A field of study that previously was seen as something of an academic niche is now emerging as a key tool that can help brands not only stay relevant, but if leveraged to its full extent, can even help them leapfrog ahead and become leaders. That field is strategic foresight and future studies.
Today, we’re talking to Foresight Strategist Robert Bolton to understand exactly what strategic foresight is and how it can help brands.
Melinda: We live in a time when change is happening so quickly, it feels like keeping up is almost impossible. For retail brands, keeping up is simply the cost of doing business. But with so many new tools emerging every year, new social platforms, new niche trends, staying ahead of the competition has become so daunting that many feel they’re falling behind.
A field of study that previously was seen as something of an academic niche is now emerging as a key tool that can help brands not only stay relevant, but if leveraged to its full extent, can even help them leapfrog ahead and become leaders. That field is strategic foresight and future studies.
Today, we’re talking to Foresight Strategist Robert Bolton to understand exactly what strategic foresight is and how it can help brands. Robert, thanks so much for being with us today. Can you just start us off by telling us just a little bit about yourself?
Robert: Sure. Thank you so much for having me. I’ve been practicing strategic foresight for almost 10 years now. I am the Founder and the Principal at the Foresight Studio From Later. If there’s people who are unfamiliar with what a foresight studio is or the idea of that, it’s what it sounds like. It’s a dedicated space to study what’s changing early on when it’s changing so that we can speculate about what might be in the future.
But prior to starting From Later, I worked at Idea Couture and a global IT company, Cognizant and worked with all kinds of organizations and continue to – many in consumer-packaged goods and retail but also in the technology and banking sectors and really across the board. I’m working with governments as well. I’ve worked with the Government of Canada and designed a board game. It was intended to teach public servants how to better think about the policy implications of change that’s emerging and how to think better through the future implications of what different policy decisions might be. Recently, I’ve taught foresight at CityLAB Berlin which is a satellite campus at Norwich University, which is the oldest private military school in the United States. So that’s my sort of foresight background.
Melinda: Wow, that’s a lot.
Melinda: A lot of people have heard the term strategic foresight but they’re not entirely clear on what that means. Can you just give us a simple definition and maybe a bit of context for how the field is growing?
Robert: Sure. So, let’s start with this. Foresight is thinking about the future, doing so strategically and systematically in a disciplined way with a certain set of tools. So in some sense, that’s just a human thing to do. On the other hand, humans aren’t always very good at it so having a kind of intentional, deliberate process to do it can be useful.
It began during the Cold War, at least as we know it now, as kind of scenario planning and ways to think through the different, very scary possibilities that were emerging at the time and was over time started to be adopted within a lot of organizations, some businesses, governments and so on.
My definition for foresight is a set of tools for dealing with uncertainty and capitalizing on change, at least as far as I think the audience of this podcast would be thinking about it. It’s about sensing what’s going on around you, what’s happening, what’s changing right now. It’s about anticipating different possibilities, and it’s about devising strategies that prepare us for a range of possible futures.
One of the kinds of useful clichés within foresight is it’s not about predicting. It’s about preparing. It’s very much about understanding the scope of what could happen, the entirety of what’s possible, and devising resilient strategies in response. And it’s also very much about the exercise of going through that, immersing yourself in the unknown, and kind of conditioning yourself for change. And well, you can see why right now it’s a critical moment in time, in history.
Robert: And I think those who practice foresight will be at somewhat of an advantage.
Melinda: Absolutely. So, I prepared these questions before COVID-19 took over the entire world’s focus. But even that aside, would you say that strategic foresight and future studies even before this were becoming more of interest to industry?
Robert: Yeah, it seems to be. I mean, when my career started at Idea Couture where I was at the time, there was a three-person foresight team and there was not a lot of work coming in that was explicitly about foresight. Certain tools from foresight were kind of in our toolkit and part of our process for doing innovation work but not a lot of people were coming looking for foresight. And I think within that time partly because the sense that time is moving faster, basically, that progress is happening faster, that technological change, in particular, is happening faster and probably more recently there has been acceleration of social and political change as well in the past sort of five or so years has caught a lot of people off-guard and caused a lot of people to have more of an interest in thinking long-term.
