Foresight and Public Policy in a Complex World


In talking about foresight, I'm reminded that this is not an attribute but a process.  No one "has" foresight, we look ahead – we envision.

In turbulent times, when we're reminded of the Black Swan effects and the connected nature of things, we tremble at our inability to predict.  Truth is, our ability to predict only occurs when the world is relatively linear and stable – that is, anomalous.  We have built up such structures and have been the primary power for nearly a generation.  We have come to believe, until recently, that the world should be predictable. 


Let me illustrate, I beg your indulgence.

You are driving along Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive one evening.  You have set your sights on Staunton and plan to be there within two hours.  You hum along, thinking only of the dinner and wine that await you, dimly aware of your settings. As you drive, you are so given to boredom that you have music to occupy your senses as you keep an even course.  Even if you experience a flat tire, you have preparations for that.  It's the furthest thing from your mind, but the occurrence is normal enough that you have a jack and a spare.  If the spare is flat, well, you have AAA and a cell phone.  You aren't thinking of this future, however, your mind is fixed on the evening's upcoming Pinot Noir.

Then the tire blows.  And your daughter borrowed the jack.  Your phone has no coverage in this spot.  How big a spot, you don't know. But now new possible futures are flooding your mind.  Someone may come by, you picture that scenario and how it would play out.  Even patting your pocket to ensure you have cash to compensate the Good Samaritan.

But no one comes.  You aren't aware, but a freak rockslide closed the highway 45 minutes ago.  A Black Swan event, although there have been signs warning of such things on this road for years.  You are alone. You decide to walk to see if the cell coverage improves. Walking along the dark road, hugging the shoulder in case a car comes along, as night falls hard.

Unlike an hour ago, you are now much more aware of sounds.  Is that an animal?  If so, you try to guess its size and intent.  You are now picturing personal futures that were completely unthinkable when you started your car this afternoon.  What if you trip and end up in a ravine?

Does it hurt to die of exposure?

Then it begins to rain.

We can paint a similar picture, but this time by hearing a noise in your home at night.  Animal? Fallen object?  Intruder?  We flash to several possible immediate futures, none of which were envisioned minutes earlier.

Implications for Policy Planning - Learn from Biology

What is common here?  We enter a period of heightened awareness as we simultaneously try to comprehend the changes in our environment and walk through possible futures.  This process cycles, as "new" futures enter our thoughts and obsolete ones are discarded.


These illustrations are my attempt to convey the following.  When we find ourselves off course:

  1. We become more attuned to our environment
  2. We focus mental energies as our bodies increase our capacity. "From deep within your brain, a chemical signal speeds stress hormones through the bloodstream, priming your body to be alert and ready to escape danger. Concentration becomes more focused, reaction time faster, and strength and agility increase. When the stressful situation ends, hormonal signals switch off the stress response and the body returns to normal." (NIH)
  3. We model possible futures, thinking through steps and working out actions we may take.  (I'll need a weapon if it's an intruder.  I left a knife on the counter."
  4. We explore/probe the environment. ("I'll walk just a little further in this direction, maybe the coverage comes back."  "I'll open the door now, make some noise.")
  5. Based on what we experience next, we return to step 2 until we have a path that appears to resolve matters to our satisfaction (our perception of "satisfaction" changes as the crisis deepens).

In the current global climate, therefore, foresight and policy should become more fluid and iterative.  Adopt the mindset that this is a process, not a state.  As Eisenhower warned, "Plans are nothing, planning is everything."

  • Establish mechanisms to listen
  • Focus our energies on learning interdependencies, weak links
  • Cooperate more, trust more, with allies and the indifferent. We need others more than we realize, for the weak signals in the environment may be discernible to them.
  • Establish a rigor of visioning, building on futures analysis.  I found a reference online that said in 1974, the House Committee on Committees stipulated that each Committee "shall review and study on a continuing basis undertake futures research and forecasting on matters within its jurisdiction."  If true, this is extraordinary.  And a hook by which we can begin today.
  • Explore, probe, experiment.  Is today's economic crisis the end of Bretton Woods, or Westphalia?  Or does the surge towards nationalization of banks and industry represent a resurgence of Westphalia, perhaps its last?
  • Rinse and repeat.