What Forward looking Analysis is and why we need it

The hallmark of science is not its ability to forecast the future, but its ability to explain things – to increase our understanding of the working of the universe. The role of prediction in science is to help us to distinguish between competing explanations, and a well-formulated theory will have logical implications that can be tested. By the same token, the essential concern in long term forecasting is to identify and examine implicit assumptions about “how things are”, and how they may change over a generation or two, exploring possible paradigm changes. This can be done engaging a wide range of experts in a scenario thinking and building process.

Scenarios are different from forecast. They explore possible answers to questions, which cannot be answered about the future with any measurable degree of certainty. Forward looking activities are therefore mostly done in a state of ignorance or at least uncertainty, where we cannot say what all the possible future outcomes are, let alone assign probabilities to them. Given this state of ignorance or uncertainty that we face when we look to a distant future, scenarios are no more than stories, mental models, about how the future might be. Scenarios need to be coherent – so that people can “see” them and think about the implications.

Their purpose is to create a mental model of a possible future so that people can relate to it, see the implications for their concerns, provide a context for discussion about desirable and undesirable features of the future, and so help in planning policy responses. In a nutshell, scenarios are an internally consistent view of what the future might be, not a forecast but one possible future outcome. They have proven to be a powerful tool for creating opportunity in the form of new policy and business strategies, by freeing thought from the constraints of the past.

Foresight analysis built on scenario thinking, is therefore a powerful tool that can be used in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Forward Looking Analysis (FLA), based by definition on a wide and interdisciplinary approach, can thus help us to anticipate major challenges that Europe will have to face in the next 20-30 years, and to assess the impacts of medium to long-term demographic, economic, political and technological trends in Europe in a world context.

The three Grand Societal Challenges faced by the European Union

According to many foresight studies, three Grand Societal Challenges (GSC) with global scope, but which require action at EU level, can be identified:

  • Environmental challenge: the need to change the current ways in which essential natural resources are used – due to the non-sustainable human over-exploitation;
  • Societal and economic challenge: the need to anticipate and adapt to societal changes – including political, cultural, demographic and economic transformations, in order for the EU to develop into a knowledge-based society;
  • Governance challenge: the need for more effective and transparent governance for the EU and the world – with the creation of more transparent and accountable forms of governance, able to anticipate and adapt to the future and thus to address common challenges, but also to spread democracy and transparency on the global level.

Consideration shall also be given to the global geopolitical dimension, to put the analysis of transition challenges within and for the EU, in the context of different scenarios of evolution of economic, political and military power for the other regions of the world as well.

The role of the FLAGSHIP project

Significant progress has been made in recent years in the field of FLA, both in the development of methods and tools and in the production of a considerable wealth of visionary material. The FLAGSGHIP consortium is fully aware of such progress – to which its partners have in fact individually and collectively largely contributed – and the FLASGHIP project intends to “keep up the good work” in further developing and refining FLA concepts and methods, while generating additional visions of the future, at both global and sectorial level. On the other hand, FLAGSGHIP considers that the fundamental priority must now be placed on “putting FLA knowledge to work”, and applying it to the formulation of policies that effectively address, in a long term, multidisciplinary perspective, the Grand Societal Challenges listed above faced by the EU (and in fact the world as a whole).