Best Laid Plans…An Ethnographic Approach to Foresight

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With an ethnographic lens on foresight and planning, we can see how futures unfold through people's daily journeys of anticipation and improvisation.

woman jumping across a gap in rocks

What is Foresight?

Foresight is an umbrella term used to describe a wide variety of methodologies and approaches for considering and preparing for possible and probable futures in order to help inform present and future courses of action. Today, it is an important and widely deployed practice that has developed in a variety of fields, from public policy such as state and town planning, to technology and R&D, and more recently strategic and financial approaches in business fields to help ensure the long-term survival and success of companies. Many of the approaches that come under the umbrella of foresight blend into one another.

The majority of approaches to foresight typically employ pre-defined categories in their analysis – identifying trends in the social, technological, economic, and political spheres and extrapolating these using various methodologies, both quantitative and qualitative (e.g. forecasting, horizon scanning, scenario planning). The typology of methods (and potential critiques of them) are extensive. This article explores how foresight might be understood and employed ethnographically.

Ethnography – both principles and practice – provides an alternate approach to conceptualizing the future. When we approach foresight as a process and unfolding sets of relations that can be mapped ethnographically, not driven by a static model or pre-defined categories, then we can better trace and map these different elements and describe the networks that they create. This helps us to avoid the fallacy of demarcation and definition. When, for example, we wish to look at the future of business travel, we would look not to the traditional categorisations that business travel is assumed to express and contain, but rather, to the contextual relations, aggregations, and trails of associations that dynamically fashion this space as it happens and comes into being.

Foresight models traditionally draw on long-range planning and strategic planning as the means for implementing visions. Foresight might be described as predicting what the future could look like, whereas planning predicts what the future should look like according to a pre-defined schema. Of course, as nearly anyone who has tried to implement a plan knows, reality and our idea of that reality are often quite at odds. As the designer Stewart Brand notes, ‘the idea is crystalline, the fact fluid’ (1994: 2).

In planning, an objective is identified and a course of action is laid down to achieve that objective. In meeting that objective, the various materials, skills, tools, techniques, people, possibilities, and constraints that may be needed, or encountered along the way, are considered in the passage from goal to reality. Planning is a necessarily future-oriented activity that holds the ‘promise’ of conjuring the imminent in the present and may take the form of “a ‘mere’ expectation, an instruction, a policy, a project, an exercise of democracy, a blueprint, or law” (Abram and Weszkalny 2011: 11).

The contrast is generally drawn between foresight, which deals with uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity and attempts to generate insights to help mitigate uncertainty; and planning, which deals with degrees of certainty and confidence, providing courses of action to achieve pre-defined goals. However, this conception ignores the countless and innumerable ways in which planning is rather a far more messy, contentious, and processual affair of ultimately making something work. Both practices involve knowledge production in action. The distinction between foresight and planning is far more tenuous than we commonly think. And when we embrace their interdependence we can see the opportunities for an ethnographic approach to futuring.

Designing and Making

To help illustrate the shared territory of foresight and planning, we can draw on the example of what it means to design and to make. We often think of designing and making as distinct; first we design or ideate, then we execute those predetermined ideas in a world ‘out there’. In practice, designing and making are a continual and evolving process of ‘making something work’ through people, materials, and knowledge practices. The process is more akin to growth; the maker operates within a world of active and dynamic materials (Ingold 2013).

Design in this instance is but one aspect of a multifaceted process of ‘taking care,’ neither separate from the process of making nor ontologically different, but rather integral to the entirety of the development process itself (Ingold 2013: 56). As Tim Ingold notes, it is “in this tension, between the pull of hopes and dreams and the drag of material constraint, and not in any opposition between cognitive intellection and mechanical execution, lies the relation between design and making” (2013: 73). This ‘anticipatory foresight’ “does not so much connect a preconceived idea to a final object as go between … following and reconciling the inclinations of alternately pliable and recalcitrant materials” (70). In this line of thinking, foresight is conceived, much like planning, as something that is in a state of constant flux, without a pre-determined endpoint. The skill lies in being able to hold foresight and material constraints hand-in-hand simultaneously and chart possible and likely passages.

In capturing the imaginations and insights of research participants, what we might call their anticipatory foresight, we can help map the connections and constraints between forward thinking thoughts and yet-to-be-realised plans. In the path of improvisation that lies between, whether in foresight or action, lies our opportunity to capture and catalogue and bring forth these imaginations back into our shared ethnographic present.

