Participatory nature of Foresight

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Project Visions and Visioning
File:Vision.jpg This article is developed within the scope of the Project Visions and Visioning, an effort to enhance Foresight learning through collaborative work.

As an institutional activity, participation is the key element of foresight. We can see that, while foresight has the following main characteristics: systematic, participatory, action oriented and considers alternative futures, participation in foresight has two relevant aspects: participation to the foresight process(participatory process) and participation to actions(mobilizing joint actions). This indicates that the active involvement of the various stakeholders, so-termed stakeholder engagement, from initiation to implementation and throughout all the stages of the activity, is a necessity for success.

What is Participation?

Collective decision making which deals with future forecasting through participation is a key characteristic of foresight, which distinguishes it from other future oriented activities. Participation has been mentioned widely in the management literature. However, this has a limited use for foresight since broad stakeholder participation is not the case for instance for organizational management and there is a strong hierarchical and formal structure in the management practice. On the other hand, foresight is less formal and is not or should not be hierarchical since equal participation and equal voice are the essential aspects of the process .

Participation aims at greater inclusiveness of social actors, e.g. experts and lay-people, stakeholders and citizens. Participatory approaches foster dialogue among stakeholders towards understanding each other’s roles and responsibilities. According to Currie-Alder (2003), in adopting a participatory approach there is the expectation that: “different stakeholders will share and be enriched by that sharing.Depending on the activity being shared and the purpose of participation, stakeholders can be expected to share their perspectives, interests, values, information, knowledge, or ultimately grant their acceptance to a research or management process. Through sharing, the interaction of stakeholders is expected to achieve some synergy whereby the outcome or results is greater than the sum of the individual elements being shared” (p.4).

Who participates? - Stakeholders

The main participants of Foresight exercises are the stakeholders from the relevant areas of concern. More recently, stakeholder participation has been given weight in policy-relevant research such as policy analysis, integrated environmental assessment, technology assessment and Foresight. According to Van de Kerkhof (2001), stakeholders are: “individuals or groups that are or perceive themselves as being affected by or interested in the decision-making on a certain issue”.

Rationales of participation

The interaction of stakeholders in a participative process offers essential added value to deal with complexity, to resolve or avoid conflict, and to empower people to have stronger voice in designing their future. In general, Currie-Alder (2003) sees the purpose of participation as a means to enrich decisions through greater understanding, legitimacy or capacity. Firstly, in terms of understanding the participatory approaches can be used to cope with complexity and share understanding among stakeholders. Secondly, regarding legitimacy participatory approaches seek to make a process more relevant to interested stakeholders of the process and its outputs. Whereas, in terms of capacity, participatory approaches also seek to improve the skills, knowledge and experience of those involved in the management process through formal and informal learning.

The level of participation

Cited from Arnstein´s ladder of citizen participation, Currie-Alder (2003) presents a “spectrum of participation” (Figure.1).

Figure 1: Spectrum of participation
Source: Currie-Alder (2003)

At one extreme of the spectrum, the control is held by a single powerful stakeholder and at the other extreme this control is fully dispersed among stakeholders. Participatory approaches lie between these two extremes and describe a number of situations in which other stakeholders participate by informing, influencing or performing. Towards the middle of the spectrum, power is relatively balanced among stakeholders, so that stakeholders must negotiate actions and decisions.

Formal and informal modes of participation

Participation may occur formally or informally. Formal participation refers to legally mandated opportunities for (stakeholders) to participate in the decision-making. This form of participation is normally government or trade union-initiated. Formal participation entails the creation of forums, or unions for the purpose of making decisions. Formal participation is usually biased toward powerful stakeholders. In contrast, participatory approaches can create informal situations where other stakeholders fulfill responsibilities for performing tasks. This sets a precedent for an informal right to participate, and with greater participation, there is tendency for the stakeholders’ expectations to increase. Once these stakeholders enter into the management process, they can feel empowered to have a greater role and learn to take on new responsibilities; thus some participation can create positive feedback and inspire more participation. Since participation may occur informally, an apparently weak form of participation may be stronger than expected.

Participation and Dialogues in Foresight

Foresight is an activity, which is not merely product-oriented, but also process-oriented. Attempts are usually done to set a balance between the process and product orientation in the exercises. Process orientation represents a focus on networking, capacity building and learning, mutual understanding and collective visions. The participative nature of Foresight helps to address those informal objectives, which are driven by societal needs and interests and which are not always underpinned at the onset of the exercise but which emerge during the implementation process. In the meantime, product orientation represents a strong focus on policies, action plans and priorities, which are the main output expected from the exercises. The participation of stakeholders contributes to the creation of the content of the exercise.

According to Miles and Keenan (2002), "Foresight requires the participation of players in guiding the participants from the identification of the general and specific objectives, through the planning of the activities to be completed and the methodologies to be adopted, to the management of operations and the dissemination of results".

Why participation is a key component of Foresight?

One of the main features of any Foresight activity is its participatory dimension, the active and highly valued involvement of the various participants or stakeholders throughout all the stages of the exercise. This participation should not be occasional and sporadic, but must be considered a determining factor in the final result. This can require the participation of stakeholders in steering the exercise from the identification of the general and specific objectives, through the planning of the activities to be completed and the methodologies to be adopted, to the management of operations and the dissemination of results.

Considering the social dimension of the Foresight exercises, from the Foresight perspective, social learning explains that stakeholders learn through the interaction with other participants in a Foresight exercise, which can change their worldviews on the issue(s) under examination. This can lead to conflict resolution, the change of behaviors, and the perceptions of participants. Thus, social learning may have an impact beyond the substance of the exercise. Social learning can occur at two levels: first it can lead to cognitive changes (first-order learning), but it also changes values and core beliefs of stakeholders (second-order learning).

The main added-value of participatory foresight lies in its ability of:

Conflict resolution through sharing of perspectives, information, knowledge and interests of stakeholders involved

Capacity building through the provision of improved skills, knowledge and experience to those involved in the process

Increased legitimacy or acceptance of the process and its outputs, through empowerment or increased ownership and commitment by the participants involved in the exercise.


Miles and Keenan (2002), "Practical Guide to Regional Foresight in the United Kingdom"

Currie-Alder, B. (2003). "Why participation? Enhancing our understanding of participatory approaches to natural resource management" Living document for Minga Program Initiative. Draft December 2003. International Development Research Centre: Ottawa, ON, Canada.

Van de Kerkhof, M. (2001). "A Survey on the Methodology of Participatory Integrated Assessment", IIASA Working Paper, IR-01-014, Laxemburg, Austria, IIASA.

EFL (2003). "Handbook of Knowledge Society Foresight", European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Dublin

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