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Casting around

By Dave Snowden  ·  August 15, 2012  ·  Reflections

One one flight in the last few weeks (to be honest I cannot remember which one) I caught up on the film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  I first came across this as a late night story on BBC Radio 4,then bought and loved the book.  The film lives up the the gentle pace and humanity of the original, augmented by two of the best of the modern generation of British Actors in the starring roles.  Some of the most evocative scenes in the film are those of salmon fishing, with the casting of fine line over the waters in an attempt to tempt the fish onto the fly.  There is a peaceful rhythm to this, punctuated from time to time by the excitement of a catch.

I was reminded of this when I got involved in a set of internal discussions (in preparation for a forthcoming client training course) about the relationship between Backcasting (a common technique in the Foresight community) and our own Future Backwards which is from time to time thought of as a variation of Backcasting.   For those not familiar with this field Backcasting is a well documented method by which a desired future state is 'visioned' and then the steps to attain that future are defined.  The European Commission's online foresight guide says this:

The method is used in situations where there is a normative objective and fundamentally uncertain future events that influence these objectives. The knowledge about the system conditions and the underlying social dynamics can also have a powerful impact on the environment, but are unpredictable. The need for participation of stakeholders is strong and the future vision can not be realised by a hierarchical approach, or limited stakeholders. The desired future cannot be achieved by simple extrapolation from the present arrangements, but need a fundamental different approach of fulfilling the social need.

Its over two decades old now and originally developed as a contrasting method to forecasting.  Instead of extrapolating from the present we envision the future and find ways to achieve it.   To my way of thinking its part of a body of systems thinking (systems dynamics technically) which have grown over the past few decades which focus on this type of approach: define the future, then close the gap.  Of recent years I have increasingly contrasted this with complexity approaches which seek to accurately describe the current state of affairs, determine what can be changed, the dispositions of the system to evolve in certain directions and not in others.  Under this concept, while we may have an overall and general sense of where would like to be, the pathway is experimental, evolutionary and we may well end up somewhere else which is both more desirable and more sustainable.

So that really means we have three approaches:

  • Forecasting, extrapolating trends from the present (I would includes most crowd sourcing techniques in that by the way)
  • Backcasting, the opposite of the above but still assuming causality
  • Sidecasting (I need to work on the name here), a complexity based approach which seeks to explore the range of possibilities then experimentally evolve

Our Future Backwards technique is one of the most popular our methods and it has several uses, but its main purpose is to scope the range of possible actions, explore the way in which decision makers will filter data and then map into a series of contextually aware interventions.  As such it is a tool for situational assessment which leads to intervention planning and then monitoring for which it also has utility.

So back to my fishing metaphor.  The fly fisher has a sense of where the fish would be, but is engaged in a complex game place the fly in such a way and a manner as to get said fish to move in order that it may be caught.  To do so they use expert knowledge and exploratory experiments while exhibiting much patience.  The approach I am going to outline in a series of posts follows that path and acknowledges that we are often (as in the picture) carrying out this activity in the dark.  It will end with a typology of foresight methods