Arguing a ‘participatory’ element in the domain of foresight is not a recent stance on the matter. Actually, the mere linguistic and conceptual turn from ‘forecasting’ to ‘foresight’, which has happened few decades ago, assumes the existence of such an element, as long as the future ceased to be exclusively a matter of expert judgments with strong claims of prognostic accuracy. ‘Foresight’ is currently the common word for ‘futures research’; additionally, ‘it has become a vogue word for some successful participatory, future-oriented activities’ (Alaćs , p.109). However, there is a line of argumentation which insists that such general reference is inadequate, and that foresight, forecasting, and even planning  are coexisting but quite different ways to approach the future. Nevertheless, Foresight has been gaining prominence as a regularly organized endeavor by institutions in Germany, Japan, The United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, etc. Its goal is to bring together viewpoints of key agents for some better understanding of drivers and forces that shape the middle- and the long term future, in order to elaborate informed strategic visions or action plans. Furthermore, Foresight, it is claimed, should not only result in agenda-setting but also in creating durable communication channels for subsequent interaction between the participants. New technologies allows for it to function as a form of networking , which is supposed to ensure engagement with the discussed problems and further involvement in pursuing the practical goals which have been agreed during the exercise (Foresight Methodologies Textbook , p.76; The Potential of Regional Foresight: Final Report , p.11; Becker , p.7). Foresight has been defined as a ‘policy response’ to the emergence of knowledge-based societies (Miles et al. , p.22). We will not explore the empirical adequacy of the phrase ‘knowledge-based society’. We will just assume that it describes a situation in which prognostics in all its forms suffers serious deficits in view of identification and interpretation of the relevant information. Therefore, the Foresight process is being proposed as a helping tool to acquire valuable knowledge in order to inform decision-makers when they formulate future policies. It is exactly the participatory component, which is being appreciated.
And this appreciation of opening up the futures field is not new. It can be traced back to the years after World War II, when Ossip Flechtheim , who introduced the term ‘futurology’, suggested that serious occupation with the future should go beyond the grasp of both ideology and utopia. He insisted that this then new research be incorporated in the educational system and futurology be taught as any other scientific discipline. At this point we may interpret his gesture as an appeal for temporal (with regard to the future) opening up of the scientific realm, for radicalization of the modern rationalization process in an attempt to lift the science-based foresight up to new limits. Given the experiences between and during the two wars, and the shameful consequences of an ideology-based approach to the future, it is not surprising that Flechtheim’s idea is for the future to find more impartial wharf (the scientific field) and take on the task to raise awareness on looming threats. It is well known how unthinkable World War I seemed to be until it actually happened; or, how detrimental the shortsightedness of Neville Chamberlain and the European powers was with regard to Hitlerism. Flechtheim’s original appeal was for promoting the exploration of the future through academia—beyond the religious prophetic revelations, the failed political rationality, the artistic image of the future or the scientist’s ‘speculating about the future’ .
The ‘teaching moment’ in foresight practice (with the aim to ensure its participatory profile) will have other manifestations over time. Alvin Toffler, for example, suggested very interesting one in a book from 1970 . Within the narrative of Futureshock he raised his concerns about the pace of change in contemporary developed societies and pointed to the difficulties which this situation produces with regard to adaptation. He argued that human beings are not capable of facing such acceleration without suffering harm. Toffler recommended not only opening up the field of foresight but, unlike Flechtheim, he advocated its popularization among the general public. He insisted that the development of a habit to anticipate the future, across all levels of the social realm, is crucial. Kindergartens, schools, governments and international organizations should cultivate a passion for the future, in order to challenge short-termism, narrow-sightedness, the pursuit of immediate results and disregard for the social and cultural features of the context. In other words, nurturing what he calls ‘anticipatory democracy’ would overcome the detrimental consequences of technocratic elitism in forecasting. Thus, the future needs to return into experience. Toffler insisted that this is the only way to adapt to the vertigo of contemporary social change. His considerations were not that theoretical but practical, even therapeutic (as long as they provide remedy for a very specific illness of our time).
