Foresight with Sisu

Foresight with Sisu

Climate change, inequality, poverty, financial crisis... The future does not seem too happy or unproblematic. Fred Polak argued in his seminal book "the image of the future" that societies rise and fall with their perceptions of the future. He was concerned already in the seventies that Europe is lacking a compelling image of the future that would renew the society. This seems to be the situation even now, with the European project in crisis and generally a perception of Europe as the declining continent. There have been and are of course aims to change this picture, such as the New Narratives for Innovation by the European Commission. But a key question remains: how to describe a future without ignoring the present challenges? The scenarios that are created in current foresight processes could be categorised simplistically as belonging to three categories. There are worst case scenarios, i.e. dystopias, which speak of the threats and destruction waiting us if we do not change our ways. Then there are best case scenarios, politically motivated utopias, which describe an often technological trajectory towards continuing growth and wellbeing of the society. The third category tries to have a mix of both good and bad developments and describes perhaps more plausible scenarios, but unfortunately often lack the capacity to create emotional engagement.

This is the year of sisu. Sisu is defined as extraordinary determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity. It is more than perseverance or grit. It is about acknowledging the present challenges, but still working towards a goal despite the overwhelming obstacles. It is at the same time an optimistic and down to earth attitude.

I think we need foresight with sisu. This means scenarios that start from the worst case, but have an in-built stubborn optimism in them, a feeling that the situation can be made better against all odds. This does not mean technological fairytales, but rather a description of how to face the challenges together, how to create new mindsets needed to reframe the situation, and how to build inclusive action towards values that are shared by the community. Foresight with sisu requires sensitivity to these values, and to the leverage points in the situation. Through the mindset of sisu a desired future is not a collection of dreams, but a goal that has to be - and will be - achieved, no matter what.

Foresight with sisu is about surfacing and challenging existing assumptions, similar to the approaches in critical futures research and methods such as Causal Layered Analysis. However, it is not enough to just challenge assumptions, there also needs to be action. Take for example the case of the Finnish Winter War, a popular example of sisu. A commonly held assumption of “a tiny nation does not stand a chance against a huge empire” was challenged through action against all odds. What would be similar assumptions that are holding us back from reaching our desired future– and how to break these assumptions through our actions?

Connected to challenging assumptions is the creation of new concepts and new “language” with which to talk about futures. New concepts are necessary in order to get rid of implicit assumptions. For example, talking about self-driving cars leads us to think about the technology behind it, while the question of ownership may remain unquestioned. Talking about on-demand cars brings the focus more to the service. On the more social side, an inspiring recent example I came across was the concept of "myötäylpeys", a shared sense of pride, as opposed to "myötähäpeä", a shared sense of shame.

Finland is a country with a culture of both foresight and sisu. We have had a Futures Research Centre since 1992, a Committee for the Future in our government since 1993, and have one of the few masters programs in futures research. The mindset of sisu is embodied in our rather homogenous culture. I believe this offers us an excellent basis on which to build transformative futures action – foresight with sisu.