Introducing Human-Centered Foresight
October 28, 2021
Caught your attention with that snappy opener, am I right? No? That’s okay… History buffs and foresight professionals, glad to see you’re still here. As my two key audiences might relate to, the evolution of professions is particularly interesting to me. Early stage signals of a need in the market, mass confusion about what a profession “actually” does, and slow adoption ultimately leading to mainstream acceptance of a certain expertise is the rollercoaster ride I sign up for every time I dig into the formation of a field.
As I’ve spent time reading more and more, something has become apparent to me: when fields of expertise are developing, they begin by defining the system in which they are playing in and then overtime start to bring it down to what that means to an individual. Auto mechanics first had to understand the system of the automobile to then understand what that might mean to a driver and how to make it safer. Nail technicians first had to understand human biology and what compounds bind best to nails in order to be able to customize their work for individual desires. Environmental engineers had to first understand the complex system of the environment to then distill it down to how the individual can help combat climate change.
As different fields work to become more meaningful and valuable to people globally, becoming more human-centered seems to be an inevitable outcome. So how does that tie to foresight? History buffs and foresight professionals, you probably have seen this next statement coming… Maybe this transition from system understanding to individual understanding is the exact transition that we are seeing in the foresight field right now.
In order to unpack that statement a bit more, we’re going to investigate that transition, why our team at ATB Ventures believes our newly defined Human-Centered Foresight will be the next big thing, and about how we’re already activating projects based around the principles of Human-Centered Foresight. If you’re wanting a bit more on what foresight is first, feel free to check out this article.
The People in the Scenarios
Considering people within foresight output isn’t new. Foresight-based persona development has been used for years as a mechanism to encourage powerful discourse surrounding scenarios.
However, as Alessandro Fergnani discusses in one of the most recent papers on foresight persona design, "The future persona: a futures method to let your scenarios come to life", persona development for scenarios isn’t often discussed in literature. In fact, Fergnani pulls a significant amount of his insights on the current state of future personas from examples from futures projects rather than an established methodology outlined in academic papers.
Fergnani sees the main value of future personas being that of bringing the scenario to life through the individualized stories and sees them as an “effective way to express the scenario’s key take-aways… through the descriptions of the personas’ psychology, actions and daily life”. Fergnani considers future personas as a “living scenario” and proposes a scenario-specific methodology for persona creation.
While this renewed interest in establishing methodology to develop people within scenarios is exciting, and while I agree with Fergnani and view his methodology as a powerful tool for scenario communication, I do think there is more we can do to continue to make foresight more human-centered. What if instead of using future personas as the basis of discourse around implications, we could actually use them as the basis of the implications themselves?
This question brought me to my next discovery of the recently minted Customer Foresight. Started by the Foresight Academy in 2020 with papers such as The Customer Foresight Territory and Customer Foresight Practice: How to Access Future Markets Through Extraordinary People, the field “aims to study customers’ future realities and needs with regard to tomorrow’s products and services”. Customer Foresight proposes combining the field of customer research and its investigation into human needs and desires, with the field of foresight and its investigation into dynamics of change and the future.
Customer Foresight aligns with ATB Ventures’ hopes to leverage foresight to better understand people, better analyze global changes, and better recognize the human implications of our strategy and product portfolio. Customer Foresight is emerging and the authors of the papers do an excellent job of laying the initial foundation for a brand new field. That being said, there are two aspects of the Foresight Academy’s proposal that I think could be iterated on.
Firstly, the name “Customer Foresight” implies that the field is solely focused on an individual who directly purchases a good or service from a specific company. The concern I have with such a framing is that over the last few years it has been increasingly evident that an incredulous amount of people that are not customers of a company can be impacted by corporate decisions. Facebook’s customers are technically businesses that want advertising, yet while serving them their end users (or arguably, their products) are being increasingly impacted to the point of Facebook having a serious role in election outcomes. I can recognize that the use of “Customer” is likely due to one of the underlying fields being Customer Research, but I propose that instead of using a name that may silo our thinking to evaluate humans by nature of their capitalistic purchasing behaviours, we instead expand our titling to include all humans of the future by using the framing of Human-Centered Foresight. This nomenclature would also align well with the well-known Human-Centered Design.
The second aspect I would like to comment on is the heavy attention given to the Trend Receiver technique. In essence, the Trend Receiver methodology is focused on leveraging the insights of people who “perceive changes and potentials of the new in a specific domain in a highly sensitive and differentiated way”. The underlying hypothesis of this methodology is that the characteristics of Trend Receivers allow them to assess trends and express how they may impact their everyday lives in the future better than the average person. Although I do see the value of this methodology having a role in Human-Centered Foresight, I do not believe that it should be the primary nor a significantly weighted technique for understanding how people react to change. This is because when we look at the constellation of people in this world, those that fit the Trend Receiver persona have one thing in common— they pay attention to emerging trends and have the processing capacity to understand the implications of such trends. By focusing efforts on understanding the nuanced perspectives of Trend Receivers, we are missing out on the implication analysis of the vast majority of people who are less attuned to global changes.
Human-Centered Foresight at ATB Ventures
Our first project leveraging Human-Centered Foresight at ATB Ventures was scoped around exactly that concept: how might various user groups respond to numerous potential contextual shifts of the future? After two years of research and development, we created a data-based approach to tactically measure direct impacts to a human’s wellness based on how the world might change. Although we can’t discuss the model in detail at this time, we leveraged an extremely well-vetted psychographic model as the underpinning of the project and our ATB Ventures’ Scenarios of 2030.
What we came to discover was exactly what we discussed above— some people are incredibly well adept at responding to change, but some people really struggle. Based on the psychographic model alone, our team theorized that our first user group would be the best at responding to change, and our third user group would be significantly weaker at responding to change. After layering in our data and analysis, this proved to be true and ultimately resulted in the group names of the Adaptives and the Uneasy. As you can see with the wellness spider plots, when the world improves the Adaptives’ wellness drastically improves, and when the world worsens their wellness does decrease but not overwhelmingly so. With the Uneasy, when the world improves their wellness only mildly improves, and when the world worsens their wellness decreases to the point of them almost being a non-functional member of society.
What is powerful about this project is that not only does it include unique perspectives on adaptability, it also adds detailed analysis as to how various futures may affect an individual specifically. By opening up our lens of thinking as to what Human-Centered Foresight can be, we are opening up the world of possibility for how we can analyze project implications and how we can better prepare people for change.
Foresight is increasingly becoming a well-respected and valued methodology for strategic planning by organizations and business leaders globally. As a still developing field, I truly believe that the power of foresight and the various ways it can be applied is just starting to be understood. I predict that over time, the field of foresight will continue to get more human-centric, using insights from individuals not to just tell stories about the future, but to actually create meaningful implications about the future. Through the continued research as to what Humans of 2030+ may be like, ATB Ventures plans to keep exploring and inventing meaningful methodology behind what Human-Centered Foresight can do.