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Foresight – Its Role and Impact in Policy, Planning and Practice


By Dr. Geci Karuri-Sebina

“You see things, and you say ‘Why?’

But I dream things that never were, and I say ‘Why not?'”
George Bernard Shaw


As African policymakers, public administrators, and development practitioners, we face contexts that are both complex and complicated to plan around. The realities of our contexts are an accumulation of actors and issues that may manifest uniquely at a hyper-local level, and generally lack any useful antecedent or documented methodology or text-book approach for how to deal with them. This reality does not affect policymakers only; it also applies to those at all levels of practice.

Futurist Jim Dator theorised that there are four basic ways in which people tend to think about the future, resulting in what he terms the four archetypical futures:

  • There are those who think about the future in terms of collapse: They think that the trajectory they are on is not sustainable, and thus everything is going to fall apart eventually. This the typical dystopian, doom-and-gloom future.
  • Then there is the continuity group who think that the future will be business as usual: They believe that life may have its ups and downs, but that ultimately people always find a way to prevail as they have over the years and inertia can be sustained.
  • The Disciplinarians believe in human beings’ capacity to self-discipline so as to ensure their survival. So we will somehow find a way to change ourselves and our behaviours to suit the context so as to be resilient.
  • The last group believes in transformative futures – that human beings have the capacity to quantum-change themselves and /or their conditions vastly differently, which may change everything more fundamentally.

How do we tackle our complex reality if these are the four pre-existing archetypal ways in which the future tends to be construed? Can we possibly consider a future reality that is more open-ended or are we fixed into tunnel vision? In my opinion, working within any complex context fundamentally requires the unleashing of imaginations, getting more creative, and enhancing open engagement by civics to help us gain a richer and less inhibited perspective of the future.

Particularly, as South Africans or more broadly as Africans, our way of viewing the future should reflect many imagined possibilities because our possibilities are in many hitherto unimagined and unprecedented. It can be argued that our possible futures have been impinged upon over the ages at many levels – from coloniality to societal, political, and economic upheavals, and more recently by the impacts of technological and climate change.


The role of foresight in the agenda of government

In many organisations where people are employed, including government institutions, there are all kinds of balance scorecards or performance agreements that set out outputs expected from each employee. Globally, countries are similarly subscribed to various charters that bind them to certain deliverables over a period of time; typically, the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs); continentally, African Union (AU) Agenda 2063; and locally, the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP).

Figure 1: The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


Figure 2: Vision 2063 – The African Charter.


The NDP serves as a roadmap or blueprint that seeks to put South Africa on a growth trajectory. Vision 2030, which is contained within the National Development Plan, spells out a number of targets that have to be achieved by 2030. These include job creation, infrastructure development, promoting a green economy, quality education, healthcare for all, combatting corruption, building a capable state, and building a cohesive society.

Figure 3: Vision 2030 of the National Development Plan (NDP). 


What is common amongst these visions or blueprints is their convergence around a set of issues or development objectives that are perceivably universal. As a result, other than being ambiguous about their means, there is clarity of expression in what is expected to be achieved.

Similarly, many other countries have shown commitment to achieving these goals or targets and have invested significant resources to build their capacity to work towards that. One of the key areas that many of these countries have invested in is innovation. Innovation has become focal as a key lever, enabler and catalyst are described almost universally in terms of liveable towns and cities, vibrant economies characterised by growth and development, and sustainability in several dimensions, including ecological, environmental (climate change), social, and fiscal.

The South African situation

As reflected above, there is not much difference between South Africa and other world countries in terms of the kind of future they would like to achieve. Vision 2030, which is enshrined in South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP), clearly sets out the critical targets which it suggests that, if achieved, would put the country on a positive developmental trajectory.

However, while South Africa may have covered significant ground in terms of its NDP project, there is still a lot that has to be done to deal with many of the legacies that have long characterised the country. Currently, South Africa remains one of the – if not the – most polarised and unequal societies in the world, with the gap between the rich and poor continuing to grow even wider. Furthermore, there are a myriad of other challenges in the country, which include ethnocentric divisions (racial, tribal, nationalist) amongst the communities, high disease rates, inadequate and inequitable education and healthcare systems, insufficient job opportunities or economic access, chronic corruption, and deteriorating infrastructure. And these circumstances are compounded by other key factors, including a population that is growing, dynamic, and unevenly distributed as the major urban centres continue to grow at unprecedented rates. At the same time, the realities of climate change have already begun to affect the liveability and productivity of many parts of the country as we face the vagaries of drought, floods, storms and natural disaster.

