Knowledge for Development

Foresight - a spotlight on future opportunity

Author: Neill Allan, UK Director, Ability Europe Limited

Date: 21/04/2009


The idea behind foresight is that better investment decisions will be made if the longer term future is taken into account. To do this, there needs to be a receptive and competent culture, resources and a reliable process and methodology to drive forward the policy into tangible benefit. This article reflects on how this is done and provides some results of foresighting work in a few countries.


The Why, How, What and When of Foresight

Figure 1

As the Why is ‘to make better use of investment’ then the When is that ‘it’s never too early’. Decisions are being constantly made so the better informed those decisions are the better will be the results of investments, in the long term. But What needs to be addressed and How should it be done?
First, gather a group of people that have the will, the time and the authority to look at the broad range of options that cover government policy, resources, relevant industry/service sectors, commercialisation, innovation and opportunity funding. The group’s aim is to drive forward the activity that develops ‘best bets’ (the best options) commercially and give supporting policy. A national organisation incorporating a sound growth and innovation framework will provide the best systemic support for this. The skills and experience in facilitating this process are a necessity to bring forth the best from the group.

The process takes the long term perspective shown in figure 1 and starts by considering Horizon 3 (see Figure 2) in order to focus on the opportunities presented in the strategic planning of Horizon 2. This will mean considering in much depth how the world will have changed, what new technologies are predicted to be widely utilised and what social and economic expectations and events will have changed the dynamics between and within nations (Figure 3). Part of this process involves advanced scenario building techniques. This includes methods that break down established patterns in the brain and expose the group to ‘wild cards’ - unexpected and difficult to predict events e.g. perhaps like the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre which had environmental, social and economic effects worldwide. The aim is to develop a strategic resilience in spite of these occurrences. Methodologies like hard conversation, formal dialogue, six hat thinking, and facilitated workshops draw out the material that will enable the second step of relating to the opportunities presented locally in the country or community.

Figure 3

The next step is to find ‘best bets’ that relate to the resources. In light of the global picture what are the opportunities that are either currently being developed, or in need of disruptive innovation; that are capable of being developed by applied science and technology or developed through foreseeable future science and technology? Applying a ranking system to these opportunities by reviewing their attraction on a number of factors and on the current and future capacity for exploitation, gives rise to a number of high ranking ‘best bets’. These can only be brought to life if there is a sufficiently strong funding proposition developed to carry them forward into commercialisation (Figure 4 - stages 3 and 4 ).

Some examples

Figure 4

Adoption of these principles and practices has been variable around the world but interest and uptake in ACP countries is growing and in many developed economies, advanced programmes are guiding government policy.
Below are some examples of ‘Best Bets’ that have incorporated science, technology or social changes and are well underway to providing benefits.

St Kitts - geothermal power plant

Geothermal power is a renewable energy source, generated from heat stored in the earth. When specialized submarine electrical transmission cables were developed recently, a geothermal power plant became feasible because these cables would enable the energy to be transported and exported and therefore could make the project profitable. The completion of the power plants will make St Kitts and Nevis the first country in the Caribbean to utilize large-scale geothermal energy for electricity production and become one of the least fossil-fuel-dependent nations in the world.

Kenya - Innovation and entrepreneurship in health care delivery

The organisation uses a business model that supports the development of a network of micro pharmacies and clinics with a mission to provide access to essential medicines and basic health care services for marginalized people. Since the owner opened her 2 room clinic in May 2006, the average number of monthly clients has risen from 350 to more than 1,300 with substantial increase in turnover.

St Lucia - Saucy stuff

A company in St Lucia has broken away from tradition and developed a very successful niche in international markets largely built around a range of innovative sauces and great branding, plus manufacturing for 35 private labels. The top15 products are made 100% from locally sourced agricultural produce. They comply with international standards, such as HACCP and FDA requirements, and will soon be backed by ISO certification. The company exports to North America, Europe and to selected countries in the Caribbean.

Barbados - Capturing the Caribbean Sun

Because sunlight provides long-term sustainable energy, this business focussed on developing a solar panel unit that would be resilient and economic in the Caribbean. The company combines people who are smart technologically, solving problems like coping with hard calcium rich water and withstanding hurricanes, with others who are smart marketing people. Without smart marketing many ideas never get past the idea or prototype stage. Today they supply 60% of the Caribbean solar water heating market and have installed over 30,000 units.

Germany – Laser welding technology

A company developed a unique laser welding technology that no one else in the world has and this enables them to manufacture metal profiles that no-one else can manufacture. These profiles are designed, manufactured, and delivered to clients in 15 countries around the world including the USA and in the Arabian Gulf. They now do all the international marketing over the Internet, even though the products themselves are highly engineered and technical.

New Zealand - Manuka honey

Honey has always had a positive impact on human health and wellness because it has an anti-bacterial effect due to an enzyme it contains called glucose oxidase. Dr Peter Molan focussed his research on these healing properties and discovered that New Zealand’s Manuka honey contained an additional factor that was highly active against bacteria. This gave the product a price premium of 4-6 times over the commodity product price and Manuka honey has developed a worldwide market.

New Zealand - Plastic that grows on trees

Life without plastics is almost unimaginable. The raw material streams - from fossil fuel reserves - are expected to become more expensive and less abundant. A company has developed a process for producing ethanol from willow trees. A by-product of that process is lignin. This can be used as a raw material for plastics manufacture.


There is a great deal to be gained from applying foresight practices proficiently.
The key essentials for gaining benefit from foresight are:

  • A willingness to stand in the future and backcast. Backcasting starts with defining a desirable future and then works backwards to identify policies and programs that will connect the future to the present.
  • Government will and resources to support the process of identifying and commercializing ‘best bets’.
  • An entrepreneurial, innovative and representative group working closely together.
  • A sound and structured process that gets the best decisions from the group.
  • Good process facilitation by experts in the field.


Neill Allan is an associate of Next Corporation without whose help and permission this article would have been less comprehensive. Ian Ivey was particularly helpful. The figures used to illustrate this article are subject to copyright and must not be reproduced without permission.

Bibliographical References

German foresight programme

  1. The world café – productive conversations
  2. Allan. N., (2003), Managing Culture and Knowledge – PD7501, BSI, London
  3. De Bono. E., (2000), Six Thinking Hats, Penguin, London
  4. Trinidad and Tobago developments
  5. St Kitts geothermal power project
  6. European foresight programme
  7. UK foresight programme
  8. Trinidad and Tobago science transfer
  9. Colombian Program On Technological And Industrial Foresight
  10. Medina Vásquez, Javier (2005a) For a foresight for unstable, uncertain, and highly conflictive environments: The experience of the Colombian Program on Technological and Industrial Foresight. Conference Proceedings the Fistera Conference, IST at the Service of a Changing Europe by 2020: Learning from World Views, European Union - IPTS, 16 -17 June, Seville
  11. Slaughter, R., ed.,(1996) Futures studies as applied knowledge," in, New thinking for a new millennium, Routledge, London
  12. Fahey, L, Randall, R..M., (1997). Learning from the Future: Competitive Foresight Scenarios, John Wiley & Sons, London
  13. Davis, G. (2002). Scenarios as a tool for the 21st Century, Probing the Future Conference, Strathclyde University
  14. Ability Europe

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