Knowledge for Development


Author: Marie de Lattre-Gasquet, CIRAD and ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche)

Date: 21/04/2009


The ERA-NET project entitled ForSociety[1] notes that “there is no generally accepted formal definition of what distinguishes foresight from other future-oriented activities. It is interesting to note that none of these definitions[2] explicitly recognizes the idea that the future is genuinely uncertain, with the implication that foresight has to prepare us for a variety of futures.


This has consequences for what sort of shared strategic visions can be formulated.” And this may also explain why few people have been able to prepare countries to deal with the current crises, and why even fewer have listened to those who pinpointed signs of coming difficulties and breakthroughs. Too many economic forecasts have been done using the same inputs and producing the same outputs (Garbage In – Garbage Out), and foresight has not been sufficiently imaginative; it has been too much built on consensus and too politically correct.

Crises are an opportunity for foresight

We currently face several global crises related to finance, economics, food, health, society, environment, and energy. Crises have always existed, and financial and economic crises are even cyclical. But what do these crises tell us altogether? It seems they are related to inadequate choices and a loss of sense of personal responsibility and responsibility towards one another and for the natural environment.

Analyses of past trends and possible scenarios provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [3], the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) [4] and the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology (IAASTD) [5] show that if no action is taken, that is if the developed countries do not drastically change their way of living or if their habits are adopted by emerging and developing countries as is currently the trend, if agricultural practices and agricultural S&T do not change, the situation is very likely to become dramatic. For example, the 2009 World Water Forum shows that demand is increasing, and some countries are already reaching the limits of their water resources. The effects of climate change are likely to aggravate this situation even further. Competition for water is intensifying – whether between countries, urban and rural areas, or different sectors of activity. This situation has a major impact on health; almost 80% of diseases in developing countries are associated with water, causing some three million early deaths. Business-as-usual is not acceptable. New options for the future must be found and actions taken which suggest that new priorities for constrained public and private funds must be set.

A growing number of economists and philosophers claim that “modernity is in crisis” and that “the growth cycle is coming to an end. Beyond the inevitable cyclical reversal, it is becoming clearer and clearer that we have now reached the limits of our development model”[6]. Concerning the future, there is growing consensus among a number of scientists, politicians and religious leaders that science or economic measures alone will not be able to solve the problems that lie ahead. "Countries will need to shift the structure of their economies in order to move towards a low carbon, greener and more sustainable future. The costs of this restructuring are affordable, but the transition will need to be managed carefully to address social and competitiveness impacts, and to take advantage of new opportunities"[7]. They suggest that “a solution at the economic and technological level can be found only if we undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change in lifestyle and of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production”[8]. “Achieving sustainability and development goals will involve creating space for diverse voices and perspectives and a multiplicity of scientifically well-founded options, through, for example, the inclusion of social scientists in policy and practice of AKST (Agricultural Knowledge Science & Technology) helps direct and focus public and private research, extension and education on such goals.”[9]

The foresight process provides an opportunity for the world, and especially for ACP countries, to invent sustainable patterns of production and consumption and explore new lifestyles.

Foresight vs Forecasting

Contrary to economic forecasting which generally uses trend projections (or extrapolations) and models, foresight is a process, not a technique. The foresight process presents three characteristics that set it apart from forecasting in general[10].

  1. It uses a pluridisciplinary approach of systemic inspiration, based on the principle that the problems we face cannot be correctly understood if reduced to one dimension and divided into several parts.
  2. It integrates the long-term dimension, past and future. It looks at past tendencies (retrospective) to better envisage the future. It considers that some variables have a relatively profound inertia (i.e. demography, ecosystems) whereas others have shorter timescales (i.e. technological innovation, foreign exchanges).
  3. It integrates breakthroughs, whether technological, social (i.e. human desire to change the rules of the game), or economic (i.e. market saturation).

The future is uncertain and we must be proactive

Hugues de Jouvenel [11] invites us to consider the future as something we create or build, rather than as something already decided. “Foresight does not aim to predict the future – to unveil it as if it were prefabricated – but to help us build it.” “The future is a realm of liberty, a realm of power and a realm of will”. The future is not already fact; it is not predetermined. On the contrary, it is open to many possibilities, many different futures. There are invariables in nature, but there are also many factors that can be influenced, and all the actors have some individual power enabling them to act[12]. Of course the power of the various actors is unequal; strategies of alliance and conflict can rapidly change the rules of the game.

