Straight-talking prognosticators

Foresight
June 2, 2000

Consider the following difference. In commercial futures consultancy, the supplier is always reaching for ideas that can become solutions for clients who inhabit a world of targets, deadlines, profit-and-loss and continuous competitive pressure. The consultant's method of delivery always has to fit with the client's capacity to absorb: we are talking hour-long presentations, staccato imperatives, front-loaded conclusions, a boiling-down and a summing-up, points-as-bullets, literal powerpoint...

In academic futures research, the supplier takes time, builds expertise, thinks out loud in discourse and disquisition. The audience is ready to watch three acts, is educated in process and reference and is ready to accept subordinate clauses and footnotes. The objective reality under review might well be exactly the same under both disciplines. But these are two tribes that interact and interbreed all too rarely and inefficiently. The consultants think the academics mentally obese; the academics think the consultants intellectually tabloid.

And so, a quick hurrah for Foresight , if nothing else for its ambition to "direct futures thinking more effectively to provide practical guidance for today's decision-makers in business and government". This must mean articles that, while still rooted in a hinterland of method and expertise, offer readability and purpose, too. There is an impressive range of material on view in the early volumes, including topics such as work and labour markets, demographics, constitutional reform, biotechnology, time theory and sustainability, as well as general futures philosophies and techniques.

For most of the time, it is not at all badly produced either. But sometimes, the old blue pencil should have come down harder on colloquialism and jargon. A good piece on science policy in Europe is a bit spoilt by a call for the European Union to "get its act together". Another good contribution on the future of work starts losing the support of its audience by using phrases such as "there prevails in many advanced economies a hegemonic totalising discourse thatI". To use language in this way is to signal your retreat into an exclusivist world where good ideas all too quickly become bad essays. A tutorial for the self alone.

Less impressive were the contributions from international "quangoland" - too often rich in grand questions and poor in practical replies. Think of Foresight 's goal of "practical guidance" and bite on this flourish from two Unesco authors: "How can we reinstate the long term and free ourselves from the hegemony of the short term? How can we strengthen our ability to anticipate and foresee?... How can we introduce into our children's education and that of future leaders an ethics of the future conceived as an ethics of the present for the future?" Please, save us from stuff like this.

A further quibble is that too many articles are tempted into what might be called the degeneracy of lists: lists of references, lists of good ideas, wish-lists, shopping lists and so on. This seriously damages readability and gives the impression that the contributors feels no need for self-discipline within their single-issue expertise. Some pieces are, in the full pejorative sense, downright academic.

But, though Foresight has a strong British focus, the spread of international contributors alone makes for a really good fizz of ideas and arguments. Too much forecasting over the years has been heavily Anglocentric as, to take one example, contemporary debates on the theme of European identity and culture will reveal. All too easily, prevailing political assumptions can enter the notionally neutral world of research and measurement. It is certainly the business of our best thinkers to combine, to contest and to subvert all forms of mental provincialism. The juxtaposition of American and mainland European futurists alongside the United Kingdom's finest does give serious merit to the Foresight concept and will prove, I suspect, the source of its long-term value to the many audiences the journal is trying to address.

Furthermore, an editorial willingness can be detected not just to let all forecasting orthodoxies be challenged (from around the globe), but also to let all forecasting's many failures - and some have been very spectacular over the past generation - be ruthlessly exposed. An editor who is ready to confront the real possibility that "futures research methods have either stagnated or have regressed in recent times" gets our vote. Too many futurists hide behind a thick crust of accumulated "expertise" and the whole business - on its academic side at least - has a poor record of facing and reviewing failure. Too many reputations are at stake. In commercial forecasting, meanwhile, bad work, or even an honest error, is almost inevitably rewarded by a cancelled contract.

If Foresight 's editor, Colin Blackman, is committed, as he seems to be, to the best kind of disciplines for all wings of the forecasting business, he will be doing the future a favour. For any journal of this kind, it must be hard, as the number of articles swells across the year, to maintain a tight grip on quality. But on this reading, Foresight seems to be doing really rather well. Now and then it is possible to sense an academic or two gratefully parking over-used lecture notes in a bright new publishing berth. But many pieces, especially those from overseas, have real freshness and vitality. Also, the commitment to explanatory charts and graphics is well sustained and enhances the general air of professionalism across the pages. Foresight is a very commendable effort, and I hope it gains a big audience.

James Murphy is director of Model Reasoning, a planning consultancy, and associate of the Future Foundation.

Foresight: The Journal of Futures Studies, Strategic Thinking and Policy
Six times a year

Editor - Colin R. Blackman
ISBN - 1463 6689
Publisher - Camford Publishing (www.camfordpublishing.com)
Price - £0.00 (instits); £55.00 (indivs)
Pages - -

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