Foresight policies need to ask questions about who benefits, who is impacted, who is engaged and how, says Effie Amanatidou.
Going through the COVID-19 crisis, uncertainty has certainly taken on a whole new meaning. Never before in our lifetime have we seen the whole world come to a halt in such a way. Never before were we unable to plan ahead for a month or even a week. Never before have we felt the value of relationships and contacts with our friends and loved ones.
In times of crises it is not unusual to be confronted with the question ‘why did we not see it coming?’ only to be followed by answers like ‘we did but no-one paid attention’. Indeed the recent financial crises, the environmental crisis that has now become chronic, and the societal unrest we are experiencing, all present valuable lessons for those who want to pay attention.
In this context it is a timely moment to explore the role, function and use of foresight methodology. The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research at AMBS has been a pioneer in the use of such methodology to inform and shape science, technology and innovation (STI) policy and strategy.
However while most foresight studies and applications are carried out in the context of STI policy, foresight methodologies are also used by a variety of intellectual domains and have very clear practical applications, often related to responsible research.
Responsible research and innovation has been around as a concept for many years. But besides its value in mitigating risks and benefits, is it enough?
For instance, how responsible is it to buy a new phone and then replace it in less than two years? How responsible is it to exploit third countries by exporting our plastics and electronics to their landfills without any assurance that these are not dangerous for the people that live there and their surroundings?
How responsible is it to support systems that exploit human lives and destroy the environment in extracting rare minerals for our precious transformative innovation policies? And how responsible is it to keep focusing on innovation-based growth?
I feel that the very meaning of innovation needs to change. Responsible innovation must be judged by its impact on both material returns and the agency of the most vulnerable, including the agency of future generations.
As part of this debate the academic concept of foresight itself cannot remain untouched. How many foresight exercises have focused on the negative consequences of innovation on the environment, and society and thus the economy? How many reports consider how used artefacts should be recycled, reused, or disposed alongside the key emerging technologies? How many foresight exercises pose challenging questions revealing the other side of the coin?
For instance, does it make sense to invest in saving the environment if we keep consuming as much? Does it make sense to promote yet another wave of technological innovation for solving the environment without prioritising what can already be done by changing practices?
The belief that technology can provide solutions for everything is not only misleading but dangerous. Responsibility cannot be limited to research and innovation, but where does responsibility for foresight begin and stop?
Many years ago my colleague Professor Luke Georghiou, writing with co-author Jennifer Harper, argued in a paper that for foresight to play a role in enabling a better understanding of complex situations and in defining effective policy responses, then appropriate foresight practices were needed instead of seeking to manage away uncertainty. These need to align different approaches and consider users’ perspectives, divergence and social shaping.
The transition phase we are currently living through – with its high uncertainty and risks - provides not only threats but also opportunities. For instance in his recent book Deeper City: Collective Intelligence and the Pathways from Smart to Wise Joe Ravetz from The University of Manchester argues that this crisis calls for a collective creative intelligence to realise the future now emerging, and that the main question is how the world can best respond to fundamental choices between a ‘bounce back’ to inequality and alienation or some kind of ‘bounce-forward’.
The way ahead
I believe that foresight practices should now incorporate the perspective of relational innovation - a concept that Albertson et al recently discussed in another paper - alongside conventional innovation, and ask questions about who benefits, who is impacted, who is engaged and how.
Underlined by values of care, stewardship, social welfare and sustainability, foresight should take up a normative role in building visions of progress that promote multiple forms of human and social affluence considering all sides of the coin, addressing the needs and enhancing the agency of the most vulnerable.
Foresight should not only be oriented to produce intelligence and help policymaking. It should also be underpinned by certain values to direct our actions responsibly for society and the environment. It should make policymakers pay attention and help them see and co-create alternative solutions with the non-usual suspects.
Most of all, foresight should be used to get us out of our comfort zone because this is not a responsible place to be anymore.