Foresight helps in visualizing these futures; it enlarges our capacity to feel and react. Michel Godet[13] sets out four attitudes for dealing with uncertainty and potential futures: passive (submit to change); reactive (await change before reacting); and prospective in the two senses of the word: pre- and pro-activity. “Preactivity requires that one prepares for an anticipated change, whereas proactivity requires action to provoke a desired change”.

Proactivity leads to considering that the future is uncertain, and there are several plausible futures, some more desirable than others. Each depends on the decisions and actions of today’s leaders. Some of the appealing futures appear to be both plausible and feasible and may help decision-makers choose strategies to reach those futures. Other futures, although desirable, are utopian and may be of less value in planning the future (figure 1).

Figure 1

Foresight often leads to different scenarios. Two major categories of scenarios can be identified: exploratory scenarios (also known as descriptive scenarios) are those that begin in the present and explore trends into the future; normative scenarios take value and interests into account; they are built on the basis of alternative visions of the future which may be desired or, on the contrary, feared; they are designed 'retroprojectively'. When preparing exploratory scenarios, it is advisable to have “tendencial scenarios”, which is the continuation of the current trend, and several contrasted scenarios which create breakthroughs and are more imaginative.

Foresight is a collective process aiming at action

The foresight methods should be adapted to the resources available, to the desired outputs, and to the methodological competence. There is a tendency to oppose qualitative methods such as brainstorming or scenarios, and more quantitative methods such as Delphi or models. These methods are very complementary and a major challenge for the future is to renew methodologies and improve processes through dialogue between experts of the methods and experts of the system that is under consideration.

Foresight is a collective process that should lead to a strategy (figure 1). Emphasizing the process can help to build strategic capabilities and to inform research and innovation policies ("embedded foresight")[14].

Foresight looks at the future (Anticipation), but in order for it to become a strategy (Action), all the stakeholders must consider it theirs (Appropriation)[15]. Or to put it differently, foresight implies Concentration on the long-term, Consensus, Commitment, Co-ordination, and Communication[16]. However, the term “consensus” must be viewed with caution because too much consensus can reduce imagination and creativity.

The foresight process should be local in order to be rooted in the reality, to include many different stakeholders, and to set adapted policy action. However, linkages with large networks is also necessary as we live in a world of increasing interdependencies, all accentuated by the trade and finance liberalization process, the concentration of population in huge cities, social inequities and global phenomena like climate change. Risks that we are facing are global, both in terms of probability of occurrence and in terms of vulnerability. No matter the efforts made nationally, we depend on what happens and what is decided elsewhere[17]. The existing mechanisms for facilitating political consensus, in Europe between the Commission and the Members States and in the world between the different stakeholders, could be used[18].

Emerging trends for S&T and innovation, and agriculture

When thinking about the future of knowledge, science and technology (KST) pertaining to agricultural and rural development, it is important to see that this future depends upon those involved in agriculture and rural development (ARD), and S&T, and that KST influences ARD and has its own dynamic and vice versa. Furthermore this system does not exist in isolation; it interacts with other societal parameters of development: demographics, economy, international trade, sociopolitics, science, technology, education and culture. It is a complex system.
The following trends related to S&T and innovation seem important:

  • Innovation is considered a key driver of growth and competitiveness. R&D is no more considered the exclusive source of innovation, and innovation is not the sole objective of research. Society has to play an active role in launching and steering research and innovation. This leads to the establishment of new research practices, and a collective attitude favouring dialogue, risk and innovation.
  • Firms increasingly optimize internal R&D through exchanges with other firms and public research, at national and international level (open innovation concept). This has consequences for funding, research priorities and intellectual property. Public research is challenged by this trend that includes scientist mobility.
  • There are major breakthroughs in disciplines, as well as interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches leading to convergence of technologies. This is essential to solve the growing complexity of problems.
  • The number of students in scientific fields is declining in OECD and ACP countries. If this trend continues, it will have serious impacts for the future.

The important trends related to agriculture are:

  • Global agriculture must address three challenges: a human and social challenge, with population growth and migration difficulties, food security and safety, and declining income; an environmental challenge in terms of protection of the environment and natural resources, biodiversity, climate changes, sanitary risks; and an energy challenge with the growing scarcity of fossil fuels.
  • Agriculture contributes to climate change but it can also mitigate its effects.
  • For agricultural products, there is increased dependency of nations on international trade despite growing transport costs. In 2003, more than 7000 Gkcal/day were traded (92% from plants and 6% from animals), as opposed to 1500 Gkcal/day in 1961[19].
  • There is increased recognition of the multifunctionality of agriculture: the challenge is to simultaneously meet development and sustainability goals while increasing agricultural production[20]. A growing share of agricultural output is used to feed animals, albeit with great disparities between regions of the world.
  • Due to decreasing attractivity of rural life, rural population is generally speaking ageing and declining in numbers.

