In conversation with Jean-Claude Burgelman, Head of Unit Science Policy, Foresight and Data in DG RTD, European Commission

By The Global Foresight Group

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By Kristel Van der Elst, The Global Foresight Group

Jean-Claude and I have collaborated around foresight over a number of years now – first as members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Strategic Foresight Community, which I established while heading their foresight practice, and more recently for the Strategic Foresight for Research & Innovation Policy in the Horizon 2020 Expert Group. And we are honoured to have Jean-Claude as a speaker at our upcoming training programme on Mastering Strategic Foresight: Strategies for Success in Unpredictable Times. A good moment for sharing some of his insights with our network.

How are you currently working with foresight?

I’m in charge of doing foresight for the DG RTD (Directorate General Research and Innovation) of the European Commission. We are using foresight to support the European Union’s decision-making on future research priorities for what we call the “grand societal challenges”, such as food, energy, climate, transport and security.

I’m a big believer in foresight as a way to broaden a discussion, break open new ways of thinking. The value is not just in thinking about long-term visions – 10, 15, 20 years ahead – but backcasting from those visions to look at the different pathways by which you might get there. There’s a real richness to that kind of exercise, coming up with different possible ways forward.

Give me an example of a successful experience you have had with foresight.

Well, the most successful examples of foresight are the ones that nobody acknowledges, because you got it right. Foresight is a difficult game: if you turn out to be right, people say it’s because everyone knew it, and if you turn out to be wrong, it’s because you’re stupid.

One example of where we usefully envisioned future developments was around a decade ago, we did, in the Joint Research Centre, a scenario exercise on what information technology would look like by 2020. We anticipated then what we now call the Internet of Things and deep knowledge: we were largely wrong about the technological pathways that would take us there, but the broad vision – that your phone would be connected to your car, to your washing machine, that we would be surrounded by intelligence and that all that would be user-friendly – has turned out to be right.

How did this scenario exercise influence decision-making?

It fed into the European Commission’s research funding decisions on ICT. What made this exercise useful was that we did the exercise on the demand of the people who were in charge of ICT in the Commission, and in close collaboration with them – it was really an intimate exercise between the people wanting it (DG CONNECT) and the people conducting it.

That buy-in, or patronage if you want, from key individuals is absolutely crucial, in my view. If there is no demand for a foresight exercise from the top of an organisation – whether public or commercial – then forget it. Foresight becomes trivial. It always fails when it is not taken seriously up front by the “client” – always.

Have you experienced such cases, where foresight was conducted but not used?

Yes, I’ve seen a foresight unit in the EC produce absolutely fantastic reports which nobody read. If foresight is not embedded in decision-making, if it is not embraced by the senior leadership of an organisation, then it’s completely useless, except for intellectual pleasure.

Whereas if it is embraced by the senior leaders, then it’s useful even if the envisioning of the future turns out to be wrong, because its value is that it’s a discussion tool. If leaders embrace it then they make the effort to engage with the ideas, even if they don’t like them.

So the question is: how do you persuade senior leaders to value foresight?

That’s very, very difficult. In my personal experience, it depends entirely on whether the individual happens to believe in it, especially in a public bureaucracy. In the commercial sector, you ultimately have the carrot-and-stick of being judged by performance, so you tend to find more openness to doing foresight – it’s a low-cost investment, and just one good idea can make it pay off.

But in a public bureaucracy, it comes down to personal characteristics. If the leader isn’t already interested in foresight, then it can be like a religious believer trying to convert a non-believer – it’s not easy, and takes a lot of energy and soft diplomacy to try to get them on board.

What evidence could you put in front of a “non-believer” to get them interested?

Well, a crisis situation can lead to more interest in foresight. In 2008, for example, because of the financial crisis, suddenly more people in the Commission and in Europe started to take an interest in foresight, because they were asking themselves: how did we not see this coming? Or the degeneration of Russia, or the Arab Spring becoming an Arab Winter.

But then, if we’re honest, how many foresight people really saw these things coming either? Not many. So the sceptics can remain sceptical. Ultimately, if a leader in a bureaucracy simply doesn’t see the value of foresight as a sophisticated tool for informing intellectual discussion, then what can you do? In my view, it really is an act of faith, in the end.

Do some bureaucracies have more of an embedded culture of foresight than others, and why?

In the United States, for example, the CIA and Department of Defense have a tradition of great long-term thinking, because they’re used to having interests everywhere in the world so they need to be on top of what’s going on – whereas in Europe, we often tend to be more inward-looking. Think about how people often say that getting their country out of the European Union would solve all its problems. If you think there’s such a simple solution, where’s the need for foresight?

Or consider the migrant crisis – so many people act as if it would be solved if we could secure the borders. Nobody is interested in stepping back to try to consider a long-term, global demographic perspective – such as that we are surrounded by fragile states hit by climate change, and we might reasonably expect 30 to 60 million people trying to get in over the next decade. That’s the kind of perspective that’s missing in the debate, because we are too provincial in our thinking.

What have you learned, over the years, about how to do foresight well?

You need professionals to know how the process works and to facilitate it and organise it. My experience is that you should not subcontract the content to them as well, otherwise you end up with something that feels like a cut-and-paste job. It’s only by bringing in all kinds of different people to the discussion – thinkers from companies, from academia, public and private decision-makers – that you get a good, productive result.

Fortunately, my experience is that in every organisation there are crazy guys who are willing to get involved in doing this kind of long-term thinking. You just have to find them.


NB: In this interview Mr Burgelman is speaking in his personal capacity, and his views do not necessarily represent those of his employers.

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