A very similar participatory argument, in favor of the inclusion of foresight in the educational process, has also been supported by the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF, est. 1967). Currently, the federation works in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in developing school and teaching books for different educational levels . One of the doyens in WFSF, Eleonora Masini has her own understanding for implementing participatory foresight. She is well-known in the futures research community to have argued the foundations of visioning as a specific form of anticipating the future. Visioning is about building constructive images of the future and about detecting the ‘seeds of change’—those weak signals in the present which may help us contemplate or create alternative, preferable futures . Masini had been advocating for women and children’s participation in foresight practices. She insisted that the process of visioning be open for groups, whose thinking is ‘outside the box’. Within her intellectual strategy, asociality is explored as a generator of valuable images of the future. Thus, participatory foresight is one that welcomes the figure of the outsider, the individual who challenges the boundaries of sociality, to detect the seeds of change for some ‘other tomorrow’. Children, for example, could be very helpful since they are an embodiment of the sociality-to-be and its specific imagination. Some women/housewives would also be valuable participants since they could contribute from the perspective of their denied public inclusion. This version of participatory foresight aims to overcome dominant discourses on the future, which are part of the reproduction mechanisms of the social system itself, and to compensate the shortcomings of commonsensical future-related narratives.
In the last 20 years we witnessed the emergence of some interesting techniques in the foresight realm, ones which combine the achievements of post-structuralism in social theory with enhanced participation. One such form of exercising critical thinking on the future, through involvement of stakeholders in the process, is the Casual layered analysis, pioneered by Sohail Inayatullah. It attempts to engage the participants in a given foresight initiative with thorough deconstruction and genealogy of a problem, not with the intent to infer a particular image of the future but to open up some conceptual room to construct desirable alternatives. The Casual layered analysis has been implemented in seminars dedicated to pressing public problems or to visioning the future development of a client organization . During such exercises, participants are asked to discuss the question at issue and reflect on: 1/ public perceptions and biases (usually covered by the media); 2/ economic, cultural and historical factors, and their explanation (publicly circulating interpretations of empirical data); 3/ the discourse which legitimized the established structures; 4/ the level of the metaphor/myth which represents archetypes—the unconscious dimensions of the problem . Each of these layers unfolds some room for many possible futures. Historicizing certain notions helps participants to overcome fatalistic attitudes towards history, the idea of predetermination and current interpretations of reality which employ dubious categories. Casual layered analysis is a way to approach the future having in mind the existing ‘knowledge-power’ structures. Some zealous theoreticians would argue that the method actually vulgarizes critical social theory. That would probably be correct. Nevertheless, it does not deny the fact that it produces significant educational effect on the foresight participants. It provides a means to pluralize the agency of those employing critique to ‘disturb the foundations of social reality’ in other to construct a plurality of possible futures. It seems that putting pressure on some notions undermines the mere idea of a future. However, it charges it with alternate meanings. The conceptual space of the future is believed to perform the function of tabula rasa for the human mind’s creativity in transcending current trends mentally and imagine states of the world, which are, so to speak, ‘constitutive outside’ for the actual social life. The experience with the Casual Layered analysis is instructive: foresight could be practiced in the form of politico-philosophical reflection by a wide range of participants.
When we discuss the participatory aspects of foresight, along with the changing profile of participants, their overall number changes too. The advancement of communication technologies and the deep expansion of Internet, provide opportunities to include more and more individuals in the foresight process, irrespectively of their current geographical location. This gives rise to various futures applications—from on-line instruments to harness the so-called “wisdom of crowds”, to extended endeavors in aggregating expert judgments on highly uncertain matters. Prediction markets  and Real-Time Delphi  are cases in point. However, they both have unresolved problems with regard to motivation and perseverance of the participants.
All the examples above do not exhaust the myriad of ‘inclusive’ cases in the field. Since participatory foresight implies a specific way of approaching the problem of our adequate relation to the future, it will continue to employ a variety of methods and tools . It does not denounce well-known methods for collective foresight such as Delphi or brainstorming, which were elaborated after World War II. It just extends them to participants with viewpoints, which do not comply with the traditional approaches (scientists’ and industrialists’) to a given problem. It also provides alternative means for futures-oriented interaction, such as online platforms or, in the case of spatial planning in Europe—geo-visualization .
Usually foresight practitioners experience difficulties when they try to come up with adequate ways to identify and analyze the relevant information about the future development of an object or a process. Notwithstanding the chosen foresight method—trend-extrapolations, expert panels, modeling, ‘the wisdom of crowds’ or any other, every prognostic endeavor suffers a fundamental weakness. The image of the future, which each foresight method produces, relies on the available information. It is usually incomplete, distorted or misleading, or to put it briefly, imperfect. Thus, every statement regarding the future, as a prognosis, is valid only to an extent of certainty. This is not the case with narratives, which claim to be predictions as long as they emanate from a supposedly perfect source of information, such as God for the prophetic revelation.
