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 does participation in foresight mean?

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.

Participation aims at greater inclusiveness of social actors, e.g. experts, stakeholders and citizens. Participatory approaches create 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... 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).

Stakeholders as participants in foresight

The main participants of foresight exercises are the stakeholders from the relevant areas of concern. More recently, stakeholder participation has been given credit in 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”.

Why is participation required?

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

From Arnstein´s ladder of citizen participation, as shown in Currie-Alder (2003) we can have this “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 are presented between these two extremes and describe a number of situations in which other stakeholders participate by informing, influencing or performing.

There are formal and informal modes of participation

Participation may occur formally or informally. Formal participation refers to legally delegated opportunities for stakeholders to participate in the decision-making. This form of participation is normally present in governments or trade union-initiatives. In contrast, participatory approaches can create informal situations where other stakeholders fulfill responsibilities for performing tasks. 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. 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 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 these future visioning 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 views 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 to provide certain values that enhance the foresight exercise results. Firstly, there is conflict resolution, through sharing of perspectives, information, knowledge and interests of stakeholders involved. Secondly, we have capacity building through the creation of improved skills, knowledge and experience of those involved in the process. Also, there is an increased legitimacy through empowerment or increased ownership and commitment by the participants involved in the exercise.

Dilemmas of participation in foresight

Ruud van der Helm, an independent futurist based in the Hague, in Netherlands, has pointed out that there are ten main insolvable dilemmas regarding participation in the foresight exercise. Firstly, there is the point of view that participation can be the answer to the problem, as well as the problem. Then there is the issue of the involvement of the participants, their level of ambition and their power of representation and legitimization. Also, there is the ancient dilemma between knowledge and power and the strategic behavior that arises from this conflict. Whereas considering the exercise itself there is the conflict between a formal structure or a procedure that implies more freedom; also here we have the issue of how to engage the participants into the exercise, as early as possible or at the right timing and how to make them persevere into the foresight process. Furthermore, we have the necessity of of engaging participants in a communication process that is well mediated, that goes beyond just information. And in the end, we must be very careful to discriminate between results and non-results, as well as to correctly appreciate and apprehend success or failure.


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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