Why UF Observatory? Join the movement!

Why UF Observatory? Join the movement!
07.05.2020 | Monika Popper

“I have a dream today” highlighted several times Martin Luther King in his landmark speech on the 28th of April 1963. It was in the present that he had a desire to, through his dream, create a better future and reality for the upcoming generations. According to Godet (1994) a prospective thought is what spurs the content and gives direction to collective mobilization towards a common vision, one that remains longer lasting and stronger in pursue of future goals and long-term prospects. Political developments worldwide demonstrate that democratic governments face a model crisis, as contemporary politics remain trapped in the present, thus leaving aside future-oriented concerns and societal consequences of not acting upon them. Politicians driven by self-interests tend to ensure their short-term benefits at the expense of addressing long-term needs of their people. Ritzer’s (1993) idea of McDonaldization has rippled effects throughout all aspects of society, including politics, which can be increasingly observed by its culture of control, efficiency and calculability. Often times citizens are being sold “quick-and-dirty” solutions, which are easily grasped as societies drawn in the complexity of today’s world. It is somehow evident that today’s dysfunctional myopic democracy calls for a paradigm shift; a new democratic model that would enable setting forward-looking political agendas through increased deliberation.

Deliberative democracy practice is built on normative theory and allows for discussion and reflection amongst citizens to acquire better informed and weighted views, which are seen as an important input/source of public policy (De Vries et al., 2010). According to Bozdag and van den Hoven (2015) regardless of how fair, participatory and informed democracy is, it cannot be considered as deliberative, unless reasoning becomes a crucial part of collective decision-making processes. In fact, modern societies have been for a while experimenting with different deliberative approaches to support public policy planning (Smith, 2009), and even though its potential has been recognised (Cohen, 1986; Evans, 2004; Talisse, 2005; Bohman, 2006; Cohen, 2009; Hardin, 2009; Lendemore, 2012) there is a growing literature that highlights a number of hurdles in the implementation of deliberative processes, as well as the quality and uptake of their outcomes (Ryfe, 2005; Dodds and Ankeny, 2005; Thompson, 2008; Parkinson, 2006; Lukensmeyer, 2014). Smith (2014) believes that both, democratic practices and institutions are far from deliberative. Thus, while deliberative democracy is not particularly novel as a concept, it requires devising appropriate methods for improvement (Lafont, 2015), new institutional design (Smith, 2014; 2018) and appropriate framing and more effective implementation mechanisms that would support its adoption and diffusion (Lukensmeyer, 2014), as well as strong evaluation mechanism (Abelson et al. 2003). Political events that continue to emerge in recent times (e.g. Brexit, Cataluna) emphasise the need for more deliberation – the next phase of democracy that would suit the needs of complex systems and support multi-systemic transformations.

While various models of democratic deliberation exist (e.g. National Issues Forums, dialogue-to-change, deliberative mini-publics, 21st Century Town Meetings, participatory budgeting, citizens’ juries, planning cells, deliberative polling, consensus conferences and citizens’ panels, among others) and are being effectively implemented in specific contexts, there is little evidence regarding the efficacy and long-term impact of such approaches. Aimed at improving the assessment and better understand governance innovations, best practices in participatory political processes are being mapped in Participedia[1], a useful source of information for comparative analysis that can enhance research in the field (Fung and Warren, 2011; Smith et al., 2015). Up to date close to 1500 cases have been mapped and available in the portal. There are also numerous studies on deliberative democracy, but scholars focus largely on definitions and methodological aspects. On the other hand, a vast amount of research drawing on foresight methodologies, practice and evaluation can be found; nevertheless the literature and frameworks combining deliberative democracy and foresight is very limited. Hanna-Kaisa Pernaa (2017) highlights the need to enhance consideration of long-term perspectives and outlines mutual advantages and potential opportunities of fusing deliberative democracy with the field of foresight, which could lead to improved societal policy-making. Strengthening the connection between public institutions and its public through participatory approaches is vital in building more sustainable system of governance, construed within the existing democratic settings. It would require improved tools and mechanisms to deliberate, which can be facilitated through foresight processes with deliberation embedded within.

Policy-making, as well as generic decision-making approaches, around the world adopts foresight methodologies to explore and better understand forces and drivers that shape long-term futures, in support of society’s preparedness for uncertain and plausible futures (Miles, 2008). The importance of forward-looking approaches has been increasingly recognised in light of exponential changes and shorter re-action time as future unfolds. At the European level, the European Commission’s Framework Programmes for research, technology and innovation support agenda-setting through multi-stakeholder engagement. One example is the CASI project that involved government, business, civil society and research and education actors to deliberate on issues concerning better assessment and management of sustainable innovation (Popper et al., 2020). A representation of citizens from a dozen EU countries took part in national citizen panels to co-produce visions for sustainable futures. A compilation of all visions was then deliberated amongst and translated into research priorities by European experts and presented back to the same group of citizens in a second round of citizen panels. These were once again discussed, confirmed and prioritised by the participants to produce a list of Top 10 national, as well as European, research priorities that stem from a citizen-expert-citizen process. In Finland, for example, long-term democratic governance has been promoted through various mechanisms designed to deter short-termism. At the strategic level, these include a parliamentary Committee for the Future, which acts as parliament’s think-tank established for the purpose of avoiding government’s short-sightedness, through the application of carefully designed methodologies for future research. Other mechanisms involve a Report on the Future of key strategic issues prepared by the Government and submitted to Parliament once per electoral period, as well as a new foresight unit.