I think one of the great benefits that I’ve found is this sort of state of preparedness that you get out of just practicing it. So rather than panicking in certain situations, by taking a longer view, you start to probably be a little more rational in the types of decisions you’re making. Small bumps on the road don’t affect you as much. And one of the reasons I do this work is that I find organizations tend to behave morally better when thinking in the long-term in the sense that the sort of bottom-line goals, the business imperatives tend to align much better with the social and environmental ones when you’re taking a much longer view, partially just because you need people to be alive to have a thriving business and you need those people to like your business as well.
Melinda: Absolutely. Okay, so, I mean, we’re talking about retail brands and CPG brands specifically. Can you give us a high-level overview of how a brand might benefit from using a strategic foresight process?
Robert: Sure. One benefit is agility. You understand how your business environment is changing. You start to be aware of the different kind of signposts and indicators that allow you to change course. I think the obvious one and sort of the reason why people like myself were being hired a lot, especially in the earlier days, was just for innovation and still a lot of the work we do is about identifying the growth opportunities for different sorts of organizations.
So, you know, this is across any type of organization. I think more along the lines of how it’s good for organizations, you know, everyone talks about transformation, yet everyone has their entrenched thinking and is stuck in their ways. So, foresight is really a weapon against entrenched thinking. The sign of a successful foresight project is that you’ve gone in with a certain set of assumptions. You’ve come out with a new set of assumptions. You’ve sort of admitted you’re wrong in some instances. You have new considerations. You’re open to new opportunities. So, it’s certainly necessary for transformation.
We’ll probably get into this a little bit more because it’s very relevant to the COVID-19 situation. But just resilience as I was alluding to before, being able to carry on, being able to survive but even to thrive. And when you have something that is either, fully unexpected, partially unexpected, or has secondary and tertiary consequences that are unexpected, foresight can certainly prepare you for that.
And then, you know, what I mentioned before, just confidence and clarity and the ability to communicate. The practice is a lot about developing shared materials for having a conversation about our future. So if a retail organization approaches us and is looking for a company-wide perspective on future, our objective is to kind of look at what are the information inputs at various levels, the sort of big forces of change, and the really sort of emergent marginal potentially impactful what we call “signals of change,” weak signals of change, and kind of mapping those out and also talking about what the preferred future is, talking to organizations about what they hope will happen, and also the opposite of that. But it gives a shared language and a kind of shared material so that these kinds of strategic conversations can actually happen. And that can’t happen if nobody fully understands what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the future. So, it can be very important for creating that language so that there’s just a level of clarity, of confidence and, in the end, kind of calm.
Melinda: Most people, when they’re doing their business planning, they are doing this in a traditional linear way where they’re thinking, you know, “My goal for Q4 of this year is to achieve these goals and so here are the steps I need to take to get to that.” How does this process differ?
Robert: It differs quite significantly because you’re looking way beyond that. I mean, the projects I’ve done range from being sort of at the minimum about three years out, at the maximum, you know, as far as a hundred years out for certain types of organizations and industries. More often, it’s probably in the 10 years or so or 5 to 10 years. But with that, I would note that that doesn’t mean that you’re not doing anything or that it’s not actionable. So, when we do a project and we’re looking 10 years out, 5 years out, 3 years out, there’s also this process of what we call backcasting, which is just kind of road mapping in reverse. So, understanding where we want to go, what the different essential uncertainties might be along the way, how things might go, what kind of contingencies need to be in place but then what can we do right now.
A lot of the work that I do results in people and capital being allocated towards different types of projects immediately and acquisitions that happen really quickly. It’s simply just that the real ROI or the sort of moment for that company that was acquired for example is several years out. You know, we talk about it as being the future but it’s not this far-off thing. It’s all based on what’s changing right now, which would be like observing facts out there in the world. And then it’s all about taking action right now in order to prepare yourself for different possible futures or to, like as I mentioned, capitalize on change.
