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Is a better future on the horizon? The art and science of foresight

Headshot of Colleen Duggan

Colleen Duggan

Team Leader, Sustainable Inclusive Economies, IDRC
Photo of Fraser Reilly-King

Fraser Reilly-King

Senior Analyst, IDRC

Just as the United Nations prepares for the 2024 Summit of the Future, we at IDRC have also been building our skills in foresight to better position the research we support to respond to future opportunities and challenges.  

Why look into the future now? We are living in an increasingly turbulent world where unprecedented social, environmental, technological and governance challenges intersect in dynamic and unpredictable ways.  

High-quality research and evidence are essential ingredients for tackling what is now commonly referred to as the polycrisis — a series of intertwined global issues that know no boundaries and require collective action by policymakers and change agents. But research that leads to evidence-informed action is only part of the solution. To be future-fit, research and science systems need to be resilient and responsive to short-term and long-term changes in the face of global shifts.   

IDRC’s 10-year Strategy 2030, recognizes that preparing for the future will require shifting our mindsets to be more strategic and sharpening our capacity to cast our eyes forward. Both approaches are essential for ensuring that the research we support is well positioned — timely and relevant — and anticipates and responds to future challenges and opportunities. For this reason, Strategy 2030 ushered in a new line of work that uses foresight to address new, unexpected changes in the global landscape and the research questions that result from them. Central to this work is the need to better understand the operating environments in which research takes place. 

Foresight analysis for future pathways 

Foresight focuses on future-oriented analysis, using a range of methods and tools to anticipate — not predict — plausible futures, evolutions, disruptions and scenarios that could influence our work as a research funder and how we support organizations and networks in the Global South.  

IDRC is new to the foresight space. But we are fast building our know-how thanks to Canada’s strong foresight leadership, built in large part through Policy Horizons Canada, a government centre that supports a vibrant foresight ecosystem across multiple Canadian federal departments. We have also benefitted by engaging with a range of international organizations already active in this space. Some of this learning will be captured in a special article we are editing called Foresight and Futures thinking for International Cooperation: The Promise and Pitfalls, for ODI’s Development Policy Review in early 2024. 

Foresight use is gaining currency and momentum among international development and humanitarian actors. But what has been learned and how can this learning be put into practice? For now, we offer three learnings situated in current debates and trends that are influencing development cooperation globally. 

Use foresight to support locally relevant research 

Amidst calls for decolonizing development and greater localization, funders need to find ways to use foresight to support locally relevant, Southern-driven research and researchers. IDRC started by better understanding the landscape and who is working on foresight in the Global South. We engaged the School of International Futures and their next generation foresight practitioners network to map these actors in a publicly available, interactive foresight directory. The mapping process also surfaced a better understanding of how different geographies and actors are approaching foresight and futures thinking, adopting different definitions and using varied language.  

Not surprisingly, understandings and application of foresight are linked to culture and history — a reality that is illustrated in work IDRC has supported with partners in Africa to reconceptualize foresight and its impact in the Global South. This knowledge is making IDRC a better supporter of foresight as we continue to grow our understanding of whom to engage in the Global South and how to localize this work — much in the same way our Research Quality Plus framework does, placing strong emphasis on local context, relevance and use in how we evaluate high quality research. 

Anchor foresight in diversity and inclusion 

As an area of research and practice, foresight is part art and part science. Methods such as searching for weak signals of change data, horizon scanning and scenario building are only as good as the breadth and diversity of perspectives — assenting and dissenting — involved in the foresight process. This reality implies collaboration with a wide range of actors and voices in the Global South. It also opens pathways to use contextually meaningful tools that resonate with actors in the South, for example through the work IDRC has been supporting with Stellenbosch University’s Center for Sustainability Transitions to help generate alternative narratives of positive future change for more resilient food systems

Embrace foresight as a unique journey 

Understanding the best way to apply foresight — its use and utility — is a unique journey for every institution. Determining where and how foresight can shape future strategy and policy, and getting decision-makers and policymakers to pay attention to it, are perpetual challenges for large Canadian bureaucracies as well as for small organizations in the Global South. In the next two years, IDRC will roll out a learning project to assess systematically the use and utility of foresight for IDRC as a research funder. We will equip ourselves with the right tools to detect signals of change on the horizon and link them to the research needed to move towards sustainable and equitable futures.  

In an unpredictable, changing world, foresight acts as a beacon and provides the impetus needed to unleash creativity and innovation in research. As the saying goes, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them. At IDRC, we are betting that foresight will help challenge assumptions, question static mental models and break down silos by engaging across disciplines, cultures and geographies. A better future is within our sights.