The Five 'C's: Essential Elements for Building Foresight
Attila Havas, PhD, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Economics, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, shared his views with the HSE news service on the development of foresight practices in Russia and around the world, and talked about his impressions of the April Conference, where for the first time he is a participant and moderator of sections dedicated to foresight practices.
― Are there any presuppositions in a country's history and/or geography for successful development of foresight practices?
― My short answer would be no, especially in terms of geography. Of course, if you want to go into details, probably geographical features have implications concerning mentality, way of thinking, network and community building practices, communication methods; in other words, different landscapes are likely to have different impacts on these societal characteristics… Historians might point out that nations with navigation and sailing practices have different types of culture, as opposed to inland nations, but I’m not an expert of that. Yet, I can barely imagine that geographical conditions have no impact on history, and history definitely has an impact on current ways of thinking, communication, building trust, building networks and so on. As for history, therefore, I think there’s a more direct link. People tend to say that, for instance, Nordic countries have a culture, due to historical factors, which is more geared towards consensus building and consensual decision-making and that provides a solid foundation for foresight, which is a participatory process: we consider different viewpoints and then eventually develop shared vision on which joint actions and commitments can be based. But, of course, besides history the current conditions or circumstances are equally, if not more, important than history for a successful application of foresight practices.
― Which countries are the best at predicting their future? And which countries have the best foresight capacities nowadays?
― I’m more experienced in foresight where the idea is not to predict the future so I can’t really answer this question in that respect. Certainly, you can predict some types of developments, for instance, concerning demography, which is a very important factor in shaping the future, both for very narrow economic reasons and for broader societal reasons. Probably there are dozens of countries where there are very good experts in forecasting methods. And, of course, for foresight programmes some forecasting techniques can be useful as well. If I may talk about foresight capabilities, on the one hand there are probably dozens of countries where you have a high level of foresight expertise as far as practitioners are concerned. Trying to keep a sort of historical order, Japan was one of the first countries in the field, relying on some techniques developed in the USA in the 1950s, but Japan gained prominence in the 1970s. Then several European countries have also joined this “club”, especially the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and more recently the Nordic countries. Italy seems to be stronger in corporate foresight rather than in national activities. But smaller nations have also launched their foresight programmes. In the meantime Korea has developed important capabilities and also several Latin American countries… In terms of developing methodologies probably the leading nations are still Japan, the US, the UK, France, the Netherlands and Germany.
Developing methods and applying them is very important, but I think it’s more important what sort of minds you have, as far as experts and other stakeholders and participants in a foresight programme are concerned. And particularly the minds of decision-makers are crucial. I would even say that these cultural factors, how people communicate, how they are engaged in discussions, what is the prevailing decision-making culture in a country or in a region, probably it is more important than being well-trained in methods. One can learn methods in a matter of months or weeks, especially due to strong and intense international cooperation. Simply, one can attend some courses, read handbooks or dozens of articles, and learn a lot. It is much more difficult and much more time-consuming to have the right attitude of people: would the participants contribute with their own ideas, would they be open-minded and listen to other ideas? So I’m constantly coming back to the famous 5 'C's of foresight: communication, concentration on the longer term, consensus building, coordination and commitment to take actions. These are more important than being an expert in techniques. But of course I don’t want to dismiss that, because without that you cannot conduct a meaningful and successful foresight programme.
― You have visited the HSE Foresight centre several times. Do you think it is developing in interesting ways?
― Definitely there are several impressive features of the centre. Perhaps, the most important one is its openness. I think it was a very good decision to have international staff. There is fruitful cooperation between the foreign and Russian staff members. It is rare in the region. It is a common practice in the USA, where lots of departments have international staff members. But it’s not really frequent in Central and Eastern Europe. Perhaps the HSE is a leading organization in that respect, and this centre is definitely showing a good example. Another interesting feature is the methodological diversity, the wide variety of methods used by the centre for different projects. The large number of foresight projects is really good for learning by doing and establishing contacts with policy-makers. I see this as a very promising development. Just a very technical point: I liked very much when Alexander Sokolov was combining key (or critical) technologies, road-mapping and foresight methods. And then combining the various time horizons and relying on longer-term analytical efforts and using those results for shorter terms… There is a usual mistake in this respect: in many cases it is not clarified that a certain technology is ‘critical’ to what or for what. In the project Alexander was talking about it was very clear what the challenges were. This was an improvement compared to many other projects. But I would also like to stress that methodological sophistication can be counterproductive. For example when the participants of a foresight programme or decision-makers find it too difficult to follow, it’s too sophisticated, or too time-consuming to learn about the techniques in order to be invited or to be a productive contributor or participant in a foresight programme. Another caveat is that besides having advanced techniques it is also important to be rigorous, to be systematic when you are using them. I’m not suggesting that I have spotted some mistakes at the HSE Foresight Centre, I’m talking about this issue in general terms. It is crucial to find adequate and relevant techniques: a set of appropriate, and simpler ones would be more effective than sophisticated, time-consuming, costly techniques. I also mean that they should be relevant for policy purposes, not just for the sake of methodological sophistication. Methodology has a purpose; it should be understood as a tool not as an aim. Again, it’s not a criticism.
― What about your impressions of the Conference. Is it your first time as a participant?
― Yes, it’s my first time. As for impressions, it’s too big for me. I was not even able to follow the programme, only attending this special section about foresight and innovation. I’ve heard there are 2000 participants… Usually I prefer smaller events.
Ekaterina Solovova, specially for the HSE news service