So, for example, it would be we need to create this R&D fund or innovation project and so it’s a very useful tool for the big picture strategy that then works its way down to influence the sort of, “Okay, what are we doing for Q4?” It can be useful for sort of shorter-term marketing initiatives. Mainly, I would say as a way of like gathering ideas. And because you’re doing so much work looking to the margins, looking to the sort of weirder things that are happening in the world, looking to the cultural and behavioral changes that are occurring, sometimes from a marketing perspective you can act on those very quickly. And so there’s sort of…I would call them foresight-adjacent sort of practices that you see. It’s more along the lines of watching trends. And these are really common in retail and retail does them pretty well. It’s not the area we’re most focused on at From Later. That’s mainly because there are so many other organizations that are excellent at sort of organizing the very near-term trends that are helpful for like advertising companies or digital marketing companies that need to do kind of cool stuff for brands immediately, you know.
Melinda: Right. Can we talk about some of those examples you mentioned?
Robert: Yeah, sure. Like I mentioned, I’ve been in this field for about nine years. When I look back, a lot of stuff we were talking about back then for various clients and that are very commonplace today that you can sort of start to see. So, one of the terms that we used to talk about all the time was “frictionless fulfillments” and we were kind of getting that with what now it’s quite commonplace in terms of apps like Ritual, the way that delivery has become so ubiquitous in the past several years. You know, Starbucks has these kinds of pickup stations and in the past here in Toronto for example where, you know, you’re ordering in advance. You just show up, grab your coffee. So these were all sort of micro scenarios that we were talking about with our clients many years ago. Just the way that digital systems would be implemented in different spaces. Just this kind of idea that there would be a very diverse ecosystem, commerce ecosystem that meets consumers where they are and gives them what they want when they want it.
And then I think on the other hand of that there was the countertrend that was more about augmented experience and has come to be called like the experience economy which we, you know, back at the very start we were talking about this stuff a lot and pushing a lot of our clients to think that way. Then years passed and things like retailers like Eataly that are so experience-focused started to emerge as well as the sort of flagship. And on our team, we jokingly call them FIMSEs, F-I-M-S-E, which is fully-immersive multi-sensorial experiences, jokingly because I guess all of life is a fully-immersive multi-sensorial experience. But you know what I mean. The kind of deliberate canvas thing that has become so big in the past like three years or so was something that we were really kind of pushing different clients towards way back then.
And as a specific one that I can talk about because it’s kind of a little bit more out there in the world, this is not exactly retail but it is a consumer packaged goods kind of example. The work that we did with Tyson Foods several years ago is a good example I think of how…of sort of what I talked about of how an organization can take action in the short-term towards something that might be more meaningful in the long-term. It’s also a great example of how foresight allows sort of difficult conversations that are just almost prohibited when you’re in a model of quarterly capitalism and you have these sort of, “Here’s my Q4 targets,” and even when there’s just sort of this entrenched thinking, so how you free things up.
So around 2016 through 2018, Tyson Foods, which was a meat company, has always been a company that was selling poultry and beef and so on, started investing in protein alternatives, plant-based meat, and even becoming curious about like synthetic biology approaches, what’s called cellular agriculture, in different ways.
So that was something that we had put on their radar as something that would be critical just based on a whole number of factors. And if you look at what it is, you can understand how that’s not something that a company like that would be necessarily open to and how it represents a kind of moving of the needle. And, it’s not like they’ve changed completely. It’s a small moving of the needle but one that was based on sort of the synthesis of a number of big picture and smaller picture factors. So if you start at the very top there’s like population growth, right, a world population going from 7.3 to like…it’s projected to be, 9.7 in 2050 and 11.2 in 2100, along with like the concerns around environmental degradation that are associated with the production of meat through land use, through water consumption, through emissions and waste. There is a growing demand for protein in developing countries, right, China and places like that in particular. So, there’s more need for meat and yet it’s less sustainable to produce. Those are the, I guess, the really big picture top-down sort of trends and then there was these bottom-up ones, which was like what we were calling flexitarian behavior. So, people who are choosing to be plant-based or vegetarian one or more days a week. And that was a growing trend at the time and continues to be.
