(This is a follow-up post to ”Participation in foresight – five key questions”) While there is a whole variety of different ways of participating in foresight, I list here three common and in my opinion representative types. They should be seen more as archetypes used in discussion around participation in foresight rather than descriptions of how participation is actually implemented in any particular foresight exercise. Thus they illustrate different perceptions of what participation in foresight is and what it should be.
1. “Sign here please”
A common mode of participation is to invite stakeholders to comment on the results of a foresight process. This is relatively easy for both the organisers of the foresight exercise as well as for the stakeholders. However, the possibility for the stakeholders influence the results is restricted. By commenting it is possible to change some details of the results, but practically impossible to reframe the issue at hand or bring new issues to the table. Thus this type of participation is more about informing stakeholders and legitimating the results, and not about giving the stakeholders a seat at the table where decisions are made.
2. “Experts know best”
A popular alternative or addition to asking for feedback is to invite a selected group of stakeholders, often framed as key experts, to discuss and frame the issue in more detail. This opens up the process to a broader audience and gives is seen to give it more credibility. However, often the range of experts, both in terms of demographics and domain expertise, is limited, which consequently restricts the range of issues raised during the process. Foresight has been described as involving largely “the middle-aged male experts” and excluding other groups. Furthermore, the same experts keep appearing from one foresight process to another, creating an image of a “foresight elite” shaping common futures.
3. “Open gathering”
In an ideal situation – from the viewpoint of participation – everybody is invited and willing to come. This type of participation evokes images of civilized but dynamic public debate, where everybody contributes their own piece to the puzzle and a truly shared understanding of the situation and a vision for a better future emerges. In reality, this type of participation is the messiest of the three, with lots of ambiguity and uncertainty in the topic, aims and process. It requires the abandonment of the concept of control and embracing the self-organisation of systems – which may be very difficult to do when there are pressing decisions to be made. In practice, this type of participation may often be in the minds of the designers of the foresight process, but due to desires for a clear process and achieving a specific goal in limited time, the participation often ends up resembling more the expert driven or even the legitimation types of participation.
A systems view to participation
One way to rethink participation in foresight is to rethink how we view foresight. If we view foresight as a process, we are limited to pretty much the three types listed above or some sort of combination or mix of them. However, if we view foresight as a system, and foresight processes – that is separate exercises or projects – as parts of that system, then participation can be understood as a characteristic of the system. Is the way participation is organised enhancing the possibility of everyone in the system to have a say about what a preferable future could look like? Is a foresight process trying to sell a used or disowned future, or does it contribute new concepts to the on-going discussion about futures? How are the processes linked and how are their results used? What type of power structures are being enforced by the current modes of participation, who is often included and who is ignored? A systems view thus focuses on changing the structure of the system so that it encourages a broader and more inclusive participation. In the terms used in systems intelligence, the aim is to deconstruct systems of holding back and enhance positive spirals of expectations. The keys to do that lie in systems thinking, being open to alternatives, embracing ambiguity and uncertainty as natural characteristics of a complex system and enhancing intensive interaction between a broad set of agents – but more on that in another blog post.
My thanks to Heidi Auvinen for the pictures.