A number of recent foresight exercises focusing on agriculture, rural development, environment, science and technology have been undertaken at global and regional levels[21]. Different kinds of approaches have been used to address future changes pertaining to agriculture. Some have employed projections accompanied by limited policy simulations. Others have proposed scenarios and considered a wide range of uncertainties in an integrated manner. They all explore key linkages between different drivers and resulting changes. The situation is so complex today, that it would be unwise to put too much confidence in one study. When reading the work done, it is important to look carefully at the geographical and time scales, as well as the hypothesis because they explain the results.

For example, CIRAD and INRA have recently conducted a foresight exercise entitled Agrimonde "Farming and food systems of the world in 2050. Scenarios and challenges for a sustainable world"[22]. A normative scenario for a sustainable agricultural and food world has been built. The principles for the construction of the scenario are the following: to appreciate the capacity of each large region of the world to satisfy its food needs in 2050, and to look at the effects of demographic evolutions without hiding them by international migrations. Hypotheses have been made on population growth (UN median trend), on food consumption (3000 Kcal per day and per inhabitant, with some differences in diets in the regions), on cultivated areas, and on yields (considered as a variable for adjustment). Using the “Agrimonde platform”, other scenarios could be prepared and enlarge possibilities for action. Each and every scientist and decision-maker is invited to participate to Agrimonde.

Linking foresight and public decision-making

Foresight could be far more imaginative about the futures and it could challenge current practices. For example, what could “new” diets be and what actions should be taken to change them? What could “new” cities be and what actions should be taken to make them evolve? What other linkages could there be between education, research, industries and society and what decisions should be made to create new linkages? What are possible futures and actions for S&T in education and agriculture?

There is always the risk that foresight, instead of helping decision-making, becomes or is used as a barrier for it. This is often due to the fact that Government decision-making is not organised and that there are conflicts of sovereignty between national and regional levels and within the country. Possible means of improving the situation are (a) to systematically analyse the present situation, (b) to keep close relationships with decision-makers, be informed of their political agenda and inform them on a regular basis so that they consider preparing the future an important task, and (c) to use foresight not only to define a strategy but also tactics, that is to have a long-term view but also to consider local short-term challenges.
It is through improved methodologies, increased interactions and collective action that the foresight process will be the most imaginative and lead to decision-making.


  • [1] ForSociety ERA-Net is a network in which national foresight programme managers coordinate their activities and - on the basis of shared knowledge on relevant issues, methodologies, legal and financial frameworks - regularly develop and implement trans-national foresight programmes.
  • [2] Definitions provided by ForSociety, EureFore, and Ben Martin
  • [3] IPCC
  • [4] Millennium assessment
  • [5] Agassessment
  • [6] 8th economic forum of Aix-en-Provence 2008 - Final declaration Le Cercle des économistes.
  • [7] Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General. Oslo, Norway, 5 March 2008, during the presentation of the 2008 OECD Environmental Outlook.
  • [8] Common declaration on environmental ethics of John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew I. Rome – Venice, 10 June 2002.
  • [9] IAASTD. Global summary for decision makers.
  • [10]De Jouvenel H. An Invitation to Foresight. Paris : Futuribles Perspectives, 2004.
  • [11]De Jouvenel H. An Invitation to Foresight. Paris : Futuribles Perspectives, 2004.
  • [12] Crozier M., Friedbert E. (1981) L’acteur et le système. Les contraintes de l’action collective. Paris : Editions du Seuil.
  • [13] Godet M. (1997). Manuel de prospective stratégique. Paris : Dunod.
  • [14] Kulhmann S. et al., (1999). Improving Distributed Intelligence in Complex Innovation Systems. Final report of the Advanced Science and Technology Policy Planning Network (ASTPP).
  • [15] Godet M. (1997). Manuel de prospective stratégique. Paris : Dunod.
  • [16] Martin, B.R. (1995). Foresight in science and technology. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management, 7(2): 139-168.
  • [17] Responding to global challenges. The role of Europe and International Science and Technology cooperation. Workshop Proceedings. Brussels, 4-5 October 2007.
  • [18] Global challenges workshop
  • [19] Agricultures et alimentations du monde en 2050 : Scénarios et défis pour un développement durable. Report by the Agrimonde working group, February 2009.
  • [20] IAASTD
  • [21] See for example the work of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, the Agrimonde project undertaken by CIRAD and INRA, many national foresight exercises of European countries.
  • [22] Foresight Exercise Agrimonde, Farming and Food systems of the world