Sarah Ralston

13 September, 2016

Is Futurism a Fad?

Futurism is all the rage these days, and it seems to be spreading to the development sector.  I was initially fairly skeptical, and in a recent discussion on this topic with change leaders from a range of different international civil society organisations (ICSOs), it turns out I wasn’t alone. Some were cynical about the latest fad and buzz word, seeing it as a re-brand of something we have always done in how we design programs and develop strategies. Others saw it as an unnecessary theoretical exercise that, no matter how stimulating or robust, will not bring concrete changes or improvements to our work and the impact we are able to have on poverty and injustice.rachelvoorhees via flickr CC

To an extent both are true. No amount of analysis or scenario planning in Egypt, for example, could have prepared civil society for the various political shifts over the past several years and the resulting implications on development. But while I still have my doubts about futurism as a discipline, I have become an advocate for instituting a regular, intentional process of what is increasing being referred to as horizon scanning. For one, I do think it can inform what we do and how we do it in a way that may not be radically different from the past, but does have some important new dimensions.  Mostly, however, I have become a believer in using it as an important lever for organisational culture change.

Take the example of the organisation I work for, CARE International. Since 2011 we have been assessing how we can best contribute to the global movement against poverty and injustice, and like many international CSOs have been going through a change process to multiply our impact and be better fit for 21st century development.  One major approach we have used includes regular scanning processes in each country and region where we work around the world, using a mix of data, research and consultations with a wide range of actors to identify key trends and use them to define the specific role for CARE to play for the future.

While in the past we regularly engaged in similar forms of contextual analyses and scenario planning, it was often done ad hoc and in silos.  What has been different for CARE is twofold: it is systematic, and we have now coupled it with a process to overlay global data and trends. We are starting to use it in targeted discussions with decision-makers, including as a standing agenda item for our leadership bodies with a ‘menu of trends’ to investigate in depth. And as we monitor progress on the changes we already have underway, we are bringing in the trends to help ask where we need to accelerate, or do something differently. For example, we have focused on strengthening our accountability as a strategic priority for some time, but have recently accelerated our efforts and investment in light of a focused scanning exercise that raised the urgency in terms of youth expectations and digital innovations.

But what is arguably the most important byproduct has been the gradual cultural shift that is occurring. CARE has become more future oriented in a comparatively short period of time, regularly looking ahead at key emerging trends and increasingly in a way that considers the whole ecosystem, prompting better engagement with the myriad of forces at play in any given context. The process of scanning demands an accompanying capacity to adapt. If there is anything we know to be true about the future, it is that the pace and complexity of change will only grow.  While we have quite a way to go, we have the opportunity to build on the groundwork laid to engrain behaviors of regular scanning and adapting, keeping our ears and eyes open for ways of innovating to deepen and widen social change.

And we do know about megatrends on the horizon – growing religious polarisation, urbanisation, climate change and resource scarcity, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution to name a few. If we are not taking stock of these trends, actively discussing implications and pre-positioning for anticipated disruptions, then we arguably do not have a place in the 2030 development landscape. There is excellent multi-disciplinary research and engagement that we can draw on without requiring heavy internal investments. The key is whether or not we will be able to broaden and sustain the space within and amongst our organisations to do so and actually make changes in light of what is on the horizon.

This blog is the fourth in our series on Scanning the Horizon – based on a project of the same name facilitated by the International Civil Society Centre, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. For more information on the exciting new endeavour, or joining our community, please visit our website or get in touch with Marianne Henkel (

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