Global Cooperation

Practice of long-term thinking: How to leverage foresight to address the transformational challenges ahead

Foresight is a discipline for organizations to cultivate and nurture.

Foresight is a discipline for organizations to cultivate and nurture. Image: Getty Images

Lasse Jonasson
Senior Futurist and Director, Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies
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Horizon Scan: Lasse Jonasson

  • Decision-makers must shift from a short-term to a long-term perspective in planning and strategy; this is essential in an age of complex global challenges such as climate change, social inequality and technological risks.
  • Foresight is a vital discipline that organizations must nurture to anticipate future scenarios and navigate polycrises.
  • The interconnectedness of global systems and the rise of polycrisis now call for more robust global cooperation and crisis management strategies.

“We need a systematic focus on future generations in our decision-making processes and to improve our strategic foresight and risk analysis," says António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations.

We are witnessing an unparalleled acceleration in technology, societal transformation and information exchange, which reshapes human interactions and expectations. This rapid evolution challenges traditional institutional and individual capacities to adapt.

Global systems, including economies, trade structures, political institutions and policies, are becoming more interconnected and complex. This complexity makes it increasingly difficult to predict outcomes and complicates decision-making processes.

Globalization and digital technology have significantly increased the interconnectedness of global issues, escalating regional problems into global crises. Economic downturns, misinformation, cyberattacks and pandemics now have cascading effects worldwide.

The concurrent emergence of interrelated crises in health, finance, politics and the environment – termed polycrisis – also compounds and amplifies the impact of individual crises. This phenomenon challenges traditional crisis management approaches and emphasizes the need for integrated solutions.

The increased interconnectedness and polycrisis necessitate more robust global cooperation and crisis management strategies to mitigate the magnified risks and set up frameworks to move towards preferred futures.

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Long-term vision

Against this background, decision-makers naturally tend to think short-term to preserve existing institutions and power structures. This short-term focus undermines the ability to tackle gradual yet critical challenges such as climate change, social inequality and technological risks.

Increasingly, decision-makers realize that their experience, related to past conditions, no longer suffice in current environments and could be counterproductive for the future.

Leaders must develop new tools and frameworks to manage the risks associated with increasingly complex and unpredictable systems. They must prevent structural risks with irreversible consequences while capitalizing on emerging opportunities.

A shift towards more long-term thinking can help divert the dialogue towards common aspirations and potential synergies. Short-term-oriented dialogue often gravitates towards a zero-sum game with winners and losers, whereas futures-oriented dialogue has better potential to move focus towards synergies and collaboration.

Encouraging a shift towards long-term thinking can help societies better prepare for future challenges, ensuring more sustainable and equitable growth. This shift is crucial for addressing the slow-burning issues that short-term policies typically overlook.

Organizations and governments are increasingly recognizing the need to develop foresight capabilities. Building this skillset involves training leaders in foresight methodologies, enhancing analytical tools and embedding forward-thinking practices into organizational culture, processes and governance structures.

While we appreciate this increasing focus on foresight, we also experience that it is moving very slowly in most organizations. One of the most prominent challenges that foresight practitioners we engage with express is that there are insufficient resources and focus from top management – brought to light by the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies’ forthcoming white paper on the role of foresight in organizations.

This sentiment was present among organizations with dedicated foresight resources and expected to be those most mature.

Adopting foresight

Accelerating development towards higher foresight maturity and long-term focus might be one of the most essential elements to ensure that global collaboration succeeds in addressing the challenges we are currently facing. It will lead us to an increasing awareness of emerging issues and a realization that by proactively and collectively addressing these, we will be better positioned to tackle future challenges.

Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies was founded as an independent think tank in 1969 to increase foresight maturity. It holds a UNESCO Chair in Anticipatory Leadership and Futures Capabilities, so we can say much more about this topic. However, three key recommendations for organizations wanting to accelerate foresight maturity include:

1. Stakeholder-minded long-term vision

Establish clear long-term visions that key decision-makers, employees and citizens comprehensively understand based on a thorough analysis of potential future conditions. Engaging in dialogue about future conditions and aspirations initiates envisioning a future that diverges from the present.

According to our recently released Future Barometer, 73% of Danes believe politicians’ thinking is too short-sighted and 75% fear that our long-term problems will never be solved.

Research has demonstrated that imagining oneself in old age can increase one’s willingness to forego immediate gratifications for greater future benefits. Similarly, spending time contemplating long-term futures enhances one’s willingness to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term aspirations.

2. Altering organizational mindset

Cultivate a futures-oriented philosophy in your organization, addressing the future with a different mindset than the past. Our experiences are based on the past and all the data we access is historical. Often, organizations try to predict the future using certain data and expertise but these may not result in the right dialogues.

Future-proofing institutions, systems, and organizations require engagement and structured analysis of “potential” futures, “plausible” futures and “preferable” futures.

The practice of long-term thinking. Foresight
The practice of long-term thinking. Image: The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies

3. Foresight as a discipline

Foresight is a discipline and should be recognized as such. The Danish scientist Niels Bohr has been quoted as saying, “It is difficult to predict, especially about the future.”

Proper foresight is not about predictions but rather about exploring potential futures. It is about structured interdisciplinary thinking to understand the complex interconnections between domains and driving forces, and it is conducted using structured methodologies tailored to the purpose.

Engaging in foresight requires dedicated resources and capabilities, just as strategy, innovation, risk management, economic analysis, cultural studies, anthropological studies, psychological studies, etc.

Therefore, for a sustainable future, embracing long-term foresight is not just an option but a necessity in today’s rapidly evolving world.

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