826-4

[7] Rohrbeck, R. (2018). Corporate foresight and its impact on firm performance: A longitudinal analysis, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Volume 129, Pages 105-116, ISSN 0040-1625, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2017.12.013.

[8] Briggs, A. (1978). The historian and the future, Futures, Volume 10, Issue 6, pages 445-451, ISSN 0016-3287, https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-3287(78)90044-7.

[9] Staley, D.J. (2002). A History of the Future. History and Theory, 41: 72-89. doi:10.1111/1468-2303.0022

[10] Inayatullah, S. (2013). Estudios del futuro: teorías y metodologías | OpenMind. Retrieved 13 May 2020, from https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/articulos/estudios-del-futuro-teorias-metodologias/

[11] Haselton, M.G., Nettle, D. and Murray, D.R. (2015). The Evolution of Cognitive Bias. In The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, D.M. Buss (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781119125563.evpsych241

[12] Cuhls, K (2015). Bringing Foresight to decision-making: lessons for policy-making from selected nonEuropean countries. Policy Brief by the Research, Innovation, and Science Policy Experts (RISE). Directorate-General for Research and Innovation Directorate A – Policy Development and coordination Unit A6 – Science Policy, foresight and data.

[13] Lewis, C. (2019). The right questions are more important than the right answers. Retrieved 13 May 2020, from https://www.marketingweek.com/colin-lewis-right-questions/

[14] Nemeth, B., Dew, N., Augier, M. (2018). Understanding some pitfalls in the strategic foresight processes: The case of the Hungarian Ministry of Defense, Futures, Volume 101, Pages 92-102, ISSN 0016-3287, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2018.06.014.

[15] Rohrbeck, R. (2018). Corporate foresight and its impact on firm performance: A longitudinal analysis, Technological Forecasting and Social Change

[16] Aguiar, A. (2020). Para qué servirá la nueva oficina de estrategia y prospectiva que acaba de crear el Gobierno de Sánchez: así funciona en otros países. Retrieved 9 May 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.es/sirve-oficina-estrategia-prospectiva-gobierno-562315

[17] Hancock, T. & Bezold, C. (1994). Possible futures, preferable futures. The Healthcare Forum journal. 37(2):23-9. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/13166132_Possible_futures_preferable_futures

[18] Gates, B. (2015). The next outbreak? We are not ready. Retrieved 9 May 2020, from https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates_the_next_outbreak_we_re_not_ready/transcript?language=es