We often use Knowledge Management (KM) insights to help adapt and adjust projects and programmes to increase their efficiency and effectiveness. But a hidden power of those insights is that they can serve as the basis for and inform long-term plans and strategies, and spark creativity and innovation.
The practice of futures thinking involves anticipating, analysing, and strategically planning for potential future scenarios. It’s an experiential process used by organisations and individuals that is based on signs and signals from today that are projected into a longer-term future.
In addition to enabling strategic decisions, futures thinking promotes creativity, mental flexibility, empathy, critical thinking, and hope.
By using your KM tools to organise and collect your organisation’s information and insights, you can set the stage for engaging in futures thinking. Here are some sources you might tap into:
- Project reports
- Programme databases
- Staff knowledge and experience
- Community insights and observations
- Proposal research
Once you have assembled your sources, use participatory KM techniques such as collaborative workshops and knowledge mapping sessions to identify trends and insights. Look for recurring themes, emerging issues, disruptive technologies, local and regional shifts, demographic changes, and other factors.
Consider the broader international development context. What trends are emerging? What are people talking about? Are certain areas of practice gaining more visibility or urgency, while others are becoming less so? For example, if your work focuses on eradicating a specific communicable disease, has that disease come under control, thus requiring less funding, while another has reemerged or is gaining traction from donors? What changes in funding are expected or do you see a trend or emerging area that donors aren’t focusing on yet? Are other international development organisations shifting focus? Consider new technological advances, regulatory changes, even social and cultural shifts in the countries and communities where you work. Consider other factors that emerge during your analysis. These “signals of change” will be the basis for your futures thinking journey.
Step into the Future
Futures thinking scenario planning techniques are used to develop potential alternative futures based on the signals of change, opportunities, and risks you identified during your discovery process. It is important to note that futures thinking is not about predicting the future. There are no facts about the future. This is the creative and fun part – and a great way to engage people from across the organisation to create and share potential scenarios. The goal is to mash together different factors from your KM preparation in unique ways to create scenarios that take place at least 10 years into the future – the more outlandish and unrealistic the scenarios the better.
Why 10 years? By projecting 10 years into the future, we unleash our imagination, and step away from the need to rely on expertise and past experience. Ten years gives us enough space to be mentally flexible – it’s far enough away to feel doable, but not so close that we get tripped up on the realities of the present day, and on our current expertise. Ten years is also enough time to plan for and do something about a potential future scenario.
Once you have your potential scenarios, futures thinking practices and frameworks are used to explore what it would be like to live in those futures. This is best done by engaging people from across the organisation (as well as external partners and collaborators), and tapping into their diverse perspectives and creativity, and by looking at scenarios through personal, organisational, community, national, and global lenses. What might a typical day look like in this future? What are the positives and negatives about living in this future? How might individuals and the organisation contribute to others in this future? Are there unexpected benefits or drawbacks? Is this a future you’d like to facilitate or one that you’d prefer to discourage? How might you prepare for this future?
Close the Loop
Your futures scenario exploration could result in a number of outcomes such as new policies, areas of advocacy, changes in programme direction, new organisational initiatives, innovations, communities of practice, task forces, or action plans to be used if some, or all, of a potential future transpires. Utilise your KM programme and tools to make the outcomes available across the organisation, and continue the engagement. And if one of your scenarios happens to occur down the road, you will have the benefit of your earlier work to make informed decisions.
The future is yet to be written, so revisit your outcomes periodically to update your thinking based on new insights and changes in the world.
Contributor: Pamela Hobbs, Senior Knowledge Management Consultant, Consult KM International