A flashback: the history of strategic foresight

a group of people sitting on a bench in front of a wall Imagine you check into an exclusive hotel at a breathtaking beach resort, eager for a memorable vacation.

Daniel Egger

11/24/20192 min read

a group of people sitting on a bench in front of a wall
a group of people sitting on a bench in front of a wall

In 1763, after long wars that transformed values and national borders, Samuel Madden published the book, Reign of George VI. It was the birth of exploring the unknown, the dawn of speculative fiction[1]. He made the first structured forecast of the future. Madden introduced a new way of thinking by imagining other circumstances for mankind. As with Roger Bacon’s (1260) technological vision[2] or St. Thomas More’s (1516)[3] “imaginary voyages,” he was quite taken with the future. Madden connected new future realities with the present, exploring progress beyond mere utopian aspirations. In his book, he determined that the future is and will be different from the present. It is neither divine nor a prophecy. His work ushered in a period of “professional horizon watchers.”[4] These individuals dedicated their time to observing and understanding the potential changes on the horizon.

The future has since been a source of fascination for many writers, from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Those thinkers shared their ideas about the possible and imaginary, inspiring generations to envision alternative futures.

Science fiction entered popular culture in the 1950s. Futurists such as Alvin Toffler and Daniel Bell brought this genre of the imaginable into the mainstream. Inspirations surged, new forms of entertainment exploded, and society began to seriously consider the implications of technological advancements.

But the temporal perspective was still distant from the common businessperson. Herman Kahn, a military strategist and system theorist, filled in the blanks. He translated the future into a logical process, scenario planning. The logic represented the missing link of planning and future thinking.[5] As “the father” of prospecting, he argues that the present is more than a static extrapolation of the present. It isn’t a vision, but a discussion about conceivable alternatives, encouraging businesses to think more strategically about their futures.

However, the proposed process was not simple, but embraced the diversity of society. Herman Kahn’s suggested process of scenario planning asked companies to do extensive research to thoroughly understand the changes. Organizations, feeling uncomfortable executing such a complex method, simplified it and adjusted scenario planning to their current mindset, reducing society to a snapshot. The picture was static now, and a mirror of the present, simplified and linear, incremental and determined by sequential thinking.[6] This oversimplification limited the potential benefits of scenario planning.

When the oil crisis in the 1970s hit, many of the self-proclaimed forward-looking organizations were insufficiently prepared. They saw the fault as Herman Kahn’s prospective process, not their own simplified application. It was the trigger point in ending the “hype” of future exploration, demonstrating the importance of embracing complexity and uncertainty when considering the future.

[1] The first book was Memoirs of the Twentieth Century. The author destroyed most copies, and therefore the book had no major influence on the field of future thinking.

[2] Roger Bacon, medieval monk, wrote his beliefs about the future in a work titled Epicola de Secretis Operibus. Especially interesting are his visions about machines that can drive, row, and fly without the help of animals.

[3] St. Thomas More describes in his book Utopia imaginary voyages inspired by the explorers and scientific investigations of the 17th century, and coined the same term.

[4] Arthur C., Clarke. 1979. p.2

[5] Mats, Lindgren and Hans, Bandhold. 2003

[6] Salim, Ismail. 2014. Kindle Location 487