These systemic challenges mean that South Africa’s NDP project finds itself playing out in a specific and crippling context; one which is chequered, coloured, and full of biases and disparities. While this context could be attributed to legacy, the reality is that it is still germane now. No matter from whence or whom, we face circumstances and phenomena that we cannot ignore as we contemplate our futures.

This context rears its ugly head in many respects, including economically, socially, and politically. For instance, South Africa has the sixth-largest number of malls in the world, and alongside that there is a flourishing informal trade sector where the majority of people actually do their shopping. While both the formal and informal business modes generate comparable revenue in some cases, estimated at close to ten billion rand in the case of a Sandton mall / Johannesburg CBD block comparison (Zack 2018), the reality is that policy, planning, and futuring all fail to make much of the latter.

At play are modernist and traditional issues and other concerns, which, one may argue, are not adequately processed and engaged with. Therefore, the recurring question from entities like Oxfam about whether we are able to create a different kind of economy in lieu of our continued, blatant inequality should be treated as a critical futuristic question. By questioning the future, we are able to probe and point to the possibility of alternative, imagined futures while, at the same time, prompting immediate policy analysis and action towards achieving new possibilities (Inayatullah 2008).

Part of South Africa’s policy response has been the new Science, Technology and Innovation (SDI) white paper that was compiled by the Department of Higher Education, Science, and Technology in 2018. Titled “Science, technology and innovation enabling inclusive sustainable South African development in a changing world,” the paper acknowledges the importance of sustainability and inclusion in ensuring government success in driving shared growth and development. Amongst its objectives, the paper sought to:

  • Instil a culture of valuing science, technology and innovation (STI), and integrate STI into government planning and budgeting at the highest levels;
  • Adopt a whole-of-government approach to innovation;
  • Create an enabling and inclusive governance environment;
  • Create a more innovation-enabling environment;
  • Increase and transform NSI human capabilities;
  • Expand and transform the research system;
  • Expand and transform the institutional landscape; and
  • Increase funding and funding efficiencies.

The Paper declares that “Together we need to create a new common sense and design an economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few. A new human economy that would create better and fairer societies, where workers would receive decent wages, women and men would be treated equally, children would have opportunities, and no-one would live in fear of the cost of falling sick.”

Innovation in South Africa – how we are doing

Since the emergence of innovation as a critical enabler and catalyst for service delivery and government administration improvement, many countries across the world have done much to ramp up their capability using technology and other innovative responses. Similarly, South Africa has made considerable strides in harnessing innovation to turn the lives of its citizens around. However, despite all these efforts, world indices on innovation (such as the Global Innovation Index – GII) point to a rather lacklustre performance when compared with how some countries are doing.

While some African countries are improving in terms of innovation indices (for example Rwanda and Kenya), there has been an apparent annual decrease in South Africa’s position. Yet there is no doubt that South Africa most likely has the best policies and plans on innovation in the region. Upon an interrogation – for example of the GI – what emerges is the seeming imbalance between our innovation inputs in terms of investments, which are undoubtedly the highest given our relative economic status, and our resultant innovation outputs and outcomes. One of our stumbling blocks is, therefore, our innovation inefficiency. We tend to fail where it matters most; where we have to respond and account, the governance ends.

The role of foresight

I have already alluded to the government of South Africa facing the unenviable task of delivering services to citizens under very difficult conditions, many of which are deep legacies, including the bureaucracy. “Solutions” in the sense of innovations are in great abundance, which can purportedly deliver more desirable futures. However, the stakes are high given the many challenges to service delivery improvement, such as population dynamics, political administrative interface, the auditor general, the shrinking economy, looming austerity measures that are making it difficult to perform, climate change which we are told has to be a priority, and the 4th Industrial Revolution which is presented as both problem and solution. All these factors inevitably demand a change in the approach of public servants to their work, and to their perceptions of reality.

As a country, South Africa requires a multi-pronged approach to innovation and foresight in how we engage with the challenges at hand. We have no choice but to act immediately to deal with our urgent challenges, many of which are historical and make life intolerable for many in the present. Our current dilemma is that having barely scratched the surface in our attempt to deal with these, we also have to confront the pull of the future, which is very difficult indeed in the current context of such glaring inequality. As a result, our prospects of working for the future that we envisage becomes even more remote.