The fact that there were emerging startups that represented nontraditional competition in the form of these kind of Silicon Valley-type startups that were prototyping like lab-grown meats and that kind of thing. So you could kind of see it at like the tech level, the consumer level, and then the sort of bigger picture demand level as well as the really, really high-level population growth and environmental kind of level. So, when you kind of look at it and talk through it, it seems this is a very obvious move. And the process of foresight kind of takes something that might at first sound ridiculous and then it doesn’t sound so ridiculous once you work through it. And once you recognize that we’re working towards steering this big ship just a few degrees in another direction through some investments. But that few degrees can take us to a totally different destination 10 years, 20 years and so on. And I think that will, you know, make Tyson a much more long-term sustainable organization.
Melinda: Absolutely. It does seem obvious when you look at it from a big perspective. But when you’re in a company that has for however many years been a meat producer, as much as everybody likes the word innovation, there’s a lot of things that can get in the way and you’ve been talking a lot about that. You know, people coming in with a set of biases and especially the bigger the company, the bigger the hurdle it is to overcome. How can companies put aside these biases or how can they think about long-term planning and become more innovative knowing that often you’re dealing with people who may not be there to see the results of the things they’re putting in action? They may have moved on to another company. How does your process help people get through that hurdle?
Robert: I mean, it requires some sort of buy-in early on and just kind of, I suppose, some kind of responsibility and understanding of the importance of thinking on these kinds of timescales, you know, that you may not see the return on investment or the fruits of this change so early on. But you never know as well and it tends to be also, you know, sometimes things happen and things change faster than you realize. Like again, it’s not sort of about predicting. It’s about preparing.
And so I think going through the process tends to get people to buy into the value of it, seeing that it’s very based in what’s happening now. I think also one of the things that I would urge people to think about is just kind of thinking more existentially about your career and about what you’re doing. I understand that people have jobs and people have specific objectives within those jobs and have to network in certain ways. I don’t at all mean to kind of shame anyone. But I do think it’s worthwhile thinking about how your family will remember you and how you spent your life and, you know, how your ancestors will think about that. You know, actually, thinking about not just your job at work but your job on this planet. And I think that’s another sort of helpful way to be thinking to get you kind of thinking in the long term. Like how are you leaving the world in a state that’s better than you came to it with? I recognize that this kind of talk might sound out of place in a boardroom, but I think everyone in the boardroom is a human being…
Melinda: Well, and less and less because people are, you know, consumers are demanding that they understand what legacies companies are planning to leave behind. It’s more important to consumers now than it maybe was 20 years ago.
Robert: Sure, yeah. I mean, that’s the thing. There tends to end up being shorter-term benefits. It’s the long-term way of thinking that kind of changes the conversation a little bit. So yeah. You’re very right. A lot of these things are urgent right now.
Melinda: I wanted to ask you about market research. If we were looking at emerging consumer behavior, how would foresight research differ from what people are traditionally doing as far as market research goes in the industry right now?
Robert: Sure. I would say it’s very different from anything quantitative in terms of how things are being projected or looking at things like service. And foresight will look at statistical trends. We’ll look at market research. That’s one of many inputs into what we’re doing. It’s really the work of synthesis, like in the example I gave of Tyson Foods. Many of those were quantitative kind of signals but those would be input. Some were not. Some things like the emerging technologies and startups and the work that was happening in cellular agriculture was not quantitative at all. It was sort of like single instances, a few of them that we were kind of looking at.
So, one difference is that. It requires a lot of critical thinking and it requires what one of my colleagues from over the course of my career, Jayar La Fontaine, has been calling “epistemic hygiene” or “epistemological hygiene.” So, like how are we keeping our beliefs clean, I guess. How we’re taking care of what it is that we believe in and doing that from the various information inputs. It’s about a really wide diversity of sources. Within foresight, we might look at a signal of change that on its own you would never change a company strategy based on that, right? It’s about how you think about in totality or in aggregate of these different pieces. It’s about kind of looking at how these things fit together. So, there’s a lot of pattern recognition. It’s a very creative sort of mode of research I believe. Quite a bit of intuition involved until you build a very strategic case. And that’s sort of towards the end of the project. It’s like there’s always in the middle of it this sort of sense of like, “I am lost.” We always get to this point in the middle of it and then we always seem to come out with very actionable takes for where our clients should be playing.