Let’s take an example. When we undertake to pack a bag for a trip, we have to envision in our minds what we will need, and what we will be doing in an imagined future state. We then (hopefully) pack appropriately for those future states. All the while, we are planning our activities and how we will achieve them – looking at weather reports, how to get to the airport in time, how to get to our destination once we arrive at the other end, or indeed how we might protect ourselves from risk of potential infection from an invisible foe whilst in transit. Foresight and planning – the ability to think abstractly about the future and how to take concrete steps to achieve certain pre-defined goals – is so fundamental that we barely give pause to think about how little we could achieve without it.

Ethnography and Anticipatory Foresight

When we plan for a future event like a business trip, most people’s thought processes are remarkably similar, and typically involve envisioning in advance what we may need to make the trip as successful as possible. These needs are usually broken down into different categories: bodily needs (toiletries, glasses, medications) transit needs (sleep masks, ear plugs, neck cushions, water bottles, entertainment materials); business needs (laptop, tablet, documents, pens, notepads); clothing, including shoes (appropriate business wear, casual clothing for social events and other activities, perhaps sportwear if time allows, comfortable travel wear). These categories might be further augmented by envisioning what we may need on particular days, e.g., “I have three business meetings, so I will need three clean shirts with appropriate accompanying footwear, pants and accessories”. By thinking about these things in advance, we can plan for certain eventualities and hopefully align our predicted needs with the reality that unfolds.

Of course, not everything goes to plan – the flight is delayed, we spill coffee on our only pair of pants, something is lost in transit, we forget an essential item. In these scenarios we have to adapt to the circumstances – we call ahead to ensure that any time sensitive events or bookings are made aware of our new arrival time, we use the hotel laundry service to clean our pants, we purchase a new replacement item (if possible) to supplant the lost/forgotten item. To plan in advance is also to foresee, and involves not determining a final outcome, but of opening a path for improvisation (Ingold 2012). Both planning and foresight are always works in progress. Through mapping foresight processes, we avoid the trap of falling into reductionism – reducing and explaining trends and events via political, social, and economic factors.

To envision a plan in the mind and then execute that plan suggests not a start point and a finite end point, but a travel journey. It requires a constant process of attention, reaction, and adjustment, one that takes on new meanings and effects that extend well beyond any perceived beginning and end. Plans are not fixed entities in space; but are rather our attempt to continually grasp and stay ahead of the materials, events, and actions of the world around us. They are the ‘inscriptive trace’ (Ingold 2013: 71) of our attempted navigation of this world and as such are constantly capricious in both meaning and performance.

By viewing these unfolding sets of relations as neither intrinsically social, technological, or economical and instead following and mapping them ethnographically as they cleave different trajectories, we can better visualise and describe the worlds our participants live in and, potentially, those yet to come. In our example, business travel is the result of a far-reaching process of multiple concerns involving varying ontologies: people (including transport workers, admin, security, cleaners, business colleagues), aviation companies, weather, personal health (and that of others), clothing, electronics, hotels and so on. In the process of mapping these concerns and how they may impact future states we learn to appreciate the overlapping, unstable, and diverse synergies at play that supersede static external constructions of the social, technological, political, and economic. Amidst these shifting, fluctuating states, however, lies the ethnographer. How might we, as practitioners, navigate, capture, and model these processes?

As is well recognised in science and technology studies (STS), knowledge production is embedded in local environments and practices (Yaneva & Mommersteeg 2020). As ethnographers we must apprehend the spaces and practices through which future states emerge. Opening up the black box – in this example, of air travel, airports, hotels and so on – to yield a model of what these practices and sites may look like in a future state entails bringing our methodological toolbox to bear on these different actors. The ethnographer gains access to these spaces in-the-making and gathers their situated, qualitative data including documents and plans, the anticipatory thoughts and concerns of their human interlocutors, always asking the why and the how and how they contribute towards the ongoing trajectory of air travel not as fixed state, but as an on-going, aggregating shifting process of actualisation.

Put differently, air travel is not a mute container into which we fit our models, but a distribution of moving parts that shifts and transmutes as new actors emerge, are enrolled or are discarded. Within these constantly reworked contexts lies the space to discern their emergent and reconfigured future states.

