Tapping into the power of collective foresight in times of uncertainty

February 16, 2021

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Intelligence brief on “Collective Foresight and Intelligence for Sustainability” published in Global Sustainability.

Illustration of a collective intelligence workflow. Starts with a globe and people. Text: "Diverse perceptions of societal trends." Next step is a prism shape. Text: Collective foresight exercise - identify expectations of societal trends." Next step is an ellipse with colours flowing through it from the prism. Text: "Drivers - identify main classes of drivers of change." Final Step are the outcomes. Text: "Sustainability trajectories - identify alternative futures."

How can society leverage digital tools to better tackle global systemic challenges in a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity?

How can we elevate a plurality of viewpoints and potential paths forward using processes that complement established approaches?

These questions lie at the heart of the paper “Collective Foresight and Intelligence for Sustainability” published this week in Global Sustainability.

The article, authored by a diverse team affiliated with Future Earth, Sustainability in the Digital Age, the ClimateWorks Foundation, Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute, the Shah and Anchor Kutchhi Engineering College, and University of Massachusetts Boston, looks at the way information is gathered and proposes an agile research method based on rapid foresight and collective intelligence exercises.

The team argues that while established mechanisms such as integrated assessments models (IAMs) continue to provide critical insights for climate mitigation, they can be strengthened through complementary approaches that are more “iterative, responsive, and inclusive.”

To this end, a Rapid Foresight Survey called “COVID-19: Where do we go from here?” was launched in April 2020 to take the global pulse on opportunities and challenges emerging from the COVID-19 crisis.

The survey asked participants to assess key societal trends over the next three years ranging from centralized governance and digital surveillance to inequality and ecological footprint.

Survey respondents also provided news headlines they both expected and hoped to see and evaluated the role of digital technologies during crises.

The resulting report “Where is the world headed post-COVID-19?” explores these global expectations and classifies them into proposed alternative sustainability trajectories.

The report also identifies the perceived main drivers of change leading to positive futures, such as shifts in policies, mindsets, norms, and power dynamics, and gives concrete examples of these mechanisms:

  1. Emissions cap-and-trade or universal health care policies.
  2. Recentering of values around compassion and kindness.
  3. Changes in travel patterns.
  4. Empowerment of local actors.

In this first phase of the survey, data collected showed important regional differences in expected societal trends related to sustainability. Specifically, divergent opinions emerged between the Global North and the Global South.

However, when it comes to the use of digital surveillance during crises, the vast majority of respondents across geographies agreed it may be a viable tool within certain guidelines.

By targeting diverse communities and perspectives, these kinds of global surveys give access to current data that could help “inform and shape recovery strategies.” Combined with more complex, computationally intensive models, a deeper understanding of world-wide sustainability issues could offer potential solutions to systemic challenges.

As the authors state, “the results illustrate the power of collective foresight approaches to provide timely, nuanced insights for decision-making across sectors and scales, particularly in times of uncertainty.” In June and October 2020, the research team circulated two additional phases of the survey. More results coming soon!