So, there’s some trust in the process there that’s involved, but there’s a little bit more freedom to look into the weirder ideas and talk about them and think about what they may mean. I mentioned the term weak signal of change. A weak signal of change is something that’s a signal, something that you notice in the world that you sense is very critical. You sense that this is important. You’re not necessarily sure why yet. And so in foresight, we’re unpacking that, making sense of those things in terms of how they relate to each other. What are the potential cross-impacts of these different signals? What are the possible secondary, tertiary implications of them, and what are the cross-impacts of those? That’s kind of the way we think about it.
Melinda: Are there any emerging signals of change that you see happening right now that you think are especially relevant for retail brands?
Robert: Certainly. Well, there’s a lot of different sort of scales to think about that. We’ve basically entered a new reality.
Robert: We can use this as an opportunity to transition into the COVID-19 crisis. Firstly, I would say, I mean, this is a moment where obviously a lot of retailers have been severely impacted by social distancing and it’s, yeah, having just a really devastating effect on the industry. I’m sure that you are probably more well-steeped in kind of what’s going on right now than I am. I would point out the inevitability of either a superbug or viral pandemic is something that we’ve been talking to all of our clients about for years. In fact, in the board game that I mentioned earlier that we created there was one of five disruption cards that sort of upsets the whole board and what’s happening in the kind of world that you’re collectively building in this game and one of them was a superbug. It’s something that was very well understood that it was happening. However, the secondary and tertiary effects were not well understood. Nobody kind of knew that it would be as weird as it has been or that it would be something…you know, they didn’t know the nature of the virus that’s come. So, there’s a lot that would be unknown but again, foresight is not about predicting but helping us to prepare. So being aware of disruption of business as usual.
I think this will be a big wakeup call. It’s an opportunity right now for all types of organizations but certainly for retailers to think about what contingency plans could have been in place that might have allowed them to survive, to even thrive in this moment. I’m pretty sure we’ll be learning a lot of lessons from the strategies around how to reopen right now. And I think there’s a lot of signals. Like there’s a lot of opportunity to look to places like China right now to see how certain cities are reopening or having retailers reopen and stepping up to have adequate levels of hygiene. You know, there’s signals like the sort of gift card plan that’s come up for various smaller restaurants and retailers that are kind of getting people’s support through gift cards. Things like that could’ve been in place to deploy more instantly when there’s these kinds of disruptions. And so that’s the type of thing that you could be thinking about.
Obviously, from a kind of employee well-being angle, the other thing that we’ve talked about a ton is just the precarity of the workforce in a gig work economy and the part-time worker economy. So, having resources in place. Now, whether that’s on the businesses or the governments or both is up to debate, but we’ve sort of known about the precarity of the workforce and we’ve known that there could be a disruption like this. It seems as though not much was in place. Everybody was scrambling and fortunately things are getting done in that regard but it’s leaving people in really difficult, difficult positions.
And then I think right now also that we’re seeing the way that certain types of packaged goods companies like FMCGs, the perfume companies, and the alcohol companies are transitioning. All kinds of CPG companies are transitioning to focus their supply on essentials, and which also allows them to reopen.
Another thing that I think is worth looking at is just the way to create networks at all levels, at community levels, at larger scale levels. You know, just networks of businesses to be aware of each other’s kind of supply, to be sharing knowledge and also to be able to find ways of reopening potentially faster if possible or to survive.
You know, I think any organization that didn’t have a really strong e-commerce strategy will be rethinking that because I think certain types of organizations that really had that all the way figured out…whoever had sort of more mature e-commerce strategies has probably a bit of an advantage right now.