In conclusion, anthropology has a rich history of tracing the connections and bringing to light the assorted elements involved in cultural life, adhering neither to predefined categories nor predefined assumptions. What we are good at, what we have always been good at, is observing, listening, participating and ultimately mapping those accounts. By following and mapping the assemblage of different actors involved in a business project, where they move, how they cut across different domains, and how they shape and rescale spaces, we can identify and visualise those elements that have the most significant impact. An ethnographic approach encourages the tracing of these dynamics, how they interface and how they shape the overall assemblage.

As ethnographers and foresight practitioners we capture connections and fragments of this shifting assemblage as they unfold and come into being – there is not “a whole” system that represents a final or static model. Only our propensity to divide design and making, theory and practice, foresight and planning, do we constrain ourselves in what we can do. For it is only in the mutually constitutive efforts of foresight, planning, and practice that we are able to carry on as we do. And each of those ultimately deserve their place in the ethnographic canon.


Abram, Simone, and Gisa Weszkalnys. 2011. “Introduction: Anthropologies of planning—Temporality, Imagination, and Ethnography.” Focaal 2011 (61) (November 11): 3–18.

Brand, S. 1994. How Buildings Learn: What Happens to Them after They’re Built. New York: Penguin.

Ingold, T. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London and New York: Routledge.

Ingold, T. 2013. Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. London and New York: Routledge

Yaneva A & Mommersteeg B. 2020. ‘How does an ANT approach help us rethink the notion of site?’. In: The Routledge Companion to Actor Network Theory. Edited by: A. Blok, I. Farías C. Roberts. Oxon & New York: Routledge.

Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash

Headshot of Stewart AllenStewart Allen is a Lead Researcher at MindSpark Research Lab and a founding partner of the strategy and foresight firm Fuse Foresight. He holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Edinburgh and is the author of the book: An Ethnography of NGO Practice in India: Utopias of Development.


Retooling Our Skill Set for Resilience: Ethnography in Project Risk Analysis and Quality Assurance, Patricia Ensworth

Anticipatory Ethnography: Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography, Joseph Lindley et a.

Strategy as an Unfolding Network of Associations, Tom Hoy & Tom Rowley

  1 comment for “Best Laid Plans…An Ethnographic Approach to Foresight

  1. Victor Udoewa
    May 6, 2021 at 7:27 pm

    Excellent article, Stewart. Thanks for sharing. The idea intrigues me as most of the foresight work I see is based on market research and what is happening in the world socially, economically, technologically, politically, etc., as you state.

    I was hoping you would give a concrete business example of how the ethnographic work is used in foresight. What I’m inferring from your article is that the social locations and various actors along with their individual or communal visions of the future should be an input for foresight as opposed to just social events, signals, and phenomena. If this is what you mean, I definitely agree and try to bring this in to my work. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Stewart Allen
      May 10, 2021 at 10:34 pm

      Thanks Victor, I appreciate your kind words. Yes, that’s absolutely correct. I was trying to get away from the notion that foresight is primarily built upon a priori deductions and categorisations. While this is certainly important, I think it overlooks the significance of innumerable other inputs that lie in the ethnographic present which may play equally important, if not more so, roles in the shaping of future events.

      If I can perhaps provide one example that is familiar to most people – take the example of architecture. A building, particularly a traditionally built building requires the planning of an on-going maintenance programme to prevent small problems becoming much larger problems. Typically, it is estimated that one per cent of a property’s value should be spent on maintenance work per annum, however, most people when presented with the keys to a new house, fail to foresee the need for this. A building however is constantly changing with the seasons: Whether repairing the pointing around windows, or the sealing of shower trays, or repairing the roof guttering, all are essential to maintain the longevity of a building. In the absence of such a programme, the result, is a much more expensive backlog of repair work. A building is not finished, when the last stone is set in place, but rather requires an ongoing programme of maintenance and repair – it requires foresight and planning, of how people will use it, how animals will make their homes in it, how the weather will affect it, how local planning laws may come into effect and so on. We can use ethnography to observe, to listen, to ask questions all within the service of sighting what may happen in the future – and that applies to any business issue, so long as we do not constrain ourselves by pre-ordained categories and assumptions of the social, technological and so on. Cheers, Stewart.

  2. Patricia Sunderland
    April 30, 2021 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you Stewart for a very nice essay, with your point so well illustrated with your travel example. Inspirational and a good corrective nuance for the idea that anthropology is not predictive.

    • Stewart Allen
      May 10, 2021 at 10:44 pm

      Many thanks Patricia. I completely agree, I think there is a common misconception that anthropology is not future oriented, when in fact, at its core, it is infused with futures work. We could not carry on the conversations and everyday practices with out interlocutors without it!

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