Foresight is a messy methodology but a marvellous mindset

Blog by Berta Mizsei: “…From my first few forays into foresight, it seemed that it employed desk research and expert workshops, but refrained from the use of data and from testing the solidity of assumptions. This can make scenarios weak and anecdotal, something experts justify by stating that scenarios are meant to be a ‘first step to start a discussion’.

The deficiencies of foresight became more evident when I took part in the process – so much of what ends up in imagined narratives depends on whether an expert was chatty during a workshop, or on the background of the expert writing the scenario.

As a young researcher coming from a quantitative background, this felt alien and alarming.

However, as it turns out, my issue was not with foresight per se, but rather with a certain way of doing it, one that is insufficiently grounded in sound research methods. In short, I am disturbed by ‘bad’ foresight. Foresight’s newly-found popularity means that there is more demand than supply for foresight experts, thus the prevalence of questionable foresight methodology has increased – something that was discussed during a dedicated session at this year’s Ideas Lab (CEPS’ flagship annual event).

One culprit is the Commission. Its foresight relies heavily on ‘backcasting’, a planning method that starts with a desirable future and works backwards to identify ways to achieve that outcome. One example is the 2022 Strategic Foresight Report ‘Twinning the green and digital transitions in the new geopolitical context’ that mapped out ways to get to the ideal future the Commission cabinet had imagined.

Is this useful? Undoubtedly.

However, it is also single-mindedly deterministic about the future of environmental policy, which is both notoriously complex and of critical importance to the current Commission. Similar hubris (or malpractice) is evident across various EU apparatuses – policymakers have a clear vision of what they want to happen and they invest into figuring out how to make that a reality without admitting how turbulent and unpredictable the future is. This is commendable and politically advantageous… but it is not foresight.

It misses one of foresight’s main virtues: forcing us to consider alternative futures…(More)”.