Millennium Project
Factors Required for Successful Implementation of Futures Research in Decision Making

Executive Summary

The purpose of this report is to identify and discuss the reasons for success or failure in the use of futures research in reaching timely decisions. Several techniques were used to achieve this purpose, futurists, business planners, and scholars were surveyed via a three-round "Global Lookout" questionnaire; decisionmakers and policy advisors were interviewed; correspondence among futurists was conducted individually and via group email (listserv); and selected articles were reviewed. In addition, the futures research experience of the two authors of this report provided useful background.

Futures research is the systematic study of possible future conditions. It includes analysis of how those conditions might change as a result of the implementation of policies and actions, and the consequences of these policies and actions. Futures research can be directed to large or small-scale issues, in the near or distant future; it can project possible or desired conditions. It is not a science; the outcome of studies depends on the methods used and the skills of the practitioners. Its methods can be highly quantitative or qualitative. Its purpose is not to know the future but to help us make better decisions today via its methods which force us to anticipate opportunities and threats and consider how to address them.

"Foresighting activities cause impacts to organizations (or society) in a variety of ways most of which are extremely difficult to measure. As a result, foresighting organizations tend to rely on high-level buy-in and public legitimization as signs of their effectiveness."

Firm examples of timely decisions in response to early warnings from futures research are difficult to identify. Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions. Forecasts of ozone depletion led to the timely decisions in the Montreal Protocol. Human rights forecasts by the KGB led to Perestroyka. Population forecasts led to family planning. AIDS forecasts led to massive research and prevention programs. Forecasts in the books such as Silent Spring and Limits to Growth stimulated many environmental protection programs.

Futures methods and perspectives are also useful to decisionmaking by creating alternative futures and choices that add to conventional wisdom. For example, futurist Herman Kahn (pioneer of alternatives thinking via alternative scenarios and Genius Forecasting) proposed an alternative scenario that identified a gap in US defense: all the early warning systems in the US and Canada looking north would be irrelevant if the USSR decided to launch missiles over the South Pole.

In addition to informing decisionmaking, futures research can be used to change priorities, provide a context for understanding the meaning of the present, change attitudes of organizations. The National Academy of Science reported that thinking ahead also helps to improve intelligence and brain functioning. If so for individuals, then by extension, so too for organizations. The future cannot be known, but future possibilities and consequences can be explored, and based on such considerations, decisions can be made to influence the outcome of events and trends. Clearly it is better to be forewarned than not.

The following table shows the information flow of this report:

Table 1
Sources of Information for this report
Conclusions and Recommendations
Correspondence with Futurists 
and review of articles to identify 
and write examples of futures in decisionmaking
Impediments to the use 
of Futures Research
Factors required for the timely use of Futures Research in decisionmaking
Interviews with decisionmakers 
and policy advisors
Öincluding the moral issues with the decisionmaker Recommendations for institutional usage of Futures Research
Questionnaires to 
Global Lookout Panel
Information found to be 
useful in the timely use of Futures Research
Experience of the Authors    

More than 250 futurists, scholars, business planners, and policy makers from over 50 countries participated in the questionnaires and interviews for this study. Representatives in ten locations around the world translated and distributed the questionnaires and conducted interviews in Rome, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Aspendale (Australia), London, Teheran, Beijing, Cairo, Madurai (India), Tokyo, and Olomouc (Czech Republic).

The interviews asked policy makers to think about situations in which early warnings were given and timely actions followed. For those situations they were asked to identify the type of information that had been important to effective decisionmaking. The questionnaires asked the "Global Lookout Panel" to assess the results of the interviews, and to provide additional illustrations of information about the timely use of early warnings.

A request was also made via the Millennium Projectís two Internet listservs for examples of futures research that was used in timely decisionmaking. In addition, private correspondence was established with professional futurists asking for examples of successful use of futures research in timely decisions. Literature searches followed the input from the listservs and private correspondence to create the examples of successful usage presented in Chapter 1. The authorsí experience in futures research augmented and interpreted these inputs to this report.

The Global Lookout Panel identified and rated the following (via the questionnaires) as the top ten impediments to timely use of early warnings:

  1. Institutional: the fact that no one has responsibility to act; lack of adequate coordination among responsible ministries and agencies; institutional inertia

  3. Financial: lack of funding or the fact that the people who ought to pay are unwilling to do so

  5. Disinterest in the future: near term issues gain more attention than those that have more distant future consequences

  7. Planning inadequacy: lack of a long-term view

  9. Personnel: lack of decision skills - decisionmakers do not understand the complexities of the issues about which they must decide

  11. Strategic: lack of clear-cut strategy and goals, lack of coordinated actions among actors

  13. Complexity: lack of understanding of the magnitude of problems; lack of models showing complex interdependence of events and policies; lack of understanding of consequences of actions; stereotypical thinking

  15. Political: the action interferes with national interests or it has been proposed by a political opponent; lack of involvement of regions, corporations, and specific groups

  17. Information: lack of accurate, reliable and sufficient data and information, or the uncertainty of the risk; conflicting information; lack of coordinated scanning

  19. Lack of consensus: differing interests and ideology among key actors, politicians, public, and particularly lobbying groups
These factors are discussed in both Chapter 3 (Results of the Interviews), and Chapter 4 (Results of the Lookout Panel).

Barriers to the use of futures research in timely decisionmaking can also include moral factors. Those identified and rated as the greatest moral impediments were:

These moral factors that affect decisionmaking are discussed in Chapter 4.

The Global Lookout Panel identified and rated the following as the top fourteen factors that contribute to timely use of early warning information:

  1. Information that demonstrates unequivocally that a crisis is pending;

  3. Knowledge about what is possible: how science and technology might affect the outcomes of decisions;

  5. Education of decisionmakers and opinion shapers on issues of long-term significance, rather than those of short term populist interest;

  7. Simple, clear, precise information in political, cultural and social (non-technical) terms, connected to goals and strategies;

  9. Sufficient information about what is required to implement various policy options, e.g. manpower, systemic effects, technological change, etc.;

  11. Information about how a contemplated decision may affect stakeholders;

  13. Information about the success or failure of other institutions that have similar problems and have attempted to implement policies; inspiring success stories;

  15. Use of indicators;

  17. Testimony of eminent scientists;

  19. Information about probability and risks associated with issues and their policy solutions;

  21. Attention paid to the issue by the media;

  23. Accurate projections of computer models;

  25. Creation and use of accurate simulations and training, which make clear the consequences of actions;

  27. Clarity of forecasted condition without action and technical feasibility of proposed action;
The results of the panelís rating of these factors are in Chapter 4, along with examples of these kinds of information used in timely decisionmaking.

An organization conducting futures research to improve timely decisionmaking should learn from the key lessons below. These key lessons are drawn from the examples of successful application of futures research described in Chapter 1, plus the results of the questionnaires, interviews, review of articles, and augmented by the authorsí experience:

This report recommends the use of the factors and key lessons listed in this executive summary and discussed in the following chapters as a checklist to guide the preparation and delivery of information for more timely and effective decisionmaking as presented in the final chapter.

A future-oriented Dutch publication captured the essential value of futures research when it titled its work "Wise Before the Event." Such wisdom before the event should shorten the time between early warning and effective decisions.

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