What Do We Call Creative Foresight?


If you’ve worked with foresight methods, and while it has probably brought your organization great benefits, it may have occurred to you that, sometimes, their results feel very much anchored in today’s state of the world; That their concepts seem decidedly Western, and grounded in a period where “progress” (human and technical) was seen as a common, desirable and almost evident goal; That some of the most disruptive ideas and innovations of our time are left out of the scenarios; That the methods and tools they use are not accessible to most of the population…

It’s not that foresight has failed you. But maybe you also need to visit a different approach to foresight.

Uses of the Future

Formerly in charge of foresight at Unesco, Riel Miller distinguishes two very different ways to “use the future”:

  1. “Anticipation for the future” explores possible futures in order to either prepare for them, adapt to them, or after having decided that some futures are more desirable than others, to plan towards them. This is the most common, and usually the most useful, kind of foresight. Its goal is to reduce or contain uncertainty, so as to produce a reasonably deterministic course of action. In order to achieve that, it rests on the hypothesis that the fundamental building blocks of society (institutions, economic mechanisms, social relationships, etc.) are more or less stable.
  2. “Anticipation for emergence” focuses on novelty, on making sense of emerging phenomena and weak signals, and on opening new possibilities. It does not produce clear and well-grounded action plans, but rather transformative, open-ended dynamics that “change the conditions of change”. Its effect, if not its goal, is to increase uncertainty. Therefore, it does not shy away from the idea that even the fundamental building blocks of society may become unstable (as could be the case because of, say, climate change).
Creative Foresight

“Creative Foresight” clearly belongs to the second kind of anticipatory work. Building on a classic assertion within foresight practitioners – “the future does not yet exist, it can only be imagined” –, Creative Foresight emphasizes the need to liberate our imagination, to open our minds to radically new possibilities. To this end, it combines the use of classic foresight tools such as trends, weak signals and factors of change, with the disciplines of imagination, i.e., various forms of (generally collaborative) artistic creation and design.

Creative foresight can be used to refer to a broad and growing field of practices that include design-fiction, ethnographic/experiential futures, narrative foresight, the use of speculative fiction by public and private institutions, as well as some (though not all) uses of forum theater, art-science, collective imagination, etc.

Creative Foresight is particularly useful for:

  • Exploring radically different futures
  • Questioning dominant narratives about the future, including the “decolonizing” of futures
  • Long-term foresight
  • Working with heterogeneous groups, with different outlooks and various kinds and/or levels of expertise
  • Taking into account different worldviews and cultures
  • Polarized situations where dialogue is difficult or impossible
  • Including participants who usually do not take part in foresight exercises, helping them develop a sense of agency over their future…
Some Principles of Creative Foresight

Even though Creative Foresight is an emerging set of practices without well-defined boundaries, some common principles appear.

First, Creative Foresight takes imagination seriously. It builds on scholarly work in anthropology (Philippe Descola), philosophy (Cornelius Castoriadis), psychology, etc., that stresses the foundational importance of “social imaginaries” in all human societies. It does not use arts, narratives, and design to illustrate previously defined ideas, but rather by “suspending disbelief about change[*]”, to express participants’ worldviews and aspirations, and to collectively produce unexpected insights.

Second, Creative Foresight aims not only to be inclusive, but also to develop a sense of individual and collective agency within its participants. In Creative Foresight, all kinds and levels of expertise are equal. Foresight in general is not about predicting the future; by adding arts and fiction to the process, Creative Foresight goes even further, as it opens the door to a greater diversity of people to have something to say about it. preventing anyone from affirming that he or she has a better handle on the future than others. Also, by calling upon senses and affects, as well as reason, Creative Foresight invites participants to experience the futures that they create, allowing them to “write themselves into the story”, to use science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s words. This is an important step to build self-confidence and the ability to perceive oneself as an agent of change.

Third, Creative Foresight recognizes itself as a cultural activity, meaning that it is explicitly grounded in the culture(s) of its participants. No worldview is out of bonds, nor beyond questioning.

Last, Creative Foresight embraces complexity, uncertainty and even ambiguity. Its outcomes are usually not self-explanatory. They allow space for the public to question it and for various readers to identify different ideas within it. They are often designed to generate debate. They stress the fact that the future is never already written, that it is up to us to collectively write it and hopefully, make it better.

In Creative Foresight, ‘future’ is a synonym for ‘change’ and the Future is not a place, rather a capability.

[*] From writer Bruce Sterling’s ’official’ definition of Design Fiction (2013): “”Design fiction is the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.”