Thinking about the future: methods and approaches to inform development policy and practice

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by James Copestake

In an era of heightened crisis and uncertainty, prospects for anticipating future trends and events accurately seem more remote but the potential pay-off to doing so increases. It therefore seems opportune to reflect on how we think about the future and do so better. It is also hard to conceive of development studies – defined broadly as the discipline for thinking critically about contested notions of progress and how they work out – without it being engaged in some degree of future thinking. Hence this note. Its aim is broad and limited: to share a very preliminary list of different ways of thinking about the future, and to invite further thoughts on how to go about assessing their current and potential use to guide development policy and practice.

To elaborate on the link between development studies and ‘futurology’, it is useful to make a threefold distinction between studying all or some part of the world through:

  1. Historical enquiry into how it is (and has been) combined with more-or-less deterministic causal projections of the present and/or past trends into the future
  2. Normative judgement about how it should be in the future, based on explicitly stated values
  3. Conjecture about how the world could be as a consequence of possible actions or interventions that promise (or threaten) to alter the gap between outcomes of the foregoing historical and normative tasks

I’ve argued elsewhere that new bubbles of development action tend to be associated with a coherent set of ideas comprising identification of feasible strategy for reducing the gap between how the world is and should be. If so, then a more thorough assessment of the status of development studies entails not just chronicling the decline of US-dominated global international cooperation, the debt-ridden end-game of the belt-and-road initiative, or the lack of feasible alternatives to capitalism even in the face of ecological catastrophe, but of human imagination to identify and rank any alternative futures - from the global level down to the personal.

More modestly, the question of how to think about the future connects with debates about different forms of evaluative practice, particularly with evaluators’ roles as (a) gatherers and interpreters of evidence about causal processes and (b) makers of informed ethical judgements, including debate over who performs these roles, how and why. While the evaluation profession is generally associated with looking backwards, it almost always does so with a view to thereby being able to think more clearly about the future - about what best to do next. In turbulent times, there is a clear need to learn how to make this leap from past to future clearer and stronger.

This motivation prompted me to start collecting ideas and examples of how we might be able to think about the future better in the field of development policy and practice. My preliminary list includes the following: anticipatory action, decision making under deep uncertainty (DMDU), critical realist identification of causal mechanisms, complexity thinking, dynamic modelling and simulation, horizon scanning, participatory systems mapping (PSM), theories of change, ParEvo, political economy analysis, project appraisal and sensitivity analysis, regression-based forecasting and simulation, risk management, and scenario planning.

The bibliography below augments this rather random list with references that expand on the range of options. To give two examples. First, Cordova-Pozo and Rouwette (2023:11) document eight categories of scenario planning: judgement, trend extrapolation, elaboration of fixed scenarios, event sequencing, back-casting/visioning, intuitive logic or prospective analysis, cross-impact analysis, and modelling. Second, while Barbrook-Johnson et al. (2022) do not focus explicitly on thinking about the future, all seven of the systems approaches they explore can be utilized to do so: rich pictures, theory of change diagrams, causal loop diagrams, participatory systems mapping, fuzzy cognitive mapping, Bayesian belief networks, and systems dynamics.

How to make sense of these and other ways of thinking about the future? Six dimensions with which to classify them are:

  • from broader methodological approaches to more prescriptive tools and techniques
  • from those that focus on a complete system to those that start with anticipating the effects of a specific intervention
  • from those that emphasize the importance of participatory processes to those that are more neutral about who conducts the analysis
  • from those that aim to generate more qualitative and more quantitative outputs (without downplaying the extent to which most methods entail a mixture of both)
  • from deterministic short-term forecasting, to more open and intuitive logic based long-term visioning, via medium term simulation.
  • from those concerned narrowly with understanding future directions of change (e.g. ‘political, economic, social, technical, legal and environmental’) to those that explicitly incorporate the normative judgement – e.g. by ‘backcasting’ from a desired outcome to conceivable routes to getting there.

It is way beyond the scope of this blog to do this systematically, but it strikes me that it would be a worthwhile project, and I welcome discussion with anyone interested in contributing to such a project.

 

Bibliography

ACAPS (2022) Scenario-building methodology. How to build scenarios in preparation for or during humanitarian crises. Technical brief, Feb. Available from https://www.acaps.org/fileadmin/Technical_notes/202202_acaps_technical_brief_scenario_building_methodology.pdf

Barbrook-Johnson, P., Penn, A. (2022) Systems mapping: how to build and use causal models of systems. Palgrave macmillan: pivot series.

Cordova-Pozo, K., Rouwette, E. (2023) Types of scenario planning and their effectiveness: a review of reviews. Futures, 149.  https://Doi.org/101016/j.futures.2023.103153

Davies, R. (2019) ParEvo (…was evolving story lines). Monitoring and Evaluation News. https://mande.co.uk/special-issues/evolving-storylines-a-participatory-design-process/  See also https://parevo.org/

OCHA (2021) Piloting anticipatory action: country frameworks and approaches. Internal briefing note. https://anticipatory-action-toolkit.unocha.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Piloting-Anticipatory-Action_Two-pager-for-OCHA-RCO-staff.pdf

Stanton, M., Roelich, K. (2021) Decision making under deep uncertainty: a review of the applicability of methods in practice. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 171. https://Doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2021.120939

UK Government Office for Science (2021) A brief guide to futures thinking and foresight. www.gov.uk/go-science. London: Government Office for Science.

Wright, D., Stahl, B., Hatzakis, T. (2020) Policy scenarios as an instrument for policymakers. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 154. https://Doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2020.119972

 

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