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The future starts today

Tanja Hichert is a professional futurist who has helped an impressive list of clients — from the City of Cape Town to the World Bank — to identify ways in which to reach their preferred futures. By Anna Mouton.

Hichert recently facilitated a strategic foresight process for Hortgro. She describes herself as someone who works with futures — with an emphasis on the plural. “There is not one single future out there that we can predict. The future relies on the decisions and choices we make now. It constantly changes and emerges.”

Futures studies — which is strictly speaking an academic discipline — is also known as strategic foresight, a term Hichert prefers. “Foresight is the capacity to think systematically about the future to inform decision-making today.” It involves combining creative thinking with recognised tools and methodologies to explore multiple futures. Some of these futures are obviously preferable to others. The goal is to take actions that make the preferred futures more likely.

Hortgro Vision of the Future

The Hortgro Vision of the Future project is a strategic foresight exercise that focuses on the South African pome- and stone-fruit industry — what Hichert refers to as the unit of analysis. “The unit of analysis is often deeply dependent on what happens around it. For example, there are high-impact key uncertainties with regards to South Africa, so we had to look at country-level scenarios, and then see how those impact Hortgro.”

The Hortgro project grew out of a foresight study commissioned by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture in late 2020. “A lot of the desk-based research, horizon scanning, and identification of predictable surprises, potential shocks, and driving forces shaping the future of agriculture in the Western Cape were directly taken and used for the Hortgro work,” says Hichert. “They were relevant, and it saved time and money.”

A group of 40–50 Hortgro stakeholders, holistically representing the industry, were assembled for a series of four workshops held online in 2021. The first workshop identified how certain drivers of change might affect different parts of the industry. The second workshop developed scenarios by thinking about how the drivers of change play out — what are the potential different futures?

Connecting the preferred futures to goals, strategies, and capabilities was the theme of the third workshop. In the final workshop, participants returned to the present and prioritised the actions that were most likely to achieve their desired outcome.

“The best technique in my experience is engaging in strategic conversations from multiple perspectives,” says Hichert. “The people that know the industry have to spend time together. They bring their cumulative experience, and they have multiple perspectives. Strategic foresight tools and methods often just elicit the knowledge that already exists in the client.”

Weak signals and emerging issue analysis

Professional futurists distinguish between trend analysis and emerging issue analysis. Trends reflect historical data. When looking at trends, the assumption is that the past can be extrapolated to the future. “In our jargon, what’s important is, a trend is a trend until it bends,” says Hichert. “We have no idea of when trends bend. This is why it is so important to get a better understanding of how change happens.”

One challenge with understanding change is that the drivers are not always obvious. Hichert acknowledges that there will always be developments that few people foresee. “What we can do is to be extremely open to the weird and wonderful, and to what we as futures people call weak signals. Those are pockets of the future in the present.”

This is where emerging issue analysis comes in. Emerging issues are issues that have not been important in the past or contributed much to shaping the present — but they may be definitive for the future.

An emerging issue is by definition not initially widely known. These are not issues that are reported in the mainstream news media. “It takes time and commitment and a certain way of thinking to go and look in the places where you find the kind of knowledge that might shape the future,” comments Hichert.

Emerging issues tend to start life as fringe thinking, for example in science fiction. Writer H.G. Wells is perhaps best known for his novel The War of the Worlds. But Wells was an advocate for future studies as early as 1902. He was the first person — in 1932 — to use the term foresight in the sense professional futurists use it today. He is credited with predicting the development of space travel, satellite television, and even, some say the internet.

Some fringe ideas will be picked up and explored by scientists, academics, or entrepreneurs, possibly leading to innovation. The issue will start appearing in specialised media, such as scientific and technical journals, or research reports. Once everyone reads about it in their daily newsfeed or sees it on television, an issue can safely be called mainstream — at this point, the reaction is about adapting to change that is already well underway.

According to Hichert, professional futurists tend to search for weak signals in the foresight zone, which is where fringe thinking gives rise to the emerging issues that will drive change.

The critical crisis convergence

Hichert spends her time working with companies as diverse as Lego and De Beers, and organisations ranging from the South African Department of Tourism to the Rockefeller Foundation. When asked whether she has encountered recurring themes driving change across the board, she refers to an image of a series of tsunamis that threatens to overwhelm humanity.

“We call it the critical crisis convergence,” says Hichert. “Covid-19, economic recession, climate change, biodiversity collapse — those are the big things.”

In the South African context, the impact of an economic recession is exacerbated by deep levels of inequality. “Our inability to deal with inequality is the kicker,” says Hichert. “We don’t yet have economic models that address the structural imbalances that will create a future that’s going to be deeply crisis-driven.”

According to Hichert, artificial intelligence is typically front-of-mind for futures practitioners in developed countries in Europe and North America. “It ticks the box as a very strong driver of the future because it’s highly uncertain and it’s going to have a massive impact.”

Listening to Hichert describing the critical crisis convergence, one might wonder whether futurists naturally tend to be pessimists. “There’s a big difference between a positive preferred future and utopia,” counters Hichert. “We’ve developed a technique to come up with positive futures through working with tools and methodologies that take complexity into account.”

Strategic foresight is a systematic way of thinking about the future, that Hichert believes we could get so much better at. “We need to adopt an African perspective, and that doesn’t mean you start talking about things like smart cities. That’s a used future — it comes from somewhere else. We’ve got to figure this out for ourselves.”

Nobody likes change. But, as Hichert points out, it creates opportunities for renewal.

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