With so much time spent thinking about the future, IFTFers are sometimes asked whether they have optimistic or pessimistic outlooks regarding what's to come. From my own understanding of what defines a foresight practitioner, optimism comes with the job. In my view, practitioners have no choice but to be optimists because why work on something that you think is inevitably doomed. Asking a foresight practitioner if they're optimistic about the future is like asking a farmer if they're optimistic about agriculture. If the cause is lost, why put any energy and labor into it?
I find it strange to consider foresight practitioners as pessimists since they're actively trying to change or at least prepare for the future. Pessimists think the worst will happen and that little will change the outcome. From my time working in the IFTF Foresight Essentials program, which trains people to be foresight practitioners, I've learned that a foresight practitioner moves through the Prepare-Foresight-Insight-Action cycle and applies foresight methodology toward some purpose. What's key is the Action phase of the cycle. Practitioners take action, and through their acts they resist the notion that the future cannot be changed. By resisting a future where they cannot control or change anything, foresight practitioners prove themselves to be the opposite of pessimists, who think the future is ruined.
Was I the only one who saw foresight practitioners in this rosey light? I wanted to see what my colleagues thought on the matter, so I asked four of IFTF’s senior staff members to respond to the following prompt:
A foresight practioner is someone who applies foresight to achieve a specific outcome. Therefore, all foresight practitioners are optimists by default because they believe that they can change the future.
Here’s how they responded:
“I do believe that a foresight practitioner has to have a sense of optimism. This does not mean that you ignore or not examine potentially negative or dangerous possibilities. It is essential to be doing that, but at the same time, what you learn early on is that the future is not preordained, it is shapeable by us—by the actions of policymakers, business people, and average people. This gives you a sense of hope. This is what has made futures work so attractive to me. Despite constantly seeing potentially ominous signals on the horizon (along with promising ones), what you learn is that we have power to shape what we see in a desirable direction. Futures work also gives you a sense of preparedness—you have thought through different scenarios, you understand larger patterns that are unfolding, you have analyzed different responses—and you are better equipped to both face and shape the future. Finally, as a futurist you have to be an optimist. The very idea that you are systematically thinking about the future means that there is a future, and that's an optimistic proposition!”
— Marina Gorbis, IFTF Executive Director
"Yes! The late British novelist Virginia Woolf wrote one of my favorite insights about the future: ‘The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.’ She didn’t mean dark as in full of terrible things. She meant dark as in unknown, unseeable. And I agree: A dark, unseeable future is a wonderful thing, because if we can't see exactly what the future will be, then it can be anything. We can feel optimistic that we can still change it, we can shape it, we can actively make it whatever we can imagine. In my experience as a professional futurist, it’s a waste of what the future is really good for to simply try to predict it. The gift of the future is creativity. To create something new, or make a change, you have to be able to imagine how things can be different. And the future is a place where everything can be different. But also, as historian and activist Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. To hope is to give yourself to the future—and that commitment to the future is what makes the troubles of the present inhabitable.’ So I would say, yes, all foresight practitioners are optimists, but we are optimists with axes in our hands ready to break down doors when we need to.”
— Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research + Development
“This prompt is rich and provocative and yet subtle. Do we engage with foresight to achieve a specific outcome? Sometimes we use foresight to open our minds to a broader sense of the possible—not to discern the direction of change. Foresight is a wonderful practice to inform design thinking and strategy development, but not only because it might help you set your compass point. It might also let you see new shapes on the horizon.
Are foresight practitioners optimists? There is certainly a role for optimism in foresight, balanced with realism. This is closely linked to a sense of agency, which is in my opinion the most important benefit of engaging with the future.
And most profoundly, do foresight practitioners believe they can change the future? I come to my practice with humility that alone, I might imagine a world we want to live in, but might also unintentionally plant negative consequences. My mind leaps ahead five and seven layers of implications. But the Futures Wheel and IFTF foresight tool of Draw Out Consequences are circular—not linear. I might be able to imagine several possible paths, but cannot see all the way around a future possibility.
This is why futuring is best done in a community where we can use foresight for both broad and specific means, and where we can rely on others’ experiences and perspectives to inform the gaps in our own. A community of foresight can help you see positive possible futures when your view is clouded by pessimism.”
— Daria Lamb, Ambassador to the Future
“Foresight practitioners are optimists in the sense that they are engaged with futures that are not yet settled and hope is possible. Futurists can imagine futures that are not here yet. They can imagine something better than the past or the present. In addition however, foresight practitioners must practice voluntary fear engagement to expose themselves to pessimistic and frightening possible futures. Optimism alone is not resilient when the future turns out to be worse than what was expected. Voluntary fear exposure—gaming essentially—allows players to experience frightening futures in low-risk ways to become more future ready. Wide-eyed optimists will not be ready if things turn bad suddenly. Wargaming, for example, allows players to experience being killed without having to die. Foresight practitioners can help others find hope—their own clarity and purpose-—in the midst of a scrambled future. We're all in a dangerous game of hope.”
— Bob Johansen, IFTF Distinguished Fellow