In general, foresight practice deals with the unknown in its attempts to anticipate what might come. It could be limited to mere contemplations with regard to the future and have only exploratory claims. Or, it could be further unfolded into a planning act, which would transform it into a normative endeavor. Exploratory methods do not necessarily require explicit engagement with creating the future. This is not the case with the act of planning as ‘ahead’-oriented strategy, which aims to materialize an image of the future into reality, in order to alleviate the hardships of anticipating it.
These are the main lines of the conceptual framework of the futures research field, within which we observe the recent re-thinking of the adequate profile of agents, who take part in foresight activities. In spite of the great variety of intellectual strategies in explaining the role and essence of foresight, practically we may boil them down to exploratory and normative. They employ different techniques, which reflect specific interrelation between the foresight practitioner and the object of futures inquiry.
In the case of exploratory foresight there is a clearly established research distance. The future is perceived as a forthcoming state of an object or a process, and we could articulate our suggestions relying on the merits of our observational distancing. The products of exploratory foresight are probabilistic analyses. All exploratory methods have advantages as well as shortcomings with view of selection of relevant information and value of the achieved results. Both qualitative and quantitative methods are being employed (trend extrapolation, expert methods, scenarios, grand social theories, etc.) for that end.
When claims for more significant public’s presence in exploratory foresight are raised, they are founded on assumption that the interrelation between the foresight practitioner and the object of futures inquiry could be enriched. Expanding the range of participation by promoting a variety of perspectives would produce valuable and useful results. That, for example, explains why The US National Intelligence Council within 15 years (1997–2012) published five reports on the global future , in which gradually expanded the range of the included in the process subjects. Global Trends 2010 (1997) was a report made by the intelligence community and was publicly discussed in meetings with business and academia; Global Trends 2015 (2000) was a product of collaboration with nongovernmental experts; Global Trends 2020 (2004) included the perspectives of foreign specialists; Global Trends 2025 (2008) expanded the external participation and promoted discussions mediated by Internet. Currently, Global Trends 2030 (2012) is a subject to continuous international dialogue through a specially designed blog for the purpose.
Exploratory foresight approaches the future as a context, whose characteristics should be anticipated in order to maintain a state of preparedness for what might happen. Normative foresight, on the other hand, implies deeper engagement with the future. Its aim is to find ways for agents to interfere with current developments in order to re-direct them in accordance with some idea, goal or norm. The foundations of normative foresight lay in the desire to re-create the very context. It is no surprise then that planning is believed to be irreplaceable element of normative foresight practice. However, the claim to create the future cannot escape limitations with regard to power. Shaping reality requires resources and management. This raises the question about who could possibly provide them. It is well known that endeavors such as the Manhattan project or Apollo program would not have been successful without the enormous planning and implementation effort made by a powerful agent, namely, the federal government of the USA. Despite that, with the triumph of neoliberal economic ideology since the 70’s, not only the practice but even the language on state planning has been discredited. ‘Normative foresight’ is turning into a euphemism which allows for exploring the phenomenon of central planning without the sanction of the commonly accepted ideological discourseFootnote 2.
Sometimes normative foresight is used to designate the elaboration of speculativeFootnote 3 images of the future which are the result of attempts to restore the importance of utopian thinking. They are inevitably ideologically charged, since they place a norm/value as a long-term goal and consider pathways to connect this ideal point in the future with the current state of affairs. Actually, these backcasting exercises are mental experiments, which employ quite different approach in comparison with traditional research methods. Of course, it has to be noted that essential normative foresight, as ‘in advance’ engagement with the future, is incomplete without the help of exploratory foresight methods. They provide initial information about the context in which the planning effort is to take place. They are also indispensable in the process of goal-setting.
In the case of normative foresight, to strengthen the participatory side of the process means to ensure a deeper engagement with the future. Usually this is being done by allowing citizens, be they stakeholders, non-specialists, and concerned individuals, to impact the process. The idea to include the laymen’s perspective and to engage them in the subsequent implementation of plans, interestingly, coincides with the rise and increasing popularity of politico-philosophical theories of deliberative, participative and collaborative democracy. Those three versions of democracy are conceptualized as necessary in order to reinvent the relations between elites and citizens in response to the failures of contemporary representative democracy. Intentionally or not, the idea of foresight as a participatory process has been recently appearing in various official documents and reports to be pointed out as one of the means to ensure deeper citizen participation, thus strengthening democracy. There are actual attempts to involve the citizen in initiatives with regard to the future: municipal budget planning in Brazil , mass meetings to direct local investment in Salvador, urban management in the Philippines , etc.