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The future is still ours to imagine!

Nearly 2 years ago, we asked over 200 senior level, built environment professionals to choose which driving forces would impact the construction industry between now and 2030. Not one person picked global pandemic, yet 12 months later the world was turned upside down by the Coronavirus.

Sceptics will say this proves there is no value in foresighting because COVID shows you can’t predict the future. Yet, for me foresighting has never been about predicting the future in a definitive way i.e. this event will happen by this date. It’s about helping people to understand the trends and challenges that are on the horizon and what the likely impacts could be, so they can be ready to meet those changes when they arise. It’s not an exact science but rather than seeing the COVID pandemic as a failure of our approach, it has encouraged me to explore how expanding our own perspective might improve the outcomes of our work.

For most of us, even foresighting professionals, our ability to imagine the future is shaped by our own life experiences. I recently read an article that stated people’s view of the future is shaped by the toys they played with as a child. As someone who grew up playing with Care Bears and My little Pony, I doubt the Cloud Mobile will feature in my scenarios of the future. However, I suspect that those who lived through the Spanish flu pandemic or the Bubonic Plague would have had a different perspective on the impacts of disease, than we did pre-2020. The question is, how can we widen our perspective beyond our own life experiences?

History often repeats itself, divisions within society lead to unrest, boom often precedes bust and transformational periods such as the industrial revolution, have far-reaching long-term consequences. Today’s world is the product of all the things that have happened in the past and I agree with Canadian Suffragette, Nellie L McClung who said “People must know the past to understand the present and to face the future”.  That’s why in my opinion, it is crucial that as part of our foresighting work we look backward as well as forwards to determine the impact future change may bring. In many cases we don’t need to look too far back to better understand what may happen in the future but having an insight into why things were a success or failure and the catalysts that led to change, can provide us with valuable lessons. Giving us the knowledge, we need to prevent us from making the same mistakes again and a good foundation for envisaging what the future could hold.

I also think we are sometimes guilty of putting our own limits on the way we view the future. Dr Robert Schuller used to say “If you can dream it, you can do it” but too often we put things that seem unlikely or hard to achieve, in the too difficult pile and push it to one side. Imagine if Stephenson had put his design for “The Rocket” into the too hard pile and the Wright Brothers’ had done the same with their dream of flight, where would we be today?! With the world facing so many challenges such as climate change, resource depletion and major species extinction, it has never been more important for us to be able to think beyond what we can see today and begin to develop a vision of a more sustainable and resilient future. Most of us will never go on to create our generation’s equivalent of The Rocket but we can all encourage ourselves to adopt a more open mind as to what might be possible to solve the challenges we face.

There is a proviso to our big picture thinking and that is that it must be rooted in reality. When ENCORD carried out our first piece of research into the drivers of change, we had a long discussion about whether to include Space building as a driver. Some people thought it was fantasy but with NASA’s perseverance robot already collecting soil samples from the surface of Mars and with tests underway to see if it is possible to create oxygen there, we felt that it might happen sooner than we thought. During the workshops it was one of the most debated cards with some people seeing opportunity and others rejecting it as pie in the sky. For me that’s one of the great things about foresighting. It gives us a platform to debate the future and explore what the possibilities will be. It’s then up to each individual organisation to take what they have learned and act upon it as they see fit.

Moving forward I am going to be asking everyone in the ENCORD foresighting workgroup to rise to the challenge and widen their perspective. Together I firmly believe we have the ability to develop a more comprehensive view of the future. Our journey starts now, so watch this space …

About the author: Stephanie Whittaker leads the working group foresight. Especially in turbulent times discussing potential future scenarios with respective colleagues from up and down the value chain yields valuable insights for the future-readiness of organisations in the construction sector.