Existing foresight frameworks place participation and interaction amongst key enablers of a successful forward-looking deliberation, thus promoting inclusive “bottom up” processes. Miles (2008) presents foresight as a set of participative, prospective and policy-oriented approaches. By participative he means (a) from the technocratic basis, the interaction of societal stakeholders in envisioning the future and distributing knowledge; (b) from the democratic rationale he sees the potential of interaction in improving the democratic foundation of future visions, thus increasing the legitimacy of foresight processes and recommendations; and consequently (c) enhanced deployment as engaged stakeholders are more likely to embed the messages and results in their own context (be it personal, institutional, etc.). Popper (2008) reviews a variety of foresight methods and classifies them by: (a) types of techniques used, including qualitative, quantitative and semi-quantitative); (b) types of approaches that vary from exploratory and/or normative orientations; and (c) four types of knowledge source that include expertise, evidence, interaction and creativity. The latter framework, in particular, highlights the importance of interaction and deliberation in strategic decision-making, alongside other requisites, thus suggesting that interaction alone is not enough to produce legitimate outcomes. Depending on the scope and objectives of initiatives interaction might need to be combined with adequate levels of expertise, evidence and/or creativity-based approaches. While evidence and expertise improve legitimacy of results, creativity supports out-of-the-box thinking and prevents short-sightedness. Furthermore, Velasco (2017) places emphasis on the need for representation, as well as repositioning and resolution in decision-making that considers long-term perspectives. With regards to repositioning, it requires, on the one hand, imagining oneself in alternative futures in order to anticipate changes and mitigate potential consequences, and, on the other hand, placing oneself in the shoes of others (including future generations). Grönlund et al. (2017) describe emotional empathy as relevant element of democratic deliberation, one that can actually grow and propagate during deliberation. Finally, foresight is presented as a SMART process (Popper, 2012) that focuses on scoping, mobilising, anticipating, recommending and transforming futures. According to the author, for the foresight process to be a SMART one, all five phases need to be implemented in a rigorous and systematic manner.

While participation and deliberation are present in the second and third phase of the process respectively, embedding deliberation in all five stages of the SMART framework could further improve the robustness, legitimacy and impact of the results. This would mean incorporating deliberation in design and scoping processes or evaluation of alternative proposals; deliberation in the mobilisation of stakeholders to identify suitable representation; deliberation in the anticipation phase to collectively generate ideas, indicate preferences for most desirable and plausible futures, prioritise and rank lying ahead important opportunities that would allow to reach common goals; all of which would generate recommendations based on collective anticipatory intelligence. What remains to be determined is if, when thoroughly applied, deliberative forward-looking interaction could lead to a sustainable multi-systemic transformation i.e. the final phase of the foresight process.

As concluded by Bezold (2006) we can remain hopeful as “our ability to anticipate specific events remains challenged but our capacity to use futures tools to better understand the range of possibilities we face and to better choose and create the future we want are improving”. Mechanisms that facilitate and further advance this collective capacity are needed to reflect our dreams, hopes and fears in strategic problem-solving initiatives, before we reach critical times. Otherwise, satisfied with an extrapolation of the present, there would be no drive for long-term thinking.

The Universal Foresight Observatory (UFO) and supporting UF ecosystem are driven by our dream that decision-makers will use this sort of platforms to achieve desirable futures and to better manage undesirable ones by preventing or building resilience. In recent years our team has submitted several proposals for funding of such platform but, since other ideas seem to have been preferred by evaluators, we decided to undertake this self-funded initiative driven by our dreams. 

Several frameworks and approaches to the future have been presented in this blog, and there are many more out there, however, we saw the need for a more universal understanding of such approaches by the foresight community. Our collective response to it is The Handbook of Universal Foresight with a carefully selected team of international editors and a well-thought strategy to mobilise the right set of contributors (see call for chapters) in order to co-create 36 chapters that will help to reload and renew foresight with a more comprehensive understanding of its impact, methodology and practice.

The Universal Foresight Observatory (UFO) is in itself a good example of a forward-looking community-oriented deliberative process, which will also help to draw lessons from all six world regions considered in the Handbook and demonstrate how these deliberative approaches should be embedded and interconnected across different types of applications and areas of science (see Handbook structure).

The Universal Foresight team invites you on board of the Nebuchadnezzar! Here we can disconnect from standardised path-dependent systems and unleash imagination and creativity to jointly co-create shared visions for more sustainable path-breaking lives for those of us “living in Zion” so as to hopefully help to rebuild our dreamed planet.



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[1] https://participedia.net/en

Relevant themes: Wicked-Problems & Moonshots, Technology Development
Relevant tags: deliberation, participation, foresight, Social innovation, Sustainability


  • Monika Popper - Futures Diamond Ltd

    Monika Popper

    Monika Popper (MSc) has worked in the area of foresight and future-oriented innovation assessment and management; mapping critical issues affecting sustainability of innovation and collaborating with relevant stakeholders to create growth, competitiveness and sustainability of innovations. She has been involved in the organization of diverse foresight and horizon scanning research projects with strong emphasis in multistakeholder engagement activities, including the participation of citizens in agenda setting. In her role as a researcher and innovation manager, she has reviewed developments and implementation of health and safety, food security, healthcare and sustainable innovation (SI) policies and platforms, amongst other research and technology development activities.