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Plausible futures: the art of foresight

If foresight practitioners are to offer useful results, they must integrate across multiple scales and stakeholders (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
If foresight practitioners are to offer useful results, they must integrate across multiple scales and stakeholders
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Shifting climates, volatile markets, disruptive technologies, undecided policies: in agriculture, it's not getting any easier to anticipate what the future will bring. Yet all institutions engaged in agricultural research for development have to make conjectures about the coming decades. This forward thinking can be as advanced and methodical as the science it directs, but it can also be guided by unacknowledged assumptions, including the riskiest of all: that everything will remain the same.

Recognising how important and challenging the art of foresight has become, stakeholders at the first GCARD in 2010 agreed that this rich variety of approaches needs to be shared, refined and opened up to wider participation. The Global Foresight Hub, facilitated through GFAR, links research institutions, development agencies, policymakers and farmer and civil society organisations, and aims to help this happen. The Hub provides a space to describe the possible conditions that farmers may face, and focus research to contribute to the best of them - not predicting the future, but creating it.

Three paths of action

Two of the Global Foresight Hub's three interconnecting activities were present at the second GCARD, ensuring that foresight framed many discussions through the week. The first was the Forward Thinking Platform, which offers space for debating agricultural futures and the methods for exploring them. In addition to workshops at this and future events, forward thinkers can join ongoing, online Working Groups on topics such as land use changes and future farming patterns.

At GCARD2, experts discussed agricultural futures and the methods for exploring them (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
At GCARD2, experts discussed agricultural futures and the methods for exploring them
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

The second component of the Hub is the Policy Dialogue Platforms, to be held at national, regional and global levels. In these, the possibilities that arise out of the Forward Thinking Platform are presented to policymakers and representatives of civil society - especially farmers - for wider debate on the choices and outcomes they hold. The 2012 GCARD was one such platform; hopes are high that these voices will shape research to come.

"There are many activities foreseen as a follow-up of GCARD2," says Robin Bourgeois, Senior Foresight and Development Policies Expert at GFAR Secretariat. "The conference is a milestone in a continuous process of change." The immediate next steps could include publishing policy briefs from papers prepared for the conference, and organising new policy dialogue forums, such as at the Africa Agriculture Science Week in Accra, Ghana in July 2013.

The Hub's third component is a Global Foresight Academy, which will build the capacity of young professionals from the South for forward-thinking analysis in their own regions while allowing this analysis to feed back into wider actions. Through GFAR, the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) has initiated this process in sub-Saharan Africa. Other regional forums committed at GCARD to building the Academy region by region. "One challenge is to get funding from a donor which will not impose its priorities on the topic, the place and the people," says Bourgeois, "because that would go against the philosophy of the Academy."

Collecting visions

An inventory of foresight studies already happening around the world has been collected (© Peter Caiser/CCAFS)
An inventory of foresight studies already happening around the world has been collected
© Peter Caiser/CCAFS

Foresight is not about trying to predict the future, says Bourgeois. "Foresight is about shedding light on alternative evolutionary paths leading to contrasting futures and about understanding what could bring these futures to reality. It is also about using this foreknowledge to help societies make the choice of the future they want."

An early collaborative task has been to collect an inventory of foresight studies already happening around the world. "Actually this started before the first GCARD, from an observation that people doing foresight were not talking very much and were even quite opposed over different approaches," Bourgeois says. "Quantitative versus qualitative models versus scenarios, projection versus exploration or anticipation, economic drivers versus multi-dimensional drivers."

A first effort was made to analyse ten of these works and bring people together to discuss the conclusions at the first GCARD. Since then, Bourgeois and his colleagues have surveyed more than 400 practitioners on their foresight approaches, collecting more than 50 relevant cases and 43 briefs of studies for the inventory.

Messages from the future

The world's food security depends on the quality of the forward-looking agricultural studies (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
The world's food security depends on the quality of the forward-looking agricultural studies
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

The briefs collected so far represent a wealth of approaches, including - sometimes combining - quantitative projections and simulations, and more visionary qualitative scenarios. However, only institutions in Europe and North America were found to have undertaken global foresight studies, with only a few having specific content relevant to other regions. On the whole, global studies were more quantitative and less inclusive, while regional studies were more often qualitative and participatory.

Across the board, however, Bourgeois has seen consistent issues raised by those looking forward. The messages are clear, he says. "We are still believing that technology for productivity will help feed the world, while we have enough food for 10 billion already. We still want to solve food security while the problem is food insecurity caused by poverty and inequality - and this is not simply the opposite. And we are short-sighted when we talk about farming patterns, looking at the state of the farmers today without exploring what might happen to them, and what we could do to change it or orient that state."

"Foresight is about thinking out of the box, breaking path-dependent conventional thinking," says Bourgeois. "Today everybody claims that business as usual is not an option, yet where is the change in the research and policies showing that we have chosen another option?"

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: January 2013

 

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