Melinda: Absolutely. So at the very beginning, you mentioned that you looked at strategic foresight and future studies as having a toolbox. So, I want to ask you, if you were to offer three different specific tools for retail brands, what would those three tools be?
Robert: I think as far as methods go, weak signal scanning is the first one. So just really scanning. You know, beyond the day to day, beyond the quarterly things that affect you to the peripheries where you want to be and having dedicated time to kind of interpret that weak signal scanning, it’s really about allocating the right time. I’d recommend if an organization wants to implement that kind of weak signal scanning process and institutionalize it as something that’s core to their organization, it’s useful to look externally. We do that kind of work with people as a starting point to kind of help set that up. And it’s something that you should also dedicate internal resources so that you don’t have to come back to us, so that you can do it on your own. So, we can kind of simultaneously do that research and do some training. And there is a bit of understanding your own kind of organizational culture and what may or may not need to change for that to happen. It can be easier, more difficult for different types of organizations for sure.
But weak signal scanning, the outcome of that is to have what I call a “shared understanding of the future” so that you can have a conversation, so that it can be an input into annual strategic planning processes that may be, depending on the companies, might only look out 3 years or 5 years so that you can start thinking 15 years, so that whatever it is at the end of that, you know, that you’re saying you’re doing in 5 years is significant for beyond that period. So it is something that’s relevant to really where you’re going in the longer term and understanding that and so that where you’re going in the longer term is something that you can begin taking action on immediately and start exploring and to reassess if it turns out to be the wrong direction. So that’s one.
It kind of follows to look at scenario planning and one part of that is just…this comes directly out. It’s sort of the next step in the process of weak signal scanning. So that can be done in multiple ways and is worth doing in multiple ways. This is the sort of understanding the threats and the potential crises that could occur. There’s also identifying the growth opportunities that you might otherwise not see but both of those are products of the sense-making and synthesis of what you find in your process of weak signal scanning. And, well, I’ll give you four.
Robert: One that is related to the scenario planning is the idea of wind tunneling. So that’s a term that foresight borrows from aerospace engineering. Before you go and put a plane in the sky and risk lives, you simulate the conditions of flight in a wind tunnel. And we think about that with strategy. So rather than putting the aircraft in a wind tunnel, we’re putting the strategy into various scenarios to see whether it holds up, how it needs to be adjusted. So that’s part of scenario planning but that process obviously makes your strategies more resilient.
And the last one was the one I had mentioned before. It’s just backcasting. It’s just one way of making sure that this isn’t just imagining the future and dreaming about the future. You know, backcasting forces you to look at, “Okay, this is where we would like to be. Let’s talk about how we would actually get there. What are the milestones along the way and how will we reach them?” So, if you’re looking 15 years out and working your way back, I think people who try this stuff will be amazed at the different sorts of ideas it brings up.
One thing that I always find happens is somebody has a sort of idea that sounds almost like magic when they’re looking 20 years out or 15 years out or even 10 years out but then you kind of work your way back, “How do we do this?” And you ask the question, “What’s the one-year-out version of this? What’s the two years out?” And it turns out through this process they’ve identified something they saw as a future need but it’s actually also a need in the shorter term and it’s complete white space in the shorter term. So that’s one of the sort of happy innovations or coincidences, ideas that come out of the foresight process. You start to see that there’s actually a great opportunity in the nearer term and that you can take advantage of right away that you just wouldn’t have thought of in the sort of typical day-to-day operation of a business.
Melinda: Thank you so much for sharing all these thoughts with us. I’m sure it’ll be very interesting for people. Especially right now, I think this will get people thinking a lot more about the future and how they need to be prepared for it.
Robert: Yes, thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Melinda: Being prepared, or even better, being able to use coming changes to your advantage are key ways to not just surviving but thriving. Strategic foresight is a way of approaching planning with a more expansive view that allows companies to shift their thinking and challenge biases and assumptions. Thanks very much to Rob for helping our listeners understand strategic foresight and why it matters now more than ever.
Robert Bolton is the founder and principle at From Later, a foresight studio that explores the capacities of art, science, theory, and strategy to address complex challenges.
Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.