Against the common belief that the success or failure of foresight entities is determined by the strategies they take or their management ability in running a business, I want to highlight that larger forces in the environment, typically unseen by managers, allow some foresight entities to succeed and others to fail.
In recent years, a growing number of futurists and think tanks have emerged in the foresight field, but few of them have succeeded against tsunamis of social change on regional and global levels. If a futurist or a foresight think tank happens to be in the right place at the right time, the chances for success are much higher, regardless of the manager's ability.
It’s been 27 years since the day Marien categorized foresight practitioners as “Mainstream”, “Marginal” and “Non-Futurist” futurists. Many things have changed since that time and futures research has evolved into a distinct field of study, namely Futures Studies, and so an enterprise usually remembered as Foresight profession.
Many people have graduated in futures studies at BA, MA and PhD levels and also many firms have been established, aimed at offering foresight services. I call all of these: “foresight entities.” But one thing remains unchanged: the future is uncertain and a mandate to develop useful strategies is a valid pursuit. This is the key factor that has made this field of study and activity so attractive to many individuals, making them ready to invest their money and time to know more about the future, and this is why foresight programs are being held at more than 90 universities and colleges around the world, teaching futures studies directly or implicitly to their students.
In her review on the history of futures studies, Schultz (2012, pp. 3-7) has identified five waves of evolution, including: oral tradition, early written age, extraction and enlightenment, systems and cybernetics, and complexity and emergence. It’s an echo of what has been earlier discussed by Wheelwright (2010) considering seven waves in this manner: conceptual and theoretical, methodological, the early applications of futures knowledge, academic, public awareness of futures concepts, recognition of foresight as a profession for futurists, and finally bringing futures knowledge to general public.
Shultz’s waves and Wheelwright’s surfs both point to one fact: that futures studies have an evolving nature and the field has survived by surfing on all these waves. I also want to stress the organic nature of futures studies and foresight. Yes, we are dealing with a living field of study and profession that has evolved during time, and that evolution will continue into the future. It has also a strategic nature as it’s a strategy for understanding change. No one is immune to social change and when that change comes to organizations, it becomes more serious. In my point of view, the organizational side of foresight is heavier than its personal side. It’s true that personal futures matter for personal planning, but organizational futures are more important as they deal with the alternative futures of many individuals working for a common cause.
Keeping these considerations in mind, I want to point out that the evolution of foresight entities, either futurists or foresight think tanks, is a matter of survival. You may find my view similar to evolutionary social theories that are developed from theories of natural selection in biology. Theories of biological evolution try to explain why certain life forms appear and survive whereas others perish. Some theories suggested the forms that survive are typically best fitted to the immediate environment. These ideas made Michael Hannan and John Freeman, originators of the “population ecology” model of organization, argue that there are many limitations on the ability of organizations to change (Daft, 2010). Their model is composed of three elements that I can introduce them to foresight entities in this manner:
- Variation: Large number of futurists and futurist think tanks appear in the population of foresight entities.
- Selection: Some futurists find a niche and survive.
- Retention: A few futurist think tanks grow large and become institutionalized in the environment.
Looking into the foresight community we can see how that model happens in our societies every day. When there is insufficient demand for a futurist think tank’s intellectual products and when insufficient or non-original foresight inputs are available to the think tank, that organization will be selected out. Willy-nilly the environment is the important determinant of an organization’s survival.
To a higher step, foresight think tanks struggle for survival or competition with other foresight entities that are engaged in similar activities with similar patterns of resource utilization and outcomes. That leads me to apply the population ecology perspective in labeling them as “generalist” or “specialist.” Futurist think tanks with a wide range of activities, those that offer a broad range of products or services or that serve a broad market, are generalists. On the other hand, futurist firms that provide a narrower range of services or serve a narrower market are specialists. If you are running a foresight think tank, you may find your label easily by taking a look at your services and products.
According to Daft (2010, p. 192), specialists are generally more competitive than generalists in the narrow area in which their domains overlap. Generalists are able to reallocate resources internally to adapt to a changing environment, whereas specialists are not. However, because specialists are often smaller companies, they can sometimes move faster and be more flexible in adapting to changes. Is your foresight company a generalist or a specialist? Then you can set your degree of survivability in today competitive market.
If you bring my discussion under the light of organizational life cycle debate, you may get the same result. As a foresight think tank grows, it may succeed to pass through four entrepreneurial, collectivity, formalization, and elaboration stages; but in the same manner it becomes large in size. So, in this case development does not have necessarily a good meaning. We need to accept the fact that big organizations usually find change harder than their smaller counterparts.
New foresight entities should be able to meet the new needs of society more than established futurist think tanks that are slow to change. This is what population ecology model of organization teaches us.
Curry, Andrew. (2012). The Future of Futures. Houston, Texas: The Association of Professional Futurists.
Daft, Richard. L. (2010). Organization Theory and Design. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning.
Marien, Michael. (1985). Toward a new futures research: Insights from twelve types of futurists, Futures Research Quarterly, 1:1, 13-14.
Wheelwrigh, Verne (2010). The Next Wave. Journal of Futures Studies, 14, 4, 107 – 114.
Alireza Hejazi is the founding editor of Futures Discovery website: http://www.futuresdiscovery.com/. He is a graduate of Strategic Foresight from Regent University School of Business & Leadership.
Essays and comments posted in World Future Society and THE FUTURIST magazine blog portion of this site are the intellectual property of the authors, who retain full responsibility for and rights to their content. For permission to publish, distribute copies, use excerpts, etc., please contact the author. The opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Future Society takes no stand on what the future will or should be like.
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