Anticipation and Foresight

The Forward Engagement Project (Fuerth 2009) offers that foresight for anticipatory governance should be considered as compound and systemic; and as both experimental and empirical. Foresight – the way forward – is posted as integrating four key constituent elements:

  • Hindsight – which is an awareness of forces that originate in the past, carry through the present, and may persist into the future in some form, but must always be understood to offer wisdom that is temporary and local;
  • Insight – which refers to self-awareness, including of our unconscious biases and limitations;
  • Topsight – which is sometimes also termed the “bird’s eye view”, offering an awareness of the overall complex system, with all its parts, interlinkages and interactions; and
  • Prescience – which speaks to intuition, and attunement to weak signals in ways that could possibly be enhanced through technologies like artificial intelligence, but are usually an innate skill that some people have.

A systematic approach to foresight can contribute to making sense of and moving into and beyond some of the contextual and governance challenges that we confront. It may offer the possibility of engaging with the past in a rehabilitative way, while at the same time, address issues of the present to foreshadow the future and vice versa.

The futures study space offers a number of tributary fields, methods, theories and capabilities that can be levered to support policy thinking and action. The idea of futures literacy has recently emerged through the studies of anticipation to suggest an essential capability that is crucial to understanding how we can “use the future” for anticipatory governance (Miller 2018). It begins with engaging with our anticipatory systems and assumptions. These include the different understandings of how and why people hold certain impressions and hopes about their future – our opinions, desires, wishes, and dreams. Studying these makes it evident that we all have strong assumptions about the future, shaped by whatever circumstances and dispositions, and that we tend to project these onto the future. And it is most often the case that those assumptions that we hold about the future are hierarchical and very presumptive, while the real world is actually complex and emergent. What you see today, you could not have predicted 10 years ago. The future is actually unknowable.

If we can come to terms with this uncertainty, the theory is that it can be liberating and empowering to acknowledge that there are many influences on the future, and that these are in themselves complex and often contradictory. This humbling recognition allows us to open up the space of engaging with the future; offering the space of imagination to the many, and not just to the few. Heterarchical, rather than hierarchical, engagements with the future would suggest that imaginaries about the future could come from top to bottom, or bottom to top, or side to side, or all of the above. That we could conceivably democratise futuring, such that foresight becomes an all-inclusive process instead of the ludicrous and limiting idea that a hundred people will understand, imagine, plan and deliver for a billion people.

Policymakers and practitioners additionally face the challenge of lacking historical data to fully inform their actions on crucial and emerging issues. The future is after all unknowable, and no two situations are ever exactly the same. We can – and do – use our past experience and probabilities to develop plans, preparations and contingencies. It is sensible to do so, as it is probably better to have imperfect plans than not to plan at all. However, the crucial question is: How do we also free ourselves from our own biases and limitations in perceiving the future? From viewing the world in terms of binary oppositions, that is, whether things can only seem similar or different, good or bad, normative or realistic, fatalistic or deterministic, projection and prediction, black or white? How can we stop limiting our space of imagination and agency with the strictures of inadequate data, incrementalism, risk aversion, and “used” futures?

Ultimately, the question is simply one of how we can get into a real space of novelty where we can imagine and create many different futures. Particularly given that most of our establishments are hierarchical, imposing the kind of system where planning is done top-down, mostly involving a powerful, exclusive elite of senior patriarchs whose ideas are imposed on the rest of the organisation. In such a context, foresight will not transform the hierarchy but would more likely be used to reinforce it. We have to think seriously about the futures we want to see if we hope to see anything different.

Anticipatory governance does not stop only at the level of imagination, of course. It also requires attention to what happens next – to our processes, relentless and tireless efforts, behaviours and institutions. Foresight also provides a range of tools that may also be helpful in these regards. Causal layered analysis, for example, is a method that enables us to dig deeper below superficial phenomena into what happens at the most fundamental levels – of culture, values and belief. The idea here is that to get into the upswing where you can transform futures, where you can even imagine doing something different, you have to be able to engage and change the things at the very bottom. You have to dig deep and ask those questions and speak that language and have those imaginaries in order to engage and shift the trajectory of what you seek to do. It is otherwise very difficult and potentially meaningless to try to change the surface behaviour – the symptoms – if you don’t systematically work into a process of deep change.

What futures literacy offers is a foundational capability in how we understand our engagement with the future as a basis for a wider action space in the present. And what foresight can offer policymakers and practitioners is a range of tools that can help us make sense of the tasks of governance in a contextualised, but not necessarily a context-bound, way.

“The form the future takes in the present is anticipation.”
Riel Miller


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